by Anne Taylor
From the Editor: Anne Taylor is the director of Access Technology, supervises the work of the International Braille and Technology Center, and is in charge of the Access Technology Team. In this article she tries to give us an overview of all that she and her team do to help make existing technology usable and to work with developers so that soon-to-be products are released with accessibility as part of their design. Here is what she has to say:
Many members of the NFB and others interested in learning more about blindness come through the doors of the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind (IBTC) every year to see what is available and what is new in technology for the blind. Much of the work that is done by the Access Technology Team, however, is not as visible to those outside the team as the equipment and the facilities of the International Braille and Technology Center.
As the director of Access Technology at the Jernigan Institute, I want to share the big-picture view of what my team and I work on. Many of you have heard Kenneth Jernigan's 1992 speech on the importance of training and public awareness: "The real problem of blindness is not the loss of eyesight. The real problem is the misunderstanding and lack of information which exist. If a blind person has proper training and opportunity, blindness can be reduced to the level of a physical nuisance." His statement continues to represent the attitude and set the direction in the work my team and I do every day, as will clearly be evident from an overview of some of our recent activities.
Perhaps the most visible program of the Access Technology Team, second only to conducting tours and instruction at the IBTC, is the Technology Resource List. This resource, available at <https://nfb.org/technology-resource-list>, describes just about every piece of blindness technology available in the United States, and the team just finished a major overhaul of this most useful document at the end of 2014. It is a unique compendium of information on blindness technology and is unmatched in its scope and thoroughness. It is a great place to start for anyone wanting to familiarize him or herself with access technology; but it is equally useful in hunting up the latest and best in a given area, such as Braille displays or optical character recognition products. Our access technology blog <https://nfb.org/at-blog> and the access technology tips <https://nfb.org/attips-blog> are two other valuable resources for anyone who wants to learn more about new access technology products. Both of these resources also provide much needed information for those who are interested in nonvisual access technology.
In addition to creating and posting general information, the Access Technology Team continues to respond to questions on nonvisual access technology using email and the telephone. You can reach us by phone by dialing (410) 659-9314 and then choosing option 5 for the technology answer line, or you can email us at <[email protected]>.
In the area of access to the web, one very public aspect of what is so often the result of a lot of behind-the-scenes work is the Web Accessibility Training Day. This event, which the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute co-hosted with the Maryland Technology Assistance Program for the third time last September, is an opportunity for us to bring together some of the experts with whom my team and I have come in contact and have worked collaboratively with over many years and on so many projects. Attendees come from local and state governments as well as the federal government. They also come from higher education, business, and a number of other fields. We shared (and will continue to share at future events) advice from industry experts and our own knowledge of web accessibility in a series of general sessions in the morning, and technical and policy tracks in the afternoon. Topics for this latest iteration included enterprise implementation of accessibility, education implementation of accessibility, PDF accessibility in an enterprise setting, captioning and audio description, HTML5, government implementations of accessibility, and the Section 508 refresh. More information, session recordings, and materials are available to anyone looking to find out more about any or all of these at <https://nfb.org/web-accessibility-day>.
On October 15 through 17, 2014, the team hosted the second run of its wildly popular Train the Trainer seminar. For this three-day event we brought together a group of forty access technology professionals from different backgrounds and from all parts of the country to try out a plethora of devices and software. The focus was on new developments and new technology. It was especially exciting to have a team from Google, as well as Chris Gallello from Microsoft, to discuss and demonstrate their company's work in accessibility. Laura Palmero, Roger Benz, and Lia Carrarri from Google brought Chromebooks and Android Nexus phones for all participants to experiment with, and gathered much feedback from attendees. They also showed participants the tremendous potential of Google products. Chris from Microsoft demonstrated Office Online with JAWS and provided a very honest assessment of its assets and shortcomings.
Google and Microsoft were not the only guest stars to grace the podium. Our own Jennifer Dunnam and our friend and longtime technology expert Earle Harrison from Triumph Technology led sessions on the Duxbury Braille Translator and the Mac, respectively. Henry (Hoby) Wedler, a PhD student in chemistry at UC Davis, was as good an instructor and role model as we could ask for. In his talk about accessibility in math and science, he related his experiences as he has taken on the challenges presented by a rigorous program in science, related his difficulties, and shared the solutions that have helped him overcome these problems and flourish in his chosen field of study.
The Access Technology Team did its part by covering a number of topics, including notetakers, tactile graphics, Windows 8, and low-vision tools. The attendees were as engaged as any group who has ever crossed our threshold, and it was a pleasure to spend these days with them. Because we do limit the size of the group to keep it hands-on, and because not everyone can travel across the country to attend a training of this kind, we do post the material presenters share at <https://nfb.org/training-the-trainers>.
