Vol. 35, No. 1 January
Barbara Pierce, Editor
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NATIONAL FEDERATION OF
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Vol. 35, No. 1 January 1992
INTRODUCTORY NOTE FROM THE EDITOR
CONFERENCE ON TECHNOLOGY FOR THE BLIND: A MEETING OF HISTORIC IMPORTANCE
by Kenneth Jernigan
PANEL DISCUSSION OF SERVICE PROVIDERS AND CONSUMERS
Technology With Promise Not Yet in Hand
by Tim Cranmer
by Euclid Herie
by Elliot Schreier
by Curtis Chong
TECHNOLOGY PRODUCERS PRESENT THEIR VIEWS: THE FIRST PANEL
by Tony Schenk
by James Bliss
by Raymond Kurzweil
by Deane Blazie
TECHNOLOGY PRODUCERS PRESENT THEIR VIEWS: THE SECOND PANEL
by Frank DiPalermo
by Jim Halliday
by Mohymen Saddeek
by Lawrence Boyd
DECISIONS AND FUTURE PLANS: THE SATURDAY MORNING SESSION
by Jim Halliday
Copyright National Federation of the Blind, Inc., 1992
[2 PHOTOS of the National Center for the Blind. One is taken from the corner of Johnson and Wells street and shows the new flag, which stands on the roof behind the NFB sign. The other is taken of the newly remodeled front entrance at night time, which shows the new lighted awning/sign, railing work, steps, and ramp.
CAPTION: The National Center for the Blind was the site of the 1991 U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, September 19-21. Pictured above are the National Federation of the Blind sign and the newly-erected illuminated flag pole on the roof of the block-long facility. The new entrance, pictured below, was completed about the time of the conference. Illuminated at night, as shown here, the entire facade of the National Center for the Blind is visible from Interstate 95.]
INTRODUCTORY NOTE FROM THE EDITOR
From time to time we devote an entire issue of the Braille Monitor to a single topic. This is one of those times. The U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, which was held at the National Center for the Blind September 19-21, 1991, is one of the most significant occurrences ever to take place in the blindness field. Therefore, it deserves the recognition which such an event merits. Accordingly, this entire issue of the Monitor is devoted to the proceedings of this historic conference. In broad outline it reviews the past, details the present, and charts the way for the future concerning technology in the blindness field.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Pictured in the large conference room at the National Center for the Blind are the members of the planning committee of the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind. Left to right, they are: Euclid Herie, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind; Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind; Susan Spungin, Associate Executive Director for Program Services of the American Foundation for the Blind; and William Wiener, President of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired.]
U.S./CANADA CONFERENCE ON TECHNOLOGY FOR THE BLIND: A MEETING OF HISTORIC IMPORTANCE
by Kenneth Jernigan
From Thursday afternoon, September 19, through Saturday morning, September 21, 1991, a meeting of historic importance was held at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. Chaired, organized, and hosted by the National Federation of the Blind, this meeting (the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind) brought together the largest number of leaders of organizations of and for the blind and of manufacturers and vendors of technology ever assembled in the blindness field. Real progress was made in the areas of products, plans for research, coordination, distribution, and availability--but the true significance of the conference lay elsewhere. It was more in the fact that the people who were present had come and that they had gathered to try to find common ground for concerted action than in the substance of the presentations and discussions. This is not to underrate the interaction which took place or the decisions made, for these were noteworthy in their own right. Rather, it is to give perspective and focus to the real purpose and accomplishments of the conference. Such a meeting of leaders from the United States and Canada would have been unthinkable (in fact, impossible) ten or even five years ago.
The nature of what was achieved can best be shown by naming the principal participants. It should be kept in mind that a number of those who came as vice presidents are slated to become presidents of their organizations in the near future:
David Andrews: Director, National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind
Pierre-Paul Belanger: Executive Director, Quebec Division, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Deane Blazie: President, Blazie Engineering
James C. Bliss: President, TeleSensory, Inc.
Barbara Bowman: Vice President, Association of Instructional Resource Centers for the Visually Impaired
Lawrence H. Boyd: Principal and Director of Research, Berkeley Systems, Inc.
Nell Carney: Commissioner, Rehabilitation Services Administration
Curtis Chong: Senior Systems Programmer, IDS Financial Services
Guido Corona: IBM Canada Limited
Tim Cranmer: Chairman, Research and Development Committee, National Federation of the Blind
Frank Kurt Cylke: Director, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress
Frank DiPalermo: Product Planner, IBM Special Needs Systems
Judy Dixon: Consumer Relations Officer, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress
Paul Edwards: First Vice President, American Council of the Blind
Jim Fruchterman: President, Arkenstone, Inc.
Don Garner: Director, Blind Rehabilitation Services, Veterans Administration
Doug Geoffray: President, GW Micro
Ruth Haggen: Vice President, American Thermoform Corporation
James C. Halliday: President, HumanWare, Inc.
Ted Henter: President, Henter-Joyce
Euclid Herie: President and Chief Executive Officer, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
David Holladay: President, Raised Dot Computing
Kenneth Jernigan: Executive Director, National Federation of the Blind
Raymond Kurzweil: Board of Directors and Executive Committee, Xerox Imaging Systems; and Chairman, Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Inc.
Ed Lazar: Manager, Assistive Technology Group, Digital Equipment Corporation
Chris Lowrie: Consumer, Nepean, Ontario, Canada
Marc Maurer: President, National Federation of the Blind
Dale McDaniel: Vice President of Marketing, Artic Technologies
William E. McLaughlin: Deputy Director, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research
Sue Melrose: Chairman, Division 5, Association for the Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired
Peter Merrill: President, BETACOM Group, Ontario, Canada
Charlene Muller: National Director of Rehabilitation and Program Planning, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
John Nelson: Special Assistant to the Commissioner, Rehabilitation Services Administration
Ralph Pacinelli: Regional Commissioner, Rehabilitation Services Administration
Lloyd Rasmussen: Senior Staff Engineer, National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, Library of Congress
Rachel Rosenbaum: Vice President, National Council of Private Agencies for the Blind; and Executive Director, Carroll Center for the Blind, Newton, Massachusetts
Noel Runyan: President, Personal Data Systems
Mohymen Saddeek: President, Technology for Independence, Inc.
LeRoy Saunders: President, American Council of the Blind
Tony Schenk: President, Enabling Technologies Company
Elliot Schreier: Director, National Technology Center, American Foundation for the Blind
R. Creig Slayton: President, National Council of State Agencies for the Blind, Inc.; and Director, Iowa Department for the Blind
Susan Spungin: Associate Executive Director for Program Services, American Foundation for the Blind
Graham Stoodley: Chairman, Technology Subcommittee, National Client Service Committee, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
Suzanne Swaffield: President, Association of State Educational Consultants for the Visually Impaired
Tuck Tinsley: President, American Printing House for the Blind
Jocelyne Tremblay: Director of Outside Quebec Services and Technical Aid Programs, Government of Quebec
Louis Tutt: Vice President, Council of Executives of American Residential Schools for the Visually Handicapped
Patrick Walsh: Treasurer and Director of Rehabilitation, Canadian National Institute for the Blind
William Wiener: President, Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired; and Chairman, Department of Blind Rehabilitation, Western Michigan University
Jack Wood: President, Index Printer Company of America, Inc.
The conference was not a spur-of-the-moment affair. The ground work was carefully laid, having been in progress for more than three years. At the convention of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired held in Montreal in the summer of 1988, the National Federation of the Blind announced that it would convene a meeting of representative organizations and agencies in the blindness field to consider means of working together to achieve common goals. Accordingly, the first meeting of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort (JOE) was held in March of 1989 at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore. The following organizations were represented:
Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER)
American Foundation for the Blind (AFB)
Blinded Veterans Association (BVA)
Canadian Council of the Blind (CCB)
Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB)
National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS)
Dr. Susan Spungin, Associate Executive Director for Program Services of the American Foundation for the Blind, was asked to summarize the agreements reached at this first JOE meeting. Relating to technology, Dr. Spungin's report said in part:
To insure the availability of useful and necessary high and low technology items that assist blind persons to be independent, it becomes increasingly necessary to pool our respective talents and resources in the area of technology in order to:
a. take advantage of collective buying power;
b. keep prices down through quantity buying;
c. encourage manufacturers to continue production of low volume items;
d. encourage research, development, and marketing of new products of value to blind persons; and
e. explore the need for an information data base system.
Although the notion of joint action on technology was informally discussed by various groups during the following months, no concerted implementation of the idea was undertaken until the second meeting of the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort, which occurred at the headquarters of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in Toronto in November of 1990. At that time it was agreed that a conference on technology would be convened by the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore at the National Center for the Blind sometime during 1991 and that representative organizations and individuals from Canada and the United States would be invited to attend.
As a first step a planning committee (consisting of Drs. William Wiener, AER; Susan Spungin, AFB; Euclid Herie, CNIB; and Kenneth Jernigan, NFB) was appointed to outline the proceedings of the conference and consider who should be asked to attend.
It was in this context that the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind was called to order at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore on September 19, 1991. I chaired the conference, and the National Federation of the Blind provided food and facilities. The first part of Thursday afternoon was taken up with a panel by service providers and consumers. This was followed by questions and discussion and then by demonstrations of technology by vendors and an inspection of the equipment at the National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. On Thursday evening a dinner took place in the dining room at the National Center for the Blind, and on Friday morning the vendors and manufacturers of technology joined the service providers and consumers for a day-long exchange of ideas and information.
The latter part of Friday afternoon and all of Friday evening were left unstructured to permit conference participants to hold individual meetings and become better acquainted. The conference concluded on Saturday morning with a meeting of service providers and consumers to summarize what had been accomplished and plan for the future.
As has already been indicated, the conference was not solely concerned with technology. For example, a resolution was passed on Thursday afternoon recognizing that it would be helpful to the blindness field if an international scholarly journal concerning librarianship were produced. The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped was asked to pursue the establishment of such a journal, which would be "published at least annually and which would include articles on topics related to library service for blind and visually handicapped individuals in the areas of Braille, audio, and service-related developments and technologies." There was also a discussion concerning the damage being done to the blind by the ABC television program "Good and Evil," and a telegram was sent from the group calling on ABC to cancel the program.
As the conference drew to a close, plans were made to follow up and expand on what had been accomplished. Among other things, it was agreed that in another twelve to eighteen months a second meeting of the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind would be convened by the NFB at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore.
If I had to characterize the mood of the conference, I would say that it was one of optimism, good will, and enthusiasm. There seemed to be a general recognition of the fact that new balances have been struck in the blindness field in North America and that we have opportunities which would have been undreamed of only a few years ago. New friendships were made, and new understandings achieved. The implications for service providers and consumers alike are far-reaching. Most important of all, this unity of purpose and concerted action gives promise of more opportunity and a better quality of life for the blind than we have ever known. It remains for all of those who participated to continue to work together to make the promise a reality.
[PHOTO: Dr. Jernigan (behind a microphone) and others seated at the head table in the National Center for the Blind's conference room. Both the NFB and Canadian flags are shown in the background. CAPTION: Dr. Jernigan chairs the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind. To his left are seated Drs. William Wiener and Susan Spungin. On his right is Dr. Euclid Herie. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, stands behind the group.]
PANEL DISCUSSION OF SERVICE PROVIDERS AND CONSUMERS
On Thursday afternoon, September 19, 1991, principal representatives from service-providing and consumer organizations in Canada and the United States met at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland. They were joined later in the day by senior management representatives from virtually all of the significant producers and vendors of technology in the fields of blindness and low vision. The consumers and service providers talked and planned together during the first day of the conference and listened to what the vendors and producers had to say and demonstrate during the second. The conference concluded Saturday morning, September 21, with the consumers and service providers summarizing what had been accomplished and planning the next steps.
What follows is a summary of these meetings. The complete cassette recording of the conference is available from the National Federation of the Blind at a cost of $40. Orders may be made by contacting the Materials Center, National Federation of the Blind, 1800 Johnson Street, Baltimore, Maryland 21230. Orders must be accompanied by a purchase order or a check made payable to the National Federation of the Blind.
Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, Executive Director of the National Federation of the Blind, opened the conference with welcoming comments and housekeeping details. Mr. Marc Maurer, President of the NFB, then welcomed the group by saying that meetings such as this one were an important part of what the blind of the nation had hoped might be accomplished when they began building the National Center for the Blind.
Dr. Jernigan then invited the other members of the Conference Planning Committee to speak. Dr. William Wiener, President of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired (AER); Dr. Euclid Herie, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB); and Dr. Susan Spungin, Associate Executive Director for Program Services of the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB), all expressed their pleasure in welcoming conference participants and their conviction that important new steps in mutually beneficial activity and discussion were about to occur. Dr. Spungin said that this was one of the first tangible manifestations of the work of the Joint Organizational Effort Committee, and she hoped that its success would promise much for the future.
Dr. Jernigan then introduced the first member of the panel of presenters scheduled to begin the conference, Dr. Tim Cranmer, chairman of the Research and Development Committee of the National Federation of the Blind.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Portrait of Tim Cranmer.]
TECHNOLOGY WITH PROMISE NOT YET IN HAND
by Tim Cranmer
Back in the days of my adolescence (before television, before the medium was the message) I sometimes played a game with a friend in which I would ask, "If you were handed a microphone connected to all of the radio stations in the world so that you could speak to all humanity for a few minutes, what would you say?" The reason I posed this question to my friend was my wish >that she would ask me the same. She did. And I never quite succeeded in composing the perfect presentation for the world audience. I could not have imagined at that time fifty years ago that one day I would be given the opportunity to speak to an assemblage of world-class leaders and policymakers from the U.S. and Canada responsible for initiating or directing applications of technology in the lives of blind men and women for generations to come. And now that this moment has come, what is my message?
This: Listen to consumers; respond to consumers; coordinate your efforts with consumers. We are the blind, and we have opened channels of communication dedicated to specific interests-- including the subject of this conference. The NFB in Computer Science Division and the NFB Research and Development Committee are but two examples. A tangible evidence of our commitment is the National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, which you will see more of later today. Through our president, Mr. Marc Maurer, and our executive director, Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, you can gain access to these and other resources to assist you in all technical matters impacting the lives of blind men and women in our two countries.
While I still have in hand the microphone to the world (at least, it is the mike to the world of technology), it seems only fair that I should cite some specific examples of technical problems in need of our unified attention.
