by Gary Wunder and Daniel B. Frye
A feeling of good cheer and optimism characterized the 2010 NFB national convention, held at the Hilton Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas. Thousands of blind and sighted people converged on this familiar luxury hotel—headquarters of the several Dallas conventions since 2006—to celebrate the seventieth anniversary of the Federation. Among attendees were sixty people who received convention scholarships from the Jernigan Fund for first-time attendees. Never have so many first-time scholarships been awarded. As people checked into the hotel, they reacquainted themselves with its two-tower structure, its stunning sculpture, and the vast spaces of its quarter-mile-long lobby. Undaunted, Federationists quickly mastered the changes resulting from the construction and remodeling and prepared to enjoy another vintage Federation convention.
The driving spirit at this convention was the work of the Jernigan Institute and the engineering faculty and students at Virginia Tech University to build the world’s first blind-drivable vehicle. As Federationists streamed into Dallas, NFB leaders were in Daytona Beach, Florida, announcing plans for the car’s unveiling in early 2011. Race for Independence Chairman Parnell Diggs inspired convention delegates throughout the week with the promise that this ambitious effort would give blind people independent access to transportation and would develop unforeseen technology. Those interested could examine the vehicle and try out some of its technology at the Showcase of Innovation. The problems and possibilities of the blind-drivable vehicle animated conversation at this year’s convention. Like all political discussions of things new, untried, and untested, opinions ran the gamut from problems and pitfalls to potential and possibilities.
Assistive technology enthusiasts, parents of blind children, and groups brought together by the Affiliate Action Department had a wide range of activities on seminar Saturday. The NFB Access Technology team presented seminars on emerging trends in Apple’s iPod, iPad, and iPhone products; advances in accessibility on eBay; improvements to the online Blackboard Learn system for universities; and developments in the eBook market. Blindness-specific assistive technology companies also offered sessions for conventioneers. Some vendors used this opportunity to provide training sessions for their products, while others used the time to advertise up-and-coming offerings which would soon be available. Still others simply said thank you to their customers by offering a meet-and-greet opportunity.
National Organization of Parents of Blind Children (NOPBC) President Carol Castellano and other parent leaders presented a week-long series of seminars, workshops, and social events for parents, blind children, and every member of the family. Laura Weber of Texas, mother of an eight-year-old blind daughter, was elected president of the NOPBC. Mrs. Weber has been a biomedical engineer for seventeen years, and she is about to become a teacher of blind children, so she will clearly be a formidable advocate for our nation’s blind children. Carol Castellano deserves recognition for decades of devotion to the NOPBC and particularly for shepherding the division during the transition from Barbara Cheadle’s tenure as NOPBC national president. For the first time this year the Jernigan Institute Education Team presented an expanded Youth Track with the Junior Youth Track offering activities for blind kids as young as eleven. Finally, through enhanced mentoring programs the staff of the Affiliate Action Department welcomed many first-time convention attendees, college students, local and state leaders, and parents of blind children in its convention suite.
Federationists eager to unwind from the fast-paced first-day activities were invited to sing at BLIND Incorporated's annual Karaoke Night. First-timers were invited to drop in at the Rookie Roundup, where they could gather tips about how to decide which meetings and activities they should choose. The Latin dance party was a great place to make friends and get help learning to do the salsa.
By the second day all facets of convention operations were up and running. Convention registration opened to brisk business just before 9:00 a.m. Federationists who preregistered for the convention could drop by the preregistration square, pick up their packets with name tags and banquet and barbeque tickets, and be on their way in minutes.
During its annual meeting on Sunday afternoon, July 4, the resolutions committee considered twenty-five resolutions and recommended do pass. A full report on resolutions adopted during the convention appears elsewhere in this issue. One Federationist, in a good-humored effort to capture the essence of the resolutions in short form, composed amusing haiku summaries of several of the longer resolutions. Here is a sampling:
Is my best search site,
The one I love so dearly,
Now being evil?
Without a good map,
We once more find ourselves at
The back of the bus.
I may as well use
This brand new Kindle Reader
As a paperweight.
Throughout convention, activities other than formal convention sessions abounded. A record number of Federationists were educated and entertained at the thirteenth annual mock trial, where discrimination against a student attending a chiropractic program was debated. Staff from the NFB Jernigan Institute highlighted Institute programs and initiatives during several informational sessions. A variety of meetings and events focusing on Braille occurred, including the administration of the National Certification in Literary Braille examination and the annual Braille Book Flea Market. As usual, many convention attendees relished the opportunity to browse in our exhibit hall, where the iBill, a simple portable currency identifier manufactured by Orbit Research, seemed to lead the way in popularity among convention participants this year.
Spirits were high as the open NFB board of directors meeting was convened on Monday morning. In Federation tradition we began by remembering those lost to us in the last year. Ray McGeorge, Seville Allen, Richard Bennett, Ed Bryant, and Carmen Davis were mentioned by name, but the reverent silence of the members present extended to all we have been honored to call our colleagues and our friends.
Dr. Donald Capps was warmly welcomed by the convention in recognition of his work in the Federation and for his fifty-fifth consecutive convention. Betty Capps also has an enviable record of service and work, and her attendance at the 2010 convention marks her fifty-fourth consecutive year.