A less well-known part of the work of the Access Technology Team is public awareness. In February I had the honor of co-presenting with three distinguished individuals: Towson University professor and former fellow of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, Jonathan Lazar; senior counselor to the assistant attorney general for the Civil Rights Division, Eve Hill; and disability rights lawyer Dan Goldstein from the firm of Brown, Goldstein, & Levy. Our broadly defined topic was "Frontiers in US Law: Equal Access to Info Tech for People with Disabilities," and we presented at Towson University. Specifically, we addressed captioning and legal ownership, accessible instructional materials in higher education, technology access for people with cognitive impairments, ebook access for people with print disabilities, access to courtroom documents and technology, and accessibility and open government. Even with the Department of Justice affirmation that the Americans with Disabilities Act applies to the web, many areas still exist in which the lack of access to information technology affects blind people, and much work remains to be done by lawmakers, technology experts, and other stakeholders.
Recently standardized testing is an issue that has gained some traction in the press and with the public. My team and I are working collaboratively with test platform developers to ensure the accessibility of these tests. If the test platform developers adhere to our recommendations, then I am certain that the platforms will be accessible to the blind. We will not stop until every blind child is correctly evaluated based on what he knows about the subject matter and not on how accessible a given piece of technology is for his or her disability.
Somewhere in between public speaking and training, you might find the Access Technology Team's many endeavors at CSUN, or, to name it in full, the Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference. The acronym by which the conference, the largest of its kind, is usually known stems from the host, the California State University at Northridge, which has long been one of the leaders in the field of access technology. The topics we cover vary from year to year, but here is what we will be talking about this March:
Personally, I will be taking on two sessions. The first is "Race to Accessibility," where I will share the stage with Pearson and a representative from the Maryland Department of Education to address the accessibility of high-stakes assessment. In the second session, "The Human Cost of Digital Barriers," I am co-presenting with web accessibility professionals from Deque and Knowbility as well as from Pearson in an open discussion about access to high-stakes, computer-based assessments for students with disabilities and the real-life consequences for students when the materials are not accessible.
The rest of the team, a stellar group dedicated to our mission, will have their hands full with a presentation by Amy Mason on "Access Technologies for Blind and Low Vision Seniors," one which discusses a survey of tools and services available to blind and low-vision seniors for reading, identifying objects, and staying organized. This will be followed by Karl Belanger's demonstration of iWork accessibility in Mac OSX. This session will review whether the Mac and VoiceOver, paired with the iWork suite, is a viable productivity tool for a blind professional or student. The team's final session for the conference will be Clara Van Gerven's talk on the state of wearables for blind users. Wearable technology is one of the fastest growing areas in today’s electronic landscape. It has the potential to provide unprecedented access to the world for blind people, but the question is how close wearables are to fulfilling that promise.
I invite those who are coming to the CSUN conference to attend our sessions. Having members of the Federation participate actively in the audience is something that I always treasure. Whenever we are together in public, we show that the National Federation of the Blind represents a strong and united group who is determined to keep blindness or common misconceptions about it from stopping us. Your technology team always draws inspiration from your example, your participation, and your support of our presentations.
Another joint effort that I want to mention is a survey. We have been working closely with the Therapeutic Research Foundation (TRF) to create a survey on health, mobility, and navigation. TRF is inviting blind and low-vision participants to take the survey to help them create the next generation of navigational tools. The data gathered will be used specifically to do research and development, so please consider taking the time to complete the questionnaire and help them build a device that will serve your needs. With well over three hundred responses in already, the survey promises to be a formidable source of guidance for the team. The link to the survey is <https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/XNZKWL8>.Finally, I want to conclude by emphasizing that it is through ongoing collaboration that we are able to draw the speakers and trainers that we do for our events and are able to work toward and bring about the delivery of more accessible hardware, software, and services. The effort we put into these collaborations is often hidden from the public due to the requirements of confidentiality and nondisclosure agreements, but it shows clearly in the results. President Riccobono and I had a meeting not long ago with Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft. He brought in many members of his management team, and the conversation that ensued promises many changes and improvements. My experience has given me ample evidence that, in making accessibility happen, there is no substitute for support and understanding at the top, and meetings like this one are vital to what we do. Such meetings come about based on the Federation's, the Jernigan Institute's, and the team's reputation as experts, advocates, and partnership-builders. Such meetings also happen because the National Federation of the Blind is known for its persistence, its dedication to equality of opportunity, and its constant search for partners who share our goal of full access.