First, a low-tech conundrum to ponder: We who are blind do not now have the tactile equivalent of a pen or lead pencil. Arguably the most useful implement ever designed by humans, the pencil in one or more of its variations will be found in every country and virtually every household on Earth. Father of the book, precursor of the printing press, the pencil remains modern man's most ubiquitous tool--but we don't have a tactile version. Please assume that I know about and use all or most of the implements employed by blind individuals to perform some of the tasks assigned to the lead pencil. Don't assume that these special-purpose instruments singly or collectively serve as an adequate substitute for the "universal marker."The pencil's utility assures it a permanent role in far-ranging human activities. Besides its most obvious uses of writing and drawing, pencils are used for making marks of other kinds and for many other purposes. Craftsmen of every sort mark their work for cutting, assembling, or other manipulations. But wait! I must resist this impulse to enumerate the uses of the pencil. I need say no more than this: A pencil lets its owner make marks of infinite design and meaning on surfaces and materials of nearly infinite properties. We who are blind lack the tool that would let us match this performance.
The slate, stylus, and other embossers serve us well for literary purposes. It is the general purpose mark that eludes us. We can't now make the thin, thick, high, low, straight, crooked tactile marks we require to model graphic communications. A mark that clings but can be removed; the tactile mark that lasts and lasts without destroying or damaging the surface on which it is placed; and all this with the same convenience and facility inherent in the pen and pencil.
Why don't we have a tactile pencil? Can it be that the technology required to build it doesn't exist? Or is it that we just don't know about suitable technologies? If we can describe the properties of the end product (a tactile pencil), then perhaps we can design the materials and develop the new techniques to meet the specifications. If we can't come up with the answers, then we should look outside of our disciplines to engage other resources. More on this thought later.
With a mere flick of the finger and a light year leap in thought, let me focus your attention on the most pressing problem confronting blind people today. It's Braille. This is not the place, and I am not the expert, to examine factors contributing to its decline in recent decades. Let us here consider one small but very important element that will contribute to wider acceptance and greater use of Braille. I refer to a full-page refreshable Braille display.
Fullest participation by blind men and women in an information-based society requires unlimited access to print through Braille. To achieve this we must design a better Braille display. A better Braille display is a bigger, cheaper, faster display. This full-page Braille display is the missing link to fuller participation by blind people in social and vocational activities. An idealized Braille display will enable us to build optimized print access devices like true print-to-Braille converters that deserve to be called reading machines.
Let me describe one such machine. Excuse me if I omit or gloss over some essential technical details. It's about a foot square and a couple of inches thick. It weighs three or four pounds. It looks a little like a lap-top computer except that there is no evidence of a computer screen--indeed there isn't one. But look more closely, and you can see that the top surface of the machine is actually a blank Braille display. On the side of the machine there is a slot into which you can place a disk containing hundreds of books. Once the disk is inserted, the top of the machine springs into life and displays the name and other information about the library of books on the disk. Press a button on the side of the unit to display in Braille page after page of the table of contents, an index, or menu--or press another button to jump forward to the selection you choose by touching the associated Braille line on the display. Change the disk and the top of the machine becomes a Braille display of the jacket information of the new book or collection.
These disks would probably be CD-ROMS if we had the machine today--but if we wait a while, the disks may be of a different sort. That's progress for you. The full-page Braille display will work just as well regardless of the medium used for the input-- which reminds me of the attachment.
It is difficult to imagine a time when print books will become obsolete. They have far too many advantages over any other storage system to be discarded by society. So we need a book- handling attachment that can leaf through a book of most any kind and control the Braille display of the main unit in the same way described for the disk-based information. We are in luck here. There is a big demand in the commercial market for handling books by data entry systems. We need only wait for the commercial interests to invent the book processing caddy--surely by the turn of the century. The book handler should be here by the time we finish designing our refreshable Braille display. Did I mention that everything on the display will be properly formatted in Grade Two Braille?
Is there a computer in the main unit box or the book handling attachment? People in the know, like you and me, will figure that out--but the school kids and non-technical adults will never ask or care. To them it will just be the Braille machine that lets them read as all literate people should.
How can we move from our present limited one-line Braille displays to the multiline electronic Braille we must have? After decades of working with designs for small, one-line displays, we have gained enough experience and insight to arrive at the point where we believe that we know what research needs to be done that will result in practical full-page Braille displays. We can now describe the physical properties of the materials that must be located or designed to make our goal achievable. The technical hurdles to be overcome are insignificant in comparison to the achievements of researchers working in the larger world of science--now oblivious and thus not much occupied with our little problems.
Small as our research needs might appear to society at large, they have so far proved to be insurmountable by the commercial firms in the blindness market which have pursued their solution. This situation might well obtain for years to come unless we can somehow muster a combined effort.
Somehow we must tap the resources of industry and universities skilled in exploring physical properties of diverse materials and substances to identify those with characteristics with promise of application to our projects. We can no longer afford to rely on serendipity to deliver up useful technologies to manufacturers in our field. Instead, let's provide the incentives and leadership sufficient to involve the larger scientific community. It may be necessary to do more than explore existing technologies and materials. The physical sciences have gleaned enough knowledge of matter at the molecular level to make it possible to design new materials for our applications. If we develop specifications, there are others capable of designing the blueprints and still others to build the polymers, alloys, microchips, and other elements necessary to produce a tactile pencil, a full-page Braille display, and the other tools the future may demand.
One example of new technology may be instructive: Ferroelectric semiconductor materials are just now coming to the public's attention. At least one paper describing the piezoelectric properties of ferroelectric compounds was presented at the spring meeting of the Materials Research Society. The first widespread use of this technology seems to be in manufacture of high-speed non-volatile random access memories for computers. Some computer buffs are already talking about FRAMs. These new materials have another attraction for us. They exhibit dimensional changes in the presence of an electric field. Tiny actuators can be fashioned from ferroelectric elements without relying on bulky solenoids, coils, iron, or other devices that have foiled earlier efforts to design large arrays of Braille dot drivers.
Doctor Dennis Polla of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis is engaged in developing micro-actuators based on ferroelectric films. These subminiature components are too small for our use. But with three magnitudes of enlargement, we arrive at mili-actuators which may indeed raise and lower dots on a tactile display.
Recent conversations with Dr. Polla reinforce our expectation that the piezoelectric properties of ferroelectric materials may prove useful in creating large Braille arrays.
Too little is known about members of this chemical compound class. We are not aware of any systematic investigation of ferroelectrics to identify one or more compounds with piezoelectric or photoelectric properties, electromechanical behavior, or combinations of these that would recommend it for further study and possible application in a large Braille display. Thousands of these compounds invite our attention. And if none is suited to our purpose, perhaps we could learn enough to establish guides for the right materials scientist to custom design a usable compound. At present there seems but little economic incentive or inspiration to activate the right scientist to pursue this course of investigation.
I feel an obligation to bring to the attention of this conference a pending loss of technology. Most of you doubtless know of the Pixelmaster printer--the machine that deposits solid plastic material on paper--manufactured by Howtek of Hudson, New Hampshire. I brought with me a few samples of print, Braille, and drawings made with it in case they are wanted. NFB advised Howtek on ways to improve the design of the Pixelmaster that would make it useful to blind people. They accepted some of our recommendations, the ones that did not require hardware changes. For our part, we designed Braille fonts that could be installed in the machine so that it could be used to produce solid-dot Braille. Our final font included the graphic characters used to draw boxes and other figures. This font, never published, is available from NFB on request.
The Braille produced on the Pixelmaster is barely acceptable, and the tactile drawings it makes are of marginal use. Furthermore, Howtek has discontinued manufacture of the product. So why mention it at all? The Pixelmaster is based on a technology with profound implications for the education and employment of blind people. A machine designed for the blind that optimizes the variables controlling deposit of the solid material could produce high-quality Braille and raised line drawings with three useful dimensions and varied textures. Furthermore, this good Braille and high-quality 3D tactile drawings may be created on a computer screen or taken from large stores of standard text and "clip art" libraries. Tens of thousands of maps would become immediately available, produced as needed from standard data bases.
The thermal plastic "ink" used in the Pixelmaster is but one example of a technology with potential for producing three- dimensional solid forms suitable for representing Braille characters and raised lines. We selected it for discussion here because we are most familiar with it. Other technologies that invite investigation include phase transition polymer gels, ballistic particle deposition, and stereolithography. If you are interested in pursuing any of these, we can give you the first crumb on the trail that leads to the scientists in the forefront of each field.
The Pixelmaster potential has not been realized--nor does it now appear likely to be. It is lost to my generation--and may be lost to the next, unless some joint effort is mounted. The non- profit organizations serving the blind may be hard pressed to make the financial commitment to develop the ideal solid material embosser. The relatively small commercial manufacturers and vendors serving the blindness industry are not likely to see this as a viable investment. Perhaps we should consider adapting the research consortium models now in place in the U.S. and several other countries. On the other hand, the right writer could get a million-dollar grant to exploit this opportunity.
It seems that my lot in life has been, and will remain, tied up with the manipulation of the nuts and bolts that must be fitted together to make a technology for the blind. I am content with my place. A larger role in technology for the blind is left to you. It rests upon the shoulders of the participants in this conference to find the way to mobilize and direct our resources to the greatest advantage for all blind men and women. While the details are yet unclear, this conference is evidence that the National Federation of the Blind will remain in the forefront of technology and will meet the demands of leadership in this field as it has for more than a half century in the social, economic, and political life of the blind.
Dr. Jernigan next introduced Dr. Euclid Herie, President of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Portrait of Euclid Herie.]
Dr. Herie: The CNIB began in 1918, modeled after the Royal National Institute for the Blind in Great Britain. Its central headquarters are in Toronto, with ten executive directors in operating divisions and about sixty to sixty-five field offices scattered throughout Canada. In Quebec the CNIB operates services other than rehabilitation in partnership with the provincial government.
The CNIB takes advantage of technology developed in the U.S. and elsewhere in the world. Although the service community for the blind in Canada seldom engages in technological research, lately a scientific calculator was developed in Quebec, and the IRIS, a large-print reading device, was developed in Montreal by a local organization for the blind. One modest attempt to encourage technological research and development has been the establishment of the CNIB's Winston-Gordon Prize for Technological Advancement. It's a $10,000 purse with a two-ounce twenty-four-karat gold medal. A bank note reader with voice output is currently being perfected by the Bank of Canada.
A few years ago, at the invitation of the NFB, the CNIB began to audit meetings of the NFB Research and Development Committee, chaired by Dr. Tim Cranmer.
In 1986 the CNIB was mandated to serve visually impaired Canadians in addition to those who are legally blind. The CNIB is completing plans to establish a technology center in each part of Canada within the CNIB's major service centers. We are trying to establish a national data base on technology and to begin a national inventory system showing the location and usefulness of CNIB-owned technology. Neither project is yet implemented. We have also tried to establish an international network on technology. We hope that this conference will help in this effort and that the day will come when all of us will be connected to a shared database, to a shared body of knowledge, and to shared R and D resources and purchasing power. We can help the distributors and developers of these products to know what our priorities are.
The other side of the coin is the importance of limiting the waste of investment by agencies, governments, and individuals in technology that proves impractical or unusable. These errors are very costly to agencies, and consumers are also deeply concerned about the economics of technology. In the recent AER survey, in which the CNIB participated, to no one's surprise consumers were most interested in knowing what technology is available and affordable.
The CNIB now distributes the Kurzweil Reading Machine, but some consumers and competitors are understandably concerned that the CNIB will not be impartial or objective and could stifle healthy competition and even the availability of alternative aids. However, there is also the danger that, particularly with expensive technology, if some entity is not prepared to invest, the market will never develop because of individual unwillingness to risk perennial resources on the unknown.
There are painful examples of unsuccessful efforts to create inexpensive alternatives to high-quality, high-cost items: the Taj Brailler and the Clark and Smith cassette player, for example. When agencies commit funds for technology that does not do what its makers promise, they must be held accountable. They must be sure that they spend our money well. This is an exciting time technologically, and many people from other countries would have liked to be present at this conference. They are asking how soon the results will be available. So we must do our work well.
Dr. Jernigan then made an announcement before introducing the next speaker. The NFB plans soon to have available a new eight-digit small calculator, which has no clock or calendar and which will sell for about thirty dollars. The NFB will also be selling a twelve-digit calculator for not more than thirty-six dollars. There is also a new, inexpensive talking watch that is already in production and will be available soon.
He then commented on the question of pooling resources to purchase things more inexpensively. There are two kinds of purchasing. One can be pooled, and the other can't. An example of the first is the consortium which the American Foundation for the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind, and others put together when the original Sharp talking clocks went off the market. The group of purchasers was large enough to bring the clock back into production. The other, less tractable type of purchasing is that of a product like Braille paper or cassettes. One must buy a very great amount in order to get a significant price reduction. If a group pooled its purchasing to get the savings, one member would have to warehouse, divide, and ship the smaller orders to the other pool members, and the cost reduction would be eaten away. These are matters for ongoing discussion.
Dr. Jernigan then introduced Elliot Schreier, Director of the American Foundation for the Blind's National Technology Center. Dr. Jernigan commented that the AFB has had a long and noteworthy record of manufacturing and selling products for blind people. They were engaged in this effort before most of us were even thinking about the subject.
Mr. Schreier: The American Foundation for the Blind involvement in both product distribution and development dates back some sixty or seventy years to the early stages of the Talking Book Program and the development of the players that were used back then. We're involved today in both high-tech and low-tech development.
We have a National Technology Center, established in 1986, which disseminates information about product availability, cost, product evaluation. This last is the study in our labs of similar products designed for the same task. The results are published in the Journal of Visual Impairment and Blindness. We evaluate how well the equipment lives up to the manufacturer's claims. Some readers want to know which unit to buy; others just want to know what questions to ask.
We are also involved, and have been for some time, in research and development. We develop products that are used by blind and visually impaired people.
Another data base that we maintain and that has become very important is our Careers and Technology Information Bank. This is a group of about 1,400 people, either blind or visually impaired, who volunteer to network. We interview them extensively. They can then serve as evaluators for us, but more important, many of them are willing to talk with people who are using the same kind of equipment and are having difficulty. We publish the job titles of the people in this data bank, though we maintain their confidentiality. This list demonstrates that blind people can do about anything, and it has been very useful to us.
We have a model machine shop, in which in the last few years we designed and developed the AFB Superfold Cane (a design using O-rings) and a Kiddy Cane with features suggested to us by orientation and mobility instructors. We undertake the modification of tools and instruments such as the Braille micrometer. We also modify games like Connect Four and Backgammon.
In the past year we've introduced a low vision cutting board that is black on one side and white on the other, a fairly simple idea that came from a rehabilitation specialist from Canada. We also produce custom-designed check stencils. Although both of these are simple, low-tech items, AFB needed a high-tech welding device to fuse one side of the cutting board with the other. For the check stencils we use a commercial numerically-controlled milling machine which is programmed by computer for each job.
