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Innovation, Blindness, and the Emerging Pattern of Thought

An Address Delivered by
Mark A. Riccobono, President
At the Banquet of the Annual Convention
Of the National Federation of the Blind
Orlando, Florida
July 15, 2017

Consider with me technology and the human experience. Technology is defined as the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes. Science has its roots in philosophy—the field of study we now know as science once was called natural philosophy. The great Greek philosopher-scientists Plato and Aristotle said the natural order could be explained through rigorous reasoning and investigation. Philosophy—a pattern of thought—therefore has an important role to play in the innovation of technology.

Social historian Arthur M. Schlesinger noted, “Science and technology revolutionize our lives, but memory, tradition, and myth frame our response.” The inventor Nikola Tesla once said, “The universe is simply a great machine which never came into being and never will end. The human being is no exception to the natural order. Man, like the universe, is a machine.” Technology entrepreneur Steve Jobs shared his optimistic view that “technology is nothing. What's important is that you have a faith in people, that they're basically good and smart, and if you give them tools, they'll do wonderful things with them.” The futurist Ray Kurzweil writes “artificial intelligence will reach human levels by around 2029. Follow that out further to, say, 2045, we will have multiplied the intelligence, the human biological machine intelligence of our civilization a billion-fold.” He further notes that “The emergence of machine intelligence that exceeds human intelligence in all of its broad diversity is inevitable. But we still have the power to shape our future technology, and our future lives.”

We live in a time in which technology is constantly a part of our human experience, but of course we’ve always lived with technology. However, the difference today is the speed with which technology is becoming increasingly important in our lives. The changes that occur as technology alters the pattern of our lives take place not in decades but in days. The increased velocity of change will soon demand altered patterns of thought and behavior from us hour by hour or minute by minute. Technology has changed the way we work, play, and even the way we think. We know this is true because we can use technology to study our own minds. Technology is changing our patterns in society, but we maintain the power to shape those changes, Ray Kurzweil tells us. If we are to control the change, what is required of us?

For centuries a pattern of thought has existed that has had a harmful impact on blind people—a pattern that we the blind did not create and have not been entirely able to control. This pattern—the vision-centered approach—has exploited the application of technology to perpetuate the central premise that vision is a requirement for success. In the vision-centered approach the blind are understood to be severely limited by the inability to see—we are merely broken sighted people—and something external like technology is required to bring the blind closer to the normal human experience. This pattern of thought went mostly unchallenged and was poised to grow into an unstoppable force with the technology revolution of the twentieth century. However, when blind people bonded together in 1940 to organize the National Federation of the Blind, a new pattern emerged that has influenced the hearts and minds of hundreds of thousands, illuminating the capacity of the human experience and transforming the nature of innovation in technology. We have altered the pattern of human thought and thereby modified the blueprint for technology in the foreseeable future.

We, the blind, again assemble this evening to consider where we have been and what our future might be as we live in the most dynamic time of technological innovation in the history of civilization. We come together to refine a pattern of thought. We stay together to share and expand our authentic intelligence as blind people. We move forward together to create the tools for our future with the resolute faith that we can make them work for us. We are the National Federation of the Blind.

The Federation philosophy, or pattern of thought, has only existed for a short time compared to the centuries of low expectations and misconceptions that preceded our founding. Yet our pattern is being adopted at an accelerating pace. Although the application of our philosophy has evolved, our principles are the same as they were at our founding. We think for ourselves, we speak for ourselves, and we act for ourselves to create understanding through our authentic experience. Individually we seek to live our lives fully, and collectively we mobilize the machinery to transform our dreams into reality.

The founding President and leader for the first generation of the National Federation of the Blind was Jacobus tenBroek. A thoughtful leader of the blind and a brilliant scholar of constitutional law, Dr. tenBroek firmly established the foundation for our philosophy about blindness and rallied the blind to understand we deserve equal treatment under the law and in society. As blind people internalized the Federation pattern—that blind people are normal people who happen to be blind—it became clear that our biggest obstacle was not blindness itself but rather the impact of the vision-centered approach.

