Braille Monitor               December 2023

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Innovation Rocks: Positive Progress Centered on the Blind “We Will Rock You”

An Address Delivered by
Mark A. Riccobono, President
Presented to the American Printing House for the Blind
155th Annual Meeting
Louisville, Kentucky
October 5, 2023

Anne Lancaster introduces Mark RiccobonoFrom the Editor: President Riccobono was introduced by Anne Lancaster, the vice president/chief officer, Innovation and Strategy at the American Printing House for the Blind. The change in attitude that can come through real relationships is no better exemplified than by her remarks. I hope readers enjoy both and feel as though we were a part of the audience:

Anne Lancaster: Our keynote speaker today needs no introduction, but somehow I've been tasked with the challenge and also the honor of doing such an introduction, but I'm going to be absolutely honest and transparent here, which I've learned is a trait President Riccobono appreciates. Before I ever even met Mark, I was terrified of him. I had heard the stories—sure you’ve heard them too—how dangerous it was to make him angry, and just about anything could make him angry apparently and how awful the revenge would be—hellfire and brimstone stuff. There seem to be a trepidation throughout the field to even associate with NFB, and as a newcomer to this work at that time trying to figure out all the politics, I felt like it was a good idea just to keep my distance.

But as I watched his work at NFB conventions and listen to his speeches and learn more about him in this huge organization representing the voices of blind people, I became intrigued and curious. I found that often his ideals were in opposition to the current thinking in the field, but there were good reasons for that. I saw heart, passion, and dedication to breaking the barriers that stand in the way of blind people living the lives they want.

After coming to APH, I supported Dr. Meador’s desire to strengthen the relationship between APH and NFB, a relationship that had admittedly become distant and fragmented. President Riccobono welcomed this opportunity for renewed partnership with the willingness to let bygones be bygones. This led to a number of collaborations around the Connect Center, Code Jumper, the Mantis, the Chameleon, Lego Braille Bricks and more. Of course there is our partnership with Monarch and the EBRF, which has been absolutely essential to ensuring that the needs and voices of blind people are at the forefront of development. Working closely with Mark and seeing him in action has taught me a lot personally about leadership and partnership, and as for those rumors—well, don't believe everything you hear. Although I think Mark kind of enjoys that reputation at least a little bit.

He eats, breathes, and sleeps the mission of his organization and he is unapologetic for that. And when he does get terrifying, and he has with me more than once, I've learned it's for good reason. Mark will tell it to you like it is, and as a sighted person inflicted with sighted biases working in this field, I absolutely need his blunt candor to keep me focused on this one unequivocal, unmovable truth: absolutely nothing, nothing about them without them at any level.

The influence of our partnership with NFB has led to many positive changes at APH. We are listening better. We are including more, and granted, we have a long way to go, and we should and we will do better. But we can trust that, if we begin to lose our way, our friends and NFB will check us and patiently work with us to get us back on the straight and narrow. That's what good friends do! So today, we are honored and privileged—and not terrified at all—to welcome President Mark Riccobono from the National Federation of the Blind as our annual keynote speaker.

NFB elected Mark to serve as its president in July of 2014. He has been reelected by the membership every two years since that time. He has a long list of achievements and experiences that led him to this role and that defined his current presidency. But more than I appreciate his resume, I am truly grateful for his character, his commitment, and his honesty. Please join me in giving another warm welcome to our partner and friend, Mark Riccobono.

Mark Riccobono speaking to the American Printing House for the Blind Annual Meeting.Mark Riccobono: Innovation: while it makes a great theme for this annual meeting, we have to admit it is an overused and highly misunderstood buzz word—no pun intended to the APH Hive. This morning my goal is not to wow you with innovations, nor is it to tell you that we have been getting it all wrong. Today, I want to riff on the idea of bringing together a community of dedicated individuals who are prepared to rock the field of blindness. Each of you have the choice of being in that community and contributing to the music. As you contemplate that choice this morning—I notice some of you were a little reluctant to play along—keep in mind that innovation rocks, and together we will rock you.

The great philosopher John Lennon said, “there's nothing you can know that isn't known.” This is the first really simple opening power chord to rocking in the blindness field: what can be known about blindness can be found within blind people themselves. It’s not found in the research journals, in the university classes, or even in the concurrent sessions on APH products—not even in the Monarch session coming up next that I do encourage you to attend. It’s found in the lived experience of blind people—not just one, two, or even ten blind people but hundreds of us. We cannot talk about innovation without recognizing that it begins with blind people. It has to be centered on blind people. We have to take our lead from what blind people know. To innovate, however, we need more than an opening chord.

