by Marc Maurer
From the Editor: On February 20, 2013, President Maurer addressed the First International Conference on Technology for Helping People with Special Needs (ICTHP-2013) at the Al-Imam Mohammad Ibn Saud Islamic University in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His was the keynote address for the two-day conference, and here is what he said:
An important element of American life is literacy, the ability to read. The foundation document for the legal system in the United States is the Constitution. This document contains provisions that guarantee to people in the United States many rights, but the right to read is not among them. The right to have and to maintain property is covered in several places, and rights to life and liberty are enumerated more than once. The Constitution does contain a reference to copyright, the protection of written material against unauthorized taking. However, the people of the United States are not guaranteed the right to be able to read the documents that are of such value that they are offered copyright protection in the most basic document created to govern our country.
At the time of the founding of the United States, part of the population was enslaved. In many places teaching slaves to read was prohibited. If slaves learned to read, they could communicate with each other over long distances and over long time periods. They could learn of the promise contained in the Constitution that persons in the United States had rights. They could plan effective campaigns to change the circumstances in which they lived. Reading was considered a means to power, and the thought process of those who controlled slaves was that they should be kept powerless. The United States Constitution has now been amended to prohibit slavery, and at least one provision of the Constitution has been employed to declare that equality in educational opportunity for people with different identifiable characteristics is required. However, the implications inherent in slavery have not been completely eliminated. Assigning people to different classifications in the legal structure of American law with only the most minimal demonstration that the classifications are relevant to the restrictions or privileges associated with them is still permitted. For example, in 1938 the Fair Labor Standards Act became law in the United States. This act declared that all workers were entitled to receive no less than the statutory minimum wage. However, a provision of this law exempted individuals with disabilities. Furthermore, in 1927 and in 2001 the Supreme Court of the United States declared that provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution do not apply to disabled individuals even though the plain language of the amendment declares that the rights enumerated are for all persons. In other words, disabled individuals are not persons for purposes of interpreting the Constitution and laws of the United States in quite the same way that nondisabled persons are. The notion that arbitrary classification can be tolerated—the pernicious assertion that some classes of individuals are somehow superior and some are inferior that came from the practice of slavery—remains an element of American law today. In addition, the right to read is not protected in American law.
In the past in my country education was often provided to boys but not to girls. Men could vote, but women could not. Because men were often expected to participate in politics and business, they needed the power and the skill that came with literacy, but women (it was thought) did not. It seems ironic to me that a woman, Jeannette Rankin, was elected to Congress from the western state of Montana prior to passage of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, which guarantees women the right to vote.
Among the most important resources of a country are its people. Some cultures encourage productivity by individuals from groups identified by widely-varying characteristics while others do not. When slavery was being encouraged in the United States, most enslaved individuals were prevented from developing their intellectual capacity. Furthermore, when slavery came to an end, this group of people who had been prevented from getting an education could not easily exercise the rights and privileges of freedom. Not only did the denial of an education diminish the intellectual capacity of an entire class of people, it also crippled economic development for the United States. It created a system of thought damaging to the society. If a misguided effort had been undertaken to provide an education to slaves, it was thought, they would not be able to benefit from it because their intellect was inferior to that of others. Furthermore, denying them an education was a positive benefit to them because they would be pathetically out of place in educational institutions. Sometimes this attitude of mind is plainly evident in conversations involving education for the blind.
The first organized efforts at education for the blind in the United States occurred in 1829 with the establishment of an institution now known as Perkins. However, a federal law declaring that all disabled people (including the blind) are entitled to an education was not adopted until 1975. Although some educational experiences for blind people in the United States have been good, many others have not. At the moment fewer than 50 percent of blind students in high school graduate, and approximately 10 percent of blind students in school are being taught to read Braille. Why are the numbers so low?
If teachers and administrators in a school system think that the students they are teaching are likely to make a significant difference in the world, the students will get enormous attention and substantial resources. If, on the other hand, the teachers and administrators think their students are likely to fail, the educational experience will be approached in a most undemanding and unproductive way. Unfortunately, many administrators and teachers expect almost nothing from their blind students. Sometimes they get exactly what they expect.
In 1940 the National Federation of the Blind was created by a blind professor, Dr. Jacobus tenBroek, and a handful of others. Prior to the establishment of this organization, such programs for the blind as existed were directed largely by sighted people. When the National Federation of the Blind came into being, an increasing number of blind people themselves began to take action to alter the patterns of participation and acceptance for the blind that existed.
