Braille Monitor                                                 August/September 2010

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The 2010 Dr. Jacob Bolotin Awards

by Gary Wunder

This marks the third year we have taken time on the convention agenda to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Jacob Bolotin, a physician who trained as a blind man, practiced as a blind man, and gave back to the community not only through his healing but through his work with blind boys in scouting. So powerful was Dr. Bolotin's influence on his nephew Alfred that he and his wife Rosalind created an endowment in Dr. Bolotin's name. Its purpose is to recognize individuals and organizations whose effort furthers the life's work of Dr. Bolotin and the ongoing work of the National Federation of the Blind. Central to this work is the absolute conviction that, when given the opportunity, the blind can make a significant contribution to their own self-support, the betterment of their communities, and the enrichment of all whose lives are touched by their spirit and accomplishment.

The challenge in Dr. Bolotin's day was to confront the attitude that the blind were simply incapable of any meaningful contribution to society. Consider the significance, when not only did a blind man contribute, but he distinguished himself in the art of healing and the science of medicine.

Today it is more common to see blind people out and about than it was in Dr. Bolotin's day, but far too often we are still marginalized, unemployed, or significantly underemployed. We are too often an afterthought in the design processes of the world, whether we're talking about something as simple as checking out at the grocery store or as complex as interpreting the results of a diagnostic medical procedure.

Our first recipient is a man whose name is very familiar to anyone who follows the advancement of technology. His inventions have transformed the smooth sheet of paper, which once conveyed nothing to the blind, into a rich source of information that has opened the doors of the public library and created many new opportunities for employment. The possibility of independently reading print, once only a dream to blind people of my generation, is now as close as our shirt pockets and more affordable than many of the computers and notetakers we carry in our briefcases and backpacks. The inventions are life-changing--but today we are here to honor the inventor and the spirit that has given life to the dream.

"The religion, if you will, that I grew up with," he says, "was the power of human ideas to overcome any barriers or boundaries. From a young age this was personalized: ‘You, Ray, can find the ideas to transcend what may seem impossible.’ I took that to heart and at the age of five decided to be an inventor. What is really exciting for an inventor is seeing people actually use your inventions and receiving a benefit from that use. Along the way I discovered that the best way to achieve that is to include those intended users in the inventing process."

The relationship Ray has had with blind people through the National Federation of the Blind has spanned some thirty-five years, and, while he has made significant contributions in the world of musical production and speech recognition, meeting the needs of blind people has always held a special place in his heart. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating Mr. Raymond Kurzweil on his Bolotin Award in the amount of $15,000.

Ray Kurzweil accept his Bolotin Award.Ray Kurzweil: The plaque is quite beautiful, and it is deeply gratifying. It is hard to find the words to express my feelings, not only for this recognition, but for this remarkable collaboration, which has been deeply gratifying. It is gratifying actually to see your ideas be used in the world and see the benefit, but it is even more gratifying when it's collaboration with the people who are seeking that benefit. As I mentioned earlier, I do a fair amount of mentoring now with young companies. And there are two things I look for in their plans. If I don't see them, I'll either give them that input or won't get involved. One is that they recognize the law of accelerating returns, that they actually write down what the world will be like a year from now, two years from now, in terms of their underlying technology. But the other important thing I look for is that they collaborate with the users for whom they create their technology.

Some teams say, "Oh yeah, we have that covered. We have three weeks of beta testing with a couple of users." Of course that's not what we're talking about. I've adopted this in my own work. A couple of my projects were mentioned. We require that all of the engineers at Kurzweil Music Systems be musicians, not just testing it on musicians, but actually have people who understand music and care about it and understand it deeply. We developed voice-activated recording systems for Edison, and we actually had doctors create those systems, including blind doctors. That's actually now very big business. So I am very grateful for having learned this lesson. It was all of you who taught me that, and it's been a fantastic experience, and I think we'll continue doing this now over the next half century since the technology has really become transcendent.

Gary Wunder: As a blind user of computer-based technology, you know how frustrating it is to look at the price of a product; purchase it; and know that, for you to have access, your spending has only begun. In many cases you are likely to pay less for your computer or cellular phone than you will for the screen-access technology to use it. The problem of access isn't solved simply by purchasing a screen reader or magnifier, for even the best assistive software can be rendered useless by a program or Website that doesn't play by the rules. Wouldn't it be wonderful if somebody in the mainstream technology field considered blind people so important that what we bought would work right out of the box? Well, someone has, and because of their efforts, we're recognizing them today.

Not so long ago the words "Apple," "Mac," "iPod," "iPhone," and "iTunes" would have elicited a collective groan from an audience of blind people, but what a difference two years can make! For many solid technological and ergonomic reasons Apple has incorporated touchscreen technology in many of its products. The good news for blind people is that Apple has done it in a way that makes those products accessible. Not only has this given us access to many popular Apple products, it has changed the long-held fear that the inevitable adoption of touchscreen technology would lead to the certain decline in access for the blind. Apple has done what once seemed impossible by taking a graphical user interface dependent on heretofore inaccessible touchscreen technology and making it accessible to the blind at the same price paid by the sighted. For this work and all the innovations we hope will spring from it, we proudly present to Apple an award in the amount of $10,000. To accept this award, we call on Greg Jozwiak, vice president in charge of iPhone marketing.

