PHOTO/CAPTION: Peter and Mary Donahue
by Peter and Mary Donahue
From the Editor: Like other state presidents I am frequently asked for ideas about what chapters can do as constructive projects in their communities. Peter and Mary Donahue are leaders in the San Antonio Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas. Last year their chapter took part in an ambitious and rewarding project that they think could be carried out by other chapters around the country. This is what they say:
The ability to go online with a personal computer is perhaps the most powerful feature of today's technology revolution. For a blind person this permits access to information not available by any other means. The chief method of getting information from a remote computer to your PC is through a worldwide network called the Internet.
The Internet is different things for different people in a wide variety of professional, educational, and recreational pursuits. One could easily observe this at the 1996 Internet Odyssey held at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. Several members of the Greater San Antonio Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas demonstrated the way in which blind people access the Information Superhighway using a personal computer and adaptive technology. We discussed the way the PC has opened up countless educational and job opportunities for the blind and expressed our concerns about our ability to achieve unlimited access to the Information Superhighway in the future.
In addition, chapter members learned how PCs and the Internet work together to move information around the world. We even learned how the Internet touches our lives and gained a deeper understanding of how positive attitudes about blindness among the blind and sighted alike can help achieve our goals of security, equality, and unlimited opportunity for all blind people. What follows is an account of the chapter's participation in this event as told by Greater San Antonio Chapter Secretary Peter Donahue.
Our participation in the Internet Odyssey began in an unlikely place, the laundry room at the apartment complex where Mary and I live. I was walking through the laundry room on my way back to our apartment when I met Mrs. Carolyn Awalt, one of our neighbors and a multi-media specialist at United States Automobile Association (USAA), one of San Antonio's largest employers and insurers of military personnel.
Mary and I were looking for an Internet provider that could provide a shell account which would allow us to access the Internet using MS-DOS. Ms. Awalt told us about her provider, Texas Net. Several other chapter members were already on Texas Net, and we eventually got an account with this provider. While talking to Mrs. Awalt, I brought up our concerns about the increasing threat to our ability to access the Information Superhighway because of the graphical user interface and graphical web-browsers. In response she said, "This sounds like something you need to tell people at the South Texas Internet Odyssey. Everyone who has anything to do with the Internet will be there; that would be the place to air your concerns."
Mrs. Awalt explained that, unlike most computer- and Internet-related shows which spend most of their time razzle- dazzling their audiences with claims about the latest Internet hardware and software trying to entice would-be buyers, the South Texas Internet Odyssey emphasized what the Internet is and the ways many people from many backgrounds and from a wide variety of educational and vocational callings use it. She said that until now there had been little participation in this event by members of the disabled community. She urged us to change that. I told her that it sounded like a great idea and that, if our members wanted to participate, we would need to be put in touch with the organizers so we could make arrangements about our needs. "You make the decision to participate, and I'll see that your concerns are addressed."
In the weeks that followed the chapter's board of directors discussed the matter at length and decided to participate in the 1996 Internet Odyssey. We had many questions about how we would carry out this project. First was the problem of the computers we would need. No one wanted to risk transporting their fragile hardware and software or do without it at home during the entire event. Moreover, there was always the possibility of theft if the security at the show was lax.
But then it occurred to me that several of us used both Vocal-Eyes from GW Micro, a screen reader for accessing DOS-based applications, and JAWS for Windows from Henter-Joyce, a program for accessing Windows applications. Both of these programs support the Braille 'n Speak from Blazie Engineering, so we could use the Braille 'n Speak as a speech synthesizer. This arrangement would be extremely portable, requiring only a simple set-up and take-down, and we could take the equipment home at night. If we could load the software onto a PC at the show, we wouldn't even have to worry about carting computers back and forth every day.
But could show organizers provide the PC? Mrs. Awalt contacted Richard Wadsworth, a professor of computer science at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He said he was glad to hear that we wanted to participate in this year's show and promised to give us all the help we needed, including a PC and transportation for participating chapter members. He even saw to it that we had a phone line for the modem and technical and personal support during the show.
My chance meeting with Mrs. Awalt occurred in late August, and the Internet Odyssey was to take place in late October. We had just under two months to put an exhibit together, but we were up to the challenge. We briefly looked for a personality to increase the attractiveness of our exhibit, but the notice was too short. We soon discovered that no other NFB chapter had tried a project like this one, so, though we had encouragement from Mr. Ring at the International Braille and Technology Center and Curtis Chong, President of the NFB in Computer Science, we were on our own to do the best we could.