In the early 1970s computer technology was becoming familiar on college campuses. The computer had been known in earlier decades, but the technology was complex and expensive. Nevertheless, computer classes were being taught at most universities by the time I entered college in the early ’70s. The method of approach to these machines was to type commands on punch cards. When the stack of cards had been created, they were run through a card reader that read the computer commands. The output was created on a piece of paper that came from a printer—sometimes a large sheet but sometimes a paper tape.
Blind students who were part of the National Federation of the Blind and who were attending one of the universities wondered if the computer could be directed to create results in Braille. A paper tape printer was modified by placing a piece of elastic under the paper tape. The computer was programmed to create dots on the paper by making the period strike heavily upon the paper tape. By controlling the pattern of dots, the result could be displayed on paper tape in Braille.
It is common today to imagine that computer programs must display information on a computer screen. However, the screen came after the computer. The results of a calculation for a computer application may be displayed in print on a screen, or they may be displayed in tactile form using a refreshable Braille display or a Braille printer. They may also be produced in audible form.
In the mid-1970s the National Federation of the Blind supported an effort by Ray Kurzweil to build a reading machine that would make print material hearable. The project came to fruition in 1975 with the development of the first optical character recognition system that would read most fonts and produce speech in a computer voice. The device to do this was about the size of a washing machine. Today the reading machine is a program that will operate on a cell phone. Ray Kurzweil and the National Federation of the Blind created a company to produce and distribute the knfbReader Mobile, which has been developed for a number of Nokia phones, the Android operating system, and (soon) the iOS platform.
At the very beginning of the 1980s, the first screen readers were being developed—computer programs that could read aloud information from some specialized applications on the computer. The National Federation of the Blind built a piece of hardware, the Speaqualizer, that captured digital information from the computer bus and made it audible. The Speaqualizer was not limited to any specific application. It could make most computer information accessible to the blind. The personal computer began to appear in offices, and screen reading software to make the digital information in such products hearable was developed.
In the early 1980s a member of the National Federation of the Blind from Kentucky, Tim Cranmer, invented a device called the Pocket Braille. This was a tiny digital machine that could accept and reproduce information from a set of Braille keys. The prototype had a space bar and six keys, one for each dot in the Braille cell. Deane Blazie, an engineering friend of Tim Cranmer’s, examined the device and decided that he could build a portable data assistant for the blind with this design. His first product was the Braille ’n Speak. With its invention, Deane Blazie created the notetaker industry for the blind.
In 1988 George Kerscher, a blind person living in the western part of the United States, had trouble getting all of the information he wanted in classes at the university. He noticed that books were being produced by first having them drafted using computers, but he could not read the material in the computer formats then being used. To address this problem, he developed digital books. A digital book is writing contained in a file that can be presented auditorily or with Braille—either on paper or in refreshable form—and that can be navigated with accessible commands so that the blind person using the book can find headings; read by sentence, paragraph, word, or letter; identify and read footnotes; and annotate the text. A refreshable Braille display is a device with moving pins that represent Braille.
In the 1990s the National Federation of the Blind created NFB-NEWSLINE®. This service currently provides three hundred newspapers in digital form each morning to blind people by telephone, by computer, or by portable device such as the iPhone. NFB-NEWSLINE® also makes available dozens of magazines and a substantial amount of other content—job listings, a guide to television programming, and other material.
The Americans with Disabilities Act became law in my country in 1990. This law declares that disabled people in the United States must be accepted on terms of equality in government programs, public accommodations, and employment. However, it does not require manufacturers of products to build them with accessible controls or programs. One of the results of the adoption of this law is that bank machines must be accessible to the disabled because they fit the definition of a public accommodation. Although the legal structure creates a peculiar result, the banks that deploy bank machines must install accessible ones. However, the manufacturers of the devices are not required to build them. A public accommodation (in this case I mean a bank machine) must be accessible to the user. But a product manufactured for sale to a bank (in this case I mean a bank machine) is not required to be accessible. If a bank machine is a product, it need not be accessible. If it is a means to provide a service to the public, it must be. Despite the legal provision requiring bank machines to be accessible to the blind, such machines were not being used by the banks. When we asked banking officials to use accessible bank machines, they told us that they would do so, but bank machine manufacturers did not sell them. When we asked the bank machine manufacturers why they didn’t build accessible machines, they said that they would do so but no banks ordered them. A dozen years ago we discovered that, in a limited number of places, manufacturers were deploying their own bank machines. We demanded that these be usable by the blind, and the shift in building accessible bank machines began. Today I am told that all manufacturers build accessible machines. Not all banks deploy these machines with accessibility enabled as the law requires, but all machines manufactured in the United States can be deployed in this way.
