Braille Monitor                                      August/September 2016

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The Blind in the World: Leadership, Philosophy, and Action on a Global Scale

by Fredric K. Schroeder, PhD
July 4, 2016

Fredric K. SchroederFrom the Editor: Fredric Schroeder is one of the most dynamic and thought-provoking people I have the pleasure to know, and it is a delight when he comes to deliver an address to the convention of the National Federation of the Blind. He made an address in 2016, and here is what he said:

We often find wisdom in the most unlikely places. Recently, I came across the following: “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment, until it becomes a memory.” These words, spoken by the famed children’s author Dr. Seuss, capture a simple yet profound truth. The actions we take today may not seem earthshaking or even important, but it is the collective impact of action upon action, moment upon moment that shapes history, forces social change, and moves mountains.

No class of people has faced greater, seemingly insurmountable mountains of marginalization, mountains of exclusion, mountains of lost opportunity than have we, the blind. The mountains we face are formidable, but we know with certainty and in our hearts that our cause is just and our goals achievable, if only we take action; or, as Dr. Seuss puts it: “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so... get on your way!”

For most of our history, our efforts have been directed toward making change within our own country, but the world is getting smaller—more interdependent—a process known as globalization; and nothing has contributed more to economic and cultural globalization than the exponential development of technology; and that is true for the blind as well as the sighted.

While technology has made access to print greater than at any time in history, still it is estimated that fewer than five percent of published works are available to the blind—fewer than one percent in developing countries. For many years we in the National Federation of the Blind and blind people around the world have worked to modify national copyright laws to permit production of books into Braille and other accessible formats. Still, with globalization we recognized that, while an important start, country-by-country solutions were not enough to end what has come to be known as the book famine facing the blind.

This is why the National Federation of the Blind worked actively with the World Blind Union and its Right to Read Campaign. The Right to Read Campaign called on the United Nations to adopt an international treaty to allow accessible books and other materials to be shared across national borders, and our efforts have been dramatically and profoundly successful. As you will remember, on June 27, 2013, the United Nations World Intellectual Property Organization adopted the “Marrakesh Treaty to Facilitate Access to Published Works for Persons Who Are Blind, Visually Impaired or Otherwise Print Disabled.”

Before countries could begin sharing accessible books, the Marrakesh Treaty had to be ratified by twenty countries, and just four days ago, on June 30, 2016, we reached that magic number when Canada deposited its Marrakesh Treaty ratification documents. Now that twenty countries have ratified the treaty, it will go into force in three months, September 30, 2016. Sadly, the United States is not among the twenty countries that have ratified the treaty. That means that, even when the treaty goes into force, we in the United States will be left out—unable to import or export accessible works until or unless the United States Senate ratifies the Marrakesh Treaty. That is why we must work together to convince the Senate to ratify the Marrakesh Treaty and to ratify it now. Will we succeed? Well, as Dr. Seuss reassures us: “Yes you will indeed! (98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)”

Another example of globalization is the steady increase in the number of hybrid and electric cars. As we well know, hybrid and electric cars are essentially silent when traveling at slow speeds, thereby posing a significant danger to blind and other pedestrians. As a result of our advocacy in the United States, the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act was signed into law on January 4, 2011. The Act requires hybrid and electric vehicles sold in the United States to emit an alert sound. Still, with globalization we knew that the danger posed by hybrid and electric vehicles was not limited to blind people living in the United States. If a quiet car is deadly here, it is just as deadly somewhere else.

This is why, on February 20, 2008, then Federation President Dr. Marc Maurer traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to call on the United Nations to establish an international standard requiring hybrid and electric vehicles to be fitted with an audible alert warning. As a result of Dr. Maurer’s presentation, titled "The Dangers Posed by Silent Vehicles," the United Nations World Forum on Harmonization of Vehicle Regulations (WP.29) established a technical working group to develop a minimum sound standard for hybrid and electric cars.

Over the ensuing years, John Paré has represented the National Federation of the Blind, and I have represented the World Blind Union. We have fought hard for what we believe are essential, commonsense requirements for a pedestrian alert device, but the negotiations have not always been easy. Since the majority of the members on the working group are sound engineers, they have been concerned that the alert sound not add unnecessary “noise” into the environment. In other words, they want the sound to be just loud enough and no louder. By contrast, we believe the sound must be sufficient to enable a blind pedestrian to identify the approach of a hybrid or electric vehicle in approximately the same time as the blind pedestrian can identify the approach of a vehicle that has an ordinary internal combustion engine. This has been a much more contentious issue than you may imagine.