Greg Jozwiak addresses the audience.Greg Jozwiak: We're very honored by this award, and we want to thank the National Federation of the Blind for acknowledging our work. We also want to thank the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind because they have been great collaborators with us, and their continued feedback and fantastic relationship with Apple have helped us greatly in doing what we've done. At Apple we didn't think that a touchscreen had to be a barrier to the blind. Our goal was to take what was previously difficult technology to use and make it one that was the most friendly. We are proud that all of our multi-touch-display products--the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the iPad--include our innovative voice technologies that make our products accessible to this community. We're also proud that iPhone 4 has now gone even further. It's the first mobile phone to support more than thirty wireless Braille displays right out of the box, no additional software required. In addition, it includes Braille tables for more than twenty-five languages. We try to design our products for as many people as possible, including those who are blind or visually impaired. Therefore it is a great honor to accept this award recognizing the work we have done in this area. I thank you very much.
 
Gary Wunder: If you are a student in higher education, you know how central the computer is in your daily work. It is where you can see the class syllabus, access handouts, read the thoughts of classmates, and submit assignments. The most commonly used software to make all of this happen online is Blackboard, and for years blind students and professors faced tremendous obstacles because the product was only marginally usable with screen-reading technology.

The difficulty in getting mainstream software companies to take the needs of the blind seriously is well known. First is their surprise that a blind person would want to use their system. Then comes a grudging acknowledgement that things could be better--but not right now--the blind will have to wait. If the product is old, too much computer code must be changed, and doing so isn't cost effective. If the product is new, the priority must first be to satisfy the majority customer base, which is sighted, and after that will come work for accessibility. Too often the argument is circular, for, when the new works well enough that it is accepted by the sighted, it then becomes old, and again we are told to wait.

Fortunately, the story we know all too well can be changed by a decision to embrace accessibility as a fundamental product requirement. When a company decides that no function will go into what it sells unless it can be performed with nonvisual techniques, accessibility is no longer just a nice thing to do but an essential part of the offering. Blackboard has made this commitment, and it is evident in the functionality that is now available to the blind. For the improvements it has made and for its ongoing commitment to accessibility, we are pleased to present to Blackboard an award in the amount of $10,000. To receive this award, I give you Lara Oerter, vice president of corporate strategy for Blackboard.

Lara Oerter accepts the award for Blackboard.Lara Oerter: I had the chance to present to all of you this morning and talk a little bit about what we do at Blackboard, so I won't go back through all of that, but I will just say that I want specifically to thank the team at Deque Systems and the team here at the National Federation of the Blind for working with us and pushing us on this. Anne Taylor, Clara, and all the others who worked with us to help us understand how to achieve the goal of making our product accessible for all users have helped improve the educational experience for all users. Sometimes getting there is really hard, so we really appreciate the collaborative spirit we have had with all of you here at NFB. Thank you very much.

Gary Wunder: Many in this room have occasionally spent time talking and thinking about what we would do if science offered us the possibility of getting or substantially improving our vision. Some have decided we'd jump at the chance, and some that we are fine the way we are and that to see would alter our very nature. Still others have developed a more nuanced approach that says I'd do it if there was little threat to my health, if the procedure was affordable, and if I wasn't sidelined too long in the trying.

For the man I'm about to introduce, the question was more than hypothetical; it was real. In 2001, after being fully blind for forty-three years, he underwent a rare operation that granted him sudden vision. At the time he was a successful businessman, husband, athlete, and community advocate. He didn't need vision to continue doing any of these things. What attracted him to vision was the sheer adventure of it, in the same way one would be attracted by the possibility of running faster, jumping higher, or predicting the future.

This entrepreneur has placed the power of the global positioning system in the hands of blind people. Using his advanced systems, blind people aren't just riders in the back seat; we are the people giving the directions and truly participating in the journey. For these innovations and for the work he does with the National Federation of the Blind to promote accessibility everywhere he can, we proudly present a Bolotin Award to the founder and the chief executive officer of the Sendero Group, Michael May, in the amount of $5,000.

Mike May admires the Bolotin Award.Michael May: Wow, look at this award. It looks like a giant Louis Braille coin is spinning around inside this thing. Well there is no greater honor than to be recognized by your peers, so this is very touching to me. I thank the Committee for considering my nomination and for my receiving this award. It's particularly amazing to me to look back at somebody being a doctor before canes and NFB and technology. My gosh, how could you exist without technology? Imagine Dr. Bolotin in 1910 and 1920 being a doctor. Imagine Louis Braille in the 1800's and James Holman, the blind world traveler--all these people who did what they did without what we have today. So we've come a long way, and we have a way to go. I am really focusing on the future and what more I can bring to you, to me, and to all of us to strive for that independence which we are all working together to achieve. This is a great symbol of that independence. Thank you for recognizing me.

