The Braille Monitor                                                                                               _June 1997

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[PHOTO/CAPTION: Curtis Chong]

More About Braille Remote Learning

 

From the Editor: In the March, 1997, issue we reprinted an exchange of correspondence which had first appeared in the Winter, 1997, edition of Computer Science Update, a publication of the National Federation of the Blind in Computer Science, an NFB division. It was between Curtis Chong, division president, and Robert Gotwals, a computational scientist with a strong commitment to Braille literacy and an interest in determining whether or not it is possible to teach Braille on the Internet. The intended audience was to be students working to become teachers of blind children and those intending to qualify as transcribers.

The problem was that blind people can and do obtain certification in both these fields, and from what anyone could tell there would be no way for a blind person to access the Web pages where the course materials were to be located. It was necessary to use a graphical Web browser, and so far there is no way for a person using speech access or a refreshable Braille display to use such a browser. Poor Mr. Gotwals must have thought that the very hounds of Hell were after him when the e-mail messages of complaint began. Curtis tried to put the entire matter into perspective for him and to suggest that it would be advisable to warn people up front that the intended audience, at the moment, at least, was sighted Braille students. He assured Mr. Gotwals that the experiment he was conducting was important and everyone wished him well because we certainly do need competent Braille teachers who are excited about the code.

As often happens in such exchanges, misunderstandings occurred, which one hopes have now been resolved. Mr. Gotwals and his colleagues are to be commended for their commitment to teaching Braille and for their intensive efforts to make their Website as accessible as possible. In an attempt to make the current situation as clear as possible, we print here an exchange of correspondence between Robert Gotwals and Curtis Chong that took place between April 21 and 23. Here it is:

April 21, 1997
From: Bob Gotwals <gotwals@shodor.org>
To: Chong99@cris.com
Subject: March Braille Monitor

Saw your article in the March, '97, Braille Monitor. I'm a little disappointed that nowhere was it stated that the course is and has been accessible since day one. When you and I were having our conversations, the materials were in development, and we expected to not be able to have them readily accessible in time for the initial testing of the materials.

We were able to get them ready, in spite of the fact that we did so at our own expense. Your comment "What I do know is that in its present form Braille Remote Learning is not accessible to the blind--nor is it meant to be" is therefore in error. Have you looked at the pages?

If you wish to chat about this, I can be reached at e-mail or at (919) 490-1626. We are both interested in increasing the awareness and literacy levels of Braillists, especially folks capable of providing that skill. Are you helping or hurting that goal? Want my opinion?

Robert R. Gotwals, Jr.
The Shodor Education Foundation, Inc.
Computational Science Educator
Durham, North Carolina
http://www.shodor.org
(919) 286-1911 (V/TDD) Fax 286-7876

The next day Curtis Chong replied to this memo. When Mr. Gotwals received Curtis's letter, he made comments throughout the text. Here is Curtis's letter with the Gotwals interpolations printed in italics:

April 22, 1997
From: Curtis Chong <Chong99@concentric.net>
To: Bob Gotwals <gotwals@shodor.org
Subject: March Braille monitor

Hello Bob:

I am sorry that you were disappointed by what appeared in the March edition of the Braille Monitor regarding Braille Remote Learning. The information I had when the article was written was that the course would not initially be usable by somebody who could not see pictures of Braille output on the screen. As far as I am aware, this is still correct. If you have information to the contrary and if you have made additional efforts to make the course accessible to the blind over the Internet, please do provide me with that information. If I was wrong, I will certainly work to see that a correction is printed in the Monitor.

I appreciate that there is often a delay in getting stuff published, and I am sure the
Monitor is no different. Three months in the print world is actually quite fast. In the electronic publishing world, three months is an eternity.

The course is accessible, and has been since day one. We expended considerable resources to ensure that the course was accessible to all users. We had to take that time away from other Braille development work, but we were glad we were able to make the materials available. As I had mentioned before, we had proposed that the accessibility work be done after the materials had been developed, the bugs had been worked out, and the courses were ready for production. Having to do it sooner rather than later did make our task more difficult, but we are grateful for the visually-impaired folks who are actively participating; they are providing substantial assistance to our efforts.


I hope you realize that I can only work with the facts I have in hand. I still do not have any information that would indicate that Braille Remote Learning is a tool that is usable directly by blind persons on the Internet. This does not detract from the value of the course as a learning tool for Braille transcribers. God knows we need more of them.

I would have hoped that you or someone from the Monitor might have checked. Again, my guess is that the scenario of events was that you submitted your article in December after our e-mail exchanges, then did not see the article again until it hit the streets. I was mostly disappointed that no one bothered to ask. It's not like I'm hard to locate. The pages are also easily accessible, and any page that uses graphics says "Text Version" at the very top of each page. We've checked pages using Lynx and have run a number of pages through some of the few accessibility checkers, such as Bobby.