At one point in the discussions, a member of the working group said that in his country the law requires drivers to be alert to the presence of pedestrians. He said that the alert sound does not need to be loud enough to enable the blind pedestrian to make a safe crossing decision, only loud enough to prevent a blind pedestrian from stepping out into the road without giving the driver enough time to stop. Not wanting to put my life in the hands of a driver who may or may not be paying attention, who may or may not be texting, who may or may not be daydreaming, I finally said I do not want my tombstone to read: “He had the right of way.”

Believe it or not, another major issue has been whether to allow the installation of a switch that would enable the driver to turn off the alert sound whenever he or she wishes—yes, you heard correctly: a switch that would allow the driver to turn off the alert sound. The logic is that the sound may be annoying to the driver. In another fit of pique, I once said, “I would find being run over by a quiet car quite annoying, and I suspect other blind people would as well.”

Still, we have made progress, dramatic progress, progress worth celebrating. As a result of our efforts, in March 2016, a limited international regulation was formally adopted requiring hybrid and electric vehicles to be equipped with an alert sound device. While a very good start, it is only a start. The regulation is only binding on fifty countries around the world. Now we are focusing on developing a treaty that will cover many more countries through what is called a Global Technical Regulation.

As we work toward developing a Global Technical Regulation, the regulations implementing the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act here at home take on even greater importance. With globalization, countries look to the work of other countries when developing their own standards. This is why it is vital that we redouble our efforts to get the US Department of Transportation to publish the long overdue regulations implementing the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act. It is up to us, and will we take action? As Dr. Seuss advises: “Today I shall behave, as if this is the day I will be remembered.” The regulations are vital to the blind of the United States, and they are vital to the blind of the world. And there is more.

Access to the web is rapidly becoming a daily necessity—perhaps it already is. Six years ago, at a ceremony commemorating the 20th Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), President Obama announced that he had directed the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to update the ADA regulations to reflect changes in technology, especially as they relate to web accessibility.

Incredibly and inexplicably, on April 28, 2016, after a nearly six year delay in publishing the ADA web accessibility regulations, the DOJ announced that it was starting the process over, stating that it intended to “refresh” the regulatory process. The DOJ explained that it needed to collect more information on the “costs and benefits” associated with making websites accessible. “Costs and benefits?” Really? What a sad and disappointing commentary. Today web accessibility is essential in virtually every aspect of life, but the DOJ wants to make sure that requiring websites to be accessible to the blind does not cost too much; protecting our civil rights does not cost too much; giving the blind access to public services available to others does not cost too much. DOJ’s announcement that it is “refreshing” the regulatory process by considering the “costs and benefits” of web accessibility can only be seen as a retreat—no, more than a retreat—a betrayal of the ADA’s promise of equal access; and not just for the blind of America.

While the ADA Title II web accessibility regulations will only apply to public entities in the United States, given globalization, our ADA web accessibility regulations will have implications for other countries as they develop their own web accessibility standards. Web accessibility is vital to us, the blind of the United States, and it is vital to the blind of the world.

In spite of the progress we have already made—perhaps because of the progress we have already made—we must not weaken in our determination to continue chipping away at the mountain of exclusion that separates us from society, separates us from full participation and equal opportunity. The responsibility is ours. As Dr. Seuss tells us: “You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.” And he says, “With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet, you’re too smart to go down any not-so-good street.”

We must call on the United States Senate to ratify the Marrakesh treaty; we must call on the United States Department of Transportation to release the regulations implementing the Pedestrian Safety Enhancement Act; and we must press the US Department of Justice to publish the ADA web accessibility regulations and to publish them now.

We face many challenges, many problems, some would say many troubles, but as Dr. Seuss says: “Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!” We will not give up—we will not give in. It will take hard work; it will take commitment and energy; and most of all it will take imagination, and that is something we have plenty of. Dr. Seuss says: “Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the things you can think up if only you try!”

We know the truth about blindness, and it is an immutable truth, yes, distorted by misconception, clouded in prejudice and tradition, but the truth, nonetheless. We will surmount the mountain of exclusion that stands between us and our dreams, between us and full participation, and we will live the lives we want. We will surmount the mountain of exclusion the same way we have defeated countless barriers throughout our history: by standing together; by working together; by uniting our ability and energy; by caring deeply and sincerely about one another; and by recognizing that the future is up to us—up to us collectively, and up to us individually, up to me and up to you. So, let me end as I began, with Dr. Seuss’s words of quiet wisdom: “Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you-er than you!” And “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not.” So: “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, so... get on your way!” Because: “Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment, until it becomes a memory.”

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