From Chameleon to Mantis and Beyond: A Partnership of Shared Value with the Organized Blind Movement

MARK RICCOBONO:  This next presentation is another one that I'm excited about.  You know, we have been building our relationship with the American Printing House for the Blind.  And this gentleman's been with us before, and we have continued to build that relationship.  I think that he represents the kind of spirit and understanding about educational excellence and product development and really being rooted in the needs of blind people that we need at the American Printing House for the Blind.

This item is labeled from chameleon to mantis.  One of the more fun titles that we've written.  And he's a real friend of the National Federation of the Blind.  A true partner.  I am proud to announce the President of the American Printing House for the Blind, Craig Meador!

(Music playing "Fly Like an Eagle").

Nice dance moves.

CRAIG MEADOR:  Some people call me the space cowboy.

Thank you, President Riccobono and thank you NFB nation.  I told President Riccobono the other night that I and the others at A PH are following this convention closely because we'll be doing our annual meeting this year virtually.  Much smaller scale.  Nothing this large.  This has been amazing.  And, you know, to see the level of energy and the enthusiasm and you're doing it all over a virtual platform gives me a lot of hope.  The one thing I'm a little fearful of is a keep hearing from all the NFB staff how exhausting it is to do this all virtually.  So we will just make sure we have our caffeine drip going and we'll get it through.

And a big tip of the hat to the presenters today.  But Kaleigh, holy crow!  My gosh!  If this is what you guys have in the quiver coming up for the NFB, everybody better watch out, because that was impressive.  I got a tear.  I got choked up a bit as she was going and that's really amazing to see.

As you mentioned, the title of this talk, from chameleon to mantis and beyond.  A partnership of shared value with organized blind movement.  We will talk a little bit about products because I wouldn't be APH if we didn't, but I want to talk more about internal workings that have brought APH to where we are today.  I've been at the helm now, this is my fifth year as President.  And APH has always been a strong organization and has done some amazing work but we've done some refocusing over the year that I want to share a little bit about.  And I want to talk about our process and becoming intentional with our direction, practice, and actions and probably more important is making sure that our values and our actions are aligned with everybody that we partner with.

Early on in my career, I was a teacher of students with visual impairment.  And then I moved into, I became principal at the Washington State school for the blind.  And in my training, I had this wonderful professor and also followed this professor on as I worked on my doctorate.  Dr. Gaye Seld.  She would end our talks with two words, "Be intentional."  It was a catch phrase but you hear it enough, you start to take it to heart.  What does be intentional really mean?

The idea of intentionality is the fact of being deliberate or very purposeful in your actions, your thoughts, and your deeds.  So the idea when you were a school principal to be intentional, that idea when I stepped out my office to walk down the hall, every step became that of a principal based on the values of our education system there at the Washington State school for the blind.  And we had a few, but some of those key values were safety of students.  Another one was respect.  Another one is seizing the educational moment.  So as I walked down the hall, if someone had left a book bag on the floor or a piece of trash, intentionality was picking that up and putting it in the proper area, throwing away the trash, setting aside that book so it didn't create a hazard for a student.

If was a situation of a student coming down the hall, I would greet them either on a first name basis or sometimes for fun, I would say how are things going today, Mr. Todds?  But bestowing a level of respect and engaging that student, trying to connect with them, making sure that heart wise they were ready to go on to the next lesson.

So, you know, I brought that.  That's become a part of who I am.

So when I came to APH, my wife and I came to Louisville, Kentucky, and I came to APH, I brought that with me.  I was glad to find kindred spirits here around intentionality, but we had some work to do.

We want to be intentional at APH with our values.  We have just three.  There's a lot of values connected to this, but three main values posted around APH:  Respect, innovate, and grow.  So we want all our activities that we do should be a reflection of those three values.  So be intentional with our commitments to serve the field.  How do we do that?  Well, first of all, we need to ask for input.  And not only ask for input but we need to do a better job of listening carefully.  We've got to act with the best interests of the people that will use our products.  We need to be intentional with our relationships.  So again, what do I mean about that?  When we partner and choose to partner with someone, our values and our interests must align.  We must have shared common ground there.  There must be shared values because if you don't have that, you end up getting a very dysfunctional relationship and the people that suffer from that are the people who are on the receiving end of that product or that service.

If we've learned nothing else from COVID-19, and we've learned a lot, it's this:  In this day and age, in the 21st century, especially in a time of pandemic, or a time of inconvenience, you cannot go it alone.  There is no room anymore for lone rangers, especially if you are a company charged with the idea of producing product.  You need to find solid partners.  Not only manufacturing partners, but you need to find like minds and like hearts that can help you carry out your mission.

I'm happy to say that we have that partnership with the NFB.  And we have been working that and cultivating a strong relationship with Mark and the team there.

So thankful for that.

