Future Reflections Special Issue: Technology
by Gary Wunder
From the Editor: After a long career as a computer programmer, Gary Wunder now serves as editor of the Braille Monitor, the primary news publication of the National Federation of the Blind. He is president of the NFB of Missouri and has held a seat on the NFB Board of Directors.
When I turned six, I learned about the magic of Braille. All of a sudden words like cat and dog, that people kept spelling for me, actually made sense. No longer was I simply memorizing strings of letters to make words. I learned what the letters c, a, and t felt like beneath my fingers. It was wonderful to read and write; my only sadness was that my parents did not understand what I wrote for them, and I could not read anything they wrote for me. I dreamed that one day I could write on my Perkins Brailler and have my words translated into print. I dreamed, too, of a device--its size and shape unknown--that would put into Braille everything my family wrote to me.
My dream grew as I got older. At first I attended classes where my teacher could read my Braille lessons. Later, when I moved into classes where I was required to transcribe my Braille assignments into print, the dream became a prayer. The transcription process was time-consuming and prone to error. When I wrote an essay or term paper, I created my first draft in Braille. After reading it over and finding mistakes or better ways to express what I wanted to say, I wrote a second draft in Braille. When I liked it well enough to give it to the teacher, or when the deadline loomed and I had to go with whatever I had, it was time to turn my Braille creation into print. This entailed sitting at a typewriter, reading a line of Braille, typing it in print, and putting my hand back on the Braille page to find my place again. I repeated the process over and over until the paper was typed.
The process was riddled with setbacks. If I mistyped a character, I couldn't erase it. The error was permanently captured on paper. If I backspaced and typed the correct letter, I simply placed it on top of the first one. Sometimes the letter was readable, but many times it was not. The strike-over counted against me as a typographical error or even as a misspelling. Furthermore, there was no spell checker to warn me that what I wrote wasn't a real word. I was in trouble, too, if I realized that a sentence in my final draft was repetitious or didn't make sense. I had no way to move sentences or paragraphs, no way to insert the all-important word that would make my essay clear.
I shared most of these editing problems with my sighted classmates, who also turned in typed or handwritten assignments. But as a blind student, I faced a problem that did not plague my sighted peers. As I transcribed my assignments from Braille, I had no way to read what I typed. If the phone rang as I was typing a sentence, should I ignore it and go on working? Or should I answer the phone and risk forgetting where I had left off? If I finished the sentence and took the call, had I spaced twice after the period, or had I stopped right after the punctuation mark? If I was called away to dinner, could I remember exactly where I'd left off in my transcription? Sometimes I asked my parents or one of my siblings to check for me, but if I rolled the paper up enough for them to see what I had written, I might not manage to roll it back to the precise point where it had been before. Misalignment was definitely unacceptable, and meant I had to retype the whole page.
Transcribing was my least favorite part of school assignments, yet I was grateful that the typewriter had been invented. I was proud to have a device that enabled me to write print. I liked to turn in my papers along with my classmates, and I enjoyed writing letters that my aunt and grandmother could actually read. Transcribing was tough, but it was the way I did things. Whining and complaining were out of the question. Besides, there was always that dream. Someday things would be easier, more fun, and less complicated.
In school I liked nothing better than reading. Reading amazed me back then, and it still amazes me today. By running my fingers over lines of dots, I traveled in my mind to places that I might never visit in real life. Those bumps I read caused me to cry when Old Yeller met his end, when Black Beauty was mistreated, or when a family dog got lost in the desert and didn't know what animals to fear in the wild.
I was fascinated by space travel and the technology that made it possible. Once I read a small, softcovered book that explained the difference between a jet engine and a rocket. It showed why one would work in the atmosphere and the other would not. When I explained the difference to my mother, I felt astonished to be teaching her something she didn't know. She was excited, too. That evening she asked my father if he knew the difference. She demonstrated how well I had taught her by giving her own explanation of propulsion systems.