Dr. tenBroek’s understanding of blindness was clarified and tested by the growing ranks of Federation members across the country. A young man from Tennessee would emerge in the 1950s and he would immediately start putting the Federation pattern to the test for the second generation of our movement. Kenneth Jernigan, who would become the second great President of the National Federation of the Blind, was a teacher who understood that the Federation’s discipline in thought would only have a lasting impact if it led to concentrated action and rigorous testing by blind people. For decades Dr. Jernigan tested and expanded the Federation philosophy along with a corps of blind people who lived it in their lives every day. The concentrated pattern of thought and action that came to characterize "Federationists" dramatically shifted the balance of power from the agencies for the blind to the organization of the blind.

The dynamic growth of the second generation of our movement occurred during the time period when advances in science and technology accelerated the pace of innovation in the United States. As a result, we, the organized blind, came to measure the value of technological innovations against our authentic understanding of blindness. This stood in sharp contrast to the vision-centered approach, which used the perceived limitations of the blind as its measure of value.

While the work of the second generation was critical in accelerating our pattern of thought, it was the third generation of the Federation that set the standard of innovation we know today. The dynamic leadership of our next great leader and longest-serving President, Marc Maurer, brought greater diversity to our movement and used our pattern of thought to explore the perceived limits of blindness in imaginative ways. Dr. Maurer’s sharp intellect, understanding of the tools of law, and ability to personalize and test our philosophy were essential in taking our movement to the next level. Blind people living the Federation’s pattern of thought now emerge from the most innovative training programs available to the blind anywhere in the world. These programs can be found in our training centers in Colorado, Louisiana, and Minnesota. They can also be found in each of our fifty-two state affiliates where the pattern of thought gains strength and authenticity. This pattern has been internalized and tested by both blind and sighted people of different ages, backgrounds, talents, and perspectives. Furthermore, we have applied our pattern of thought to partnerships with outstanding technology developers to create the most powerful access-to-information systems ever imagined.

With every generation of our Federation, our philosophy has led us to raise the standard of excellence for blind people. This brings us to the current fourth generation of our movement, one in which technology influences our lives more than at any time in our history. You and I are challenged to raise our own expectations, just as those who preceded us raised theirs for themselves and for us. We have the power to shape our future lives, and we must not fail to use that power. We must command the attention of the inventors, and we must insist that they recognize our right to be involved in the decision making that determines our use of the systems they invent. When we are in the room, patterns of equal access change; and we must demand that we be there.

The vision-centered approach has promoted the idea that vision is a requirement for success. It has said, “use your vision, use it whether it works or not, if no other method will enhance the ability to see, use technology that gives you something—no matter how little.” When these technologies make it possible to use whatever limited vision is available, no matter the cost, no matter the difficulty; they are celebrated as the answer to a prayer. The closed-circuit television system, for example, emphasizes vision and diminishes alternative techniques for gathering information. This technology for the educators and rehabilitation professionals says to the blind, “use your vision; stop being lazy; if you try a little harder, you’ll be able to see.” This approach continues to hold blind people back even today.

Am I against vision? Of course not. Do I think closed-circuit television is good? Only when it works. What I believe is intolerable is the theory that learning in nonvisual ways is inferior to the vision-centered approach. Some teachers and some counselors have enough sense to understand that the range of educational systems should be explored, but many emphasize vision to such an extent that nothing else is tried. Does this happen everywhere and every time? It does not, but the pattern is broad and deep.

Technologies based on the vision-centered approach have also focused on creating a perception called vision through other senses. If these devices produce basic results, no matter how few or how limited they may be, they are celebrated for their success. The assumption of those who created them is that the technology is responsible for any productive capacity. The blind people who use them are not given credit for their abilities. The technology is the important thing. The blind are thought to receive, but not give value to the human-computer interaction.