In the last two years, at the request of the Johnson and Johnson Company, AFB has developed the Touch and Talk, an add-on to Life-Scan's blood glucose analyzer.
We have just introduced a newer version of our talking clinical, air, and oven thermometer. In the last two weeks we have finished a blood pressure meter that mimics the print display with voice output.
There are many factors to balance in order to decide the value of each research request and project. Project ideas can come from consumers, staff, corporations, or other service providers. To determine the order in which new products will be undertaken, the staff considers such matters as the size and age of the target population and the staff time and budget needed for production. The answers to such questions help the staff determine its priorities in allocating limited resources.
Following the model of our publications department, we are now moving our order fulfillment from an internal American Foundation for the Blind operation to an external organization.
AFB has found these difficulties in dealing with technology:
Sharing knowledge with consumers: The individual consumer still lacks knowledge about the technology that is available. How do we circulate information, especially to the largest growing segments of the blindness population--elderly people and children?
Sharing knowledge with providers to avoid duplication of R and D efforts: A few years ago AFB decided to stop work on developing a glucose analyzer for diabetics because another producer was working on the same project. However, a few months later the other company also discontinued its efforts. Therefore, it was several years before diabetics had this device available.
Funding issues: How can we narrow the gap between the AFB's talking thermometer costing $235 and the commercial thermometer available everywhere for $9.95? Economies of scale are involved here, but there are things that we can address at the conference that can have an impact. We have a low-interest loan program for consumers, as does the NFB. I think that's an idea that we can expand upon and perhaps fund the development of new products as well.
Maintenance issues: If we distribute a product manufactured by the ABC corporation, we might not necessarily provide maintenance and support for it. So two years down the road, where is the consumer to go for repairs or replacement of worn parts? In some cases the manufacturer is overseas, so we must arrange for methods of insuring that maintenance is available over the life of the equipment.
Inaccessible instructions: The manufacturers of many products are interested in their profits. As a result the instructions for a talking calculator from Hong Kong are probably not going to be accessible to blind users.
Products for low-incidence populations: Deaf-blind and other multiply handicapped individuals often have needs for which one-of-a-kind solutions are the only ones, and there are very few people, very few organizations that are involved in product development for them. Very young children today, those born to drug-addicted parents or saved very early in premature births, have a high incidence of multiple disabilities including blindness. We need to address ways of developing modular approaches to educational products, games, etc. And we in the group here are probably the best in the country, and perhaps in the world, at being able to develop systems and procedures to ensure that their technology needs are met.
Other access issues include access to automatic teller machines and graphical interfaces with new computer programs. We here can work together and pressure other groups to make sure that access to technology for blind people is maintained or developed. I hope that as a group and informally we will talk about these things in the next two days and begin to work collaboratively.
Before introducing the final member of the first panel, Dr. Jernigan mentioned that he could demonstrate for those who might be interested a prototype of a device called Colormate, which the NFB is working on with a Japanese company. It can identify fifteen colors and acts as a sophisticated light detector, distinguishing between degrees of light intensity. He then introduced Curtis Chong, a Systems Support Specialist for IDS Financial Services in Minneapolis. Dr. Jernigan characterized Mr. Chong as having one of the most fertile and inventive minds in the field.
[PHOTO: Curtis Chong seated at conference room table. CAPTION: Curtis Chong.]
Mr. Chong: All of us here have spent lots of time at conferences talking about technology, but we haven't given much attention to defining it. Technology certainly includes not only complex computers, but also the so-called low-tech equipment that people don't think of as computer-connected. My wife would return our microwave if I told her that it was a computer.
There has been some discussion of appropriate technology. How do we know if a given piece of equipment is useful to blind people? I am not a professional in the field of work with the blind. I'm just a regular blind person, working, doing a job, trying to get by as best I can. But in my simple view the way to determine good technology is to ask the people who have to use it--the consumers. If a product comes on the market and the consumers don't like it and don't buy it, it isn't good. If it comes out and they buy it and use it, it is good.
One thing I've noticed in this field over the years is the phenomenal growth in our ability to produce Braille. We can get more Braille from more places than ever before. For under $7,000 anyone can now set up a relatively decent Braille transcription system for literary information and have a person doing it who has absolutely no knowledge of Braille.
Pretty soon we will even get mathematics produced in Braille by people who don't necessarily know Nemeth Code. This is, to my mind, a trend that we should encourage.
If I could dream for a minute, it would really be nice if there were a piece of technology that could take printed information, without any human intervention, and automatically convert it into nicely formatted, properly footnoted and paged Grade II Braille with a table of contents. I think we have the programming technology and the artificial intelligence, and with the price of computers going down, we'll see it happen in the years to come.
One of my biggest frustrations today, working on my own computer and Brailling my own word-processing files, is that I must still keep one copy for Braille and one for print. In the long run this duplication is not acceptable.
There is one principle that should be kept in mind when contemplating technology for the blind. Sometime ago a representative from Honeywell came to my family to ask what sort of thermostat should be developed for the blind. I said that the first mistake is thinking you need to develop a special thermostat. It would be preferable, even ideal, if the regular thermostat you sell had some slight modifications to make it convenient for a blind person to use. Instead of making a device specifically for the blind, make a thermostat in the millions (which would keep its cost way down), and its raised markings would be usable by blind purchasers.
I bought a phone-answering machine that is generally available for under $100. It was not produced for blind people, but all of its programming has voice output for the user's convenience.
One of my greatest frustrations about high tech is that none of the personal computers, particularly the IBM PC, is what I would call user-friendly. It's not the kind of thing an unsophisticated, non-machine-oriented person can sit down with and feel comfortable using. It doesn't talk when it's supposed to. It gives you cryptic responses like "C:\>." Nobody needs to know or understand that C:. People who have to use computers for their jobs must spend weeks and months learning about operating and screen review systems.
With the advances we have made in programming and artificial intelligence, it should be simple to do away with this nonsense. This problem is endemic in the larger sighted market as well. People will demand that computers give them what they want without their having to program it. One day my wife, who says she will not use a computer until hell freezes over, should be able to sit in front of a computer and never notice that she's using one, just like her microwave oven.
The consumer's primary role in technology development is to tell people who are working in the field what we want. But whatever technology is developed must have reasonable pricing as a primary goal. I appreciate the Foundation's developing a $200 talking thermometer, if my job depends on using it. But a person who just needs a thermometer to read her kid's temperature probably won't want to pay $200. There's got to be a way to get that cost way down so that we don't always wind up paying more for ordinary day-to-day appliances than sighted folks do.
Finally I want to say that a key consideration in any technology development for blind people is what kind of image it projects. If the technology reinforces the old attitudes that the public usually has about the incompetence of the blind and tends to encourage blind people to be helpless, it's not, in my opinion, good technology. If not, at least it has one thing going for it that would indicate that it's good.
And I give you back four minutes, Dr. Jernigan.
Dr. Wiener began the discussion section of the afternoon by commenting on Dr. Cranmer's speech:
Dr. Wiener: I was just at the International Mobility Conference in Madrid. While in discussion with Don Parks, inventor of the NOMAD, a slate map that can be programmed with a voice synthesizer, I mentioned I'd be at this conference and asked what technology he'd recommend as the most helpful. He responded that some kind of device that would generate a solid dot outline would be useful--something similar to the Pixelmaster, which, as Dr. Cranmer said, is going out of production. It must be easily combined with a computer, as the Pixelmaster is. Don went on, "Something that would be even more helpful would be a pen that would draw a raised line." He told me that there was a pen at one time, made by a French company, I think. He said, "It wasn't terribly good, but it did the job." That has been lost to us, too.
One more point, on the need for getting more input from consumers: As part of our process of getting ready for this conference, we have put a survey out to AER and NFB members. Euclid Herie says CNIB has circulated a similar survey based on the same questionnaire. Later on we'll share the results. One of the top priorities we're finding is that consumers, while they are very grateful for the reading machines and the optical character recognition (OCR) technology, are saying that the readers need to be more flexible and able to do more things. The idea of a full-page Braille display is something that would be beneficial to everybody, so I concur with Dr. Cranmer's remarks, and I think we're right on target.
Dr. Jernigan then distributed both Braille and print copies of a proposed resolution for group consideration. Here is the text:
WHEREAS, library service and its related components of materials and delivery have become central issues in the lives of blind people in today's information-oriented society; and
WHEREAS, many publications cover the issues of blindness, but no national or international publication deals specifically with library service, its innovations, developments, and technologies; now, therefore,
BE IT RESOLVED by the participants in the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, meeting at the National Center for the Blind in Baltimore, Maryland, this nineteenth day of September, 1991, that a void presently exists in the field of blindness, which would be filled by an ongoing publication, such publication to be a high-quality, scholarly effort that would make significant contributions to the body of knowledge presently available to the world of librarianship; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress be urged to pursue the establishment of such an international journal, to be published at least annually, which would include articles on topics related to library service for blind and physically handicapped individuals in the areas of Braille, audio, and service-related developments and technologies; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that such a publication should be planned and overseen by a Board of Editors broadly representative of the blindness field, the publication to seek and consider submissions from all parts of the field in all countries in the interest of providing an arena for wide-ranging viewpoints; and
BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) of the Library of Congress be asked to implement the provisions of this resolution.
A motion to adopt was moved and seconded, and after a brief discussion it passed unanimously.
Dr. Cranmer then made an announcement. A new device by Sony called the Dataman is now available. It is a hand-held, battery-operated device which stores on a disc and then reads one hundred digitized paperback books. Elliot Schreier reports that AFB will modify it.
Dr. Spungin: To my mind, the most important need that came out of all the speeches was the need for vendors to share with each other the products they're working on so that they can avoid duplication and keep costs down. I think there must be ways to do that, to share. We at AFB have been burned on several occasions in that we did start something and dropped it because another producer was also working on it. Then they dropped the project. There has to be a way of preventing the expense of start-up costs twice over or three times, if one of the two original producers finally manufactures the item. If we could pool our ideas and decide what was needed and persuade vendors that we would buy a product that met the specs we drew up, we would conserve resources for everyone.
Dr. Jernigan: Let me combine two things--what you, Dr. Spungin, just said with what Dr. Cranmer said earlier. Suppose we in this group--and we have represented here an overwhelming number of the U.S. and Canadian decision-makers in the blindness field--were to pool the collective force of our buying power. We could do one of two things, it seems to me.
We could: 1) pool research efforts and parcel them out, and/or 2) set standards. One group could be assigned to do research in a given area; and, more to the point, we could set up standards for what we want: We would like this and this, and the vendor who will produce to these standards will get our business--and we'll recommend that product to all of our groups. That's a possibility! If we did that, the vendors would come along quickly, because that's where the money would be.
Mr. Edwards then commented that he thought there was a need for a Braille-scanning device that would read single-sided and interpoint Braille into a computer. One has been developed in Europe, but it does not yet work well. He offered to discuss this idea further with interested participants.
He also mentioned the problem of technology warranties that are too expensive for individual blind purchasers to maintain. Some attention should be given to this problem.
He said that new computer technology should not move blind users further away from the mainstream of computer users. This has happened in recent years with the advent of products that are not interfaceable.
Finally, Mr. Edwards said, everyone must put pressure on vendors to provide documentation for both adaptive and mainstream software in accessible formats. Every product on the market should have an ASCII file version of the documentation available on disc to any purchaser if he or she wants it.
Mr. Cylke raised the question of whether what Dr. Spungin proposed was possible. The free market demands that competitors fight until one knocks out the other in the competition to create a particular product. It may be impossible for consumers and service providers to arrange the kind of producer cooperation that would seem to be most sensible and efficient. Curtis Chong's notion that persuading producers to modify products slightly so that blind people can use those sold to the general public is the ideal model. But the most important thing is to establish a consensus about what is needed. Mr. Cylke continued by commenting that Paul Edwards had said that a Braille scanner is necessary. Maybe it is, but maybe not. However, this group ought to be able to determine in broad terms what is most important, less important, and least important. Then we can approach the producers to persuade them to modify their products. At this conference some attention should be paid to the way in which actual consumer preferences can be determined.
Dr. Jernigan asked Bill Wiener to discuss the AER survey that was recently conducted.
Dr. Wiener: In the spring of 1990, a questionnaire was developed from submissions by the Joint Organizational Effort (JOE) Committee and was written by Toni Heinze (past president of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired) to find out what the service providers and consumers felt was important.
The process is not complete yet. We still have surveys coming in from NFB members every day. But let me share with you a little bit of the findings.
Approximately 121 AER members returned surveys; NFB members returned 283. Approximately 400 people responded. There were eleven open-ended questions. In most cases people were listing what they felt was most important in the area of technology. Toni and I put together a list of about twenty items to summarize the widely varied responses:
1. Better, more flexible, cheaper scanners (reading machines) should be produced for reading books. If possible, they should be portable.
2. Computer graphic displays should be accessible through Braille and speech. Use of icons in programs like Windows makes the miserable C-prompt look user-friendly by comparison because the icons are not easily translatable to speech or Braille and constitute a step away from accessible technology.
3. Adaptations in many common appliances are needed--color contrast, Braille markings, or the addition of speech.
4. Consumers want adaptations in computers--cheaper lap tops with Braille and speech and more software options.
5. Catalogs in Braille and speech, especially those on new technology items, should be produced.
6. Respondents called for a consumer perspective in product evaluation and consumer ideas to provide for applications.
7. A lending service for aids, appliances, and other devices to provide hands-on trials was a very popular idea.
8. Some respondents called for expanded radio reading services.
9. Respondents want service information by toll-free number. The goal is fewer delays in obtaining and repairing items.
10. Fully accessible, easily understood manuals for new appliances should be available in Braille or on computer disk.
11. Adapted, accessible, cost-effective health aids are needed, especially blood sugar monitors and insulin gauges with Braille or speech.
12. TDDs and TTYs with Braille input/output are needed.
13. Deaf-blind people need writing and editing devices.
14. Consumers want CCTVs and other optical devices that are better, more efficient, lighter weight, and even self-focusing.
15. People want better, more available transportation. This subject came up consistently even though it wasn't on the questionnaire, but many people were reporting that transportation was keeping them out of the mainstream.
16. Some respondents would like to operate equipment by spoken command.
17. Much more Braille and synthetic speech should be available, e.g., talking signs with locations, signs that give prices in stores, and VCRs that speak.
18. Consumers want more use of CD-ROM.
19. Automatic teller machines and point-of-sale machines should be made much more accessible. Respondents object to membranes on the keypads.
20. And to show there's lots of creativity out there, respondents suggested self-mixing chocolate chip cookies and a robot self-driven car.
A lot of the items that people asked for are already on the market. Our information delivery system isn't really connecting. What we have put together here is a starting point. There are too many open-ended questions.