I think that with the facts I had, my presentation in the Monitor was fair and balanced. I understand and respect that you may not see things that way. I have not said, nor do I intend to say, to anyone that Braille Remote Learning is a project without value. It most certainly has value. However, as I said in my article, I do not know whether a blind person can really learn Braille if auditory output is the only means by which information is provided. Other material needs to be available, e.g., hard-copy Braille samples, refreshable Braille, etc.

That's part of the experiment. We're doing this work partly because we are scientists and partly because we're trying to provide a service. We won't know if this delivery system will meet a variety of Braille literacy needs until we do the experiment. The course actually was never intended to teach Braille to visually-impaired folks, but if we can figure out how to make that happen, we'll do so. We don't do anything in terms of reading readiness, i.e., tactile discrim exercises, etc. We've toyed with providing Duxbury files that folks can download, but there has not been lots of demand for the ones we have made available.

I had thought that we had ended our correspondence on a fairly positive note. I am sure you thought so as well. I regret that what appeared in the Monitor did not meet with your approval. However, without additional information, my comments still stand.

Me too. I didn't even know about the article until I got several pieces of e-mail from folks not even involved in the program who saw it and weren't too happy. Some of the comments I received were not happy with the NFB. I chatted with Allison Scheuermann at the NFB and conveyed my impressions. The article did suggest at the beginning that the conversations were friendly, but there was still sort of a negative overtone to the article. We can't do the experiment of investigating online Braille instruction without students, including visually impaired ones. Anything that discourages that community from participating takes the opportunity out of our hands.

I don't want to suggest that the journalism was irresponsible, but perhaps it could have been a little tighter.

I like to think we're both on the same side, and both want the same thing. I certainly don't mind criticism. That's how things get better. However, I have little patience with criticism that is unwarranted. My students know that I've been at the receiving end of lots of comments, and we've worked hard to fix what they have suggested. All in all, however, we think things are going pretty well.


Regards,
Curtis Chong, President
NFB in Computer Science

and to you! Thanks for your reply.

PS. I'd encourage you to submit this conversation as well. Ask Barbara not to wait three months, however, to publish it! She also might want to solicit the opinions of the 80 or so folks currently participating in the program. E-mail to Braille-shodor.org will reach all participants, program staff, and observers.

Robert R. Gotwals, Jr.
The Shodor Education Foundation, Inc.
Computational Science Educator


The following day another exchange of correspondence took place. Again Curtis wrote a letter, which Mr. Gotwals returned with comments interspersed throughout it. Here is the letter with Mr. Gotwals's comments italicized:

April 23, 1997
From: Curtis Chong <Chong99@concentric.net>
To: Bob Gotwals <gotwals@shodor.org>
Subject: March Braille Monitor

Hello Bob:

I have been giving considerable thought to our exchange of correspondence over the last two days, and I must tell you that I am trying very hard not to come away from that exchanged feeling annoyed and more than a bit put out with the way in which you have chosen to deal with me. In all of my communications with you, I have tried to engender good will.

Moreover, I have encouraged members of the National Federation of the Blind to support your efforts instead of dogmatically insisting that Braille Remote Learning be 100 percent accessible at the outset.

I actually think (or perhaps thought) that we were on the same page. As you have no evidence that our stuff is accessible, I have no evidence that you've been encouraging support, but I'll take you at your word!

Do you remember the bashing you took when you first announced the project? Many people criticized the work you were doing because participants were required to use a graphical web browser. One of the things you said in defense of your work was this:

This Braille ed program is, by the way, part of a larger VI masters degree program that is being developed at North Carolina Central University. The idea is to make a large part of that program accessible over the net, and the Braille course is the first test of that concept. We sure would like
a chance to make it work....again, if there is a demand that the effort be made to ensure 100 percent accessibility in the experimental phase, we can pretty much ensure that the experiment will fail.

Yep. And as initially designed, it was pretty much inaccessible. We did a re-design (to some degree) and spent much more time up front looking at making it accessible than we had planned at that stage of the project.

Under the terms of the grant, we were not funded nor committed to accessibility that early on, but I felt, especially after conversations with you and others, that it was important to do things earlier rather than later. But what if technologically it had been difficult to do so, and the insistence had continued? What would have been our options? Were we willing to risk a lawsuit under ADA or some other statute to continue to do the work? I seriously doubt that my board of directors or executive director would have supported our continuance of this work if that had been the case. You as a computer scientist understand that the technology doesn't always maintain pace with desires, dreams, wishes, and best intentions. As it is, our technical solution is adequate, but that's probably all I can say for it. Fortunately, other people are looking hard at the accessibility issue of Internet resources, and we hope to be the beneficiaries of their labors. We're not charged with that end of the technology.