President Maurer led us in the pledge to the American flag, related a story about how he came to learn the Federation Pledge after admitting to Doctor Jernigan that he wasn't as familiar with it as he ought to be, and then led the assembled in reciting it until he stumbled over "equality, opportunity, and security," by saying "security, equality, and opportunity," as found in much of our literature. The mistake brought a bit of comic relief, but in no way diminished the pride we feel in our country, our Federation, and the privileged place we hold as blind people who reap the rewards of both.
In addition to representation from our affiliates, people from sixteen countries were registered. Texas was number one at the time of the meeting with three-hundred people in attendance.
With the unexpected death of Ray McGeorge so close to the convention, Federationists wondered whether door prize chairperson Diane McGeorge would be with us. She decided that, though it would be hard to face a convention without Ray, she needed to be with her Federation family. When she came to the microphone to say good morning to the board, she received a thunderous ovation.
The president of our host affiliate, Angela Wolf, welcomed us to Texas and reminded Dr. Maurer that she had said Texas would have at least three-hundred people at the convention. She also said there is a saying in Texas that “It ain’t braggin’ if it’s true.”
President Maurer then read the names of board members whose terms would end in 2010, followed by the names of members whose terms will expire in 2011. Anil Lewis called for the floor to announce that he had recently resigned from the board in order to serve as the strategic director of public relations for the Blind Driver Challenge. Though he said he will miss serving with his colleagues as a board member, this new job allows him to play a vital part in the most exciting Federation initiative so far in the twenty-first century.
President Maurer recognized Anil's contributions by saying he had served well and honorably and recommended to Anil that he work to equal the stellar record of Dr. Capps.
Gary Wunder was then recognized and said:
Good morning, Mr. President, members of the board, and all of the fine people who have made it here so early. I've been on this board almost continuously since 1985 and an officer for almost a third of that time. In my terms on the board, I've had the pleasure of being led and tutored by Dr. Jernigan, Dr. Maurer, Dr. Capps, and many other people who cared enough to give me their time and their wisdom. The honor of representing us nationally has taken me to most states in the country and many of them more than once. I can't begin to tell you how flattering it is to see people at the national convention who come up and say, "Hey, you were the representative in our state. I really liked your speech," and only then am I certain the applause I got wasn't just because I sat down.
At our fifty-year mark the board buried a time capsule. I got to be a part of that recording, so, you see, I'll still be talking long after I'm gone—what a natural high!
Mr. President, it's time for me to let another of my Federation colleagues enjoy the service which has added so much to my life. I promise to stay involved wherever I'm needed. I will always be grateful to my family for the sacrifices they have made so I could serve and grateful too for all of the votes which have given me the opportunity to represent so many people I love very much. I will not stand for reelection, but I promise that I will always stand for us.
Dr. Maurer responded:
About a week ago I met with Gary and talked with him about what he wanted his future to be and what we wanted ours to be. Barbara Pierce has served as editor of the Monitor. She started working on the Monitor, if memory serves, in about 1988. I think she became the editor in 1990 or 1991—I forget—but she has carried the work of the Monitor between that time and this. Dan Frye became editor of the Monitor earlier this year. He has determined to work for the government of the United States, and I've asked Gary Wunder to take that position, and, as you might say, he accepted.
President Maurer discussed upcoming national conventions. Two thousand eleven will find us in Orlando, Florida; 2012 in Dallas, Texas; 2013 in Orlando, Florida; 2014 is unknown; 2015 in Orlando, Florida; 2016 is unknown; and 2017 once again in Orlando, Florida.
Parnell Diggs addressed the board on the subject of the Imagination Fund and the Race for Independence. Half of the proceeds from the Imagination Fund go to the programs of the Jernigan Institute, one quarter to state affiliates, and the remainder to a grant program for which affiliates and divisions compete. People who raise money for the fund are imaginators, and this year, for every $250 raised, imaginators received a car key. Later we learned that five of these keys fit the Ford Escape that will be used next January in Daytona Beach when a blind driver will drive on the Daytona Speedway.
Cathy Jackson presented the Blind Educator of the Year Award to Dr. Laurel J. Hudson. The full text of this presentation appears elsewhere in this issue. Dr. David Ticchi presented the Blind Educator of the Year Award to Ginger Lee-Held. Dr. Ticchi's remarks and those of Ms. Lee-Held appear elsewhere in this issue.
President Maurer announced that several new publications are available through our Independence Market, among them Let Freedom Ring; Getting Ready for College Begins in the Third Grade; Touch the Earth; Kenneth Jernigan: The Master, The Mission, The Movement; Walking Alone and Marching Together; Parenting Without Sight: What Attorneys and Social Workers Should Know about Blindness; and Messages of the Movement. Many of these books have been available in the past and are now in additional formats.
Anil Lewis came to the platform to introduce the 2010 scholarship class. The remarks of the winners can be found in the scholarship report elsewhere in this issue.
Dr. Mike Rosen of the University of Vermont was introduced to talk about a joint project with the Jernigan Institute to develop a more up-to-date tactile raised-line drawing system. Two products have come from this effort. One is a thermal eraser to correct mistakes when making a tactile drawing. The second device, called the Tactile Cyber Scribe, digitizes the images drawn by or for blind people, and with digitization comes the ability to store, share, and copy important drawings. The goal of the cooperative effort is to develop a tablet computer for the blind so blind people can easily produce and share drawings in the same way sighted people do.