One of the Canadian participants reported that the CNIB has sixty returned questionnaires in hand at the moment, which report the same information. The main things are affordability and accessibility. Many respondents want a trial/loaner program. It's clear they don't know what's already out there.
TECHNOLOGY PRODUCERS PRESENT THEIR VIEWS: THE FIRST PANEL
Dr. Jernigan introduced the Friday morning, September 20, session of the U.S./Canada Technology Conference by announcing that in order to allow everyone on the agenda to speak and still leave time for discussion and vendor demonstrations in the Braille and Technology Center, he would be forced to hold the clock on each presenter. He pointed out that this conference was a historic event because it was the first time that virtually all the producers, vendors, service providers, and consumer representatives were gathered under one roof, talking to each other. For the first time those with the power and the perspective to make decisions were exchanging ideas, contemplating joint activity, and getting to know one another.
He then introduced the morning's first speaker, Tony Schenk, president of Enabling Technologies.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Portrait of Tony Schenk.]
Mr. Schenk: My company specializes in the development of Braille embossers and Braille production equipment. In the late 60s company founders developed a very small, very portable, attache-case-sized device to help a blind engineer on staff. It produced Braille on a paper tape strip, and it evolved into the first full page embosser, the LED 120--a real workhorse through most of the 70s. This provided access to Braille production and to computer programming and other applications that had not been previously available to the blind.
The next step was the development of high-speed embossing products. We produced two early devices, funded in development through contracts with the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS). The first was the heavy plate- embossing device, the PED 30, designed to expedite the production of the zinc metal plate masters for press Braille, used to produce most Braille books.
The second was our high-speed interpoint Braille embosser, the TED 600. Projects of this type are really not feasible to develop on an entrepreneurial basis because it typically takes one to two years for orders to begin coming in and there are relatively few orders in this small corner of the technology market. Development requires some assistance either from grants or from large organizations.
The experience gained from the initial project can then be applied to devices that are lighter, more portable, and higher speed due to modern components and assembly processes. But the same basic limitations apply: lower-speed devices use less power and can sometimes use batteries; higher speed devices require a great deal more power and more attention in order to run.
Technology purchasers should not allow economic considerations alone to determine which machines they buy. We hate to see anyone buy a machine that is too small for the requirements being placed on it.
One thing we'd like to hear from a group such as this is feedback on our new products. We have three in development right now. It takes one to one-and-a-half years for us to design and bring a new product to market. Your demand for it can change in that time. But the high cost of development can be offset in many cases by strong commitment in the field itself to staying with the new product designs in which interest was originally expressed.
I am curious, for example: Would you prefer a single embosser with high speed, high performance (300 characters per second), at $40,000 or two devices, 150 characters per second, but $20,000 for the pair? One advantage with multiple devices is more up time during maintenance procedures.
Dr. Jernigan then asked Mr. Schenk if he was in a position to describe some of the things Enabling Technologies has on the drawing board. Mr. Schenk said that they are at the high end of the production scale--heavy-duty, rapid-production embossers.
Dr. Jernigan then pointed out that it is hard for would-be purchasers to commit to particular products or express preferences without knowing what a manufacturer is planning. If the producer is loath to give any details, then there is no way of breaking into the current circle, and the manufacturers will have to be content with rolling the dice. Dr. Jernigan then made a comment in passing to the effect that some interest had been expressed in finding ways to establish standards so that some technology could be interchangeable as it is not today. He suggested that the consumers and providers at this meeting are certainly interested in considering the pooling of buyer resources and greater commitment to purchasing future equipment.
Dr. Jernigan then introduced Dr. James Bliss, President of TeleSensory of Mountain View, California.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Portrait of James Bliss.]
Dr. Bliss: I'd like to thank the NFB and the Joint Organizational Effort Committee for bringing us all together. A meeting like this has been needed for some time.
The conference materials suggest that our objective is to insure the availability of useful and necessary high- and low- technology items that enable blind people to be independent. This is particularly important in an era of budget-cutting that threatens some technology development and in an era of software advances that threaten blind people's access to information. I would like to describe several areas in which we can all take action that would produce significant results.
1) Financing: The Optacon, which we introduced twenty years ago, ushered in a new era. In the early 70s, when we began distributing Optacons, very few blind people were in office jobs. Government policy for job accommodation meant many Optacons were bought by state departments of education. Fifteen years later, when we produced the Optacon II, we found the most eager new customers were past users; however, now they were employed people and not clients of state vocational rehabilitation agencies. They still needed assistance with their purchases. Fortunately, as the result of a gift we were able to offer a financing plan with a subsidized interest rate that was very successful. There have been other such plans, but there is still a great need out there. I believe that banks and other lending institutions discriminate in this kind of loan. When they hear that it is for a piece of technology for a blind person, they are afraid of the negative publicity if they were to repossess, so they refuse to make the loan, which is a form of discrimination.
I think that, if we work together, we could solve this problem; and that would certainly improve the availability of technology for blind people.
2) Training, Service, and Technical Support: These are really critical. They are expensive, and too often they are not taken seriously enough at the beginning. But if the new user is not trained properly and if the equipment is not maintained, everyone will be disappointed, and a downward spiral will begin. The Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) will open up new jobs as it comes on line, especially if we can provide training and technical support for the necessary adaptive equipment.
3) Reimbursement Loopholes: The largest group affected is senior citizens. Closed-circuit technology advances, even in the last year or so, have resulted in enhanced effectiveness. In many cases this is becoming the best approach to solving their reading and writing problems, but vendors are reaching only a small segment of the population who would benefit from this technology. Canada is ahead of us in developing a reimbursement system. I believe, if we can agree that this is a worthwhile cause, a joint effort of service providers, consumers, and vendors would have a good chance of getting reimbursement for this kind of equipment, perhaps through Medicare.
Deaf-blind people constitute a reimbursement problem at the other end of the scale. There are very few of them, but they have an immense need for face-to-face and telephone communication. But since employment is not likely to be a result, rehabilitation funds are not readily available for meeting the need. Some years ago we produced the TeleBraille, but because the population is so small, we had to have a grant to support the project. The second model of the TeleBraille came out this year, and development was only possible with help from the Smith-Kettlewell Foundation. There is a critical need for this technology, but it is effectively available only in certain states. In California, through funding from telephone billing, money is available for reimbursing the cost of such communications devices for deaf people. Very few other states provide anything comparable.
5) State Sales Tax: This is an inequity because it all depends on chance and where the manufacturer is located. Some states exempt products for people with some other disabilities. Exempting this equipment from sales tax is probably the quickest, most significant way the cost of devices could be reduced. Whenever vocational rehabilitation agencies are paying for equipment that includes sales tax, the Federal government is putting money directly into state coffers instead of into rehabilitation equipment.
Tim Cranmer's paper is excellent. He mentioned a number of the technology challenges that lie ahead. I'd add access to the graphical user interface and the trend toward multimedia in presenting information, which includes audio, visual displays, and animation. This will be an opportunity and a super challenge for us. We have a lot ahead of us, and I really like seeing the cooperation.
Dr. Jernigan: The NFB recently inaugurated a technology loan fund, which is chaired by Curtis Chong. We began it with a rather modest amount of $30,000. We charge 3% interest, and we don't try to set the same standards banks do. We intend to put at least what we would regard as massive new infusions of cash into that fund.
The NFB is also establishing a technology museum. We have an LED 120 in there, and we have one of Dr. Bliss's early machines. We invite anyone to put technology into the National Braille and Technology Center, and all of you are invited to make use of that Center. You may come and demonstrate your equipment in comparison with any competitor's product, or you are welcome to come and hold conferences or meetings here. We'll provide facilities at no charge to you. We make the Center available as a base for teaching purposes. We also have David Andrews on the staff. He is becoming knowledgeable in all the technology we have as fast as he can. We'll be glad to respond by phone to people who may want to ask questions about evaluation or raise other technology issues.
Before introducing the next speaker, Dr. Jernigan again mentioned the idea of consumers and providers pooling their funds to affect the technology-production choices being made. The other possibility might be to expand the funds available for low-interest technology loans. He warned that the group should not leave without making some tentative decisions that would put flesh and bone to its ideas.
Dr. Jernigan then said: The next speaker is Dr. Raymond Kurzweil, member of the Board of Directors and Executive Committee of Xerox Imaging Systems and Chairman of Kurzweil Applied Intelligence, Inc. He has made considerable contribution to this field. The Kurzweil Reader, shall I say, speaks for itself.
Dr. Kurzweil: I'll be brief. One lesson I learned through my association with the NFB is that technology is an enabling force, for it assists in access to knowledge. We're now entering what I sometimes call the Second Industrial Revolution, in which machines have become amplifiers of our mental abilities. Knowledge and learning information are really the cornerstones of wealth and power, so equal access to information is crucial to being competitive in society today. We should use technology only where it's necessary. Throughout my career in this field, there have been flurries of interest in mobility devices, and I've always felt that the ordinary cane, which is technologically simple, is, in fact, very sophisticated and sufficient for the job.
Let me cite another lesson that I have learned from my association with the NFB, which I've incorporated extensively in my career, both in technology for the disabled and outside that field: Let users design the product.
My experience with the Kurzweil Reading Machine will illustrate my point. I had a crude prototype of the KRM when I approached NFB for funding. Dr. Jernigan said that he thought it was worthwhile. He said, "We'll help you out, but we want something in return. That is, we want to design your product. We want to set up an independent testing program, and we're not just going to test the machine off in a corner somewhere and send you a report that you will file away. We will want our people to move in and direct your research and development and design the product."
We thought that was interesting but didn't know what it would entail. We proceeded with it anyway. Together with the NFB, we raised about a quarter of a million dollars. Michael Hingson of the NFB ran the testing, and other members were actively involved. Essentially they set the priorities for our research and development effort. We felt that we had designed the product to be useable and discovered that was not the case. Some of the assumptions we made were quite erroneous because we were not going to be users of the machine and therefore did not approach it in the same way. One of the first things Michael Hingson said was "These Braille-labeled keys have to go. We're going to be using this machine constantly; we don't need Braille labels." As a result of consumer involvement, we developed a way of navigating the keys through voice and made their organization more logical. Priorities were set for character recognition, for what kind of cues were needed in machine operation, and for keeping the user informed about machine functioning. The NFB developed a whole way of understanding the spatial layout of a page so that it could be articulated efficiently.
The machine was really transformed. It's now been through five generations, but the user interface is really the same one the NFB originally defined. I've used the lesson I learned with the KRM. It has become my trademark; users should design the product. Technologists can develop a prototype, but to convert that into a finished product, which is where 80% of the money goes, you need to be guided by the people who are going to use it.
One of my new endeavors uses speech recognition. This is the opposite idea from the KRM. It converts speech into text. This can be a print display for the deaf or Braille for a deaf-blind person. We plan to incorporate users in the design of this equipment.
My recommendation for this group is the adoption of formal testing programs in the early stages of design. This does not mean that the manufacturer says, "Oh yeah, we have a couple of blind employees, and they're going to help us test this machine." It means a formal testing program with an outside organization empowered to represent the intended consumers. And it should have an independent influence on the market. In this particular marketplace, the NFB was very well positioned because it was a strong independent organization, clearly influential in this area. As a result, the members of the testing group had clout with our engineers, so they and our marketing people followed the consumer recommendations.
I'd like to see specific funding created to encourage more of this kind of interaction. It's crucial. I attribute a lot of the success of the Kurzweil Reading Machine to that experience.
Another key point is financing. We've developed an innovative program through the generosity of the American Foundation for the Blind and Xerox. This loan fund made $2,000,000 available at four percent for long-term loans, and credit requirements are less stringent than going to an ordinary bank.
I sat last night at dinner next to Elliot Schreier, who oversees this program at the AFB. He gave me the remarkable statistic that not only have there been no defaults so far in this program, but no late payments. Pretty incredible!
The loan fund has clearly been helpful. It distresses me that more people can't access this equipment. However, here's a remarkable fact: anything based on silicon technology drops in price by half every eighteen months. It's an eleven-percent reduction every three months, and that remarkable phenomenon is continuing.
Dr. Jernigan mentioned standardization. I think that's crucial. Increasingly these machines will interact with each other: a reading machine connected to a PC to other information-based services to a portable Braille display to a Braille embossing device. We need to establish clear standards on how this information should be exchanged.
Finally, I would call for research on mastering graphic user interfaces. We've mastered character-based display. Graphic user interfaces like the Macintosh and Windows present more of a challenge because there is more information and it's not in characters. I've seen some innovative research in which various acoustic signals are used, but more work needs to be done.
Dr. Jernigan: Now I want to introduce Deane Blazie, President of Blazie Engineering. He also has a long and honorable record in this field. I think that he is more responsive to the wishes, needs, and opinions of consumers than many producers.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Deane Blazie speaking into a microphone. CAPTION: Deane Blazie.]
Mr. Blazie: I'd like to talk about technology for the blind: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. To get a better idea of where we can go as a group, it's important to look at yesterday. My involvement began in 1963. I was in high school and was asked to work for Tim Cranmer. Tim and I lived in the same town, and we were both ham radio operators. At a club meeting he asked if I wanted to work for him on Saturdays. So I did, for the next six or seven years. This was also my first introduction to the NFB. I remember, in 1963, talking with Tim. One of the things he told me was that he attributed his success in life more to the NFB than to any other thing. I think today's a good example of the continued force that the NFB is in this field.
In 1968 I sold Page Markers, which put a low frequency tone on tapes. At that time they were made by hand. I must have made twenty or thirty of them. In 1974 we sold audio-tactile stop watches with a Braille display, another invention of Dr. Cranmer's.
In 1976 I started Maryland Computer Services. In 1977 we introduced the first talking telephone directory for the blind. It cost about $10,000, by the way. In 1978 we provided the TotalTalk, which was the first full speech talking terminal available. It was about $7,000. In 1982 TotalTalk II and Information Through Speech (ITS), which were essentially talking personal computers, came on the market, and they were about $12,000. In 1983 we introduced the Cranmer Modified Perkins Brailler, probably the first low-cost Braille printer available. In 1984 we introduced TotalTalk PC, $5,000. Notice how things are going down in price. In 1985 we introduced the VP, another talking computer, about $3,000.
In 1986 MCS ceased to exist and was sold to Enabling Technologies. At that point I started Blazie Engineering. All this gave me a new start without a lot of the baggage that we as a company had accumulated over our ten-year history. It gave me a new idea on pricing and a fresh look at marketing, which is most difficult in our field. One way to get prices down is by volume. I also developed new ideas on distribution channels.