In 2002 Congress adopted the Help America Vote Act, which requires accessible voting machines that can be used nonvisually. This law applies only to federal elections, but in each voting district at least one voting machine must be usable without requiring sight.
During the first decade of this century, books and other teaching material began to move rapidly to digital form. The Apple company built computers, but they also made portable devices that play music and other recorded matter. iTunes was the music distribution system created by Apple. When iTunes U began to be used to distribute course material for college, the National Federation of the Blind sounded the alarm. If inaccessible technology could be used in college, blind students would no longer have the ability to get an education. The first digital books had been created by blind people, but the Apple company was presenting digital information in an inaccessible way. The digital content is created in computer machine language that can be represented visually, audibly, or tactually. Although the computer machine language is, at its most fundamental level, made up of ones and zeros, the interpretive programming employed to present the digital information that was added to the computer machine language made the presentation available only in visual form. In my capacity as president of the National Federation of the Blind, I wrote to the presidents of 285 universities to tell them that their use of this inaccessible technology on college campuses violated the nondiscrimination provisions of the law.
When the level of complaint became sufficiently great, we entered into an agreement with Apple to make iTunes and iTunes U accessible to the blind. We also indicated that we wanted accessibility to Apple products. Within a short time an accessible iPhone was produced. The method for achieving accessibility was to create gestures that could be used on flat screens. With the appropriate gesture and with a speech program included in the flat-screen device as part of the manufacturing process, the information contained in the product can be spoken aloud or presented in Braille on a refreshable Braille display. Appropriate gestures may include a one-finger, two-finger, or three-finger tap, upward or downward swipe by one or more fingers, and similar movements. The cell phone, which was once used only to make telephone calls, became the device to provide access to the Internet, access to banks, access to libraries that had been digitized, and access to the credit and investment markets of the world. You could also read books with it or study course lectures. Hundreds of thousands of applications have been built for the iPhone, and many of them are accessible to the blind. Although standards have been created to assure accessibility, no system for enforcing these standards has been created. Some estimates say that only half of the iPhone apps are accessible to the blind.
I have been informed that the method of providing equal access to the content of Apple’s products is being challenged in Europe. A competitor to Apple is claiming that the access system used by the Apple company violates a patent. Having accessibility built into devices that can be implemented out of the box is highly desirable. Consequently, it is important to protect this level of accessibility.
Google has created an operating system which has not been accessible until recently, and the level of accessibility is not yet adequate. However, Google is telling us that it is working to “bake in” accessibility to its operating system and to its other products.
A number of book producers have recently decided to make their books digital. When Amazon created the Kindle, we pointed out that the device would be much enhanced if it included text-to-speech technology. Reading could be accomplished auditorily as well as visually. Amazon accepted this suggestion, but, when the text-to-speech program became a part of the Kindle, the blind could not use it. Amazon had neglected to make the controls for the text-to-speech program accessible to the blind.
On the other hand, the digital book reader produced by the K-NFB Reading Technology Company, the Blio, is accessible. Blio is a multi-platform digital book reader that operates on desktops, laptops, handheld Android devices, and products using the iOS program. Blio works with a library digital access program called Axis 360. More than 750 thousand books are currently available through the book store associated with Blio, and the information presented through Blio can be heard or read through touch using a refreshable Braille display.
The iBooks offered by Apple are also hearable using VoiceOver, the screen-reading program included in the Apple products. Apple offers support for refreshable Braille as well.
In 2008 the Higher Education Opportunity Act became law, which incorporated amendments requiring the Department of Education of the United States to establish a commission for the purpose of determining how accessible instructional materials could be produced for students in college. The National Federation of the Blind had sponsored these amendments, and one of our members, Mark Riccobono, served on the commission. The report of the commission was issued in 2011. Unsurprisingly, it found that accessible higher education materials were not readily available to blind students and professors. It found that such materials could be produced with modern technology, and it recommended that Congress consider legislation to ensure that blind students had access to course materials, books, course management software, journal articles, and other matter used for classes in college. A draft proposal for legislation to authorize a government entity in the United States to create enforceable standards for instructional materials in college is now being circulated in Congress by the National Federation of the Blind. The Association of American Publishers has worked with us to create such draft legislation.
In 2002 the Google company embarked upon the Google Books Project. Libraries at major universities throughout the United States and in some other nations offered Google copies of their printed books for digitization. In return for the loan of these books, Google offered to return them to the libraries along with scanned copies of the books. Of course, Google would keep a scanned copy. Google’s stated purpose was to permit scanned copies of the books to be used in Google searches. Google would not sell the books or give them away. Instead, it would let individuals seek snippets of information contained in the books, and it would inform those individuals where the books could be found. The National Federation of the Blind sought urgently to be a part of this project. Our stated objective was to gain access for the blind to the content of all the books. Digitized books can readily be presented in print, in audible form, or in a tactile representation.