President Maurer announced two bequests received this year from Colorado totaling just over $2.5 million. Our longstanding policy of dividing bequests equally between affiliates and the national treasury has served us well, and so too does our policy of working together to file tax returns and other financial documents which allow the public to see the money we raise and demonstrate that we are responsible stewards of the resources entrusted to us.
Monday afternoon and evening were filled with division and committee meetings that demonstrate how diverse are the interests and callings of the members. When looking at all the meetings which occur on board meeting and division day, the question is not, can I find something that interests me?, but, of all the things that interest me, which do I want most to attend? Reports from several of these meetings appear in the Monitor Miniatures section in this issue.
When President Maurer gaveled the first general session of the convention to order, Carlos Serván was rewarded for being on time with a door prize of $100. Tom Anderson, pastor of the Littleton Pentecostal Church and president of the National Federation of the Blind in Communities of Faith, gave a moving invocation that was followed by greetings from President Angela Wolf from the great state of Texas. She began her remarks with a hearty Texas welcome which sounded like this:
Texas has a rich cultural and historic background, a mix of Anglo, Mexican, Native, and African-American heritages. Texans are quite particular about a few things: food, beer, music, and our own version of history.
So saying, Angela introduced singer-songwriter Brian Burns, who serenaded us about Texas—its size, history, battles, and geography.
Following on Burns’s song of courage in battle, President Maurer introduced a segment dedicated to the celebration of freedom; and, to present the item, we heard from the president of the National Association of Blind Veterans, Dwight Sayer. Dwight reminded us that, not only were we celebrating the seventieth birthday of the Federation, but also the 234th birthday of the United States of America. In honor of our country he led us in the Pledge of Allegiance and then introduced Mike Freeman, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Washington, who sang the national anthem. The convention then recognized twenty-seven veterans who among them have served in every war since World War II. This includes the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Desert Storm, Iraqi Freedom, and the current conflict in Afghanistan.
Ron Gardner has been working to see that through our three NFB training centers veterans get the highest-quality rehabilitation available. His message to the convention was clear and unmistakable: we in the National Federation of the Blind truly believe we have the bravest and best fighting force in the world, and, when they are injured and need blindness rehabilitation, we believe they deserve the best the world has to offer.
Ron introduced Colonel Don Gagliano, who is the first director of the Vision Center of Excellence, jointly sponsored by the Department of Defense and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Ninety-seven percent of our wounded who make it to a medical facility will survive, so, while we are pushing the envelope for survival, we need to make a similar effort in rehabilitation and reintegration. Colonel Gagliano, an ophthalmologist, sadly admits that for most of his career he has known nothing about blindness and believes the same is true of many of his colleagues. For many years the needs of the blind have been a minor component of the National Eye Institute, but, thanks to Ron Gardner and the Vision Center of Excellence, attitudes are changing, and more grants are now going toward quality-of-life issues of blindness than ever before. Colonel Gagliano believes Ron's service on the National Advisory Counsel, which reports to the director of the National Eye Institute of the National Institutes of Health, will do much to educate other ophthalmologists, and Ron is the keynote speaker for the board's next meeting.
One of the major objectives of the Vision Center of Excellence is to keep our veterans, even those with visual dysfunction or blindness, on active duty. The colonel mentioned three blind people who continue on active duty: a company commander at West Point, a Marine running the Warrior Transition Unit at Camp Lejeune, and a soldier who has just completed a tour in Iraq.
The roll call of states brought affiliate presidents or delegates to microphones to tell us the name of the state's delegate, alternate delegate, location of its next convention, and the national representative if already assigned. Some went beyond the requested data by including such fundraising information as they could work into their brief presentations. Of special interest were the following items: Arizona brought twenty-five first-timers to the convention. Delaware shared the sad news that one of our members, Ryan McMillan, had died earlier in the day at a local hospital, the cause of his death unknown. The Louisiana Center for the Blind is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary and in its quarter century of instilling positive attitudes and skills has changed the lives of hundreds of blind people for the better. Maryland made a point of recognizing the forty students and staff who came from Blind Industries and Services of Maryland. New York recently passed a law eliminating all exemptions to its Randolph-Sheppard Act, so, anywhere the state does business, the blind will have priority in providing food service. In North Carolina the state legislature was convinced to move the school for the blind from under the Department of Health and Human Services, the folks who run the hospitals and asylums in North Carolina, to the Department of Public Instruction. Utah proudly announced it has just completed its biggest state convention ever.
Before the end of the morning session, Parnell Diggs came to the microphone to announce the medallion winners who have each raised $1,000 or more for the Imagination Fund. The complete list appears in the “Convention Miniatures” section.
The afternoon session began with the much anticipated annual report by President Maurer. In his presentation, which lasted just under an hour, he discussed conditions for blind people in our country and the world, the programs we have created to help address them, the legislation we have helped to initiate, and the cases we have brought to enforce the laws that are now on the books. President Maurer's remarks appear in full elsewhere in this issue.
Addressing the greatest technical challenge we face in the twenty-first century and speaking about the most exciting issue at our convention, Parnell Diggs came to the platform to talk about the Blind Driver Challenge. His remarks appear in full elsewhere in this issue. At the end of his presentation, Parnell presented a plaque to the Imaginator of the Year, Kayleigh Joiner. A full report appears elsewhere in this issue.