In 1987 we introduced the Braille 'n Speak at the NFB convention. It sold for what it does now, about $900. It had more memory, is faster, and has better speech than any of the computers I just mentioned, including the $12,000 one. That shows how the prices came down in ten years.
I certainly agree with everyone that user input is absolutely necessary. In 1990 we introduced the Braille Blazer, an affordable Braille embosser with speech built in.
Today we're introducing for the first time in public the Braille 'n Speak 640. This has 640K of memory, is a little bit smaller, goes a little longer on its batteries, has more capability built in, and is priced proportionally to the old Braille 'n Speak.
Today a person can purchase a complete system including a Braille 'n Speak, a Braille embosser, an ink printer, and a modem, which gives access to virtually any information wanted in speech or Braille, for under $3,200. For kids in school it's phenomenal what a difference such a system can make in their lives. You can add a personal computer to that for less than $2,000, and you'll have even more.
What's coming tomorrow in 1992? I think there will be less expensive optical character recognition systems, the reading machines. By 1993 a device like the Braille 'n Speak with a Braille display that will sell for under $3,000 is possible. By 1995 a full-page Braille display could be here. There's been lots of talk, and it still isn't here, but it is going to happen.
I'd like to talk about what makes up the price of a product. For a typical product in this market thirty to forty percent of the cost, maybe less, is in the actual expense of building the product, the cost of goods. General administrative expenses are 20 to 30%. Sales and marketing costs account for about 30%.
If you have added that up, it doesn't leave a lot for profit. Typically we like to clear fifteen percent profit. I think right now, if you took all the companies in the industry and added all the profits, you would have a negative number. For this past year it would definitely be a negative number. If a person does make a profit, it's 5% or less. That's a problem.
There are some things we as vendors can do about the manufacturing on our own. We can plan for volume as we did with the Braille Blazer instead of building one or two. We designed the product to make it inexpensive. When we built the Braille 'n Speak, we did not use bent metal cases but injection molded plastic ones. It cost a lot of money in the beginning for the mold. If you're willing to spend ten or twenty or thirty thousand dollars for an injection mold, you'll save a lot of money over the life of the product. With the Braille 'n Speak, the case was $30 apiece early on, but now it is about $1.25.
We can use off-shore labor, which costs much less. We can work a lot smarter: design things to be easier and less expensive to build. Instead of four circuit boards, the Braille 'n Speak has just one.
To keep general administration costs down, we can locate in low cost areas. Keep the company lean and simple. I learned from Maryland Computer Services; it's easy to hire a lot of people who don't really produce. Keep your employees happy; employee turnaround costs a lot.
Marketing is about thirty percent of our costs, but it should be 18%. That's what it is in the wider industry for marketing products like ours. But this is a difficult market to reach. You can help us figure out ways to reduce that cost. The NFB Technology Center is a big help. A lot of people come through here every day and see that equipment. It's a great way to reduce our marketing costs because we don't have to make individual sales calls. Canada's a good example; it is a very difficult place to market because it is so huge with a low population density. The CNIB centers could be great demonstration points.
You could help us publicize our products in your publications. You can help us distribute literature about our products. I know it's up to us to give you the literature, but you could make that space available to us.
You can help us fight injustice, when we know government agencies are buying equipment that they really don't want and that the users don't want, but some sighted people in those agencies make a deal with some vendors and buy the equipment anyway. The NFB is certainly fighting that.
You can hold us accountable for our products. If you get a bad product from us, send it back. Don't moan and groan about it- -demand a refund. Don't put up with bad support or bad service.
Financing like the NFB loan fund and the AFB fund is a great idea. That's the single greatest detriment to consumers' buying our products. A lot of people just can't afford to buy them. I think that co-op research and development's a great idea, if we can find a way to work around problems of competition.
One last note: sales tax--we don't have to charge any because we're located in Maryland, where there is no sales tax on products for the blind. Many states do this, but vendors don't know it and charge the tax.
Dr. Jernigan: Here's an example of a very simple technology problem. Somebody asked us to get him a checkerboard, a very simple thing. It's been available for hundreds of years. We looked around and found a man making them by hand and charging $28 per board. I thought, this is crazy. Let's go get some injection molding and turn out checkerboards by the thousands, so we will have that problem, at least, solved forever. So I talked with a guy. He said for $30,000-plus, he could make a mold, then for some more cash he could make chess pieces. I went downstairs to our Materials Center. They said we sell twenty or twenty-five boards a year. And I said to myself, is it because they cost $28 or because people don't want them? We didn't put the $30,000 into this project. Call it low tech if you want to, but a checker board has brought a great deal of comfort to many through the years. I'd be glad to have a good one. I give you that to think about.
Another thing to think about is what Deane Blazie said. A number of us here have publications. Our Braille Monitor circulation is now just over 30,000 a month. We could systematically put in more advertising. If all of us here wished to, we could all publish more about technology.
David Holladay (President, Raised Dot Computing): Very, very good points. Every time a new product comes out, for about six months the whole field watches to see if someone else will be the first to buy it, evaluate it, and report how good it is. One thing the NFB Technology Center could do is evaluate a new product and pass the word quickly. After a long time in development, there's a need for someone to speed up and get sales going.
In terms of interchangeability, Braille embossers are an exception to the general rule. You can pull one out and put another in without much difficulty.
Vendors should recognize the curve of user purchasing. The first wave of buyers are the technically advanced; the next wave have medium abilities; and finally comes the wave of raw beginners. Every time a new product comes out, no matter what manuals or tutorials the producer has prepared for it, six months to one year later the vendor must be ready for the next wave. It is a constant struggle to produce a continuing stream of additional and supplemental items to get ready for the next wave of purchasers with less and less technical skill.
Dr. Jernigan: Your point is well taken. Everybody waits months for someone else to do the evaluation. If it would be helpful, we and the Foundation could do something along the lines of publishing evaluations no more than two months after the product had been placed in the Braille and Technology Center.
A discussion on when an evaluation should be made widely publicized followed.
Susan Melrose (Chairman of Division 5 of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired) said that there is a way to work with vendors rather than acting as an evaluator to attack them. That is, the first evaluation ought to go to the vendor and not to a publication. If improvements are not made, then the evaluation can go out to consumers.
Mr. Andrews (Director, National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind) and Mr. Edwards (First Vice President, ACB) argued that once the producer has put a product on the market, negative publicity is fair if the product deserves it. The consumer has a right to know before wasting his money.
Dr. Jernigan: We would propose to behave somewhat like the Underwriters Laboratory. The purpose of this National Technology Center for the Blind is honestly to evaluate as objectively as we can the technology that comes. I had a discussion with Mr. Andrews, which he can confirm, concerning a piece of technology, and I said, "It doesn't matter what we think about the individual. It doesn't matter what we think about anybody's attitude or anything else. If this thing is good, we ought to say it's good; if it is bad, we ought to say it's bad."
One more thing: if we're going to give a good evaluation, I suppose the vendor doesn't care whether he gets early notice; but it would make sense to say to the vendor: here is what we're going to say; do you want to make a response to this? But I would not be willing to pull punches.
Dr. Cranmer spoke in support of the NFB's making early evaluations. He suggested that the NFB should also routinely make space available in the Braille Monitor for announcements of new technology without evaluation.
Dr. Kurzweil stated that as a vendor he finds it perfectly appropriate for a consumer group to publicize their evaluations once a product is offered for sale. He suggested that the NFB offer vendors a chance to bring it prototypes for evaluation on a confidential basis to help the vendor perfect an item before it is offered for sale.
Dr. Cranmer invited the vendors to take advantage of the input of the NFB's Research and Development Committee on a confidential basis, using non-disclosure agreements, to protect their proprietary interests--but only if the machine is a prototype in the development stage.
Mr. Blazie replied to a question by Mr. Cylke about the technology for a full-page Braille display by saying that at the NFB's convention last summer, Blazie Engineering showed a twenty- cell prototype of a display that worked on pneumatics (air pressure) to push pins up and down. If this works, it could make a very, very low cost Braille display. He explained that his small company would need a lot of additional money to finish this research project. Dr. Jernigan suggested that financing could be found if there were a real prospect of a full-page Braille display.
Based on his experience in Canada, Graham Stoodley (Chairman of the Technology Subcommittee of the National Client Service Committee of the CNIB) spoke in favor of early evaluations. He asked if consumers were involved in the beta testing, whether they could be as objective in the final evaluation.
Messrs. Chong and Halliday explained that alpha testing is that done inside the laboratory, and beta testing is that done by a select group of end users. Mr. Chong called beta testing very important to consumers because it eliminates the most obvious bugs.
Dr. Jernigan commented that he knew more about the Greek alphabet than he did about computers, and with that comment the group paused for a coffee break.
TECHNOLOGY PRODUCERS PRESENT THEIR VIEWS: THE SECOND PANEL
After a mid-morning coffee break, conferees reassembled to hear presentations by the second panel of vendors. Dr. Jernigan introduced Frank DiPalermo, Product Planner for IBM Special Needs Systems, from Boca Raton, Florida.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Portrait of Frank DiPalermo.]
Mr. DiPalermo: When Dr. Jernigan called, he asked me to cover two topics: what is IBM doing in technology development for people with disabilities (past, present, and future), and what can consumer groups and service providers do to aid in the development of technology?
I am currently responsible for what we do in product development in the area of blindness and vision impairments. Other people there are working on other disability groups. Rather than reading a litany of IBM-produced products, I'd like to share with you the philosophy that we have started to accumulate over the past five years or so in the area of accessibility. It's really very simple. A good access product should be smart enough to understand how the computer program works and provide the user with the same output as sighted co-workers see on their screens, and this accommodation should happen automatically. Everyone may not agree with this concept, but I think that to be competitive, a user really has to sit in the same environment as co-workers, doing approximately the same things with the same efficiency. Our current access program, IBM Screen Reader, attempts to deal with the material on the screen automatically and as rapidly as possible.
Our next challenge, of course, is the graphical user interface (GUI). Complicated technical problems face developers, but our task is to do the complicated things for the user so he or she is doing the same things as sighted co-workers. In this new environment it isn't necessary to remember commands; help is easily available; and all programs are running at the same time on the same screen. But in the process the text mode has been replaced by pictures. The character recognition system that the screen review programs have used may eventually prove to be the right way to approach decoding these pictures, but for the moment fast access to these graphics is simply not available. Five or six years from now we may decide that another method holds more promise.
We're involved right now in beta testing. We have about forty people out there whose jobs were in jeopardy. I had been keeping a list. Some six months ago, when we felt our prototype was ready, we contacted them to ask if they wanted to be on the bleeding edge, so to speak. We now have thirty-eight people around the world using our prototype in everyday jobs.
I think we're lucky in this field because people who are blind are generally vocal. So we're really getting our GUI screen review program to the point where it's completely usable.
I'd like to finish with a statement made by Jay McCarthy, who works for J.C. Penney in Dallas. He called the other day to say that after four months of this testing he's finally reached a point where he feels he's more efficient than in the days when he used only DOS.
I don't consider ours a field that has dog-eat-dog competition. I know IBM is very careful not to talk to DEC or to Lotus in normal dealings because they're competitors. However, in our case I have no problem in spending time with anyone. In the past year I've visited many vendors, and recently we asked vendors who provide refreshable Braille products if there's some way to provide that output as soon as possible with our graphical user interface. We'll try to use the prototype we've built and see if with some additional activity on both sides we can provide the graphical user interface with both speech and Braille output.
Now for part two: There are a couple of things I would like to ask consumer groups and service agencies to do, and I hope I don't offend anyone. First, get familiar with the technology. It's very important that those who recommend purchases know as much as possible about what's available. I challenge vendors to make that information available through seminars, conferences, and other means. I've been to perhaps 100 conferences in the last couple of years. I've seen other vendors there, so the information is available. Go and learn. People's jobs are on the line, and they deserve accurate advice about the equipment and software they need.
Second, get involved in what we call the requirements process--knowing what's needed. It's the basis of product development. At IBM we've been very open. Our prototype is shown everywhere; I brought one with me today. I would be happy to demonstrate it in the Technology Center later. We try very hard to do the proper homework up front so that, when we do present the product, it's not a disaster. I would challenge you to get involved in that process. Contact the producers--make sure you know what's going on. And I'll start you off with my name as the right person to talk to at IBM.
Understand the tradeoffs. Research is very costly, especially new hardware. Features may be missing, not because we don't understand that they are important, but because they are too costly to develop.
Concerning a full-page Braille display, remember with new computers you may have six windows on the screen, each having twenty-five lines and eighty characters. One of the things that comes with graphics is the ability to size the fonts. Obviously people using our prototype make their fonts as small as possible. They could care less; they're not going to look at them anyway, and the screen reader doesn't care how big the font is. Therefore, the more information they can stuff on the screen at one time, the more efficient they are. So I'm not sure that the full-page Braille display is going to be the way to go. If we are to have a tactile display, we need to step back and consider what form that should take. We should forget the limitations of today's technology, dream up whatever we need, and let the developers try to produce it.
Dr. Jernigan: I think we're talking about two different kinds of Braille display: one to show what's on the computer screen and one to display the text of a document. I don't know which one Deane Blazie was talking about.
Mr. Blazie: A display of a Braille page in a typical press Braille book--forty characters by twenty-five lines.
Dr. Jernigan then introduced the next presenter, James Halliday, President of Humanware, Inc. of Loomis, California.
Mr. Halliday: I have copies of my speech in large print and in Braille. [The text of Mr. Halliday's prepared remarks appears elsewhere in this issue.] I've come to love this industry. It's really exciting to be in a room with all the fathers of the various aspects of the industry. Peter Merrill looked around the room last night and said to me, "Where are the kids?" Some people think of us as the old men!
Dr. Jernigan asked me to talk about the future of technology. How can I do that without going back to the past, the foundation that we have built on? Jim Bliss had the guts to go out there twenty years ago at the birth of this industry and start a company just to build products for those who are blind. All those other companies developed then in the '70s. It was helpful to have clearly delineated which company did what. If someone wanted speech, we'd refer them to MCS; if they wanted a portable reading device or a portable Braille device, we sent them to TSI; if they wanted a Braille embosser, we'd refer them to Triformation; if they wanted a reading machine, we'd refer them to Kurzweil. There were wonderful options.
Then when the '80s hit, three major things happened, and they were pretty devastating to the stability that had been established in the industry.
1) The federal government cut funds for social services. Suddenly there was less funding for vocational rehabilitation and education. To reduce the price of the product, we made reductions in training and support services and tutorial manuals. We started to lose some of the support necessary to the industry.
2) We all began fighting for the same dollars, so competition became fierce, sometimes even cutthroat. That meant that people began cutting prices, and one of the most obvious ways to do that is to cut costs, which means eliminating training, support, support materials, and tutorial manuals. Everybody began selling everybody else's products.
