Future Reflections        Convention Report 2011

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The Only Option: Accessibility from the Ground Up

by Gaeir Dietrich

GaeirGaeir Dietrich

From the Editor: Gaeir Dietrich (her first name rhymes with fire) chairs the Federal Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education. She is the director of the High-Tech Center Training Unit for the California Community Colleges.

My joy in being here is the fact that I am absolutely passionate about Braille literacy. [Applause] I like to joke that I learned Braille before there was dirt. [Laughter] But after the dirt came the dinosaurs, and some of those dinosaurs are still saying that we don't need Braille, to which I respond, "Ah, so then why do the sighted kids need to learn to read print?" [Applause]

I developed a three-day training for the California Community Colleges. When I started ten years ago, we were training alternative media specialists to create Braille with a wonderful program called Duxbury, which essentially allows someone who does not know much Braille to produce it. I had a commitment that not only would I train my system to be able to create the Braille, but I wanted these sighted individuals who were not Braille transcribers to be able to read what they were creating. So I put together a three-day training course for sighted people to learn to read Braille. We refer to it as Braille boot camp. In those three days they learn uncontracted Braille (Grade I Braille) and Grade II (contracted) Braille. I've trained over two hundred and fifty sighted people now working in this field to read Braille. But what I really train is a passion for Braille. It's a beautiful system, and I am vehemently opposed to creating an illiterate society. As I said, even though I was invited to be here for other reasons, that is what gives me great joy in being here.

I have to say on another personal note, when I am at home in my state of California, I know so many of the blind people there that, whenever I see a cane or a dog coming my way, I always look to see who is at the other end because I probably know the person. But, within about five minutes of arriving at the hotel last night, I found myself completely overwhelmed. Suddenly I am surrounded by hundreds of people I don't know, and I really wish that I could. I'm so glad that Anil is referring to me as his friend, because I would like to be a friend of the Federation. [Applause]

Before Dr. Maurer pulls out his cane to shoo me off the stage, let me actually start talking about what I was invited here to speak about. I am the chair of the Federal Commission on Accessible Instructional Materials in Postsecondary Education. We refer to it as AIM, or the Postsecondary Commission, because it has the unfortunate acronym of AIMPE. Some of you have worked it out--so we don't refer to it as AIM-PEE! Instead, we refer to it just as AIM. Under the Higher Education Opportunity Act, we have been charged with reporting to Congress on the barriers to access for individuals who have print disabilities and to recommend a systematic strategy for changing that.

Our first meeting was at the end of September 2010, and we have exactly one year to complete that report. I'm told it's a very short time frame. Since this is the first time I have ever done anything like this, I don't have any basis for comparison. But I can say that getting a nineteen-member commission with people from diverse backgrounds and with differing desires and agendas onto the same page to write this report has been an interesting challenge. I want very much to thank Mark Riccobono for the support of the National Federation of the Blind. The NFB staff has made some really wonderful suggestions that will get incorporated into the final report.

In particular, the commission has been asked to look at the issues of timely delivery and quality. I worked for a number of years in publishing before I took the job that I am currently in. In publishing we always knew there was this trade-off between the amount of time you spent on something and the quality of whatever you were working on. I'm now speaking with my publisher hat on. We knew that we could make a perfect product, an error-free book, but the amount of time it would take for us to do that was prohibitive. Given that trade-off, you can do it quickly and inaccurately, or you can do it completely accurately and take a long time. So we have decided to try to provide instructional materials that are as good as those the publishers themselves are providing in print.

This means that colleges need help. We can't do it all on our own. At least we have strategies for dealing with hard-copy books. If we can't get a file from the publisher that we can use, at least we can scan it and use that as a starting point. But when the colleges are confronted with digital materials that are completely inaccessible, there is nothing we can do. We are not able to get inside the technology and create something that is equally effective--which is what the law requires. The law doesn't guarantee success, but it does guarantee an opportunity for success.

Unless digital materials are created with accessibility in mind from the beginning, there is no way for us to retrofit them. We can't do it. That's the issue that people like Chris Toth [the plaintiff in an NFB lawsuit against Florida State University] are facing. It has to be designed with accessibility in mind. That is not a technological challenge; that is a human consciousness challenge.