President Maurer next called to the platform our good friend and colleague Scott LaBarre. The title of his presentation was a bit mysterious: “SWEP and the Bars of Our Prison.” The unraveling of this mysterious title will be revealed to Monitor readers in the October issue.
Father John Sheehan, chairman of the board of directors of the Xavier Society for the Blind, recently joined with us as part of the Reading Rights Coalition when we conducted a picket in New York City to demand access to the printed word, no matter what the electronic device on which it is stored and displayed. Father Sheehan's remarks--which combined love, wisdom, humor, and song--cannot be captured adequately in print but are available as an audio file on our NFB Website at <http://www.nfb.org/nfb/National_Convention_Highlights.asp#2010>.
“One Million Books for the Print Disabled and More to Come” was presented by Brewster Kahle, digital librarian for Archive.org. This project, unlike others specifically oriented to making books available for the blind, is an attempt by libraries to digitize their collections for everyone. Tremendous emphasis is placed on lowering the cost for each page of transcription, with the result that now it costs about as much to make a page of print available on the Internet as it does to copy it at Kinko's. Several prominent libraries, including the Library of Congress, have signed on to have all of their collection digitized, and, due to generous donations by foundations, some stimulus money from the United States government, and contributions from individuals, funding is now available to transcribe the next ten thousand books received by the Internet Archive. The goal is not only to scan these books but to develop software that can look at the scanned material and understand the structure of the book so well that it can be converted to the DAISY standard, which allows navigation by page; heading; section; chapter; and, in the case of large books, larger divisions. Volunteers are also being sought to read these books and correct the errors that inevitably creep into texts generated by optical character recognition software. About five errors per book is now the standard. A complete audio transcript of this presentation can be found at the link sited above.
How many times have we been greeted by flight attendants with the mandatory briefings—especially for us—in which we are assured that, in the event of an emergency, someone will come back to get us, of course after everyone else is off the airplane. How refreshing it is to have the message reinforced that we who are blind are not always the helpless victims we are thought to be in emergencies but, when called upon, can act bravely, not only to save ourselves, but to help in rescuing others.
Michael Hingson is a survivor of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, and the convention sat in spellbound silence as he related the trip from the seventy-eighth floor to safety and freedom. One message Michael emphasized repeatedly was that things can never go back to normal, if by normal we mean the way they were before 9/11. We can, however, create a new normal based on self-reliance, caring for others, and coming to understand that we are all dependent on one another. Readers will be treated to a somewhat shorter version of Michael's remarks in a future issue, but what he said is on the Web in its entirety at the Website noted earlier. President Maurer expressed appreciation for Michael's comments, noting that we admire teamwork, partnership, and competence in emergencies, for this is what we strive to instill in ourselves through our work.
Convention sponsors were: Title—Deque Systems, Inc.; Platinum—HumanWare and UPS; Gold—Freedom Scientific and Oracle; Silver—Adobe; Bronze—National Industries for the Blind (NIB); and Exhibit Hall—En-Vision America; GW Micro, Inc.; Independence Science, LLC; Independent Living Aids (ILA); Intel Corporation; Olympus; Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D); the Sendero Group; and Vanda Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
The opening day of convention ended with a reminder that our special convention sponsors would be hosting an exhibit hall event, complete with door prizes, from seven to ten p.m.
Our Wednesday morning session began with an invocation by Father Gregory Paul. Elections were the first order of business, and the following people were elected: Marc Maurer (MD), president; Fred Schroeder (VA), first vice president; Ron Brown (IN), second vice president; Jim Gashel (CO), secretary; Pam Allen (LA), treasurer; and board members, Amy Buresh (NE), Patti Chang (IL), Mike Freeman (WA), John Fritz (WI), Carl Jacobsen (NY), Alpidio Rolón (PR), and for one-year board positions, Ever Lee Hairston (CA), and Mika Pyyhkala (MA).
When Jim Gashel was recognized after his election as secretary, he said:
Dr. Maurer and fellow Federationists, as I stand before you this morning, the words that come to my mind are “honored,” “humbled,” and “challenged.” Serving as a member of the National Federation of the Blind has always been a cornerstone in my life and at the bottom of my heart. Serving as an officer is the most awesome responsibility I can imagine. I had the opportunity to be elected to the board of directors two years ago, so I know what that responsibility is like. Being elected as one of the five constitutional officers is the most important moment of my life, and I will fulfill the trust you have placed in me.
Allen Harris reported that this year we were able to bring sixty first-time attendees to the national convention because of the Kenneth Jernigan Fund. People can buy tickets in two drawings: airfare and hotel for two plus $1,000 to attend next year's convention, and $2,500 in cash. When considering the people who are helped to attend the convention, the prizes available, and the modest cost of a ticket, the Jernigan Fund drawings are a win-win proposition.
Gilles Pepin of HumanWare came to the platform to congratulate the National Federation of the Blind on its seventieth birthday, to note that all of us share the goal of greater independence for the blind, and to bring to us news of HumanWare's latest product, the BrailleNote Apex. He began his remarks by saying, "We are strong believers in what you do. We believe that this convention is unique. We know the customers we meet here are the leaders of this community. After all these years we are still here to listen and learn how we can serve you better." Mr. Pepin then talked about the fourth generation of HumanWare notetakers, as well as its products for orientation, the Trekker and the Breeze.