American innovator Henry Ford said, “I am looking for a lot of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done.” For our purposes I would add “by blind people.” We need a lot of people with an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done by blind people. If that is you, you can be part of the innovation community here today. Does your internal rhythm begin with a core belief in the capacity of blind people? That rhythm is essential to innovating in ways that cultivate that capacity. It’s not enough to center our work on blind people; we truly have to believe in blind people to the point where we do not know where the limits are for blind people. When we do that, innovation can happen and innovation rocks. This was something even I, as a blind person, had to learn over time. You can join me in that rhythm. You have to be daring enough to be led by blind people and humble enough to innovate in your own life, and you, too, can get to a place where you can rock a confident belief in blind people.

To say that someone rocks means that they do their work with enthusiasm, skill, and confidence. This is a level of professional growth we should all be pursuing. In order to do that, we need a community of support around us—a community that challenges us to be better and to support our growth. So when I say, “we will rock you,” it is my way of expressing that with our collective confidence in blind people, our shared focus on the wisdom in the lived experience of blind people, that we will make a difference together. It is also to say that when you have the backs of blind people because you believe in us, we will have your back too. We will rock you.

What about innovation? What does that really mean? At its basic level, innovation is thought to be about the creation of a new idea, method, or device. Sometimes innovation means to improve or to replace something. I believe these definitions are far too limiting for this audience. True innovation is more than the outcome—it’s the process, it’s the pattern of thought, it’s the journey.

I prefer this definition: Innovation is the process of creating value by applying fresh solutions to meaningful problems. Let me break that down, and let me use the Monarch as our example. Do we have a meaningful problem? Let me pause to say that there is a graveyard of hundreds of attempted innovations for the blind that were solutions chasing false problems. Examples include everything from yoga mats, toothbrushes, and even a toilet designed with the blind in mind. It is not enough that something is new—just because no one else invented a toilet for the blind does not make it innovative—it has to solve a real and not a perceived, meaningful problem. In order to know meaningful problems, you have to be centered on the experience and wisdom of blind people themselves.

We know that a significant problem, despite the many great strides we have made, is having access to text and graphical information in real time, in integrated classrooms, and in ways that can be easily manipulated and edited. We know that Braille—a foundational innovation that solved a very real problem—could be even better if it was presented in more lines and with more capabilities.

Do we have a fresh solution? With the Monarch, I say yes. There are many aspects that allow the Monarch to meet this criteria. One of these is the combination of partners working on the product itself: the fresh approach of combining the unique skillsets of the teams at APH and Humanware, and the members of the National Federation of the Blind. This also brings in our power chord of being centered on the real experience, the known wisdom of blind people. When the technical team working on the Monarch took on a new approach, they tested it against the real experience of blind people. The innovative approaches are the ones that have made it through the testing because they achieve the final element of the innovation definition: the process of creating value.

If the new ideas built into the Monarch are truly innovative, they have to demonstrate value to the end users—to blind people. More importantly, true innovation occurs alongside a collaborative process and a determination of real value. As blind users test concepts, they articulate things they would like to push the technology to do. If the Monarch team believes in blind people—which they do, they start with the idea that the challenge is the technology, not the people involved. They have that belief because they have challenged themselves and their own ideas within the known wisdom of the blind community. This has helped them raise their own expectations, but, in turn, they have helped to raise our expectations. The process of innovation sometimes rocks a lot more than the outcomes themselves.

I use this example because it resonates with my own experience of coming to understand innovation. Remember, I told you I did not always know what could not be done.

I was first declared legally blind at age five. Growing up with a progressive eye condition that slowly took away my remaining vision, I got a lot of implicit and explicit messages about how critical eyesight was to success. I believed those messages, and I limited my own thinking and opportunities because of those messages. It was not until I found a community of blind people who believed in me more than I believed in myself and who shared their collective wisdom with me that I began to understand that the meaningful problem was not blindness but the lack of innovative approaches that would eliminate the artificial barriers in society. That put me on a journey of discovering that there are no limits—a journey I am still on today. It’s never too late to learn that innovation rocks.

Twenty years ago, I attended my last annual meeting as a trustee of the American Printing House. I wish I knew then what I know today about the wisdom of centering blind people, the power of innovation, and the strength of working together around that shared belief. I share that because some of you may still be wondering if there really is a place for you in our innovative community of people who have an infinite capacity to not know what can’t be done. I assure you that your journey is not over, we need your talents in our work, and if you let us, we will rock you.

Twenty years ago I took a position coordinating educational programs for the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore just before we opened our research and training center—the NFB Jernigan Institute. At the grand opening of that facility, we had an exhibit of how a tactile interface could one day provide a blind person with access to real-time environmental information that would allow them to respond accordingly in order to drive a car independently. At that time, I thought the exhibit was a great marketing gimmick to get engineers interested in innovating for blind people. I did not believe the outcome was possible because I was not sure blind people, mostly myself, would be capable of performing the tasks required. I had no evidence. I had not tested the concepts. What I knew came from decades of internalizing misconceptions about what blind people could not do.