The work of the Federation is so important because you raise awareness. The general population has the perception that digital equals accessible. Every person in this room knows that's not true, but if you talk to the general public, they just assume that, if it's on the computer, blind people can read it. A lot of education needs to be done here. When we come out with this report, I intend not just to have information specifically about the materials and how to deal with them, but the fact that we need to change the way that we educate engineers and computer scientists. We need to make sure that accessibility is not some small branch of rehabilitation engineering, but that in every engineering course and every web design course people are taking this into consideration. It's not hard. It doesn't take a long time. What is hard is retrofitting. That's why those of us who are on the commission are going to take a really hard stand on digital materials and recommend to Congress that they must be made accessible from the beginning. There is no other option. It has to be that way, and the only reason it is not is that people are not making it a priority. It won't cost more; it's not harder. It just has to be done from the beginning. Only when that happens will you have the same quality text that the publishers provide the sighted.

One of the things that the commission was charged to look at is whether there should be a standardized electronic file format like that used in K-12 with the NIMAS format and the NIMAC repository. At this point the commission is saying, "No." Let me tell you why. We don't want a line drawn in the sand that will become a position around which there is a lot of fighting. Those of you who have been following the NIMAS and NIMAC debates know that, even though we have had this in place for a while now, our blind kids are still not getting their materials. It's not working because there is so much focus on creating a certain thing rather than a standard for how to create accessible materials. So the commission is going to propose that we establish standards for formatting, headings, page numbers, and navigation. We don't care if it's called DAISY. We don't care if it's called EPUB3. What we care about is that it is as easy for blind college students to access their materials as it is for sighted students. [Applause]

When we looked at the idea of the clearinghouse, the repository, again we made a decision that this was not the best choice. A better choice was finding some way of having a federated search, where you would be able to go online and search across all the current repositories to find the materials that you need in one place. That would mean going to one place to search and being able to search Learning Ally (which used to be RFB&D), Bookshare, APH, Project Gutenberg, and Access Next repositories so that you know whether the materials are already out there or you have to create them yourself.

We're also looking at possible market-based solutions. The reality here is that, as Alexa was saying with universal design, until you design something that is useful for the mainstream market, it's just not going to happen. So what George Kerscher is doing with helping to combine the DAISY and EPUB standards is really crucial in this effort. It will mean access to these books from the beginning in a format that will work for everyone. When I do DAISY 101 presentations, sight-dependent people come up and say, "When will we get to have this?" That's what we want them to be saying. That's what's going to drive the market. That's part of the idea of universal design.

I think sometimes there is some confusion around universal design. One of the things that I like to remind able-bodied people is that those elevators, those automatic doors in the grocery store that let you go in and out without worrying about the cart, those wonderful ramps that you use when pushing baby strollers aren't intended for you. Those are available because of the ADA and Section 504. The needs of the disabled are the needs of all of us. [Applause]

Finally, the commission was asked to look at issues around low-incidence, high-cost materials. Braille certainly falls into this category, but there is another class of instructional materials for college that falls into this category, too. That is those obscure works that graduate students need, for which only one person in the entire country may need an alternative format.  That's an area where we're going to recommend that subsidies still be appropriate.

Anyone who would like to contribute anecdotes, particularly at the higher-ed level, about challenges you have, your students have, your friends have in accessing materials at the postsecondary level, I want to give you the website.  It's pretty easy to remember. It's  <psc@cast.org>.  We don't want this to be a dry report for Congress to read. We want this to be full of your stories so that, when a congressman or congresswoman reads it, he or she will get the flavor of what it's really like to have these barriers, and they will want to help solve the problem.

In conclusion, following what others have said this morning, disability rights are civil rights. Taking a line from civil rights, separate but equal never is. [Applause]

Last, I want to quote from the Dear Colleague Kindle Letter. "Requiring the use of inaccessible technology is discrimination." I don't want to live in a society where we're discriminating against people based on their ability or disability. I want us to have an equal playing field for everyone with the ability to play on that field. Thank you. [Applause]

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