Gary Wunder: A computer and screen reader are powerful tools in the hands of a skilled blind person if the creators of the programs and Websites to be used have given some thought to providing nonvisual access to their content. Far too many Website designers have not considered blind users in their designs and have frequently employed unlabeled graphics, buttons we can't find, and let's not forget the visual captcha that places a garbled image on the screen that only a sighted person can identify.

The man we honor today is as committed as we are to making Websites accessible, and he attacks the problem from almost every conceivable angle. He has created a university class that focuses on teaching students how to write accessible pages. When airlines offer alternative pricing to the blind because their sites are not accessible, he gets students to call those airlines posing as blind people and then documents how frequently we are not given the price posted on the Web. When government agencies claim they are committed to accessibility, he is the man who does the study that reveals that 96 percent of them are not totally accessible, and, what's more, he publishes those results.

"Most academics concentrate on the theoretical," he says, "but I want to look for practical solutions. Some of my colleagues say, ‘Let's blindfold 100 subjects and see how they will perform,’ and I say, That's ridiculous! Let's find real blind people who use screen readers on a daily basis, and let's see what they want."

For his work as a champion for accessibility to the Web and his active opposition to discrimination against the blind, we proudly present to Dr. Jonathan Lazar a Bolotin Award in the amount of $5,000.

Jonathan Lazar addresses the audienceJonathan Lazar: Thank you for this amazing honor, but really, the thanks go to all of you and the people whom I work with very often in Maryland. The key is we do all this work together; we're doing all of this together. The field trips that my students take--the students go to the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, and they go to Maryland Technology Assistance Program, and people come into my classes to meet blind individuals. We make all of this happen together. You are the ones who take part in the research studies. You're the ones who give me feedback. I run many focus groups at NFB, so I am always trying to listen. You are the ones who say, "Here's the problem. Here's the thing that bothers us. Here's what you need to work on." So I thank all of you. I thank everyone who takes part in the studies, everyone who talks with my students, everyone who helps educate me about better ways we can do this.

Talking about the airlines, one reminder for you: if you get an inaccessible Website from an airline and you have to call their phone center and they say they want to charge you the extra phone center fee, remind them that it is against the law! Thank you very much.

Gary Wunder: Our last award goes to a man whose life's calling gives meaning to the work of all of the recipients we've recognized so far. Their work assumes that competent, capable blind people want and need what they have to offer. The man we honor today helps to prepare the young people who will benefit from the inventions and the accessibility for which all of us strive. He, like Dr. Bolotin, has the distinction of serving in one of the most honorable professions known to man. He is a teacher, a sculptor of minds--a human being who gives meaning to that word by helping young people realize what it really means to be human.

Our recipient has for years gone beyond the hours for which he is paid to perform his teaching duties and has generated the funds to give his blind students experiences they simply can't get in school. For years his charges have been able to come to these conventions and share in our work to create opportunities they will enjoy. Our recipient caught me off guard when, in all of his excitement about being a winner, he said, "The more I come to conventions, the angrier and more frustrated I get." Wow! He went on to say that his anger and frustration spring from his realization that, while he has been teaching the blind for more than thirty years, only recently has he been able to give his students the opportunity to meet and interact with successful blind people. "I call former students and tell them how much more there is than I was able to give them, and I encourage them to get involved."

For a man who has given much of his life in the work of shaping young minds and souls, we are pleased to present to Mr. Al Lovati a Bolotin Award in the amount of $5,000.

Al Lavoti addresses the audienceAl Lovati: [Applause] Save that. I haven't said anything yet. I want to thank the National Federation of the Blind for having created this structure, the organization, the programming, and having the personnel that have helped guide me and others with our work with blind youth. I want to thank Ron Brown, the Indiana affiliate, and its members for providing the local connections and support that made each visit to an NFB event meaningful. I want to thank my students for teaching me and for mentoring me. This thanks goes way back to my pre-NFB days in the 80's to students like Eddie and Joe, and Nancy and Jan, Mike, Lisa, Jackie, Scott, Tara, and Rebecca because, when I first came to the NFB, you were there. You were active. You were involved. So now fast forwarding to the present, I want to thank Micah, Ashley, Riley, Elisa, Kayla, Kory, Tyler, Jimmy, Brittany S., Nick, Garrett, Sherry, Samantha, Molly, Brittany M., and Lexie for availing themselves of the opportunities the National Federation of the Blind provides.

Finally, I'd like to thank the Indiana Lions; the Indiana Lions for the ISBVI State Project; and my local club, the Washington Township Lions Club, for helping create the mechanism that has allowed the students to attend NFB conventions every year since '04. I'm deeply honored by this award. I promise to you all that my future actions and words will prove me worthy of this award. So, if it's okay with everyone, I will savor my few remaining seconds of fame for what I hope is a round of thunderous applause. Thank you. [Applause]

Gary Wunder: I close, Mr. President, by thanking the Santa Barbara Foundation for its financial contribution to these awards and by thanking every member of this audience who gives to the National Federation of the Blind and who is therefore equally responsible for this program.

In this room we have a booklet which says far more than time allows here about the individuals and organizations we have honored today. They are free. Take them, read them, and distribute them proudly--for they help to chronicle the progress of the blind as together we create a future full of hope and promise.

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