And I want to do a quick pivot to highlight how we take that philosophy and turn it into action.  One area is sustainable, accessible -- that's important, accessible educational platform.  We've been in the product business since the late 1800s and we began in the service business shortly after the turn of the 20th century, in the 1900s.  And in the '90s we went as far to create partners that focused on service and training.  But as of 2016, only 80% of what we did was product based and 20% was service.  Realizing that the world was changing and that students had access to more products beyond APH, we knew that some of the big areas missing were service components so we charged the team with becoming as much of a service organization as a product organization.  This idea that hopefully by 2023, 2025, we will be almost a split 50/50.  We're working towards that.

What's that going to look like?  First of all, the question I want to answer is why are we doing.  That I came from an education background.  I've already told you that.  You know for decades now, we have had a continual shortage of trained professionals, trained rehab, trained teachers of the blind, and it's not getting better.  That's just the reality.

The result has been that many people have had to step in the gap to pick up the slack.  It's been an incredible burden on parents, on those people who work within the field, and on agencies.  I a "burden."  I use that term.  I want you to feel burden in the sense of carrying more than our fair share.  Not burden because we don't want to do the work.  This is the work of this field is based on a mission and a passion and a love for the field, but sometimes regardless of how much you love something, sometimes the weight gets to be a little heavy.

The downside of that is what I've seen which really just gets me, and it makes me, it does not sit well with me, is too often you see that the lack of services in local public schools, they will take that as a license to deny service.  So this usually comes out in not enough Braille instruction or no Braille instruction.  Let's push this student off Braille because we have no one to teach Braille.  Sometimes it's a lack of orientation mobility instruction.  Oftentimes what we call the expanded core curriculum or skills for daily living, whether cooking, living, recreation, those things aren't taught at all because the school district simply does not have the personnel, nor do they want to make the time.

Again, that doesn't sit well with me.

So how are we going to address that?  We can't do that on our own at APH, but our goal is to find partners.  We want to harness all the brilliance that exists not only in our nation but internationally.  And work with -- NFB is already doing some of this work.  You have online instructional programming.  You stepped up during COVID and provided a lot of that for NFB members and non-NFB members, just families out there who needed a leg up.

We are partnering with you on that, would like to partner with you on that.  Our plan two years ago was to build this online structure, learning portal or learning system, where we could find this instruction from around the country and could load that and provide people access to that instruction when they needed it in their time.

Our goal originally was to launch that spring of '21.  So we were building slowly for that and testing things as we were moving forward.

Then COVID hit.  And much like NFB and other agencies, we saw this crisis as an opportunity.  It would have been really easy for everyone to bunker, and I did not see that anywhere in the field.  In fact, we had several meetings where we pulled all agencies together and just talked to them, saying, what are you doing and how can we point people in your direction.  Agencies came out of the woodwork to provide support during that time which I think just speaks volumes about our field.

It was a hectic time.  It's the old cliché of building the airplane while you're flying it.  But what we were able to do as a result of that is continuous education.  Each day during the regular school year, so pretty much from the first week of April through the third week of June, we were providing and partnering with people to provide instructional information, lessons, program, professional development on a daily basis.  We were also able to host a summer school this summer, both virtual as well.

Another thing we did is we were able to relaunch the APH connect center, a series of websites formerly operated by another organization and shifted to us a year ago.  We were able to clean those up and launch them.

Second area we did prior to COVID which I was happy did about that I want to talk about is this idea of shared values and partnerships.  We created our Braille trail.  APH has long created Braille curriculum.  That's kind of what we've done.  Or we've hosted partner curriculums.  For example, the Illinois Braille series and several other series that we did not create but we host and make available.

We've always relied heavily on partners to fill in the technology gap with refreshable Braille.  Back around 2010 APH, NFB, Perkins, CNIB, and several others came together and formed the transforming Braille group.  Through the leadership of individuals like James Gashel and Larry Scukon, they got Braille devices under $500, the Orbit Reader.  We saw several other low-cost devices after that, like the Braille Me, handled by National Braille Press.  We saw a lot of other new Braille technologies being developed.  And most importantly, what we saw was some of the larger vendors, the seasoned companies, reexamine their Braille devices and start to drop their prices and creating lower cost refreshable Braille.

This was a wonderful example of shared values, all those agencies coming together to accomplish the unheard of task.

This past spring the TBG, confident that they had achieved that original mission, made the decision to disband.  And that would have been a great story in itself but all of that ended there.  But it didn't end there.  Because from those events and experiences and watching what could be achieved when companies come together and share values, our Vice President fought for innovation and strategy.  Her team decided since TBG was able to bust through that ceiling, we should take those lessons learned and create a long-term plan for refreshable Braille devices in APH.  How would we accomplish that?  Well, we decided, like I mentioned, we first have to find partners that had shared aligned values.  And then once those partners would be identified, we would begin with the end in mind.  So we're going to do something different.  We were going to start with end users, talk to the people who use the technology every single day, talk to the people who teach Braille and technology, and that may sound real genius, right?  Well, you would think that.  But in the world of manufacturing, and we've all been victim to this, oftentimes manufacturers -- I'm speaking to APH, we get that wrong.  We come up with an idea or someone hands us an idea and we run off with it without checking with the end user saying, is this what you need?

So we reversed our process and started with groups and started asking users and started asking teachers and professionals, what do you need.  How should the product work.  And that took many long conversations.