Take for example the BrainPort—not a new technology but one with a mildly exotic and somewhat highfalutin name. Is the BrainPort a slot to connect the internet to your skull? A recent article describes the device this way, “The BrainPort device mounts a small video camera to sunglasses that are connected via an electrical cord to a square-shaped, lollipop-like mouthpiece with a grid of four hundred electrodes. The video feed is translated into digital signals expressed by the electrodes as light electronic pulses on the tongue.” Reports about the utility of the BrainPort claim exaggerated benefits that do not match our authentic experience as blind people and that do not take into account its effectiveness compared to other tools. They tell us the BrainPort has “helped blind people navigate sidewalks without a guide dog or cane, helped blind children in China learn to recognize Mandarin characters and play games of darts,” and my favorite, “aided a blind rock climber to more confidently pursue his passion.” The rock climber mentioned is Erik Weihenmayer who, years before trying the BrainPort, successfully became the first blind person to summit Mt. Everest with the support of the National Federation of the Blind. I have not asked Erik, but I believe it is no exaggeration to state that his confidence was pretty high before he decided to experiment with this novel approach to accessing information. In the vision-centered approach the value of technology is often generated by diminishing the capacity of even the most talented people who happen to be blind.

Another damaging premise of the vision-centered approach is the notion that the blind cannot travel effectively. Inventors come to the National Federation of the Blind with the technologies they are sure we need. They don’t ask us before they build them. They imagine how they would feel, and they give us the benefit of their brilliant ideas.

One man came to our center in Baltimore with a novel white cane. In addition to the tip on the end, it contained broom bristles to permit blind travelers to sweep objects from their path. The man asked us to help him patent the broom cane and to suggest methods for having it produced for the blind.

Another man came to our office with an electrical device that looked much like a pistol with a very short barrel. He said that if a user pointed the barrel of this electronic device toward the ground and moved it from side to side, it would be possible to identify the transition from the concrete sidewalk to the grassy strip next to the walk. The device was powered by a 9-volt battery. When the beam of light that came from the end of the short barrel identified the grass, the palm of the user would receive an electrical shock. This inventor asked us to market the device. How much better it would be if the inventors ask us if the devices they are thinking of making add any benefit to our lives. When the users are part of the inventive process, the design improves dramatically. However those who believe in the vision-centered approach begin with the premise that without vision no contribution can be made to the inventions that might be needed. Consequently, they do not invite the blind to participate because the blind have no value—nothing to contribute.

There are too many other examples of technologies premised upon the vision-centered approach to cover here. It is sufficient to say that they have covered everything from helping blind people eat, dress, manage personal communications, live more safely in the home, explore fitness, use bathroom fixtures, and almost anything else you can imagine. These technologies have been harmful to us as blind people and they have expended resources that could have been better used elsewhere.

In contrast, the technologies that have had the greatest impact on blind people have been effective because they incorporated an approach that was consistent with the Federation pattern of thought. An area where our philosophy has had significant impact is the intersection of Braille and technology—Braille being a powerful innovation itself. Many vision-centered technologies have been introduced with the premise that there is a better way for the blind to read than using Braille. The people who invent these technologies are convinced that technology itself, any technology, will be beneficial to the blind. Consequently they expect us gratefully to accept whatever they have devised. Rather than adopting technology as unquestionably helpful, our pattern of thought gives us a framework for testing technology with our authentic experience. As a result, we have contributed significantly to the development of computerized Braille production systems and refreshable Braille devices—dramatically increasing the speed of production and availability of materials. Our recent involvement in Braille-related technologies has stimulated the development of low-cost Braille displays, innovative methods for producing tactile images, and research into technologies to improve Braille instruction.

The most widely recognized of our technology efforts is our work with the inventor of the first reading machine for the blind, Ray Kurzweil, a relationship that now spans more than forty years. The partnership that produced the first Kurzweil Reading Machine demonstrated the vital importance of our involvement at the initial design phase of technology. It also emphasized the value of our serving as an objective evaluator of technology solutions. In our own publications we admired the innovation of the Kurzweil reading machine while expressing concern about its then limitations, including portability, technical performance, and affordability. Today, that reading machine has transformed from being a specialized device to a mobile application widely available on smart phones and tablets—an evolution driven by the application of our philosophy to the advances of technology.

