by Peter M. Siegel
Good afternoon, NFB. It’s an honor to participate. I’m really the student here, and I thank you so much for providing me the opportunity to learn. What I want to do is take back what I am learning here to my colleagues at the University of California, including our president, Mark Yudof, who is a strong public supporter of accessibility, very committed to accessibility and very knowledgeable. It’s especially fitting to be here. The NFB’s founder, Dr. tenBroek, was both a student and a professor at the University of California.
I want to start by sharing with you two brief stories. Each illustrates a simple message that an imperfect university, the University of California, is developing a great vision for universal accessibility. Our approach is inextricably linked with our aspiration for academic excellence and our strong commitment to diversity. It calls for sustained cultural change. We believe that, by challenging deeply held assumptions and established practices, we can support new ways of embracing all perspectives. As I hope to show you today, I share your mission and believe that information technology will help us turn blindness beyond a physical nuisance into a mere physical difference. To reach that goal we must make the same technologies equally usable by everyone, regardless of age, ability, or situation.
A number of years ago a group working for me did phone and walk-in consulting for scientists around the country. Those scientists were creating complicated scientific visualizations--black holes, earthquakes, and epidemics--that type of thing. And they were a very picky lot. The best of our consultants was a fellow named Ray Kajowski, a blind person whom we had hired as one of our senior visualization specialists. Many of his sighted colleagues were distracted by the glitzy colors, the bouncing boxes, and all those things; but Ray systematically analyzed how the software worked and what tools worked best explaining the subtle details of the science. I recall this vividly because several individuals laughed--politely, yet they laughed because how could a blind person be a visualization consultant, much less the best visualization consultant? In fact, getting the best advice to the scientist was all Ray was concerned about. Through his expertise and insight my colleague quietly trumped prejudice.
Some of our blind students are also challenging the traditional idea that vision is the best way to convey knowledge. At a very young age Hoby Wedler, who is in the audience today, developed a passion and enthusiasm for chemistry--one of the so called visual fields. Despite signs of early talent, he was discouraged by a teacher who shared the general prejudice, but, if you ask Hoby, he’ll tell you that the spatial visualization skills and other nonvisual techniques he developed as a successful mobility traveler actually gave him an edge over his sighted counterparts.
Hoby is also making significant contributions to this highly demanding field. Some of you may have heard about the chemistry camps he leads with young blind and visually impaired students, where they experiment with polymers, bottle rockets, and liquid nitrogen. He’s still in his opening chapters; Hoby is just getting started. His story exemplifies one of the University of California’s most fundamental aspirations, to pursue excellence and inspire others to reach their dreams, regardless of the odds. What you may not know is that Hoby recently graduated with honors in history and chemistry, and he is now a PhD student in theoretical and organic chemistry at UC Davis. I only wish I had studied chemistry as hard as Hoby did.
The stories I just shared illustrate how fundamental assumptions and cultural attitudes can be both barriers and springboards to great academic accomplishments. It’s in that context that I want to underscore the profound role that information technology must play in insuring that all individuals have the same access to a good education and the same opportunities to succeed in an increasingly digital world. In the next five years most of our entertainment systems will be completely digital. We all know that. Soon electronic textbooks will be the norm for all students, and paper the exception. All students will routinely use their accessible smart phones to register for classes, turn in their essays, and check their grades. Every faculty member will use technology to do real-time research with colleagues across the world or teach students at multiple campuses.
So, if we are getting ready now, what kind of educators are we? With the incredible rise of technology comes greater pressure for educational online environments to be used effectively by all. That need is growing as adults of all ages seek new degrees and veterans return from recent wars, often with disabilities. Most critically, this greater need for accessibility comes at a time of high underemployment in the blind community, widely reported at 70 percent. This staggering statistic must be addressed. But it’s not solely to be addressed by accessibility advocates, it’s something that has to be a priority for university presidents and senior administrators as well.
So with these factors in mind our goal is to create a University of California where accessibility is so natural that many talented individuals like Hoby Wedler will climb the academic ladder, become full professors (go Hoby), give back to their fields, and inspire the next generation of UC students to excel and, yes, become our university presidents.
Some of you may not be familiar with the University of California. In brief, it was founded in 1868. It has ten campuses throughout the state. It’s a diverse place with 222,000 students. Thousands of our students have disabilities, though many choose not to disclose them. Even today some faculty say they have no students with disabilities in their classes, which obviously isn’t accurate, so it’s a place we have lots of work to do. We have over 121,000 faculty and staff working hand in hand to educate our students and carry out research that can literally change the world. Many of our faculty live with disabilities, and, even if many choose not to self-identify because of the stigma that may create, they contribute more and more as technology becomes increasingly accessible.