The failure of the educational system in meeting the needs of the blind was the title for the panel which next addressed the convention. It was chaired by Mark Riccobono. Its participants were Noreen Grice, Dr. Eric Vasiliauskas, Dr. Sheila Amato, and Laura Weber. You can read the full text of their excellent remarks in the October issue.
Preety Kumar, chief executive officer of Deque Systems, brought to the convention her enthusiasm for Web accessibility as she spoke about the work of Deque Systems. She said she is encouraged by the number of major corporations interested in making their sites accessible, but, with the ever-changing technology used on the Web and the number of Web authors generating content, we will never catch up using only the strategies of today.
To help reach out to more Web authors, Deque Systems has developed a program called World FireEyes. Its purpose is to look at a Webpage, evaluate its accessibility, show the developer how that page would be displayed to a blind user, and then provide concrete steps to make it screen-reader friendly. Preety believes that everything necessary in addressing Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs is now determined by access to the Web, whether we're talking about the ability to purchase food through an online grocery site or holding down a job so people can buy those groceries.
Given the importance of Internet access, we must continue to do all we are currently doing. This includes constant evangelism about the need for screen-reader-friendly sites, including writing to congress and to companies whose sites are not accessible. It also means continuing to emphasize the need for companies to get their Websites certified. When necessary, it means bringing lawsuits and using this new program to help content providers to understand how they can make what they produce available to the blind. Individual consumers must continue to talk with the NFB and Deque Systems about their needs and experience.
President Maurer began the Wednesday afternoon session by discussing the financial procedures used to safeguard our money and then reading the annual audit of our books prepared by an outside auditor. Although we live in difficult financial times, we have managed our money well and have been extremely blessed by the receipt of several bequests, which have helped us stay in the black.
Mark Riccobono urged the Convention to help us compete for a grant for $250,000 to help finance our Youth Slam Program. The Pepsi Refresh Grants Program is giving away $1.5 million every month. In August the National Federation of the Blind is applying for a grant for which the recipients are determined by the number of votes cast for each organization.
After donations by the states and divisions in the Honor Roll Call for the White Cane, tenBroek, Jernigan, and SUN Fund, John Paré, Jesse Hartle, and Lauren McLarney took the stage to discuss strategic initiatives of the National Federation of the Blind. Strategic Initiatives is the department which manages our legislative and policy initiatives, our public relations operation, and NFB-NEWSLINE®.
Sharon Maneki, chairman of the resolutions committee, brought twenty-five resolutions to the general session. An article by Sharon and the twenty-five resolutions adopted by the Convention appear elsewhere in this issue.
Thursday morning began with an invocation by David Stayer, a member of a modern orthodox synagogue, and a long-time member of the National Federation of the Blind. The first business item was the presentation entitled “Buying and Selling Online: eBay Builds Accessibility for the Blind into its Platform.” The presenter was Dane Glasgow, vice president and buyer experience product manager for eBay, Inc. EBay is trying to solve the problem of accessibility in two phases. In the first phase it will focus on accessibility for those who wish to buy, using the system. In the second phase the emphasis will be on the seller, insuring that blind entrepreneurs are able to market their products and start their own small businesses. John Donahoe, the chief executive officer and president of eBay, presented a video message in which he said:
Good morning, I’m John Donahoe, president and CEO of eBay. It’s a real privilege and honor for eBay to be here and be partnering with the National Federation of the Blind and to participate in this year’s convention. At eBay we have a strong commitment to improving the accessibility of our site to all users around the globe, and this year we’re excited about some new features and new enhancements which we hope make our site more accessible. … Our hope is that this is just the beginning, that, by working and partnering with the NFB, we can find new ways to make eBay even more accessible to all of you and more accessible, frankly, to people all over the world. We've been proud and privileged to be partnering with the NFB, and I want to just take a minute to thank Dr. Maurer, who’s been a wonderful partner and an inspirational leader. We look forward to finding ways we can work together in the future, and I hope you enjoy the rest of your convention.
An inventor and a longtime friend of the National Federation of the Blind, Deane Blazie, next took the stage to talk about future work which needs to be done to advance technology for the blind. His work to create the Braille ’n Speak not only provided blind people with a very useful and portable device, it actually started the notetaker industry, which has been tremendously important in our attempt to read and write while on the go.
Though Deane has been semiretired for a number of years and has enjoyed it, he is troubled by the drop in Braille literacy and by the refusal of some to acknowledge the correlation between employment and the use of Braille for blind people. "I could tell you that the reason for this drop in Braille literacy is the move to mainstream blind children in schools and the lack of the system's ability to teach Braille in this environment,” he said, “but that's only part of the problem. Ironically, a significant factor for this decline is technology itself, and I'm sorry to say that I've contributed to that problem because many parents, teachers, and educators think that technology, and in particular talking computers, can replace Braille. Listening alone is inadequate in the acquisition of reading skills, writing skills, and concentrated study. This is especially true in the languages of math and science. … Let me say that Braille is the cornerstone to literacy, to employment, to economic security, and to personal freedom.”
