by Marc Maurer
From the Editor: NFB President Marc Maurer delivered the following address to the staff of the Library of Congress on Thursday, January 21, 2010. This survey review of the advocacy role and technical influence that the National Federation of the Blind has had on the evolution of technology and access to information in America and around the world is a testament to our success. Here is what he said:
Advertising in the 1960s in support of college education contained a line that I have always remembered. It said, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” Stephen Jay Gould, the American paleontologist, said, "I am somehow less interested in the weight and convolutions of Einstein's brain than in the near certainty that people of equal talent have lived and died in cotton fields and sweatshops."
It seems to me that the point of education is not so much to teach somebody something—transferring knowledge from the informed to the uninformed—as it is to stimulate curiosity and the excitement of discovery in the minds of those being taught. A book is a dull object until the cover is opened, and some of them don’t change with that event. However, the others do, and the excitement, the thrill, and the joy that are stimulated change the people who do the opening.
I first became acquainted with books so long ago that I don’t remember how I became aware of them. Before I entered school, my mother would read to me. I learned about bears. They lived in houses, slept in beds, sat on chairs, and ate porridge—a substance something like oatmeal, I was told. They were friendly to people. Even then these things seemed to me to be unlikely, but I was curious about what part of the story might be true. Later I came to understand that, if you wanted to know something, you could look it up in the library. The library might not know everything, but it knew an awful lot. It had even more information than my father.
When I entered the second grade, I had learned to read Braille. I was authorized (authorized is indeed the right word) to borrow Braille books from the school library at the school for the blind. The librarian would not lend me some books because she said they were “too old” for me. I wondered what the mysterious knowledge was that I could not be permitted to have because of my age. I still wonder, but not nearly as much as I used to.
Later I learned about the library for the blind in Iowa. I had visited many libraries, and I had admiration for them. However, they were not easy for me to use, and despite the aura of hidden knowledge that pervaded them, they were not much fun. The library for the blind was different for me. I could read any book that struck my fancy. From that time to this the library for the blind has remained an important bright spot in my life. During high school, during college, during law school, during the time that I have practiced law, and during the time that I have led the National Federation of the Blind, one of my primary efforts has been to obtain access to reading material for myself, for my blind colleagues, for blind college students, for blind seniors, and for blind children. One element of participation in society is the ability to get at and to use information. The resource of knowledge contained in books is a vital part of this information, probably the most vital part.
We in the National Federation of the Blind have been working diligently to be a part of the growing digital age. Computers became important before I entered college in the early 1970s. I remember attempting to master this new technology. One of my colleagues in the National Federation of the Blind modified an early computer printer, which printed matter on paper tape. He put a piece of elastic under the paper tape and programmed the computer that drove the printer to present the results of computer calculations by having the printer’s period produce feelable dots on the paper tape in the form of Braille characters. Many generations of computer technology have passed since those days, and with each generation we develop mechanisms to increase access for the blind to the information produced through them. Today the most common form of output from a computer is an image on a visual display. However, the early computers had no such screens. The output was contained on magnetic tape, paper tape, paper printouts, or computer cards. Many people have suggested that computer presentation is inherently visual. It is visual only because it has been built that way. It is inherently based upon computer code, which can be represented in many ways.
On May 11, 2009, I observed from a distance of three miles the launch of the space shuttle heading into earth orbit to conduct repairs on the Hubble Telescope and to build enhancements into it. The images received from the Hubble Telescope are more often digitally created representations than visual reproductions. The range of wavelengths of scientifically gathered information exceeds that observable by the eye. Although most of the images reproduced appeal to the visual sense, the Hubble itself is often a nonvisual observer. I understand that the visual image of a shuttle heading into space is dramatic and impressive, but, as I stood in Florida observing the launch, the sound impressed me, but even more the influence upon my being by the multiple levels of vibration told me that power was being expended at an enormous rate. I was part of the group observing the launch because the National Federation of the Blind had made a presentation to NASA officials about the urgent need for blind people to gain literacy, and two coins produced by the United States Mint in honor of the two hundredth birthday of Louis Braille were aboard the shuttle. These coins incorporate real tactilely readable Braille. I have them with me here. They represent the dream of an entire class of human beings to gain access to knowledge and to use it to expand the horizons that have limited the future for us all.