I interpreted this to mean that during the initial phases of the project your attention would be focused
primarily on making the program work as opposed to making it fully accessible to blind Internet users. After all, I reasoned, the program was aimed primarily at transcribers and teachers. Hence, when I wrote to you, I was trying to clarify our position that accessibility by the blind to your project was, for us, a secondary concern. In short, I was trying to mitigate some of the criticism you were receiving.

That was the original intent of the program. I didn't get the sense that it was your position that accessibility was a secondary concern...I'll certainly go back and re-read correspondence, but I'm not sure that position came through...

If you recall, one of the recommendations I made was this: "I think it is important that your promotional materials clarify that Braille Online is not now accessible to the blind. You might even take this notion a step further and clarify that the target audience for the program consists of sighted people who will be teaching or producing Braille."

Your response to this recommendation was a simple "Done." You raised no objection to the statement that "Braille Online is not now accessible to the blind."

And, again, we changed that position. When you and I were conversing in December, that was a true statement. When the course was opened in January, it was not. Christmas holiday wasn't!

Since that time I have received no word from you--no e-mail, no phone call, nothing. Moreover, none of my colleagues in the National Federation of the Blind reported reading anything from you on any Internet mailing list about any change in emphasis for the project. Based on all of the information I had in my possession, there was no reason for either me or the editor of the Braille Monitor to do any
further checking. Exactly what should we have done differently? I would have thought that you, knowing that I lead a national organization of blind people dealing with computer access issues, would have taken the trouble to let me know that a significant effort had been made to make your course accessible to blind people. Certainly, if you had written to me, I would have done everything possible to change the article which ultimately appeared in the Monitor.

Guess we're both at fault. For my part, if I had known our e-mail correspondence was being published, I would have taken the steps to ensure that authors/editors were aware of changes. I had no idea that the article had been published (guess I gotta start reading the Monitor, huh?) until my mailbox exploded. For your part (or that of the editor), I guess I would have liked to have had someone contact me letting me know the stuff was going in, and/or have looked at the pages.

I take exception to your implied criticism of me and the National Federation of the Blind for the way in which we portrayed your program in the Braille Monitor. You say that the journalism could have been tightened up a bit. Frankly, I don't see how. As far as we were concerned, all of our information was current.

As above. Again, three months is a long time in the Internet business, as I suspect you know as a computer science professional. On both of our parts two minutes worth of work would have completely removed all of this time (and bad feelings!) that we're spending on this conversation.

I hope that you will not misunderstand what I am saying here. I have no quarrel with the work you are doing. I am very glad that you and your colleagues have taken the time and effort to work on accessibility concerns. You should be commended for this effort. Because I believe that the work you are doing is important to the blind community, I would like to know more about what you have done to make it possible for blind users of the Internet to participate fully in your program. Those of us who are proficient Braille users are keenly interested to know how Braille (which is essentially a tactual experience) can be taught using speech output. I would also like to know the specific actions you took to ensure accessibility to the project during the early stages.

Thanks for those words, and again I think (or hope) we're on the same page of Braille! We don't know if it will work either; that's what we're trying to find out! If it works, we'll extend and publish. If it doesn't, we'll publish why not. Again, we're hoping that the work of others to improve the accessibility of Web pages will have an impact on what we're doing. If not, we'll forge our own path as best we can!

Please be assured that all of this correspondence is being forwarded to Barbara Pierce, Editor of the Braille Monitor. Moreover, if you supply me with more specific information about how the program is accessible to the blind today, I will send that along as well.

Appreciate that extra effort. Simply, any page that has any kind of graphics on it (examples, sentences, exercises, etc.) has a text version that is the first link on the page. Other images have the appropriate "alt" tags embedded. We're encouraging as many visually impaired students as we can, as much as we're encouraging any participation--we've advertised to two or three listservs and have plenty of participants.

That's not to say we don't want more, but beginning this summer we'll complete some evaluation work and then promote the course more aggressively.

In closing, I would like to say that you and I should communicate with each other more often and under better circumstances. I think that both of us can do a lot to improve our relationship. I will always endeavor to ensure that the information I send to the Braille Monitor about your work is complete and accurate. I don't have a lot of time to read the hundreds of messages per day generated by the many blindness-related mailing lists. So please understand that anything you distribute to those lists will probably not be seen by me unless somebody happens to forward a particular item to me. Therefore, I trust that you will continue to keep me informed about the work you are doing by writing to me personally.

Will do. Likewise, it's hard to keep up with the listservs.

Yours sincerely,
Likewise!

Robert R. Gotwals, Jr.
Computational Science Educator
The Shodor Education Foundation, Inc.


Editor's postscript: In an e-mail exchange of my own with Mr. Gotwals in early May, I told him that I intended to publish his comments and Curtis's responses. I also explained that, when articles are reprinted in the Braille Monitor from affiliate or division publications, I do not as a rule conduct further research or interviews. In his response to me he did not add anything more to what he had already said to Curtis. We both ended with complimentary statements about the efforts the other was making to improve matters for blind people. We can all hope that both parties are successful.