Over the past four decades, we have continued to strengthen and expand our engagement in the development and objective evaluation of technology. This includes establishing the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, the National Center for Nonvisual Election Technology, and our next-generation technology effort known as the Center of Excellence in Nonvisual Access. Over the years our organization has worked on innovating technology products spanning the areas of education, travel (including driving), consumer electronics, employment, finances, and recreation. Today we provide guidance and consultation to major companies, emerging start-ups, and university engineering-design programs all based on our tested pattern of thought.

Technology plays an increasingly interactive role in today’s society. The computers get smaller and more powerful. As this happens, specialized uses for them increase. Some are wearable such as the Fitbit and the hearing aid. We hear within a certain spectrum, but there are other ranges of sound that can be detected. The hearing aid of today lets us appreciate the auditory range of sounds that an ordinary human ear can hear for those of us who have diminished capacity for this sense. However, the hearing aid of tomorrow will give us access to an auditory range that human beings do not now know. The hearing aid will not restore hearing but enhance it. The same is true for our other senses. Immersive technology being developed today blurs the line between the physical world and the simulated one. Perhaps this type of technology will create experiences that we cannot comprehend today. This deeply embedded use of technology in our daily lives requires that, in the fourth generation of our movement, we think much more broadly about access to technology than we have in the past.

In the past, the significant majority of the Federation’s time, energy, and imagination was spent on specialized access technologies for the blind. Although this area remains important, today the significant majority of our effort is focused on equal access to the technologies that are used widely by all of society. In case the reason is not obvious, if accessibility is not included in the general consumer technologies, then the number of artificial barriers to our participation will be too great for us to overcome. We know from our prior experience that it is always smarter, less expensive, and more functional to build accessibility into technology at the beginning rather than as a second-class add-on. The expectation of the fourth generation of the Federation is access to the same technology, at the same time, and at the same price.

Even with that as our standard of excellence, we must recognize that the technical details of providing equal access to the blind, although sometimes complicated, are easier than overcoming the persistent patterns of low expectations and misunderstanding about our capacity as blind people that are at the core of the vision-centered approach. Bad philosophy leads to bad technology. This is where the continued and aggressive application of our Federation pattern of thought is essential.

The general technology and design literature includes many recent examples of technologies being calibrated to include bias. At least one facial recognition system could not identify different shades of skin, and at least one automated picture classification system thought human beings of certain races were gorillas. The designers of such systems permitted them to reflect bias. What bias might be reflected in technology due to an overemphasis on the visual interface, a lack of involvement with the blind at the design phase, or simply a lack of expectation that the technology will ever be used by a blind person? Moreover, what problems might we encounter from using technologies that incorporate visual bias?

Take the example of electronic copies of books—an innovation pioneered to provide blind people access to printed works. Once commercial ebooks became popular, we were required to fight for years to establish equal access in the digital publishing industry. We have worked to help establish strong standards for ebook accessibility, to get publishers to produce books to those standards, and to ensure that the technologies are available to read those books without vision. We now have access to tens of thousands more books than ever before, but the bias against us continues. We have discovered that one of the barriers to ebook accessibility is that the authoring tools are inaccessible. We have often been met with surprise when we suggest that blind people need and want to author their own publications. Is it really news that blind people might have something to say? If you have met some of us, you probably know that we can be as opinionated as any sighted person. Why is it acceptable for us to read the books but not author them? The artificial limits placed on our role in the digital publishing world are just one example of the bias built into technology that negatively impacts the blind.

Far too frequently and enthusiastically, the media, the general public, and even many blind people talk about technology as though it is the thing that gives us capacity and freedom. The most commonly used cliché to describe the impact of technology on the lives of the blind is “life changing.” The problem is that use of this term oversells the difference that technology makes in our lives as compared to our sighted peers. Technology has changed the pattern of life for all humans—not just the blind.