3) IBM introduced its personal computer, which brought about a revolutionary change in the consumer market. Our central goal became accessing the PC; the word "access" became the main thing. This opened up tremendous opportunities. Products that were designed for blind people only were called ghetto products, and they became less fashionable. The industry and consumers wanted access products, so ironically a gap developed. Just at the time that services were dropping out, our users were facing the need to learn, not only the access product, but also MS DOS and visually-oriented application programs. This required more training than ever before, and training was gone.
In this country and Canada in the '80s, speech became the access method of choice. Synthesizers became available at a low price. But in Europe, with its many languages, speech synthesizers were obviously not the solution. The Europeans developed ergonomically more usable Braille displays that became their preferred medium.
At the same time there were a few people who realized that the so-called ghetto product is absolutely vital, the talking notetaker, for example. I think the NFB gets a lot of credit for that, and so does Deane Blazie for turning the concept into the Braille 'n Speak. Training is not quite so essential because the user is not dealing with the visual dimensions as well as the software.
But it's important for this group to realize what's been lost in the last few years. Technology itself isn't the answer; learning to use the technology successfully and productively is. That means training, and tutorials or something that gets the technology effectively into the hands of the people who need it.
When Deane laid out the pricing, he was not really talking about training costs or post-sales service. Some products require a tremendous amount of service, and it's a nightmare to provide the support. As soon as you have an access product that supports a hundred different kinds of software, nobody can know all of those programs. All this is happening when federal and state money is being reduced. Somewhere we have to find funding to subsidize training or increase prices to include it.
In the '80s agencies focused on the lowest cost bidder. As a result, the user who is left with a piece of hardware or software that is a nightmare to master has been the one to suffer. There's never been an opportunity like this for the group in this room to lobby in Washington against cutting these kinds of services. It may mean pooling our resources to find lobbyists who will work to make money available for the training and support needed. Or consumers and providers may have to insist that developers provide the necessary training, but you must understand that this will mean higher prices.
This industry is great. It is wonderful that the vendors are willing to get together where they can and cooperate. But all of us will have to see that funding is available to insure success for users and not just hardware.
Dr. Jernigan next introduced Mr. Mohymen Saddeek, President of Technology for Independence, Inc.
[PHOTO: Mohymen Saddeek speaks into a microphone. CAPTION: Mohymen Saddeek.]
Mr. Saddeek: Technology for Independence is a new company that is developing and distributing products for the blind. I'm not at liberty to discuss several new things that are being developed in conjunction with MIT and Harvard University. Let's wait until they're on the market, and then we can make noise about them.
This is a very important conference. Of course there's space for improvement. Better cooperation could be very, very useful. In such a small market, volume is very important. It makes companies such as ours avoid modification. Service also is very important, but the buyers sometimes overlook that and consider price only. For example, I was the president of Boston Information Technology Corp., which was liquidated after a struggle over a project to develop a talking wallet. That was costly and lengthy. About 150 talking wallets were produced and out on the market working, but the cooperation started to fall apart. The whole experience is something I can call a lesson.
But to get back to my main point, we also made the Talkman, a small four-track recorder. (One even had an AM and FM radio, too.) This product started in 1983; it was very popular. Blind consumers need advice over the phone. They are pretty vulnerable when a necessary device becomes available. So if someone bought a Talkman in '83 and used it until it was completely worn out, we said, allright, if you want to buy another one, we'll give you $60 credit. That is not just to make money. It goes along with a positive spirit, the belief in the goal of a company that is trying to sell in this market. You won't find a company in this market that will succeed if it's only looking for money. There's nothing wrong with making money; it just can't be the only thing. It becomes much easier for everyone if there are cooperation and appreciation for good service and good products. I haven't said a tenth of what I wanted to, but I will close by saying that I'll cooperate with anybody to serve blind consumers better and develop better products at lower cost.
Dr. Jernigan then introduced the final member of the panel, Dr. Lawrence H. Boyd, Principal and Director of Research for Berkeley Systems, Inc.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Portrait of Lawrence Boyd.]
Dr. Boyd: I'm outranked by my son, who is the president of the company and my partner. In many respects we are the new kids on the block. My comments reflect on something relevant to all of us, attitudes. My son and I jumped into this field without the kind of experience that I see around the table here. Our company literally came out of Trotsky's "advantages of backwardness." All of a sudden, there was a Macintosh computer with a graphical user interface (GUI) as the operating system; and, rather than seeing it as a disaster, we just assumed that this was a great opportunity.
We started a small company in 1985 with a simple idea: that we could provide a magnifier that would enlarge everything on the computer screen. Our product is called enLARGE.
Then, in cooperation with Jim Bliss and TSI, we provided access through the Optacon II to the Macintosh. Then we got into speech access through the product OutSPOKEN.
In brief, the three problems of the GUI are that: 1) It is based on a different operating system that renders the screen in pixels rather than characters. 2) It has a different navigating system which uses a mouse as its pointing system. 3) It uses icons or visual metaphors for representing information. The product OutSPOKEN solved these three problems, but it left some which still remain as gaps in the coverage of applications and in identifying icons.
In collaboration with the Trace Center in Wisconsin and with TeleSensory and Jim Bliss, Berkeley Systems, Inc., is working on a higher level of access through a cursor tablet, a virtual tablet, a tactile mouse, and several other things. We think an important decision is our idea to develop OutSPOKEN as a tool kit for third-party developers.
Our research starts with the assumption that the GUI is not a flat, two-dimensional display, but a spatial organization of information. The sighted person can't see around things, but you can hear around corners, or behind you. The question facing us is whether we can demonstrate that a blind person using the GUI is getting, not just the same level of access as before, but increased power and benefit, as does the sighted user of the GUI.
A few years ago Microsoft commissioned a study which proved the GUI is more efficient, provides more data, and is a system sighted people find faster to learn. We wish to conduct a study comparing the use of the GUI by sighted and blind people. We are soliciting questions to go into this survey.
About finances, Berkeley Systems is one of Deane Blazie's examples of a negative income. We developed enLARGE and then spun it off for mass market sales outside the blindness field. This was a product called SteppingOut, which was very well received and helped pay the rent. And we produce a mainstream product called AfterDark, which is essentially computer art.
We depend a great deal on SBIR grants, the National Eye Institute, etc. Getting the funding for that kind of research continues to be a problem.
Dr. Jernigan: the National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind probably has more accumulated comparative technology for demonstration than can be found anywhere else in the world and is getting more. We intend to have at least one of every kind of speech technology being made anywhere, and we already have almost every kind of Braille embosser. When we get that done, we intend to consider acquiring large-print technology as well.
If we find there's enough interest in doing so, we intend in the next year or year and a half to call another conference like this one. The National Center for the Blind would seem to be the sensible place to hold it because we plan to stay current with the technology. We have already put more than a half million dollars into our technology center, not counting the remodeling of the plant.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Five gentlemen stand and have a discussion in the conference room. CAPTION: During coffee breaks at the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind engrossing small-group discussions like the one pictured here took place wherever conferees met.]
When the floor was opened for comments and discussion, Mr. Blazie suggested that perhaps fewer rather than more technology conferences would be a good idea. Attending them and showing equipment costs vendors money, which results in higher prices to the consumer. But producers are afraid not to show up when the competition may be present. Mr. Blazie also spoke of the need for vendors to establish a code covering vendor arrangements at consumer conventions with the object of reducing their expenses. Being housed in separate buildings minimizes the usefulness of displays, and staying for an entire week rather than two or three days increases costs.
Dr. Wiener commented that the new IBM product, which he presumed was Presentation Manager, would not work in conjunction with Microsoft's Windows, a popular GUI program. He suggested that this group might band together to ask developers of software to keep the access problems of blind computer users in mind while they are writing programs so that such problems do not need to be solved at the end of the process when they are expensive and difficult to resolve.
Mr. DiPalermo said that he currently sees four major platforms that use the GUI: IBM's OS/2, the UNIX platform with X- Windows, the Macintosh, and Microsoft Windows. IBM originally intended to make all of these, except Macintosh, accessible. But although IBM approached Microsoft asking them to share information about how Windows works in order to make it available for blind end users, no cooperation developed. Dr. Boyd said that Berkeley Systems has worked with Microsoft, and he is hopeful that the BSI screen review program will make Windows accessible. Mr. DiPalermo reported that the OS/2 platform is now beginning to be accessible through the new IBM program; the Unix platform is taking a little longer, but in six to eight months IBM should be doing some beta testing on that application as well. In closing Mr. DiPalermo stressed that each one of the platforms needs to have some standard things put into it so that various access programs can be used with them as they are with DOS. He urged Dr. Boyd to encourage Microsoft to do that as he intends to do with IBM.
Concerning the problem that people don't know what's available, Mr. Holladay suggested that one solution would be to have a good international on-line database listing all the manufacturers and products, with access by modem and CD-ROM. He said that the same kind of network for ideas about what people need would also be useful. He spoke of a white paper developed by the Trace Center of Wisconsin which has guidelines for manufacturers setting out what is needed from designers and product planners for accessibility: what kinds of things could they put up front in the design process at a point when the cost is relatively low? He said often such revised designs increase the ergonomics for able-bodied users as well. Finally he complained that local technical centers are often ill-equipped to give consumers the best advice because they are familiar with the products of only one large provider. He would like to see improvement in the quality of advice that these centers offer.
Mr. Edwards said he thought training of blind technology consumers is critical. Blind users must know enough to make adjustments in their programs when they run into problems or need to access different kinds of material. There is much variety in the quality of training currently being provided to new computer users. He suggested that the field establish minimum competency standards for technology instructors in training centers. Otherwise he thought that we would soon face the same problem we have with Braille instruction; both are being taught by people who aren't qualified. As a result we will continue to produce technologically inept as well as Braille-illiterate blind people.
Ms. Melrose of AER warned that Division 5 has been struggling with certification for technologists for three years. She said that the huge variety of access equipment and programs makes it nearly impossible to decide on appropriate minimum competencies.
Dr. Dixon suggested that amid all the talk about establishing standards for evaluating instruction and technology there be some consideration of formulating standards for evaluation itself so that the same things (Does it have a manual? Is its format accessible?) are being assessed from product to product. Such information should be widely disseminated.
Dr. Spungin reinforced the importance of Dr. Dixon's remarks by pointing out that when the AFB was compiling a directory of training centers, they discovered early that there are lots of very small, disorganized, inadequate programs advertising themselves as training centers. Some effort should be made to standardize the breadth, quality, and thoroughness of training programs for blind technology users.
Mr. Holladay of Raised Dot Computing urged vendors to work very hard to insure that new purchasers learn to use their products effectively. He believes strongly that for every buyer who is happy with a purchase there are two who don't know what they are doing at all and three more who are barely getting by. Several potential users are watching each of these people and determining whether or not to jump into the computer revolution based on what they see. Most of the would-be market is being lost because of unfortunate experiences with equipment and software.
Jim Fruchterman, President of Arkenstone, Inc., said it was possible to use the commercial PC market as a model. Part of the reason much of the technology for the blind has been successful has been that versions of it have been used broadly in the wider computer market. The reason that the price of PC-based reading systems is dropping and will be $2,000 within two years is that scanners, PCs, and optical character recognition systems are in demand beyond the blindness market. The larger field has met and solved problems like training and standard-setting, and these solutions may help us. The commercial market is extremely price- driven, and when ordinary users don't pay for training and support, they don't get them. How do vendors tackle this issue? They keep the product simple. They write better manuals and use low-cost service such as 800 number support and third party training suppliers who sell the services. State rehabilitation agencies combine service and support with the other services they provide their clients. Part of the answer may be to offer extended (two- to-three-year) warranties.
With respect to the question of establishing standards, he said that there are many parallels between the general technology field and that of adaptive technology. Printers and scanners are a good example. Many applications require these pieces of equipment, and the way software purchasers have been able to use any of hundreds of printers and dozens of scanners is to employ either a printer driver or a scanner driver. Today a blind person can buy a reading machine that uses any one of fifteen scanners because a driver is available for each one. There is a real need for technology producers to develop universally useable drivers for synthesizers, Braille displays, and Braille printers. A lot of vendors are independently creating the same or similar solutions over and over again. Arkenstone has been developing generalized speech synthesizer drivers, and the company may make those available for what might be a nominal fee. Once Arkenstone has built it, other applications can use it, and users will be able to have programs that support any of a number of speech synthesizers. This is a major opportunity for standardization. It's practical, and everyone benefits. The loss of competition is less important than the possibility of larger markets.
The general discussion resumed after lunch. Dr. Herie congratulated Marc Maurer for having his 1991 NFB Annual Banquet speech, "Reflecting the Flame," published in Vital Speeches of the Day, a national magazine.
Dr. Jernigan informed the group about an upcoming television program, "Good and Evil," which he called "the worst TV portrayal of a blind person that I have ever in my entire life seen." After periodic discussion during the afternoon, members of the group sent a strongly worded telegram to ABC Television. (See the December, 1991, issue of the Braille Monitor for the text.)
Peter Merrill, President of the BETACOM Group, asked what directives the group was going to develop.
Dr. Jernigan reminded everyone that they were all leaders and that the group had the authority to do anything it had the good sense to decide upon.
Dr. Cranmer spoke about Design for Everyone, a conference planned by the Electronic Industries Foundation which didn't occur because they had too few registered participants. Although the NFB's Research and Development Committee has been working with Lloyd Rasmussen (a blind engineer) and Curtis Chong to set standards for products in the design and prototype stage, Dr. Cranmer believes that things are still too fluid in the field of technology for the blind and fears that setting up standards too soon would be likely to standardize bad practices along with good ones. He suggested waiting and caution.
Dr. Jernigan recommended that the group remember that the average blind person wants and needs low-tech items. A discussion followed about the proper allocation of provider funds for product development. When money is spent for one thing, it is necessarily no longer available for purchase of other goods or services. Would an attractive combination chess and checker board and pieces sell widely at fifteen or twenty dollars a set? Should the NFB spend the money to produce one? Dr. Jernigan reminded the group that blind people can make use of generally available low- tech items with great success. He spoke of a commercially sold Christmas teacup that plays "Jingle Bells" if the base receives any light. He finds this is a useful, inexpensive probe whenever he wishes to know whether the light is on in a room.
Chris Lowrie, a consumer from Canada, said she was glad that low-tech items had been mentioned. Most people who are legally blind are elderly and, except through word of mouth, don't know what's available--canes, magnifiers, self-threading needles. How do we solve that problem?
Noel Runyan, President of Personal Data Systems, said that we need either a high-profile contact point with national advertising, such as Dr. Jernigan's ads, to educate the public about what is available to people who are losing their sight, or we must have distribution centers around the country in which people can learn about equipment and from which they can borrow or purchase it.