As the show date drew closer, things gradually fell into place. We decided to set up our display in the area for vendors. We shared the location with the San Antonio Express News, our local newspaper; the International Bank of Commerce (IBC); and Diamond Computers, to name a few of many. The important thing was that we were taking our message of hope and a positive view of blindness to the Internet community to help its members understand our concerns about continued full access to the Information Superhighway for blind people and our ability to compete for jobs requiring the use of personal computers.
When we learned that there was to be a seminar component to the show, we asked to be included in that program as well. These seminars covered using the Internet;
Real Audio (a program for listening to radio broadcasts from around the world through the Internet); designing World Wide Web pages; and video conferencing to conduct business meetings and seminars from headquarters to field offices around the world on the Internet. Our request was granted. We would give our presentation on Monday, October 28, at 5 p.m.
In the weeks before the event we worked out the final details of our participation in the show. Professor Wadsworth turned transportation over to Mrs. Margaret Halsema, who by herself handled rides to and from the convention center from all around the city. Lisa Hall and I went to the convention center on the morning of October 26 to set up the equipment and to install the screen-reading software and Procomm Plus, the communications software.
This was the first time that any of us had used Netscape Navigator since none of us had ever used a Windows Web browser, but we wanted to show folks that Internet access through Windows was possible. As soon as our network connection was working, I got a crash course in using Netscape Navigator. Jaws for Windows has macros that make Navigator more speech-friendly, so it was not too hard to master. On this trip we brought the literature to be distributed during the show.
We were not prepared for what awaited us upon arriving at the hall where the Internet Odyssey was being held. The scene was more reminiscent of a warehouse rummage sale than a computer exhibition. When we walked in, we encountered scaffolding, large bags, barrels, boxes, trash, pieces of plywood, and machinery parked everywhere. It was a hot day, and the air conditioning was not yet working. The humidity in that room was fierce.
The place smelled of oil, gasoline, and tar; dust was everywhere. Because we had good travel skills, we traversed this obstacle course with ease. But there was nothing to do but wait until the mess was transformed into the setting for a computer show. We decided that I should come back in the evening to set up the equipment for the next day.
In fact, I didn't get to do anything in our booth until after 9:00 p.m. that evening when the computers arrived. Establishing the network for the computer show was an interesting process to watch, but I had my hands full when I began loading the software that we would need. I didn't finish the installation until well after midnight. The next morning we did the final installation of software and made last-minute preparations.
We were ready for the opening of the show at 12 noon when we heard the unmistakable opening chords to the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey, indicating that the show was open and ready to receive the public. As that afternoon passed, we were visited by many persons, including some teachers of the blind and local business persons and others interested in what we had to share with show visitors.
In addition to distributing our literature, we displayed the NFB WEB site and showed visitors the wealth of information about blindness they could find there. We discovered that keeping the computer talking was the key to keeping the public coming to our booth. When the speech stopped, President Sofka would shout: "Come on, Pete, get that speech going! That's what's got them coming over here, so keep it going!"
Some of those who listened to the speech complained that they could not understand what was being said. We explained that understanding synthetic speech, especially less-human-sounding synthetic speech, requires one to develop an ear for what is being said and how words are being pronounced. Since we use synthetic speech regularly, our ears are accustomed to it, and we can understand what is being said. However, even some blind people can't understand synthesized speech, and for them and some others large print or Braille access is more desirable.
Several of us worked the computer, taking turns during the show. Those who weren't computer-literate were put to work handing out literature and talking to visitors about the NFB in general. Suffice it to say, anyone who wanted to help had a job to do. The high point of the show for us came Monday afternoon, October 28, when we gave our seminar on computer access for the blind. When the announcement was made, people came running from everywhere. Vendors closed down their booths, and even the workers in the CyberCafe came over to see what all the fuss was about. Later we were told that there were fifty to one hundred people at our seminar--the largest number of attendees at any of the seminars during the entire show.