Deane has decided to partner with the National Federation of the Blind and the Center for Braille Innovation, which is a consortium of agencies and organizations interested in Braille, to work not only on a multi-line Braille display and the eventual production of a device which can present a full page of refreshable Braille, but more immediately on the development of a twenty-cell device that will be inexpensive enough to place in the hands of every blind child in the United States. This notetaker, a prototype of which we hope to have at next year's national convention, will have the ability to connect wirelessly to the Internet; will use Bluetooth technology so that it can seamlessly connect to computers, headphones, and Braille displays; will have a built-in GPS and compass so it can be used for navigation; and will contain a built-in five megapixel camera, which will probably mean that it will be able to run the KNFB Reader. The device will also have the ability to connect to cellular networks for data transfer, meaning that it can be used for downloading and reading books, no matter where one happens to be. As important as all of these things are, a fundamental function of the unit will be software to teach Braille, which will use games so that this learning is fun.
The next presenter to come to the stage was no stranger to the National Federation of the Blind. He has been attending conventions since 1974 and has seen the audio book evolve from the sixteen RPM phonograph disc, to the cassette, and now to the flash memory cartridge, which allows audio books to be presented in a digital format. He has seen Braille production transformed from a mechanically intensive process involving large presses and metal plates to Braille embossers and refreshable Braille displays that can be found in the offices and homes of blind people. He has been a pioneer in changing a system that once relied entirely on the Postal Service for the delivery of information to one which more and more relies on electronically transferring books over the Internet.
Frank Kurt Cylke observed that for many years he came to our conventions with a message that one day we would receive our books digitally and that the National Library Service would produce a machine to replace the cassette players on which we were so reliant. He says that it is time for that message to change, that two hundred and twenty thousand digital players have already been produced, that twenty thousand new players are being added each month, and that anyone who wants a machine should request and get one. Currently the National Library Service is working to merge WebBraille with the BARD project so that blind patrons have a one-stop shop on the Internet when it comes to getting NLS materials electronically. There are twenty thousand audio books on the Web, twenty thousand new books are being added each year, and approximately ninety percent of the currently available analog books will be converted so readers will have their favorite titles, by their favorite authors, read by their favorite narrators. As a last point Mr. Cylke said that an ongoing pilot program will convert audio magazines to cartridges, so patrons will be able to use the new digital Talking Book reader for magazines just as they do for their books.
As he has done for the past few years, he shared his time with a National Library Service colleague, this year David Fernandez-Barrial, the NLS language librarian. Mr. Fernandez-Barrial has been in his position about ten months, the last foreign language librarian having left in 2006. One of the first things he has done is to reestablish the flow of new Spanish-language titles to the collection. He has initiated a survey of NLS patrons and has determined that fourteen thousand of them have expressed a preference for materials in other languages. The startling news from the survey is that about 3 percent of all NLS patrons fall into this category, though most assumptions placed the NLS readers preferring languages other than English at 1 percent. Mr. Fernandez-Barrial concluded his remarks by saying, "In closing, I just want to bring it back to basics and emphasize that the goal of this foreign language librarian is to construct a premier foreign language program for the benefit of NLS patrons. … Given the incredible potential of technology which is yet to be harnessed, together with the real strides in making available digital players and digital books by cartridge and download, we are on the cusp of a new era. It's a very exciting time to be a librarian, where the hopes embodied in the ancient Library of Alexandria, that fabled library in Egypt that really was the first world collection of literature accessible to all, are closer than ever to fruition, and it's an exciting time to be a librarian."
“Educating Blind Children: Changing the Paradigm” was presented by Dr. Fredric Schroeder, a research professor at San Diego State University, a towering figure in the field of education, and the first vice president of the National Federation of the Blind. Dr. Schroeder's presentation appears elsewhere in this issue.
Lynnae Ruttledge, commissioner of the Rehabilitation Services Administration, next took the dais to talk about the goals of the Obama administration in providing rehabilitation services for blind Americans. She began by assuring us that she fully supports the change in regulation initiated by Dr. Schroeder, which defines an employment outcome as competitive employment in which people make at or above the minimum wage in an integrated setting. "I can tell you that there are folks urging me to reconsider that public policy, and I will not—I will not!"
Ms. Rutledge expressed her support for a strong and vital Randolph-Sheppard program, which will provide real opportunity for blind entrepreneurs to run their own businesses. She publicly acknowledged Suzanne Mitchell, one of her senior staff members at RSA, for being a strong voice to ensure that people within RSA become advocates for an employment program that really is committed to blind entrepreneurs. She believes we have an opportunity to modernize, transform, and make the Randolph-Sheppard program the program of choice for blind entrepreneurs, and to this end she has hired Dan Frye to revamp and modernize it.
“Accessible Education for All, Including the Blind: Meeting the Standard” was next presented by Laura Erter, vice president of development for the Blackboard Corporation. Blackboard is the software of choice for many colleges and universities, where it is used to post class syllabi, conduct class discussions, post instructor notes, and collect assignments from students. It is used by students to purchase books and meal plans and even register for dormitory space.
Blackboard Learn is used to put classes online and in its current incarnation is so accessible that it has earned Gold certification from the National Federation of the Blind and Deque Systems. Since each institution of higher learning decides what version of Blackboard it will use, pressure from students, parents, and faculty members may be required to see that the most accessible version of the product, currently version 9.1, is purchased by the institution being attended.