When much of the Google content had been created, the Authors Guild sued Google. It said that it wanted the content of the scanned material destroyed or permanently restricted from use because creating a digital version of a printed document violated copyright. Eventually an agreement between the Authors Guild and Google was reached. Google would be authorized to sell the books. It would pay the Authors Guild 69 percent of the funds received for sales. Google would have two years to make the digital material accessible to the blind and print disabled. Before the agreement became final, the United States Justice Department became a part of the lawsuit because it said that Google might be creating a monopoly. If Google created a monopoly, this action might violate the antitrust laws of the United States. The agreement was modified to satisfy the Justice Department’s concerns about the antitrust laws. However, when the agreement was presented to the court for approval, the judge rejected it. The reason for the rejection is that some books in the digital collection have been written by individuals who cannot now be found. These are known as “orphaned books.” Because there is no recognized owner of the orphaned books, there is no recognized person to receive the 69 percent of the revenue that would be collected and distributed by the Authors Guild. Consequently, a violation of copyright has occurred because somebody is being enriched without paying the author.
In the meantime a number of the libraries with scanned material from the Google Book Project created an entity called the HathiTrust. This entity planned, on behalf of the university libraries, to manage the scanned material. The Authors Guild once again sued the HathiTrust over copyright. The National Federation of the Blind intervened in the lawsuit. We argued that, if the books have been digitized, these materials can be presented accessibly to blind students and professors at the universities where they are located. Either the fair use doctrine incorporated in copyright law or the special exception to copyright provided by the Chaffee Amendment authorizes the HathiTrust to make digitized materials available to blind students and professors. The Chaffee Amendment, adopted in 1996, declares that government or nonprofit organizations may make books available to blind individuals in formats other than print without seeking copyright permission. If the HathiTrust wished to do so, it could provide digitized materials to blind individuals throughout the United States, not just to blind students in college or blind faculty members. The decision of the court, which was issued in October 2012, declares that these books can be distributed to blind people under the provisions of copyright law. How the distribution is to take place is not yet determined, but recognition that it can be done has now been established.
Another manufacturer of book reading technology is Barnes & Noble, which created the Nook, a small hand-held device that presents book text visually. When Barnes & Noble attempted to cause libraries and school systems to use the Nook for reading books, once again the National Federation of the Blind took action. The Nook was created without a program to provide the visual information in any other way. Books could not be heard or read by touch. Consequently, blind people who wanted to get books from libraries or read them in school would be prevented from having equal access to the same information available to the sighted, even though having equal access is readily achievable. Barnes & Noble has been trying to capture the campus bookstore market. Its products are mostly not accessible, its website cannot easily be used by the blind, and the books it sells are almost entirely unusable by blind people although small changes in recent months indicate that Barnes & Noble may be making some changes to provide increased accessibility. This inaccessibility is particularly worrisome because the stated objectives of many chief executives for schools, colleges, libraries, and political jurisdictions in many parts of the United States have indicated that they are going 100 percent digital.
An entity created decades ago called the DAISY Consortium (DAISY stands for Digital Accessible Information System) has worked closely with the National Federation of the Blind and the International Digital Publishing Forum, along with publishers, to create an automated accessible digital publishing standard. This standard, denominated EPUB 3, has been drafted, and the automated computer programs to implement it are being written. This standard will result in the publication of digital materials that are designed from the beginning to be accessible to the blind. The National Federation of the Blind, which has strongly supported this standard, has encouraged publishers to participate in the process. The final product will be good for the blind and beneficial to the publishers because they will not be required to create one product for the sighted and another for the blind and print-disabled.
Of course, no digital publishing system has adequately addressed all aspects of printed representation. Graphs, charts, and pictures must be alt-tagged with descriptive comments. Some of these visual elements—fancy borders, some pictures, and striking or unusual formats—are included in printed material to make it look prettier. However, some of the printed material presents the primary message of the topic being displayed. Although economics books could be written only with words, the custom has been adopted to present information in graph form. The graphs provide information that the words do not. Consequently, it is important to develop a method for presenting this information in standard nonvisual form. Just as a visual image can be displayed with accepted normative elements to demonstrate perspective, a standardized method of describing an image must be developed. In addition, it is highly desirable to seek a method for creating tactile forms of visual images that incorporate the fundamental knowledge contained.