In 1990 the Americans with Disabilities Act was adopted. Sometime later regulations to implement the act became effective. Included within them are provisions requiring that automated teller machines be built to provide nonvisual access for their use. The manufacturers of the ATMs said that the banks were not purchasing machines with nonvisual access characteristics. Consequently the manufacturers were not building them. The banks said that the manufacturers were not producing the machines incorporating nonvisual access, so they could not purchase them. Inaccessible bank machines were nobody’s fault, they all said. Inaccessibility was caused by an unfortunate set of unchangeable circumstances. We viewed the standoff with outrage. When the National Federation of the Blind had sued a sufficiently large number of people, nonvisual access standards became a priority for manufacturers.
In 2002 the Help America Vote Act became law. One part of this law is a requirement for nonvisual access characteristics to be built into voting machines. Polling places supported with federal dollars were required to have such machines installed by 2006. I admit that it feels remarkably good to be able to cast a secret ballot. It had never happened for me until after the nonvisual access systems became a part of the voting process.
A few years ago the Google company announced that it was forming partnerships with some of the major libraries of the world to create digital versions of the collections they housed. Google would be using the vast array of material collected to permit users of its system to conduct searches of literature. By doing these searches, Google users could identify books that they might want to read.
The National Federation of the Blind was fascinated by this announcement. Google was planning to make snippets of its material available. Why, we wondered, along with the rest of the world, could not all of it be made available? Why could we not get our hands on the books themselves? The libraries have them in print, but the digitized versions could easily be rendered by computer-created voice or on a computerized Braille display. With a tiny amount of reflective thought, the programming staff at Google could offer blind people throughout the United States and beyond our borders access to millions of books. Although doing the necessary work to make it practical struck us as daunting, the prospects of what might happen when the work was done were also sufficiently captivating that they were virtually equivalent to a physical sensation. The prospect of being able to get at so much information with ease and speed is nothing short of joyous.
We began an odyssey to meet with the heads of the libraries whose collections were being digitized. One of the benefits of this digitization project was that the material would be made available to the universities that had permitted Google to digitize it. Students and staff at such universities would be permitted to use the digitized collection. We pointed out that creating a digitized version for sighted students and staff that did not incorporate nonvisual access for blind students and staff would violate the law. We urged the librarians to insist upon equal access for their print-disabled borrowers. In the meantime the Authors Guild sued Google to make it stop the digitizing program, arguing that creating a digitized version of a print book violates the copyright law. The case is in the midst of settlement negotiations, which are very likely to become final within the next few months. When the Google settlement was first announced, equal access for the blind and otherwise print-disabled was indeed a part of the agreement. Google has two years from the time the settlement becomes final to devise and implement a method for providing equal access to the blind and print disabled.
The National Federation of the Blind predicted some time ago that electronic book-reading systems would soon be widely available. The Amazon Company released the Kindle 2 early in 2009. The Kindle 2 had a text-to-speech program in it that could make a text document hearable. We in the National Federation of the Blind were not surprised because we had urged Amazon to incorporate speech programs in its products. We were, however, disappointed that the controls of the device were not accessible to the blind, making the Kindle 2 unusable except with vision. Shortly after the release of this new reading system, the Authors Guild demanded that the speaking program component be switched off for books sold through Amazon to be used with this product. The Authors were making the argument that a hearable version of intellectual property is a violation of copyright because it is a taking without permission of the visual version of the book and producing that book in an alternate form. We of the National Federation of the Blind responded that access to intellectual property is not limited to the visual realm. Reading can be done visually, auditorially, or tactilely. We urged that the Authors permit auditory presentation of their books.
Later in 2009 Amazon announced that one version of the Kindle would be deployed on college campuses in a number of places throughout the United States. We asked the colleges not to deploy inaccessible technology in their classes. When they ignored this request, we asked the Department of Justice to investigate the legality of such practices. The Department of Justice has announced that several universities have indicated that they will not be using inaccessible technology in their courses.