The University community also includes almost 1.5 million alumni around the globe and millions of state residents whose livelihoods are tied to the university. If we think of them as potential donors (and I remind the folks who do fundraising that, if these people can’t get to our websites, they can’t access our experts), they’re not going to feel connected to our campus, and they’re not going to donate. So it’s not just the right thing to do, but it’s clearly a critical benefit to the University to engage all of our community members. So no matter what part of the community they live in--student, faculty, staff, alumni, or citizens--we want them to feel they are part of the great University of California, and we need to make sure they have the same quality experience.
Clearly, if we hope to reach the estimated 300,000 members of our community, of our family, who would benefit from accessible technologies, we have a big job to do. So how well are we doing it? The University of California as a flagship public research university system is building on the work of amazing pioneers, pioneers in accessibility in higher education around the nation, around the world.
We have a bold philosophy regarding accessible information technology, and it’s based on four key elements. The first, as I said, is accelerating cultural change. That is changing how people think, how they feel in their gut about accessibility. We have a team of electronic accessibility experts across our ten campuses. They focus on creating a spirit of accessibility, nurturing in our faculty, staff, and students a kind of immersion in accessible culture. In order for people to really embrace this change, they must understand that the concept of the world as separate but equal has no place. There is a great spirit of camaraderie already developing, a conviction that we’re all in this together, and it is really exciting to watch people as they change from saying, “Yes, I understand the rules,” to saying, “Yes, it matters to me that we’re doing this.” This is an exciting thing to see.
We often say that technologists are focused on technology, but this can be a great asset. Once they understand that technology properly applied can convert disabilities into assets, they’re onboard, they’re excited, and they’re committed. So, as an example, the University of California is beginning to use its economic, political, and cultural clout as a major educational system to influence vendors and even product development--many of the things that Dan [Goldstein] talked about earlier. We are moving to strong advocacy within our purchasing division. Imagine what our millions of dollars, even in drastic budget times, can do to inspire equally hungry publishers and software companies. We’re no longer wringing our hands, saying, “Sorry, but the vendor doesn’t provide that accessibly.” Today we ask early and systematically, “How is your software accessible? What is your plan to make your product even more accessible?” And, as Dan reminds me, “Put that in writing.”
So, while I am proud of the progress we are making in changing attitudes and practices, do we get an A+ today? No, not at all. There are still areas where not a single vendor has shown any commitment to accessibility, and some of our departments need to go back to school. But we know exactly how to create this kind of cultural and technologically driven change because we’ve done it before in a number of areas. Some areas may seem mundane, like information security, but in a short number of years we’ve changed so that we will not, and most universities will not, buy a single piece of software that is not secure. They won’t even consider talking to the vendor unless it provides that capability. So, if they can do it for information security, we can use the same approach and make the same requirements for accessibility, and we’re doing that.
At UC Davis we have something called our principles of community, which is posted everywhere on the campus. One of the things it says is, “If it isn’t respectful, we don’t do it.” For me it says, “If it isn’t accessible, we won’t buy it, we won’t build it, we won’t use it, or expect you to use it.”
The second element of our approach is what is often referred to as universal design. That is changing how people develop technologies, online applications, and the like so accessibility is built into those designs and not bolted on as an afterthought. This is something I am really passionate about. The concept started with the focus on physical spaces and tools, and it has already made a difference in many ways for every one of us: things like curb cuts, automatic doors, speaker phones, ergonomic keyboards, motion sensor lighting, even potato peelers. But the electronic world, as in daily life, is a place where, when you make things more accessible, they work better for everybody. A great example is the smartphones of today with those built-in accessibility features. This type of technology offers a new and different paradigm for accessibility. You don’t need to carry around a variety of expensive assistive devices with battery chargers that are all different. We can turn on the smartphone’s accessibility feature and get access to a broad range of information from bus schedules and maps to course materials, textbooks, and so on. This is where we are going—building those into the tools and services for our students, our faculty, and our staff.
When they follow universal design principles, webpages are more accessible; they’re easier to navigate; they load faster; they’re easier to update; and they get to your target audience faster. As a result they lower the number of help-desk calls, which means they lower the overall costs. I don’t know why this is a problem for some of my colleagues to understand. Everyone benefits. So I say to our vendors out there that there is no forced choice here. There’s no forced choice on cost, no forced choice on innovation and accessibility. Blindhow.com from the NFB of Utah is both accessible and cool. So there’s a lot more that I am going to learn about this.