After hearing a summary by Dr. Spungin of the ideas generated in and discussed during the conference, Dr. Jernigan asked people to suppose that the NFB were prepared to put fifty to a hundred thousand dollars into one project that came out of this conference. The question is, what should it be? The NFB technology loan fund? Some pooled project agreed upon by several members of the group? Buying items in quantity for resale? Starting a p.r. campaign to find people who need items that are already available? Hiring someone to get corporate or government grants to fund projects the group agreed on? Or creating a fund for lobbying Congress to get more funds? Conference participants must come to agreement about what most needs to be done so that individual organizations will know how to proceed.
After a discussion on the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the likelihood that it will require the increased use of Braille and audio materials, Graham Stoodley suggested that the group was trying to deal with too many issues simultaneously. It should settle on one high-priority effort with which to begin cooperation. He proposed that such a project might be persuading commercial producers of all kinds of high- and low-tech equipment to take the visually impaired portion of the market into account when designing and manufacturing their products. Producers must be able reliably to learn from some source what modifications are necessary.
Dr. Jernigan asked what mechanism would effectively convey the wishes of the group to manufacturers. Dr. Cranmer said that the NFB's R and D committee has been working on guidelines for the electronics industry, but it has nothing to do with the educational aspects of this communication problem. Perhaps there should be a new joint committee arising from this conference that would be specifically responsible for establishing contacts with manufacturers. Dr. Jernigan asked Dr. Cranmer to complete work on a draft of basic technical guidelines which might be amended and adopted by other agencies and groups. Then the field would be united and better equipped to tackle big industry with specific requests. An unidentified speaker urged that an effort be made to reach the university community so that those who will make decisions for big business in the future can be taught now to remember the requirements of the disability community at the design stage of projects. An attempt should also be made to combine in one document descriptions of all the high- and low- tech equipment that is available. It could be widely circulated to those who work with the general public and know nothing about blindness so that, as people lose vision, they can learn what is already available somewhere. They will then know how to begin looking.
Dr. Wiener suggested that a committee be formed from this group to study the proceedings of this conference and pull out the ideas and suggestions that emerged. Important initiatives and suggestions have been made, and these should not be lost.
Dr. Jernigan reminded people that all manufacturers are in business to make money. If this group wants to persuade them to make design modifications to assist blind people, it will have to present arguments showing why it is in their interest to do so: profit, law, public opinion, personal gratification, etc. There was some debate about whether a new committee should be appointed to deal with computer hardware and software or only other manufactured items. Both efforts are necessary, but Dr. Cranmer maintained that high-tech guidelines are already being worked on and that, therefore, a new committee should concentrate on other issues. Several people agreed that the graphical user interface is so important today that solving the problem of blind people's access to it should be at the top of the list of priorities. Mr. Schreier said that the GUI becomes even more important when one considers the trend toward graphic representation in every part of modern life. If we don't find a way to keep blind people in touch with the increasing number of graphic displays, all blind people, whether they ever heard of the GUI or not, will lose out.
Dr. Dixon reminded the group that the majority of persons who are legally blind do not need or desire access to computers with the GUI but to common manufacturers' products and low-tech items. Dr. Jernigan and Dr. Dixon wondered whether a new committee needs to be concerned with access to the GUI since three of the largest computer companies are already working on it.
John Nelson mentioned that the state of Maine has established a revolving fund for technology purchase. Florida and Texas designate a portion of their revenue from traffic tickets for assistive technology for disabled people.
Dr. Kurzweil said that the run-of-the-mill blind computer user does not yet feel the impact of the GUI because there are still character-based software packages available, but three years from now there will be almost none on the market. Then this will become a crisis large enough to justify attention now in both the public and private sectors.
Mr. Edwards pointed out that at one time producers of commercially available appliances made arrangements to have their equipment modified for blind purchasers. But the internal communication about these programs was so poor within the companies that many blind customers never took advantage of the service. Manufacturers then concluded that there was no market for the modifications. Dr. Cranmer said that the object should be to encourage manufacturers to produce equipment that is usable by blind people without modification rather than asking them to sell modification kits or services. Mr. Schreier added that the same point could be made with equal force about the GUI and its developers.
At the close of the day's session, Dr. Jernigan remarked that, rather than running out of steam, the group had begun to build up momentum.
First through the North America/Caribbean Region of the World Blind Union, then through the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort, and now through this conference, this field has now established a vehicle for working together. Today there is an expanded group of leaders in the blindness field able to talk and work together to solve common problems.
DECISIONS AND FUTURE PLANS: THE SATURDAY MORNING DISCUSSION
On Saturday morning, September 21, 1991, the provider and consumer representatives to the U.S./Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind met for final discussions. The comments were wide-ranging but centered on the proposals made by the Conference Planning Committee. Here is a summary of conference decisions:
Dr. Jernigan began by explaining that the planning committee had met the evening before to discuss present goals and future plans. The members agreed that there should be a second United States/Canada Conference on Technology for the Blind, with selected invitees from overseas to the conference, to be held sometime in 1993, to occur at the National Center for the Blind, and to be hosted and sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.
The Planning Committee also agreed to recommend that certain ongoing committees be appointed. They are:
1) A Committee on Information and Dissemination. This committee will compile a database on technology, and the American Foundation for the Blind will chair it. It will include Canadian National Institute for the Blind and National Federation of the Blind representatives, and others who want to serve will be welcome and should contact Dr. Spungin to express their interest.
Dr. Spungin proposed that this committee build on the information database on technology which Elliot Schreier directs. It currently lists vendors, products, evaluations, training programs, and the like. The group will work to develop methods by which the American Foundation for the Blind can acquire and disseminate the data and by which end users can receive the data easily. They will consider low-tech methods in addition to downloading by modem. Information is to be collected on all kinds of low- and high-tech equipment and software.
Mr. Edwards mentioned that AbleData and the Trace Center already have such a data base. He encouraged the committee to add these data to the AFB compilation.
Dr. Jernigan proposed that the word "data base" not be used in the title because this library should not be limited to information on high-tech computer products, and nothing in its title should imply that access to the information is by computer only. He suggested that the body be called the Committee on Collection and Dissemination of Information on Technology.
2) Creation of the International Resource Center on Technology. The NFB will chair this effort, and it will be based at the National Center for the Blind. Its Advisory Committee, to which conference participants can name representatives, will set policies on what this Center does. The CNIB has already agreed to take part in this program, and during the discussion William McLaughlin (Deputy Director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research) and Louis Tutt (Vice President of the Council of Executives of American Residential Schools for the Visually Handicapped) expressed interest in having the NIDRR and the CEARSVH, respectively, take part in the deliberations of the committee.
Dr. Jernigan explained that the National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind will continue to expand. People will be invited to come for training in the use of some or all of the equipment displayed there. The challenge will be to find a way to make this resource accessible and affordable to the people who want to take advantage of it.
Dr. Herie said that the National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind is a unique resource, which we are fortunate to have in North America. All of us will have to work on a funding mechanism for the International Resource Center, which will be taking advantage of the facilities at the Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. Canada would like to send end users, itinerant teachers, students, and personnel from CNIB technology centers to the Center to learn.
Dr. Jernigan explained that in addition to the physical plant the NFB has already committed a half million dollars to purchasing equipment. Some has been donated, and the organization is prepared to allocate another half million or more to the project. If the current space proves insufficient, the Federation has another 20,000 feet of space that can be committed. Given the magnitude of the NFB's outlay, he thought it was reasonable to charge some tuition for individuals or groups seeking training at the Resource Center. He added that the NFB would appreciate referrals and suggestions about how conferees would like to see the Center used.
Expressing concern about the need for certification of instructors in other centers, Rachel Rosenbaum (Vice President of the National Council of Private Agencies for the Blind) reminded the group that some of the existing training programs are not constructive, and some kind of certification is necessary. She suggested that this issue be addressed by the Resource Center Advisory Committee.
Dr. Jernigan responded that what the NFB intends to do is not exclusionary. People who come to the Center will be trained in the use of the technology available, specifically in Braille embossing devices, speech technology, and certain other related items. The Federation would not intend to prevent any other organization from doing training. Preliminary plans for the Center include hiring an expert who would become even more knowledgeable in the course of his or her work.
Dr. Wiener explained to Ms. Rosenbaum that the Planning Committee has proposed a third committee that would be established to look into the question of standards and certification.
Dr. Herie warned against the traditional model of university-type courses and degrees. Dr. Jernigan agreed. The Center will be a resource offering demonstrations, tours, and teaching for varied lengths of time. A second staff person will probably be hired to assist people in learning what they want to know. There will be a reference and referral service by phone, computer, and perhaps letter.
3) The Committee on Guidelines and Standards. The AER will chair this group. Dr. Wiener explained that AER has been involved through its Division 5 in considering technology standards in this field. He agreed with Dr. Cranmer that, if standards are put in stone too quickly, they can choke the growth of a field; however, as the field is evolving, it is useful to have best practice clearly stated. He said that preliminary notions are that the standards should be broad philosophical statements.
Dr. Jernigan asked if AER was specifically thinking of setting standards for teachers of technology. If so, what does that really mean?
Ms. Melrose, who Dr. Wiener said was likely to chair this committee because she has been active with the AER committee struggling with standards for the past three years, admitted that most technology instructors are self-taught or the product of formal programs and mentoring in combination.
Dr. Jernigan pointed out that, if one considers the equipment present in the National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind at the National Center, the most competent technology expert in the country would probably be David Andrews. If he wanted to be certified, who would be presumptuous enough to try to do it? On the other hand, the NFB certainly does not want to get into the business of having him certify other people. Several people cited the dilemma posed by someone who is competently teaching the use of a single piece of equipment like a Braille embosser. Agreement was eventually reached that any standards developed should not exclude such a teacher.
Dr. Wiener said that the points made during the discussion had been well taken and that it might be wise for the proposed committee to avoid the questions of certification and accreditation. He suggested that it concentrate on developing general standards reflecting accessibility and focused on manufacturers and the market place.
Mr. Edwards argued for charging the committee with developing certification standards for assessing the competence of instructors in the use of the equipment they are supposed to have mastered. AER should be left with the problem of deciding whether or not a particular individual is a good teacher, but it ought to be possible to determine the technical competence of instructors. Part of the problem we face today with Braille instruction is that people who do not know the system are teaching it. It would be reprehensible to wait until technology teaching has reached the same dismal state as Braille instruction has before addressing the problem.
Dr. Cranmer commented that on the NFB's R and D Committee there are eleven members, and they are among the most learned, scholarly, and competent technocrats in the field of blindness. He said he couldn't conceive of a set of standards that would qualify all of them to teach. Standards broad enough to encompass all of them would be no standards at all. He proposed giving this question some time, not abandoning it forever-- fifteen or twenty years would be good enough. Braille has been around for over a hundred years; the personal computer is less than fifteen years old. We need time before standards are imposed. At the close of the discussion, both the NFB and the NCSAB indicated an interest in being represented on the committee.
Dr. Jernigan reported that the Planning Committee talked about the NFB's R and D Committee, which already exists. Visiting participants in its deliberations have included CNIB representatives and Elliot Schreier from the AFB. He invited anyone from the groups represented at the conference to attend meetings of the committee.
4) A purchase consortium, chaired by the CNIB. Dr. Herie outlined his concept of this project. He estimated that the volume of sales from the CNIB national program is in the neighborhood of one million dollars. This does not include all the purchases made by CNIB local offices, provincial programs, or the private sector. He said that there had been talk about a purchase consortium at the first meeting of the JOE Committee, but the idea hasn't come to fruition until now.
This consortium is not intended to work against the interests of the manufacturers--quite to the contrary. Its object ought to be to put products into the hands of consumers at the most favorable prices and on a timely basis. The issues raised at this meeting (product support, reliability, and quality) will also be looked at carefully.
The consortium will want to attract other major players in this field and will probably invite three or four other countries to join; Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, and Japan have all expressed interest in this concept. The consortium would then identify a group of products based on several criteria like popularity, which translates directly into volume. Of special interest would be products manufactured by a sole source without competition and with long waiting periods. Prices might well be improved by the consortium's activity, and it could help by insisting on tighter production schedules. The group could maintain a watch on attractive products for which manufacturers need more volume in order to continue production. The preservation of the Sharp Talking Clock is the best example of the way a consortium can resolve this kind of availability problem.
Dr. Herie cautioned that this program won't work if the consortium tries to include fifteen hundred products. It should begin modestly with three or ten or thirty items that the committee agrees on. He concluded by saying that such a consortium is in everyone's best interest. Many blind people want and need the high- and low-tech equipment that is now available, but it must be at a price that they can afford. If the consortium can help to accomplish this, producers, service providers, and consumers will all benefit.
5) A committee on obtaining more funding. Dr. Jernigan warned that this will be a difficult one to organize. The committee's task will be to find additional funding for technology. Venture capital will be hard to attract. But through grants or lobbying, funds must be found. Someone with business know-how should chair the committee, and the planning group hadn't yet come up with the right person, but they would be happy to entertain recommendations.
The thinking about this committee is still nebulous, but the Planning Committee will try to find a chair and contact conferees to solicit membership after that. It is clear that additional technology for the blind must be funded and that there are sensitive issues of who is going to do what and how things are to be handled.
After thanks by Dr. Spungin to the NFB for hosting the conference and a statement by Dr. Wiener that more than a start on resolving technology problems had been accomplished during the meeting, participants listened to Dr. Jernigan's final remarks. He reminded the group that all of them were welcome at any time to use the resources of the newly renamed International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. At Dr. Herie's suggestion, President Maurer and Dr. Jernigan had determined earlier in the morning to change the title to reflect the growing international importance of the work of the NFB's technology facility. He also invited participants to use the other elements of the National Center for the Blind, and he paid tribute to the work of all those who made this conference possible, particularly the Committee on Joint Organizational Effort and, more specifically, the other members of the Planning Committee--Drs. Spungin, Wiener, and Herie.
Commissioner Nell Carney concluded the conference by saying: At the Rehabilitation Services Administration we say that there are four major areas that are going to have significant impact on the lives of people with physical and mental disabilities over the next decade: technology, research, legislation, and service delivery systems. During my lifetime the blindness field has always led the way, been the scout, the pioneer showing other disability groups how to do it. I believe that this conference has been historic, and I'm very honored to have been here. The five committees that you want to establish have real and significant implications.
With no other business before the group, Dr. Jernigan adjourned the conference at 11:45 a.m.
[PHOTO/CAPTION: Portrait of Jim Halliday.]