We urge electronic book producers to realize that, if they produce material that can be heard as well as seen, the market share available to them increases. Between fifteen and thirty million Americans are print disabled some or all of the time. Sometimes the print disability consists of the inability to hold a book for long periods. Sometimes the print disability is blindness. Other causes exist.
In 2001 the National Federation of the Blind began construction of a new building, the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute. At that time we contemplated the possibility of building a handheld portable reading machine for the blind. We joined with Ray Kurzweil, the inventor and futurist who had built the first reading machine for the blind, to pursue this project. The first version was released in 2006. The smallest reading machine for the blind in the world, the knfbReader Mobile, is a software product that operates nowadays on a cell phone. Some of the underlying technology required to build a portable handheld reading machine has been redesigned into a software product that will offer people the opportunity to read electronic books. This new software device, the Blio, which is to be released for free public use in the next few weeks, was demonstrated as one of the most exciting new technologies during the keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, in early January. The Blio is expected to have accessibility built into it at the time of release. This software product will offer access to several million electronic books at or shortly after the date of its release.
In September of 2008 the National Federation of the Blind, the Apple Corporation, and the state of Massachusetts released an agreement. One of the most widely used technologies for music, iTunes, had been unusable by blind individuals. Apple said that it would undertake to provide nonvisual access to iTunes, the iTunes store, and iTunes U, an element of the iTunes program used for access to university material. When the next version of the iPhone was released in 2009, this device incorporated nonvisual access technology even though the product was built as a flatscreen system without a keyboard. When the iPod Touch was manufactured by Apple, it also contained nonvisual access. Apple computers, iPhones, and iPod Touches have accessibility built into them from the manufacturer. Equal access regardless of visual ability is the standard.
Dr. Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for library services of the Library of Congress, delivered an address in China in September of 2009. In her talk she said that the Library of Congress would be one of a number of libraries to create the World Digital Library. When I read this, it stirred my excitement. I have joined with others in blindness organizations throughout the United States and the world to seek ways of promoting the sharing of accessible digital information. Dr. Marcum indicated that equal access would be a standard to be sought through the World Digital Library. The dream of librarians to make information available regardless of the wealth of the person to get it, regardless of the origin or birth of the person, and regardless of the social standing of that person, was enunciated by Dr. Marcum. Let the intellect manage the intellectual property. Limit the minds of those doing the reading or the research only by the capacity of those minds. Let knowledge be available to everybody.
This reminded me of the declaration of the generous individual who endowed the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. When the library was being opened in 1886, he said: “For fifteen years I have studied the library question and wondered what I could do with my money so that it could do the most good…. I soon made up my mind that I would not found a college—for a few rich. My library shall be for all, rich and poor, without distinction of race or color.” I realize that Mr. Pratt did not include the blind, but he did not because he did not know how to include the blind. Today we know. All that we need is the recognition that the blind must be a part of the included group and the will to ensure that it is done.
From those to whom much is given, much is expected. Even the Bible says that to those that have, more shall be given. The blind have been given short shrift most times, most places. The opportunity exists today for us to gain access to much, perhaps most, of the intellectual property that has been collected in the libraries of the world. We are asking that plans be made so that all of us can use this magnificent resource.
The Library of Congress is recognized throughout the world and revered by those who cherish knowledge. I myself have spent time in the stacks of the law library and have conducted research that helped to change the lives of blind workers in America. As the Library pursues the creation of a worldwide body of information made available to people through the newest technologies, we are asking that the plans incorporate nonvisual access for the blind and print disabled. As we contemplate the intellectual property represented by such a resource, we will build upon it and create additional intellectual property. Furthermore we understand that, if we have this resource available to us, you will be able to demand more of us than has been true in times gone by. We believe that we have done good work; our dreams and our efforts have helped to bring you the Blio. However, we want very much to have the opportunity to contribute more to our society than we have been able to build to date. The Library of Congress, which has been such a magnificent leader in protecting and defending intellectual property and making it available for use by scholars and others, can lead once again in this spectacular effort. I look forward to working with you in making it happen.