President Sofka welcomed everyone and gave a brief explanation of what the NFB was and what we were hoping to accomplish at the Internet Odyssey. Following his speech several of us demonstrated the ways we accessed various components of the Internet. Scott Edwards used Gopher, a program that provides text-based access to various online archives such as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped's book collection. Then Lisa Hall demonstrated Internet Relay Chat (IRC), which allows one to talk over the Net in real time with folks from around the world. Prior to the show she had arranged with some of her friends on Genie, one of several widely-known online services, to meet her in one of Genie's chat rooms. These are areas where people can meet to discuss matters of specific interest such as surfing the Internet, for example. Her demonstration was received with much applause from the audience.
But the climax of the seminar was the sending of an e-mail message around the world on seven different blindness-related mailing lists or listservs. Since we wanted to let the blind of the world know what we were doing to improve access to information and to raise awareness of the need to protect this access, we felt it appropriate to do this in the hope that others would be inspired to do what we were doing. The message read in part:
Blind people of the world,
This message is coming to you from the Henry B.
Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. We are participating in the 1996 South Texas Internet Odyssey to show how blind persons can use a personal computer and adaptive technology and to raise awareness of the threat to our continued ability to access the Information Superhighway posed by the ever-increasing use of graphical user interfaces, bitmap-images, and other factors. The members of the Greater San Antonio Chapter of the National Federation of the Blind of Texas would like to encourage you to do what you can to promote awareness of these issues, including participating in events similar to this one. Greetings from all of us, and let's keep the Net accessible to the blind.
James Sofka, President
Greater San Antonio Chapter
National Federation of the Blind of Texas
Throughout the week we received responses to that message, congratulating us on our efforts. Some people even shared information about what they were doing in their communities or countries to heighten awareness of the challenges faced by blind computer users. But the highest compliment we received came from Marti Knight, one of the principal organizers of the Internet Odyssey. He said, "If we have accomplished anything at all this year, this is it. Showcasing the use of the Internet by the disabled will more than justify what we have spent in time, money, and manpower to put on this show. This is an area we need to expand in the coming years."
The show concluded on October 29, and all of us were exhausted, but we all felt good about a job well done. I believe that not only the sighted public but we ourselves took away something important from this show. For one thing we were the first group of the disabled to exhibit at this show. In addition, we proved to ourselves that, no matter what the size, any of our chapters can stage events such as this when chapter members work together to see the task through.
Some of us also took away something deep and personal individually. I for one did. Helping to put this event together for our chapter led me once more to confirm something about myself. I thrive on challenge, and when challenging situations are absent from my life or when the outcome is unsuccessful, I tend to turn in on myself. When I was a child being educated at several residential schools for the blind, students were never challenged to reach beyond themselves in any way. Experiences like the Internet Odyssey remind me how much healthier it is to reach beyond and to experience success. I thank God that today's blind children and their parents have the National Federation of the Blind to encourage them to stretch and grow.
Since the show a number of things have happened as a direct result of our participation in this event. For one thing our chapter now has a World Wide Web site: http://www.txdirect.net/users/sdyer/nfb/ We welcome all you Web surfers to visit us online.
Several of our members are now on the Internet Odyssey Team, the organization that oversees and organizes the Internet Odyssey and other events to support this and other Internet-related projects here in San Antonio. One of these is installing computer networks in local schools so that the students can have access to the Net for educational purposes.
Our work here in San Antonio has sparked interest in having a similar show in El Paso. We have already contacted members of our Greater El Paso Chapter about this proposed event, and they are excited about participating in a show in their area similar to ours. We would strongly urge all local chapters and state affiliates to participate in computer shows. There is a tremendous potential for doing public education of computer professionals and amateurs through a show such as this. This participation could pay back big dividends for us in the coming years.
Consider this example. The Internet Multi-media Academy is an organization that, among other things, teaches school-aged students how to design and write computer software for educational purposes. We have requested to be a part of this organization in order to help the kids understand the necessity for designing their programs so that they are accessible to and usable by the blind. At a recent planning meeting of the Internet Odyssey team I heard from a woman who told the group that her son teaches software and web-page design. As a part of his curriculum his students are now required to design their projects so that they can be accessed by blind persons. We haven't solved all of our access problems just by participating in one computer exhibition, but we have planted the seeds of knowledge and understanding. We are excited about participating in this year's Internet Odyssey, and we invite everyone interested to come to this year's show.
It will take place October 12 and 13, 1997, at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. It is exciting to know that we have gained some strong allies in our fight to keep computers and the Internet accessible to the blind. Let's spread the good news that even in cyberspace we are changing what it means to be blind.