THE FUTURE OF TECHNOLOGY
by Jim Halliday, President
When asked to discuss the future of technology, I immediately found myself looking to the past to determine what kind of foundation on top of which the future is being built. We've seen marvelous times and unfortunate times, but our challenge now is to retain the good and jettison the bad. Let's look into the past to see where we should be heading. Forgive me if I leave out any essential history, which I am sure to do within the time constraints. I'd like to go back twenty years to a time when technology was nearly nonexistent for people who were blind. With the exception of the Perkins Brailler, a cassette recorder, and perhaps the thermoform machine, there was a great void.
1970s - Filling
A Time for Creation, Innovation, Invention
In the midst of this great void, John Linvill and Jim Bliss of Stanford University were working on an optical-to-tactile converter with the goal of providing people who were blind with direct access to print. The result was the Optacon, and when no other company felt that the market potential was large enough or important enough to manufacture and sell a product designed only for blind people, Jim had the courage and foresight to start a company called Telesensory Systems, Inc.--and in so doing, started a new industry.
Ironically, the Optacon remains today the only truly portable way for a blind person to directly access printed material; and, despite the many other advances which have become available as this industry has grown, I meet users all the time who still use their Optacons on a daily basis. Of course, there are many faster and easier ways to access print on a less portable basis, but we will talk more about reading machines later in this presentation.
One of the things that became obvious shortly after the Optacon was released was that evaluation and training were essential if the user were to succeed with the product. This vitally important point seems to have been forgotten for the majority of the people buying today's products. Keep in mind that buyers are not always end users. Today an agency may pay thousands of dollars for access technology to be used by a blind person, yet spend nothing on training that person on how to use the technology successfully. This single issue has been a monumental problem for the companies that produce access technology and for the end-users. Training is another key point to which we will return when discussing future technology.
Within a few short years there were a number of companies that gave credibility to this new industry. Each company had its own niche, and each would refer customers to the other, depending on the customer's needs. An innovative group of young people, led by Deane Blazie, started a company called Maryland Computer Services. They wrote speech algorithms for a Votrax speech chip and created a terminal called TotalTalk for use with a Hewlett-Packard computer. (By the way, Deane also understood the value of training, and this was again an integral part of the sale of that product.) MCS became the company to which we all referred people interested in speech.
Low vision was also a major issue, and television technology had developed to the point that Sam Genensky developed a closed circuit television (CCTV) which enlarged print. The idea was taken by a company called Apollo Laser and more importantly by Larry Israel, who started a company called Visualtek.
As the industry began to search for jobs in which blind people could compete successfully, it became clear that those jobs that were computer-related were excellent choices. A special lens was designed for the Optacon to provide direct access to the screen, but a hard copy in Braille became essential for many of the high-level computer users. Triformation Systems came up with the LED 120, which became the industry standard.
Because of the sheer bulk of Braille and the need for interactive Braille, a number of companies attempted to create Braille cells. TSI not only came up with a very high quality Braille display, using piezoelectric technology, but packaged it in a portable system called the VersaBraille. I think this product can be considered the first truly successful laptop computer, and as a result, blind people had such a device years before sighted people ever had anything comparable. One of the key features, which seemed to be more of an afterthought in some respects, was the fact that the VersaBraille could also function as a dumb terminal, giving blind people better interactive access to mainframe computers.
But at the time most people were not computer users, and access to the world of print remained inefficient. The idea of capturing letters optically and converting those letters into ASCII code became the goal of a man named Ray Kurzweil. He took this idea of Optical Character Recognition (OCR), combined it with synthetic speech, and the result was the Kurzweil Reading Machine.
So here we are. It's the end of the 1970s. TSI has a portable reading device, a laptop word processor with a 20 character Braille display, and a talking calculator; MCS is the talking computer company; Triformation Systems is a hard copy Braille company; Visualtek is the CCTV company; and Kurzweil Computer Products has reading machines. Everything is clearly delineated. There is no longer a void of technology. Users are being trained and successfully employed. Products are priced so that companies can properly support their products, fund their rates of growth, and invest in future developments. All things considered, it was a very exciting time.
1980s - The Double-Edged
A Time of Competition, Struggle, Restructuring
Three major things happened in our industry at the beginning of the 1980s, each of which had devastating effects on the comfortable balance that seemed to exist at the end of the seventies.
1. The new administration in Washington decided that severe cuts in education and social services were essential. Because up to 85% of the blindness-related product sales were dependent on these funds, our industry went into shock.
2. Survival became the fundamental goal. Competition for the same dollars was fierce. Pricing became an issue for the first time, but with the reduced prices came the reduced services. Severe cutbacks in personnel, support, quality manuals, and training resulted as cash became tighter and tighter. Companies started looking at each other's products and were soon fighting not only for the same dollars, but for the same market niches. The clearly delineated market segments of the seventies rapidly became muddied as everyone tried to sell everything.
3. In the midst of all of this turmoil, a revolution was taking place in the consumer marketplace. IBM introduced the Personal Computer. As the world moved toward the PC and the use of MicroSoft's Disk Operating System with phenomenal rapidity, a few individuals in the blindness industry began looking at access to these MS-DOS based computers. "Access" became the magic word, and products that did not provide "access" to MS-DOS were labeled as "ghetto" products that could only be used by blind people and no one else. Functionality and productivity often suffered as people made the move from a so-called "ghetto" product, which had been designed specifically for a blind user, to an "access" product, which enabled blind people to use sighted people's software.
The companies that jumped on the bandwagon survived, but in a very different form than before. Sales structures were changed from salary to commission, putting the emphasis on selling rather than consulting and supporting. Distributors became more common than company representatives, placing a greater wedge between the end-user and the actual manufacturer. Communication and feedback began to suffer.
Inexpensive speech synthesizers were readily available, enabling individual garage shop operations to develop "access" software. Those that developed their own synthesizers grew into major forces, such as Artic Technologies. Others remained one- or two-person operations. Their minimal overheads and the low prices made it very difficult for a large company to compete in the speech business. Nevertheless, TSI extended its drive into speech, while adding embossers and CCTVs. Visualtek wasn't going to put up with that, so it changed its name to VTEK and got into the blindness business. High-end synthesizers were developed, like the DECtalk at $4,000; and although these options were more intelligible and natural sounding at normal speeds, they fell apart at high speeds, and they were not responsive enough for the needs of most blind computer users.
Because margins had been slashed so much due to the competitive nature of the marketplace, all of the traditional training and support provided by most manufacturers in the seventies disintegrated in the eighties. The irony here is that these services were even more important for "access technology" than for products design from a blindness-oriented logic. Users were not only forced to learn the access software, but also MS-DOS and its unintuitive command structure, and finally a visually oriented applications program. Training was essential, but manufacturers could not provide it at a reasonable price to cover their costs; and in most cases rehab would not pay for it, either due to sheer ignorance or tight budgets. ACCESS was king, but without training, SUCCESS usually came only after weeks or even months of agonizing frustration. The concept of on-line, context-sensitive help, and of tape tutorials, which enabled a user to be productive in a fraction of the time, were integral parts of a product called Keynote. This concept was coined in a word called HumanWare, and a company was started, which now bears that name. Companies hired applications people to provide support, but it was never enough--and everyone seemed dissatisfied. This problem still exists today although it seems like less of an issue because so many users have struggled through the learning process.
There was no longer a technological void in the eighties, but there was a training and support void because of the lack of cash on both sides of the sale. Companies that tried to build the proper support into the price of the product lost every bid because their prices were too high. The market saved money in one way, but the user usually paid the price in the end.
To help fill the gap, private agencies began developing technical aids centers, used for demonstrations and to provide training on products. The problem with this is that equipment was extremely expensive and new models were always appearing. Competition always had a set of new features that trainers needed to learn, and between the vast variety of equipment and the new versions and models it was not humanly possible to master all of it.
Luckily, there were people who felt that access to MS-DOS was not the only kind of product needed in our industry. The engineering wizards at NFB came up with a design for a note-taking system which used Braille input and speech output. Deane Blazie re-emerged, turning NFB's concept into Braille `n Speak, perhaps the most important contribution to blind people in the eighties.
Kurzweil was purchased by Xerox, so a new infusion of capital enabled them to create a new, lower priced reading machine.
With so many different languages in Europe, speech synthesizers did not have the same impact there. Braille remained the key medium of "access," and most computer users in Europe scorned the use of speech. Because people in North America never had a truly acceptable Braille "access" product for MS-DOS, a stake was driven into the heart of dynamic braille on this continent. In Europe, however, Braille technology continued to develop. A low profile, eight-dot display was produced by F. J. Tieman that was not only ergonomically superior, but more serviceable and reliable than other Braille displays. Europe's concentration on Braille resulted in many advances that were not available in the U.S. until a fledgling company called HumanWare introduced them. The eight-dot, low-profile Braille display; 40- and 80-character Braille lines with additional cells to provide essential status information; touch-sensitive strips to make cursor routing accurate and simple; parallel interfaces that save the serial port, yet increase responsiveness while eliminating the incessant interrupt problems which cause other systems to lock up so frequently--these were among the many advances brought over from Europe.
So, here we are at the end of the eighties. Speech has dominated the industry and spawned many small companies. TSI has added its line of Braille displays to the picture. HumanWare has introduced the first CCD cameras into CCTVs in the U.S. Blazie Engineering is about to introduce the first truly low-cost Braille printer. Enabling Technologies (formerly Triformation Systems) has gone back to what it does best and is working on the first (relatively) low cost interpoint Braille printers. And a little non-profit company called Arkenstone is preparing to revolutionize the OCR part of the industry.
1990s - A Look
to the Future
A Time for Refinement, Consolidation, Teamwork
The nineties started out with a bang. VTEK became part of TSI and sent another shock through the market as the giant Telesensory Corporation (TSC) was born. The new products from Blazie and Enabling have appeared and have been received with very positive results. Arkenstone has taken the market by storm with its concept of using a computer with a screen-reading program, coupled with its OCR technology to create a reading machine. And HumanWare has introduced a video-oriented screen reader, a touch sensitive tablet which corresponds to the computer monitor, and an extremely responsive speech synthesizer that is second to none in intelligibility (especially at high speeds) yet packs the equivalent of an IBM PC's processor, 256K of memory and a digital speech processor onto a circuit board only 2 inches by 5 inches.
The nineties open a whole new set of challenges to our industry.
1. Now that we have finally conquered MS-DOS and have adequate understanding of how to use it successfully, MicroSoft has introduced Windows. IBM has OS/2 for the moment, but is joining forces with the minds of Apple, whose Macintosh has turned computing into a joy instead of a nightmare for sighted computer novices. Whatever these two companies come up with is likely to be exciting, but our industry must have access to the development if we hope to enable blind people to use the new technology.
2. "A picture is worth a thousand words." An icon is a symbol that quickly conveys a message in a fraction of the time that it would in words. A graphic is spatial, yet only makes sense when its parts are simultaneously observed in relation to each other. Once a symbol is understood, it cannot only convey instant information but can also invoke instant emotional reaction, such as a cross or a swastika or a heart. This problem is not simply solved by saying the word that represents the symbol, although that could help, but the contextual simultaneity inherent in a gestalt image must be translated into a simultaneous presentation of information in some other medium or media.
Rather than get too carried away with the idea of imagery, I think it is important to realize that our use of computers generally relates to entering and reviewing data or words, not pictures. We are not trying to become auditory graphic artists. That's why we have musicians and composers. We are trying to access graphic characters that look like letters and text or symbols that have a name. We must insure that producers of computer programs and operating systems simultaneously present this graphics information in an accessible and usable form. ASCII is the current code, which would make this quite simple. But who is to say there is not a better code the industry should follow in the future?
The point here is that deciding on an industry standard and sharing that information is essential. Competition must cease when it comes to creating standards. We must all be on the same team and work together if we don't want this industry to be left in the eighties while the rest of the world moves ahead.
3. Whatever technological solutions are found, we must all recognize that training is likely to be essential to success. If we are to enable our customers to succeed, funding must be found to subsidize this training, or prices must be raised. I can't state this strongly enough. Competitive bidding has destroyed the infrastructure of our training and support network in this industry. Purchasing agents are proud of their performance, but end users inevitably suffer.
4. Despite the fact that training and sufficient support have been cut from the price of most products, we still receive complaints on prices. We must recognize the fact that it costs just as much to develop a product in our industry as it does in a normal consumer market. What's different is the return on that investment. Brainstorming ideas, creating a spec, engineering and development of hardware and/or software, re-engineering and redevelopment, documentation for production, development of service and user manuals, sales literature, educating and informing the market, etc. are all expenses inherent in any product development. Additionally, the cost of goods is dramatically higher for the same product if it sells in low volumes rather than high. An example in our industry would be the old Speech + talking calculator. It sold for about $500. When Sharp introduced its talking calculator at $50, it projected selling 10,000 units per month. At that rate, they would have sold more in six weeks than TSI sold in seven years. Who do you think would have ended up with the most income from those two products, Sharp or TSI? In actual fact, Sharp's product was vastly overpriced based on cost of goods, and TSI's was probably underpriced. Consumers who are blind and administrators of programs that serve blind people often respond negatively to high prices, not recognizing the costs. DEC, Xerox, IBM are all mammoth companies, but the products they have designed for our industry are generally more expensive than those produced by the TSIs, HumanWares, Henter-Joyces, etc. I don't know of a single company in our industry that has margins that are excessive, and yet we all feel guilty. We can't reduce prices any more without going out of business. Back when a house cost $25,000, the 20 cell VersaBraille sold for $7,000. Now that same house sells for $250,000, but a Navigator with 40 cells or KeyBraille with 45 cells sells for $7,000. Our industry is sick, and it is struggling to stay alive because we've lost our perspective. The lowest price is not always the best solution.
5. In the 1990s we will see an increase in speech input devices. Dragon Dictate has made major strides in the last six months. Global communications will increase, and blind people in Kansas will be using their computers to communicate with people in Holland. Satellite networks will link the world and provide instant access to data. Banking, shopping, news, etc. will become commonplace for all blind people who use computers, and not just for the few power users of today. OCR systems will soon fit into a laptop, so that truly portable and fast reading and writing machines will be commonplace. Digitized speech will finally become usable for text-to-speech. A full page of affordable dynamic Braille might actually materialize by the year 2000. It is fun to dream!
Our mutual goal must be focused on solutions. We made progress on pricing in the eighties, while simultaneously losing valuable ground in support, training, and cash resources. We must restore these things to their proper place. Constructive competition rather than cutthroat tactics must mark the nineties. Teamwork amongst developers both in and out of our industry and with blind consumers is fundamental to a positive decade. NFB has taken a key leadership role in organizing this conference, and it deserves major credit for its vision.
Let's create a great future together!