My third element focuses on the notion of dispelling the myth that accessible technology is prohibitively expensive. Let me drill into that for a second and then keep moving along. Our experience is that accessible software costs about the same to develop and less (that’s less, not more, not the same) to maintain than inaccessible software. Even if accessible software were to cost more, we would argue that the money is well spent, because universal design again and again has been demonstrated to improve the user experience for everyone.
So in reality we know that it is not about cost at all for the vendors or the universities. Time and time again we see the root of the problem is ill-considered economic strategies like disabling effective screen readers so as not to threaten the consumer online book market. These gains at the expense of accessibility are clearly intolerable. There are better ways to achieve the same goals. By our saying we won’t buy their products unless they provide accessible software, I think some of these vendors are starting to get it.
At the University of California we are committed to insuring that the next generation, the new generation of services and the pages we provide, the information, are highly accessible. Otherwise this is just economics here: we can’t compete for the best students, the best staff, and the most talented faculty, people like Hoby and Ray. Of course, like every public institution, we face challenging budget times, but, by making modest and judicious new investments now in training our IT staff in accessibility, our staff can become better programmers and build cool innovative systems that are accessible to all. So, doing the right thing makes us more competitive at less cost—sounds straightforward to me. [Applause]
Finally, the fourth element is the notion that real diversity matters. In short, if we’re going to create cultural change and provide effective user experiences, we must have real experts working with us. For visual accessibility this means we need blind students and blind staff to lead us, and we need our blind faculty and researchers to be primary participants in helping us create an environment in which everyone can compete on equal terms for excellence. So for that--this is very important--our campuses have to remove the obstacles that have prevented many blind people from joining our community. In many ways the barriers have only just begun to crumble, since 1954 when the NFB’s own Kenneth Jernigan challenged the California school system to hire qualified blind teachers and demanded equality, the right to work and to live as free citizens in a free society, the right to succeed or fail according to their individual abilities. So it’s time to get that done.
We know that blind students like everyone else benefit greatly from working with mentors and role models who have demonstrated their ability to turn their disabilities into just a physical nuisance, and they can help with the enduring and deplorable assumptions within our universities that the separate-but-equal experiences are generous. More than that, as universities unleash the power of diversity, there is a critical perspective that only individuals with disabilities provide. For example, bring a blind person into a discussion of a famous painting, and everyone will come away with greater knowledge of that painting--same for medicine, same for architecture, and same for every field. My colleague at UC Davis, Professor Catherine Kudlick, is a national leader in understanding how ideas about blind people are shaped by history and culture. Beyond that, Cathy, who is vision-impaired, has articulated a bold thesis: history and disciplines like it must be re-imagined through a disability perspective. Diverse perspectives create understanding. Cathy applies the same philosophy of diversity in leading the UC Davis Committee on IT Accessibility. Without her inspiration I wouldn’t be here today, but--and Cathy gave me permission to say this--not everyone in her professional environment understands the tremendous opportunity of mixing in accessibility issues with history and other fields. Some even say that serious scholars don’t have time for this kind of political issue. Well, we’ll make time. [Applause]
So, as we look to the future, more than the technology itself we expect these three key elements to alter our university environment for the better: cultural change, universal design, and real diversity. The NFB is showing us the way with its demonstration of the first blind person driving an automobile, not a car driving itself. It’s not about replacing people with technology; it’s about empowering people through technology.
So, before closing, I want to share two final examples of recent University of California projects that illustrate our commitment to accessibility. The first relates to online instruction. By 2014 we expect that over twenty-two million students nationally will take some or all of their classes online. It’s up from almost twelve million in 2009. To prepare, the university has begun a system-wide online instructional project. By bringing accessibility to online learning early in the planning phase, we’ll have more effective courses. We will reach more students, and we’ll lower the cost for instruction for everybody.
The second example relates to moving to a digital publishing world and bringing the publishers along in the largest shift in information sharing since the Gutenberg Press. UC California’s Digital Library and the University of California Press have launched projects with Haute Trust with over 8.8 million digitized volumes and Bookshare.org, the largest searchable online library of accessible materials. Together these organizations are developing ways to improve access to electronic books and to produce high-quality paper or Braille materials on demand. This is really cool.Let me conclude. We have much to look forward to. That includes creating an environment where more extraordinary individuals like the NFB founder and beloved University of California Professor Dr. tenBroek have become full participants in higher education. I’d like to think he would be proud of our efforts at the University. Just as the NFB and individuals like Hoby, Cathy, and Ray are changing what it means to be blind, we intend to change the face of the University of California and indeed the face of higher education itself by making the promise of true accessibility a reality. Thank you very much. [Applause]