In 2007, I became executive director for the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute and our Blind Driver Challenge, as it is known, came to be part of my program responsibilities. One day engineers from Virginia Tech University called and asked if I would come speak with them about their interest in a project to develop a blind-drivable car. I made the long trip from Baltimore, Maryland, to Blacksburg, Virginia, where I learned about the work happening there to build self-driving cars. They told me that they could easily put a blind person in one of their cars, have the blind person hit a button to initiate the self-driving mode, and achieve the goal of having a blind person drive a car. That was not consistent with what I knew about the level of independence and active participation blind people desired. That was not innovation. We already faced too many situations where we were asked to simply sit and do nothing. Although I did not believe it was possible myself, I got up and told the engineers that we wanted to be able to drive; we wanted to get the information, analyze it ourselves, and then make our own driving decisions. I told them we wanted to be able to crash the car—innovation rocks right? It was not truly that we wanted to crash the car, but if there was nothing real for the blind person to do, if it was not possible to crash the car, then we already believed it was not possible for blind people to drive the car.

The team at Virginia Tech said we needed to start with something smaller than a car to prove the concept. In collaboration with members of the Federation, we built nonvisual interfaces into a little red dune buggy and took it to a large-scale program we had for blind youth at the University of Maryland. For a week we taught blind youth about engineering, and at the end, they got to test this first blind-drivable vehicle. These blind students are the ones that opened my mind to this idea. They had not been taught that it was not possible, and they were eager to understand the patterns of information conveyed by the technology. I had a fresh solution, but it meant nothing until I believed that humans were capable of utilizing the solution.

It was at this time that I started telling people that, when you start with the prospect that little is possible, it is impossible to get more than little accomplished.

The next year I was tasked with developing a plan to build nonvisual-interface technology into a real, street-legal vehicle and testing the interfaces with blind people. I was project managing the effort and making sure our Virginia Tech engineers were actually engaging with blind people to test their ideas. One day I was asked if I wanted to be one of the test drivers. By this time, I knew there was more possible than I originally thought, but I still was a little unsure about whether I, as a blind person, could do it. The question was not the technology; it was completely whether I believed in myself.

After weeks of testing and refining technology, giving the engineers feedback about the nonvisual interfaces, and spending as much time driving off the road as on the road, the moment of truth came. We had boldly declared seven months earlier that we would do our first public demonstration at the Daytona International Speedway at the end of January 2011. We had tested the technology for weeks, but there had always been a sighted engineer in the car. We told the engineers it was time to get out of the car—we had to determine if this was real. Did I believe in what was possible or what was not possible?

When you are going to drive for the first time, even in January, what do you do? I jumped into the driver’s seat, rolled down the window, and turned on the radio. “Roxanne,” by The Police, pumped out of the speakers. I had made literally a hundred or more trips in that car using that technology, but the first time I did so without a nonblind person in the car, I was overwhelmed by the power of the experience. When I did so on the Daytona International Speedway, it transformed my understanding of what is possible. I no longer knew where the limits were for blind people, and I have lived that way every day since.

It took me some time to truly understand why the experience was transformational. When my perspective was changed, when I challenged myself not to simply accept the well-accepted idea, innovation happened within me. I can tell you innovation rocks.

I find this to be the critical element in the blindness field today between those who are rocking innovation and those who are disheartened with the field. We need to challenge ourselves every day to have confidence in centering blind people. We need to live in the world as both John Lennon and Henry Ford describe it: knowing we do not know what can’t be done by blind people. For you nonblind people out there, this takes a leap of faith because society does not teach you to have confidence in the blind. However, blind people should not think just because we are blind that we are immune from internalizing that same limiting misunderstanding. From personal experience, I can tell you it is much more fun rocking innovation.

I have had the opportunity to explore what blind people would do in outer space by taking a zero-gravity ride with the associate administrator of NASA, building nonvisual interfaces for driving, been part of engineering the first mobile application giving blind people instant access to printed information, organizing a rally of young future blind leaders at the Lincoln Memorial, creating partnerships across the field that helped raise expectations for emerging professionals, and even helping set two different Guinness World Records with thousands of other blind people. I could spend more time sharing my experience, but what you need to know is that every big innovative moment came about from hundreds of little personal interactions and commitments in rooms just like this. Rocking innovation is about the process, the journey, not always the outcome. It is about how much we change in the process of innovating that matters. You have a choice. You can be part of the innovation, or you can be part of the archives.

I am Mark Riccobono, a blind person living the life I want every day. My lived experience drives my dedication to rocking innovation with you every day because I know there is too much to be lost if we fail to keep the beat alive. In closing, let’s see who is ready to rock innovation with me. If you are ready to make that commitment to blind people, join in.

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