John Paré announced that the Blind Driver Challenge would be featured on the Cable News Network at 12:40 p.m. when Mark Riccobono and Dr. Dennis Hong would be interviewed for a live broadcast. This interview was the latest in a series of press events that started in Daytona on Friday and continued well beyond the convention. The hotel agreed to tune its publicly available televisions so that guests could watch the interview as it was occurring.
Monitor readers will remember that in 2006 the National Federation of the Blind filed a lawsuit against the Target Corporation because of the inaccessibility of its Website. This action earned the Federation some significant criticism, especially from shoppers loyal to Target, but the results following the suit have been uniformly positive, as evidenced by the next presentation, entitled “Accessible Design, a Model for the Future,” presented by Steve Eastman, president of Target.com, Incorporated.
Mr. Eastman came to his job in 2006, and one of the first challenges he faced was deciding what to do about the Federation’s suit. He said it took him all of ten minutes to decide that we needed to reach a negotiated settlement and that it was in the interest of all involved for Target to become accessible to the blind. To that end, Target has made several organizational changes and now has a team in place which is dedicated to understanding and advancing the importance of accessibility throughout the organization. This team is responsible for monitoring the current site, working with developers to improve the accessible experience, and partnering with vendors and creative resources to ensure that Target continues to innovate as new technology becomes available.
President Eastman said, "I want to say thank you for inspiring us to think differently about what it means to be accessible to all of our guests. … We now have a sound strategy and development roadmap that emphasizes accessibility as an integral part of every decision, including the construction of an entirely new Website that is set to launch in late 2011. From the documentation of accessibility guidelines to the creation of internal best practices and an infrastructure that ensures ongoing accountability, I'm confident that Target will continue to provide consistent leadership for accessible shopping across all shopping channels. … You have challenged us to be better, and we have responded. We look forward to a strong, ongoing partnership with the National Federation of the Blind as we continue to learn and evolve our online experience and the introduction of new technologies."
The convention next heard from the chief executive officer of the Sendero Group, Michael May. The primary focus of Mike's company is to develop products for the blind to let us tap into the tremendous resource provided by the global positioning system. The information provided by these systems is, of course, only as good as the maps which supplement them. It is of little value to be given one's latitude and longitude if what is wanted is the current intersection and the way to get from where you are to the closest grocery store.
The needs of blind people who use GPS differ somewhat from those of people with sight. For sighted drivers it may be adequate to get them within fifty feet of their destinations and tell them they have arrived, but this is of little benefit to a blind person wishing to locate a specific door, stairway, or elevator. To address this problem, Sendero products allow for the creation of points of interests so that specific locations not recorded on maps generally available to the public can be identified. It would sometimes be nice to know more than the name of something one is passing, and this is where the concept of rich content comes into play. Users of the system can, for example, rate a restaurant at which they have eaten so that other travelers who pass by have the benefit of their experience. If one is riding through Dallas and is told he is passing the Texas Book Depository, rich content will provide information about the building by linking directly to news stories about it. The source for many of these stories will initially be National Public Radio, and it is very likely that with the NPR archives, the Public Broadcasting System, and all of the local affiliates that make up the two networks, we could have in excess of 260,000 hours of archived material through our travel navigation systems.
Mike Starling of National Public Radio talked about another project to enhance the usability of newly created digital radio systems so that they work with Braille displays and speech synthesizers to give us the added content now available to sighted people. Current technology allows sighted people to use a visual display to locate the program they wish to hear and, using that same visual display, review information such as the song title, composer, conductor, and performing orchestra. Programs which provide news content also display links to other resources currently unavailable to the blind.
"Blind Car Builder? We're Here to Tell You!" was next presented by Mark Simmons, chief executive officer of Simmons Boss Creations. Car manufacturers create vehicles by sampling a large cross-section of the population to figure out what it is they will buy. Therefore the cars they build are necessarily a compromise, representing, not what most people want, but what most people are able to afford. Mr. Simmons, an engineer, has created a company to customize what the auto manufacturers provide to produce whatever buyers want. If they are looking for a high-performance vehicle, this is what he builds. If they are looking for an old car with a new engine, he figures out a way for them to have it.
Like many blind people who choose to work in competitive employment, Mr. Simmons must confront a public which sometimes believes blindness will prevent him from doing what he says he can do. Working with automobiles poses a particularly difficult challenge because of public attitudes since it is generally assumed that blind people, who cannot drive, will know next to nothing about the construction, maintenance, repair, and operation of motor vehicles. Mr. Simmons is changing that perception one customer, one vehicle, and one prize-winning design at a time.
The afternoon session began with a round of applause for the coverage of our Blind Driver Challenge by CNN and the professional interview given by Mark Riccobono, and Dr. Dennis Hong. Parnell Diggs encouraged everyone to become an Imaginator and explained that, of the keys that were given out for each $250 raised, five had actual teeth and grooves along the blade and therefore qualified the owner to examine and drive the vehicle we are creating in the Blind Driver Challenge program. The convention was filled with groans and shrieks of joy as some of us confirmed that our keys had smooth edges and others discovered that their keys entitled them to be one of the first to experience this new, groundbreaking technology. Other events will take place in 2011 that will allow some of us to qualify who were not so lucky in 2010, but, in order to have a chance to examine and experience the vehicle, one must begin raising the Imagination Fund money to build it.