Technology has changed the way we communicate. We need not use a telephone for an extended conversation with distant friends as we can share thoughts instantly through text messages. If we are short on words we might only use emoticons to express our ideas.

Technology has changed our patterns of travel. We all have been passengers with drivers who follow the instructions of the GPS even when the directions are obviously wrong. On the other hand, you need not wait out in the rain hoping that the bus is on time that day, because you can track it in real time and carefully plan your arrival at the bus stop.

Technology has changed the way we consume food. You need not stick to the same-old neighborhood diner because you can easily discover new places, learn which ones your friends like best, read the menu before you get to the door, and even monitor your place in line.

Technology has changed our access to knowledge. If you are curious about something, you can instantly look it up using your favorite search engine. However, you still need to make the judgment as to whether the source presents real or alternative facts. These are life-changing patterns for all in our society. As blind people, we should not buy into the idea that technology is life changing for us but is simply a normal part of the evolution of human experience for the sighted. Technology is influencing the human experience, and it is our belief that blindness is a normal characteristic within the human experience.

Every year a large volume of articles are written about the life-changing technologies for the blind. With titles such as "Five Amazing Gadgets that Are Helping the Blind" or the seemingly more inspiring and vision-centered "Four Innovative Technologies to Help Blind People See Again," authors attempt to educate the public that technology is the defining factor in making us normal people. To those who do not know us and our capabilities, these articles perpetuate a pattern of thought that is misguided and harmful.

Consider an article from the online magazine Slate that was published in February 2016. In the article entitled “How Technology Is Helping the Blind Navigate the Physical World,” the author describes the ways that technology is changing the lives of blind people and opening up new possibilities. One example given is the story of a man who began experiencing blindness at age thirty-two, and how he benefits today because “everything” he needs is available through his phone. It summarizes the breakthrough this way: “He couldn’t keep up with his paperwork-intense real-estate business, but he transitioned to a job impossible for a legally blind person a generation ago: bartender.” Thank goodness for us the mystery of mixology has been revealed to the blind through the wonder of technology. The article does not say if there were any drinks that blind people could mix before mobile-app technology. Even if the labels on the bottles were not readily identifiable, most blind people should have been able to figure out the classic rum and coke, gin and tonic, and the more contemporary gin and juice. Are they serious or is this just an example of Slate’s witty style? Either way, it falsely represents our capacities and overemphasizes the impact of technology in our lives compared to the lives of others.

That same Slate article touts “a low-cost fix to help visually impaired people exercise more effectively.” The approach is a drone that can be used to guide blind runners around a track. The article notes that while the commercial unit costs approximately $300, you can get a used one for about $225. The premise of the project is that technology will be the change agent to get blind people out and exercising more. The premise will most certainly have harmful impacts on blind people who do not yet understand that blindness is not the characteristic that defines their future. While it is probably obvious to most in this audience that a person who does not believe that the blind have ability will not be likely to go running after the sound of a used drone, this project perpetuates the idea that technology is required for greater independence of the blind. Technology is not the answer to the real problems we face. Building understanding of our pattern of thought, creating faith in our capacity for full participation, these are the driving forces in every solution we seek.

If we are to compete in the twenty-first century, if we are to achieve the equal treatment and equality of opportunity we deserve, then we must put more faith in ourselves than we do in technology. The essential element in our ability to utilize our capacity to the fullest, to overcome the artificial barriers in society, to create understanding in the hearts and minds of the sighted is the love, hope, and determination that flow from our philosophy about blindness. If we do not possess the internal belief in ourselves as blind people, if we do not continue to test the limits of blindness as a characteristic, if we do not build our organization due to the mistaken belief that technology will solve all of our problems, we will not reach the independence, equality, and opportunity that we seek. We must not fear technology, but we must also not believe that it is our greatest hope. We must especially prevent the newly blind from placing all their hope in technology and neglecting their internal human capacity. We know today that we have the power to shape our future technology and our future lives, and we intend to use that power to share our pattern of thought.