With current memory storage available, creating a dictionary of images identified for nonvisual presentation is practical. However, many new images will be drawn. Consequently, inventing a method for presentation of them that does not rely on previous description is also needed. Plato wrote in the Republic thousands of years ago that forms exist in the mental comprehension of human beings. He asserted that all reality is recognized by human beings because it approaches the mental image of these forms. Whether Plato’s comprehension is universal or not, visual representations have repetition in them. A program to recognize the repetition and present the information is urgently required for the implementation of nonvisual access.
In 2010 the National Federation of the Blind announced that it was in the process of working with engineers to build an automobile that could be operated nonvisually. We speculated that we would be able to demonstrate this automobile publicly in 2011. At the end of January 2011, one of our members, Mark Riccobono, who is a blind man, drove the blind-drivable car on the racetrack at the Daytona International Speedway. In doing so, he demonstrated the ability to avoid both static and dynamic obstacles and to operate alongside other moving vehicles safely and independently. The speed achieved during this demonstration was modest, twenty-seven miles an hour. Further development of this type of technology is required, but the first demonstration has been made. As driverless vehicles are developed, it is of importance that the tools to manage these machines be built in a form that is accessible to the blind. Google has built what has been called a driverless car. I have informed officials at Google that we who are blind want to drive it independently.
In this technical age we the blind are in a race. Technology can be built so that we can use it effectively and independently. However, it can also be built in a manner that will prevent us from understanding it or using it. If the people who build and deploy such technology understand that nonvisual access will help them to sell more products and to engage more people in productive endeavors, then we will be able to use our abilities to enhance the societies in which we live. We will also gain independence. Cultural expectations drive the development of technology. If the culture of a society expects groups of the people within it, such as the blind, to be passive and unproductive, the technology produced in that culture will be made so that blind people cannot use it or cannot use it well. However, if participation, independence, and productivity are demanded, both programs and technology will be built so that all can get at them and use them. The customary name for the plan to build for all is known as “universal design.”
In the National Federation of the Blind of the United States, we expect blind people to be productive, capable, self-sufficient. Consequently, we insist upon a technology that will permit productivity and independence. Technology begins with a thought. That thought is, “How can I use the value of the capability that is inherent in the people for whom this technology is built?” Ray Kurzweil, the futurist and inventor who built the first reading machine for the blind, said that the first thing to do when inventing a technology is to write the advertising brochure. This document will tell you what the device is supposed to do and who the members of the audience are who will pay money to get it. If the inventor believes that the customers are capable of complex thought and behavior, the device will contain characteristics that take advantage of complexity. But it all depends on believing in the people who will pay for the device. The second thing to do when inventing a new product is to employ people to help get it built who will want to use it. When it was time to build the reading machine, we said to Ray Kurzweil that we would assist with financial resources as long as he employed blind engineers to help build the machine. He told us later that this was one of the most valuable pieces of advice he had been given. When he later wanted to build a digital piano, he insisted that the engineers who worked on the project be musicians. Both the reading machine and the digital piano show the advantages of this procedure.
In contemplating the work we have done with Ray Kurzweil, it is well to remember that our efforts have changed technology not just for the blind but for everybody. The optical character recognition system built into the reading machine evolved into the scanning technology that has changed communications systems all over the world. The reading machine took a visual image and altered it so that you could hear it. Reversing this effort, Ray Kurzweil created a dictation machine that would make voice into print. First deployed in hospitals to assist medical staff in keeping records, elements of this system are now part of the Dragon Dictate software that can be purchased in marketplaces all over the world. This is only one example of the change that we caused to occur, bringing greater opportunity first to the blind and then to an entire population.We believe that blind people can handle all of the complexity that has been produced for anybody else. However, the manner of handling the complexity must be managed in ways different from those employed by the sighted. Alternative techniques used by the blind to get to the same place that sighted people reach with visual techniques are not inferior to those used by the sighted, but they are different. We also believe that the intellectual ability of blind people is equivalent to that of the sighted, and we insist that the endeavors that take advantage of intellectual ability be open and available to us. We believe that the physical capacity of blind people is as great as that possessed by the sighted, except for the ability to see. And we believe that the ability to see is not required to manage the tasks that must be accomplished to take advantage of all this ability. For these reasons we have become a participant in the development of the technologies that are used in our country, and to some extent in many other parts of the world, to bring greater opportunity to the blind. I am also pleased to note that, when we expand opportunity for the blind, we also expand it for the sighted, and we enhance the society in which we live. Blind people matter, and we are on the move. We are looking for partners to build a better culture, and we have a great deal to offer to those who accept our partnership.