In keeping with our convention focus on getting information into the hands of blind people, we next heard from Marybeth Peters, register of copyrights in the Library of Congress copyright office. She spoke on the topic, “Copyright and the Right to Read,” and described the challenge she faces in balancing the rights of authors to be rewarded for their creativity and publishers who provide the mechanism for distributing this material on one hand and on the other the right of the public, including people who are blind, to read and enjoy these works. To accomplish this goal, our copyright law in the United States has rights and exceptions. She said, one of the critical exceptions is section 121, otherwise known as the Chafee Amendment. This law was crafted in an era when digital technology wasn't nearly as important as it is today, so one of the questions we must consider is whether or not copyright law in this country should be updated.
Recently Google has embarked on a project to scan millions of books and make parts of them available on the Internet. The National Federation of the Blind has supported this effort because we know that, of all the newly published books made available to the sighted public each year, fewer than 5 percent are transcribed into a form we can easily read. Though Ms. Peters opposed the Google Book Settlement proposed in response to a lawsuit against Google by some publishers and authors, she believes strongly in the right of blind people to have access to this material. She said, "The promise to offer millions of titles through libraries in formats accessible to persons who are blind and print disabled is not only responsible and laudable but should be the baseline practice for all who venture into digital publishing." Though our strategy for getting at all of the information available to sighted people may be different from hers, she believes that her goal and our strategy are both intended to achieve the same purpose and that we can work together to see that this dream becomes a reality.
Our friend and colleague for more than thirty-five years, Raymond Kurzweil, joined us to talk about “The Future of Books and Beyond.” His message was one of hope based on a number of significant factors. First is his observation regarding the exponential growth in the power of computing technology, which gives us some ability to predict the future and see that the blind are a part of that technological future. Second is his belief in collaborating with those who will use technology, and the cooperation between Kurzweil Computer Products and its successors and the National Federation of the Blind provides a shining example of the way this works both to the advantage of the blind and to those creating products for us. Third, he is optimistic about the future of blind people because he believes that the National Federation of the Blind will continue to be the leader in civil rights issues for the blind and that through our advocacy and the advancement of technology we will come to enjoy true equality with the sighted.
“Calling All Drivers: Advancing Leadership, Collective Action, and the Boundaries of Independence” was presented by Mark Riccobono, executive director of the Jernigan Institute. His inspiring remarks appear elsewhere in this issue.
Mark's presentation was immediately followed by one from Dr. Dennis Hong, PhD, director of the Robotics and Mechanisms Laboratory at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. The title of his presentation was “The Interface That Touches the Mind: Advancing beyond Autonomous Vehicles,” and the challenge he faces is to help us surmount the technical difficulties that keep us from driving. His humorous, touching, and insightful remarks about the scope of this project and the people it is meant to benefit will appear in a future issue of the Monitor.
A former NFB scholarship winner, Timothy Cordes, M.D., PhD, addressed the convention on the topic of “A Practicing Blind Physician.” In his remarks he mentioned the work of Dr. Jacob Bolotin and how honored he was to set the stage for the presentation of the awards that would follow. Dr. Cordes discussed some of the obstacles he faced getting into school, the reaction when people realized he was serious about becoming a doctor, the techniques he developed to succeed, and the way he now practices. His presentation will appear in its entirety in a future issue of this publication. President Maurer next called on Gary Wunder to present the 2010 Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards. This report appears elsewhere in this issue.
The final presentation of the afternoon, entitled "Disability Policy from the White House,” was presented by Kareem Dale, the special assistant to the president on disability policy. Mister Dale made it clear that on matters of civil rights the Obama administration was "turning our Justice Department loose, and they are acting like a real civil rights division." The administration is taking a firm stand in support of Braille literacy, in support of accessibility for all Websites, and in support of making all technology accessible to the blind. So powerful was his presentation that it will appear in a future issue of the Braille Monitor.
The convention adjourned promptly at five o'clock, and the crowd retired to their rooms to prepare for the last event of the convention, the evening banquet. As master of ceremonies Dr. Fredric Schroeder introduced President Maurer to deliver the banquet speech, entitled “The Advantage of Uncertainty,” which appears elsewhere in this issue.
The thirty scholarship winners for 2010 were introduced by chairman Anil Lewis, and C. J. Fish, who won the $12,000 Kenneth Jernigan Scholarship, was honored with briefly addressing the banquet audience. Ramona Walhof, chairman of the Jacobus TenBroek Award committee, thrilled the crowd when she recognized the long and outstanding service of our friend and colleague, Barbara Pierce. Both presentations can be found elsewhere in this issue.
As the convention concluded, those who attended felt they had really been a part of history in the making. Together we have identified the obstacles that stand between blind people and true equality with the sighted, and without hesitation we have decided to take on each of these obstacles, not because they are easy to resolve, but because overcoming them is absolutely essential to fulfilling the mission of our founders and carrying out the trust of our members. Some of the work we have undertaken will bear fruit immediately; some will take decades to blossom and mature. The joy we find in victory is immense, but so too is the pleasure in the struggle alongside those who are like-minded in purpose and rock solid in their commitment.