We cultivate a bond of faith among blind people. We believe that if you give blind people tools, they will do wonderful things with them. However if the designers of the tools, the marketers of the tools, and most importantly the users of the tools do not believe in the capacity of the blind, those tools will only serve to perpetuate the vision-centered bias that has held us back for centuries. We will not let that happen. We come together to refine a pattern of thought. We stay together to share and expand our authentic intelligence as blind people. We move forward together to create the tools for our future with the resolute faith that we can make them work for us. We are the National Federation of the Blind.

Do not misunderstand what I have said as a rejection of technology. In fact, it is our deep understanding of the truth about blindness that fuels our enthusiasm for the tools that technology provides us. Technology has significantly changed the patterns throughout society, and we view ourselves as full participants in that society. We reject the bias that positions technology as the defining factor in our independence. Yet we seek all the advantages of technology, and we intend to innovate using technology to solve the real problems of blindness. This is why we have sparked the creation of powerful access-to-information tools and explored technologies to enhance our participation in society. In the same way that we should not accept the idea that technology defines the limits of our capacity, we should not close our minds to the idea that technology can be used to enhance our capacity. While we seek equal access to the technologies used by the sighted, we should continue to explore areas where specialized technologies for the blind will better serve our interests. Furthermore, we ourselves should take a hand in building the technology we need, not just for the blind but also for sighted users of the products we invent.

In the past we have taught each other how to effectively compete as blind people using a variety of tools and techniques. We must continue to teach each other, but we should explore the effectiveness of new technologies to perform some of those same tasks. We must do so not out of a belief that one approach is better than another but to learn which approach works under which conditions. There are many variables that must be weighed in our evaluation: cost, time, ease of use, effectiveness, portability, flexibility, and a dozen other factors.

We must use our pattern of thought to go even further into areas where we can play a critical role innovating approaches for all of society. We must bring our perspective and talents to the development of nonvisual interfaces, natural language systems, self-driving vehicles, standards for the Internet of Things, tools for perceiving in realms that cannot be seen, sensors and haptics for things that today cannot be touched, and dozens of other areas where we bring perspective that the current designers do not yet possess. The inclusion of our perspective will benefit everybody in society. The most meaningful way for us to reduce bias and contribute to innovation is to inspire qualified blind people to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. This is why we have been leading educational programs to engage blind youth in these subjects and innovating tools to eliminate the artificial barriers that stand between blind people and our dreams.

For the fourth generation of the Federation, it is not enough for us to merely carry the Federation pattern of thought; we must teach it to others in ways we have not yet imagined. We must do this so that we have the certainty of living the lives we want in the twenty-first century and to make it possible for the next generation of the Federation to raise the expectations even further. In our teaching we will get ever closer to eliminating the vision-centered approach that persists in limiting society and the exploration of human-computer interaction. Our pattern of thought explores the capacity of blind people while leveraging the advantages that technology provides. Our pattern of thought has driven the most powerful technologies used by the blind today, and that pattern will allow us to participate in the design, development, and implementation of the most powerful technologies used by everybody tomorrow. If we are to enjoy the equality and opportunity we deserve, our philosophy about blindness must be woven into the fabric of the human-biological-machine intelligence of our civilization.

My brothers and my sisters, as much as I love what technology brings to us, I love what we bring to us infinitely more. It is not the technology that defines us. It is not the technology that makes us capable. It is not the technology that determines our future. It is the bond of faith that we hold with each other. It is the pattern of thought that we have established and use to test the limits. It is the unwavering determination that allows us to transform our dreams into reality. Let us go forward in sharing our pattern of thought. Let us go innovate with technology grounded in our love, hope, and determination for our future. Let us go fuel the most powerful machine for collective action ever built. Let us go build the National Federation of the Blind.

National Federation of the Blind