Image of the International 

Braille and Technology Center

A small part of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind.

Baltimore Sun Highlights NFB Technology

From the Editor: On February 26, 1998, the Baltimore Sun published a story describing a number of programs offered by the National Federation of the Blind and discussing technology issues facing blind people today. Here it is:

Harnessing Technology for Everyone
Blind Demand Equal Access in Information Age
by Ernest F. Imhoff, Sun Staff Writer

New technology is both a boon and a curse for blind people. It has allowed them to hear six daily newspapers, listen to Internet texts converted to voice, and take pages of notes in a portable Braille computer.

But another facet of technology is ominous: the lack of nonvisual access to information and procedures.

Blind people can't use devices increasingly available to sighted people who touch menus on a flat computer screen. The problem has begun to apply to many automated teller machines, airport and hotel information kiosks, and new generations of microwave ovens, washers, and certain televisions and videocassette recorders.

"It'll get worse before it gets better," said Betsy A.

Zaborowski.

She is director of special programs for the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). The Baltimore-based nonprofit organization describes itself as the country's leading advocate and the world's foremost technology center for the blind.

"There are different kinds of challenges," she said. "More and more information on the Internet is graphics. Unlike text, they can't be translated to speech or Braille."

For the blind, who want to be independent, it's an old story: one step forward and one step back, Zaborowski said.

Many of the newer household goods off-limits to the blind were usable when they had knobs, buttons, and switches that could be felt.

"These devices are not designed for rocket scientists but for people of average intelligence. I can't use them because I'm blind," said Richard A. Ring, director of NFB's International Braille and Technology Center.

Manufacturers ignore the blind, he said. About one million legally blind people live in the United States—people who have less than 10 percent normal vision.

Staffers such as Zaborowski and her husband, James Gashel, Director of Governmental Affairs, fight in the political arena for nonvisual access for the blind.

"For the second year in a row," she said, "we support bills in the General Assembly requiring any technology the state buys to be suitable for nonvisual access.

"We need that, like the physically disabled need ramps."

At the technology center, in a building the size of a city

block at 1800 Johnson Street in South Baltimore, Ring and Curtis Chong, Director of Technology, oversee the development of innovations. An example is software that offers accessible menus and synthetic speech created by computers. The technology has made possible two new programs:

NEWSLINEŽ: About 600 blind people in the Baltimore area can hear for free, through synthesized speech on the phone, any news or editorial portion of that day's Sun, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, USA Today, and Chicago Tribune. The program, at thirty-six NEWSLINEŽ centers in seventeen states and Canada, expands to Montgomery County in March and later to the Eastern Shore.

Jobline: Job seekers—both blind and sighted—in Maryland will become the first in a nationwide program. Within about a month they will search for work by using a touch-tone keypad and phone to comb through a regularly updated help-wanted data base in the state or the nation. It is for people in rural areas, shut-ins, and others as well as the blind.

A major NFB goal is to revive the use, declining since the 1960's, of Braille, the system of raised dots representing letters. Four-day seminars on the importance of Braille for parents of blind children will be held here in May and October.

Only 9 percent of America's blind can read Braille, Zaborowski said. "The blind were told years ago `Don't be so blind: use large type, tape recorders, voice synthesizers.'"

Ring's center is a large room with two million dollars' worth of what he calls the world's largest collection of advanced technology for the blind. It is part laboratory, part classroom, part destination.

"I'm loving every minute of this, there's so much here," said a blind visitor, Stacey Revis, twenty-nine, of Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey.

Her fingers roamed over the Braille embossers and reading machines as though she were an antique dealer examining Meissen porcelain.

At home Revis has electronics that produce synthetic speech or Braille, but she came to learn more. She begins a job this week as a computer specialist at JFK Hospital in Edison, New Jersey.

Patricia Maurer and her husband, NFB President Marc Maurer, who are both blind, chatted with the visitors. "They love to come here," she said.

The NFB also hears from hundreds of blind people—including parents of blind children—who telephone to seek an objective and comprehensive view about the latest gizmos, Chong said.

"There's no other place in the world where the blind can find all the latest equipment and software with no bias toward one vendor or another," he said.

"We bought everything here. We accept nothing for free from vendors. We make no money. We explain and show the differences. If we're asked, we can make a recommendation."

He was surrounded by scores of computers and dozens of specialized devices such as Braille embossers (printed words or computer text to Braille), reading machines (printed words to speech), portable note-takers (typing Braille notes to Braille storage or speech).

At the high end was a $77,000 Braille embosser converting at high speed printed words to pages imprinted on both sides with Braille.

Accompanying this article was the following sidebar:

The National Federation of the Blind at 1800 Johnson Street has national programs:

Jobline: For a phone demonstration, call (410) 539-0818.

Job Opportunities for the Blind (JOB): an assistance program.

Parents of Blind Children: a support network.

Student scholarships of more than $100,000.

Resource Library: Free recorded, printed literature.

Kernel Books: Helpful paperbacks in large type.

Information: (410) 659-9314.