Reading gave me another dream: the dream that one day Braille would be as compact as print, that one Braille book would fit neatly between two covers. When I was in the early grades, a three-volume Braille book wasn't a problem at school. It could be stored in the massive bookcase in the special room for blind students. When I moved into regular classes, however, I could only carry one volume of the book I needed for a particular subject. If the teacher referred to a page at the beginning of the book and then leaped to a section at the end, my lone Braille volume, containing two chapters, couldn't compare with a print book.
Today hardcopy Braille books are still far bigger than books in print, and most sighted parents can't understand them unless they find the time to learn the Braille code. But technology vastly reduces the gap between Braille and print. I can carry fifty books on my BrailleNote and still have room to write articles like this one. I wrote part of this article as I relaxed in my living room, using a BrailleNote on my lap. Part of it I dictated as I dressed for work. Before it reaches you, I will proofread using a regular keyboard, a Braille display, and a speech output program.
Some of the technology I use is a dream come true; some is so novel that I didn't have the imagination even to dream of it. I am, however, in good company; even science fiction writers missed the value of the personal computer and the concept of the Internet. Who ever thought that one day we would all be connected by our smartphones, laptops, and specialized devices for the blind? Forty years ago a long-distance phone call was so expensive that my family planned it for a week in advance.
Now we have devices that let us turn material into print, Braille, or audio formats by entering a few simple commands. What do I dream of today? I dream not about new technology that will help the blind, but about keeping up with the technology being created for the general public. In the past I could purchase any washer or dryer in the store and, within fifteen minutes, place Braille labels on the buttons and dials to indicate critical settings. The hot-water setting was at four o'clock, the warm at six, and the cold at nine. Oven temperature was easily set by placing dots at 250 degrees, 300, and so on. Today it is hard to find any appliance that can be labeled readily. Many devices have flat surfaces that are sensitive to heat and pressure. The process of looking by touch for the right place to press activates buttons unintentionally. Some appliances use touch-screen technology; if one can't see the menus, it is impossible to operate these devices without sighted assistance. Apple Computer and a few other companies have found ways to make touch screens accessible to blind users. However, few companies give a thought to the needs of blind consumers, and these valuable innovations seldom are incorporated into the home appliances we need.
Today it is very easy to scan a print book, using an optical character recognition (OCR) program, and generate a copy in Braille. Ironically, however, as we finally gain almost limitless access to Braille books, print textbooks are becoming obsolete. In today's classrooms, electronic books offer students searchable text and the ability to go to countless links for further information. Some links lead to more text and others to audio files or to an audio and video combination. Since today's technology makes it easier to produce graphics than ever before, pictures and diagrams are now essential tools for conveying information. Unless blind students can access the information presented graphically on the screen, they will be at a serious disadvantage at every level of education.
Solutions to the problem of textbook graphics will be found, as they are found for nearly every problem we face. Some of these solutions may be automated, but many will require human intervention, perhaps in the form of scripts that convey the necessary visual content of a given page. The implementation of these solutions will require time, energy, and commitment.
In many ways the personal computer levels the field between blind and sighted persons. Yet it also creates unintended barriers. New software designs render buttons, boxes, and text entry fields invisible to screen readers. Such designs provide a unique look and feel for the sighted user, but they have the effect of erecting a KEEP OUT! sign for the blind. Likewise, screen readers cannot handle most image files, a format frequently used to present books and periodicals online.
I dream of a time when designing nonvisual accessibility into programs and products for the general public is as unremarkable as constructing a ramp at a crosswalk. But dreaming isn't enough. It takes more than dreaming to bring about change; it takes hard work. The work I do is coordinated by the National Federation of the Blind. Many dedicated people work beside me to see that blind people will not plunge into a hopeless digital divide. Computers can shut us out, or they can open new and exciting possibilities in our lives. We have the chance to determine what our future will be. I put my trust in us, in all of us who share my dreams. Our dreams aren't merely pleasant diversions. They are a plan for action and a roadmap to success.