From that we developed some strategies.  The goals seemed simple on paper.  We developed a mission, which sounds like I'm repeating myself, but bears repeating:  Partner with likeminded companies to produce likeminded affordable reliable Braille products that promote success in school, life, and work.  Nice mission.

Shared values.  These are the shared values.  When you come to the table with us, you've got to share these values or we're not partnering.

You have to positively impact Braille literacy.  Too many detractors out there about Braille.  We want people who believe in Braille, eat, sleep, breathe this, and realize the importance of it.

We want to increase the use of Braille in the classroom.  We want to improve teacher Braille and technology skills because we know that if the providers of the technology training don't feel comfortable with the device, it won't happen.  We want to influence pricing in refreshable Braille market.  We want to contribute to improved education and employment outcomes.  Those are our values.

As a company, APH, our goal is to support.  We have many partners.  Wonderful partners with HumanWare, Vispero, a lot of additional partners we're working on developing relationships with.  Manufacturing partners, schools for the blind, NFB, but we want to support our various partners and vendors.  We want to maintain a careful balance of solid, reliable products.  And we also want to take some chances on some risky ventures.  If someone comes in with new technology, we want to give them time to present that, look at those ideas, especially if there's promise there, a hope it our customers.

We want to be supportive of all companies working to bring high quality, innovative, refreshable Braille to students and others.  At that affordable cost.  We think that's key.

We realized we had a couple holes.  One was a child-centered student-centered Braille device.  We uncovered something quickly in this process.  Student devices used in the public school or anywhere are mainly adult devices.  They weren't built for someone coming in to the Braille experience with the curiosity of a child.  The way you teach a child and an adult are two different things.  And so what we have been doing ever since I've been in this field is we have been teaching, taking adult devices and trying to teach students how to work through that device kind of thinking like an adult, kind of learning like a student.  So we thought we could do something a little different.  So we believe that when you put a device in a student's hands, it should do some of the following things.  Students, first of all, should be able to connect with that device.  It should be easy to use.  They should have a pride in that device and maybe even, I sound kind of corny, but develop a deep emotional connection to that device.  They should say love for that device.

Students learning Braille should have access to their own device.  They should not be sharing device with another student.  That device should go to school with them, go home from school with them, including over summer vacation.  Too many times we see kids only get access to refreshable Braille during the hours of 8:30-3:00, and that's not okay anymore.  We don't do that with any other students so that's another one of our beliefs.

Student refreshable Braille devices should be a level of sophistication because we start them out with a lower device but it should lead them to that next step, when they're ready to go to that higher-powered device.  Students should become technology savvy using that device, and those skills should be relatable on to college and higher ed or employment and business and just everyday life.

That student Braille device should also have complex features on it.  As the student is ready to grow, the device grows with the student.  And online training is an essential part of that.

From those beliefs, we came up with the chameleon, which launched the other day, a student-centered device, 20 cell Braille.  One of the cool things about it is it is a device geared for kids.  We did something similar with adults, and I'll speed up here because we have other people here, but we believe that adults in rehab programs or transition programs or in the world of work should have a sophisticated device, a business tool.  We released the mantis about a month ago.  If you haven't seen it yet, we think you'll like it.  It is a QWERTY keyboard.  If you know Larry, I came here in 2015 as a Vice President, and one of the first meetings I sat in, Larry was preaching the value of this device and nobody on the product team would give the light of day.  And Larry did not give up and he did not give up because he would every year come back and say, I think we need to make this product and he would say, Larry, there's already Bluetooth keyboards and 40 cell Braille devices, you can pair them together, they work fine.  And he kept saying, this is not what the end user wants.

About a year and a half ago when they did the roadmap, when they finally green lit Larry, they said, make it happen.

This is a great example.  Sighted people thought, we know better because nobody wants this thing.  We sold out.  Second order in.  They sold out.  These things are flying off the shelf.  And the feedback, it may not be everybody's cup of tea, but the feedback is people love the paired keyboard with the Braille device built in.

MARK RICCOBONO:  I'm giving you the high sign, Craig.

CRAIG MEADOR:  Very good.

An example of listen to the people who use the equipment every day.  So running ahead?  We would love to say we're going to create that device so Kaleigh and students like her never ever get caught in the trap of a pandemic or not being able to get accessible materials to them.  We want to see the Holy Grail, the multiline display, digital, accessible Braille textbook a reality.  That's what we're working towards.  We can't do that alone.  We are always looking for partners as well as cheerleaders.  And you know, in many ways, I believe we have that relationship with NFB and that is something we will continue to cultivate.  We are excited about this partnership.  We believe that you are the key to our success in reaching the largest population of end users, and most informed folks that are out there.  And we want to just continue to grow this thing and make that our reality.

MARK RICCOBONO:  Thank you very much, Craig.  There is a lot of exciting work.  Sorry I have to cut you off.

Thank you for recognizing that the National Federation of the Blind is not an agency, we're a movement of blind people, and bringing us into the center of what you're leading at APH is exciting. Thank you to you and the team at APH. And you got us on the road of crowd compass, which we're using quite happily at this convention. Thank you, Craig.