by Marc Maurer
Technology for the blind has been the hope and the frustration of blind people for as long as technology has existed. Even Braille, which was invented more than a hundred and fifty years ago and which has provided literacy to many blind people, has often been more of a promise of hope than a reality of achievement. This is so because many blind people never had competent Braille instruction available to them, and sometimes administrators of programs for the blind failed to believe in their own clients and ignored the skills and techniques that are used by the blind.
In the 1960's the portable tape recorder became generally available, and a number of people said that this new technology would (at long last) make the world of literary works available to the blind for the first time. Braille (it was said), though effective for many, was difficult to learn, was bulky, and would forever be in short supply. The tape recorder--especially the cassette recorder--would open literacy for the blind.
In the 1970's a number of new products for the blind were being developed--many of which used the computer as the framework for managing information. As the '70's dissolved into the '80's, specialized technological adaptations of the computer proliferated. The Reading Machine developed by Dr. Kurzweil in the mid 1970's became less expensive and more efficient. Braille printers increased in speed and accuracy. The Port-a-Braille was invented by Dr. Cranmer, and this invention was modified, enhanced, and streamlined by Deane Blazie to become the Braille 'n Speak, which has altered learning methods for blind students and note-taking for blind adults.
In the 1980's, with the advent of access technology using the disk operating system, obtaining information from the computer began to be manageable. Then the graphical user interface became a part of the computer scene, and access by the blind to computer information deteriorated. There were those who said that making information on the computer screen into speech or Braille could never happen. Some blind people met this announcement with despair, and others greeted it with anger or a determination to make things different. A number of sighted technicians told the blind that presenting information visually was fundamentally different from presenting it in audio form or in Braille. They said that access to information from a computer would always be more limited and circumscribed for the blind than the same access for the sighted. What had been available to the blind in the DOS environment could not be replicated with the graphical user interface.
Blind people responded by telling the manufacturers that our lives are being crippled, that our jobs are being taken, that we are being prevented from participating in the eerie world of the Internet, and that with the increasing use of computers in the schools even our opportunities for education are being diminished. The systematic exclusion of the blind from the world of technology could not be permitted to continue.
We let it be known that we would fight for the right to be a part of the technological world. We would urge our cause on the public platforms, in the governmental offices of regulatory agencies, in the halls of Congress, in the academic arenas, and in the public mind. If necessary, we would take to the streets and make a public demonstration of the urgency that faced us in the information age. We would never be satisfied until the blind had the same opportunities for participation that were available to everybody else.
In the midst of the effort to bring public attention to the changing environment in the technological world, we asked the experts what had happened. What was there about the graphical user interface that made the information presented through it so difficult to interpret? It seemed particularly ironic that, as computers became more powerful, the blind had less access to the information that was in them. What appeared to have happened was that the increasing power of the computers offered more opportunities for visual presentation, and these became so numerous that interpretation for an alternate presentation in speech and Braille was difficult.
In the DOS environment the number of windows available was usually one, the screen of the computer. The number of characters used for presenting information was limited to two hundred and fifty-five. With the graphical user interface, the number of windows for presentation increased to whatever the eye could interpret, and the character set became essentially unlimited. In the DOS medium most things were presented using text. With Windows, text and other representations were used together. The DOS computer manipulated pages of print. Windows computers manipulated information that looks much more like what an individual might find along a street. There are storefront windows with displays, streetlights, signs on buildings or lampposts, and other images such as a raised hand in red light to indicate don't walk. Interpreting the jumble of text, icons, decorations, and other symbols requires a level of sophisticated knowledge unlike anything previously presented in the computer environment. The job of transforming this mixture into intelligible speech or readable Braille is daunting, but it must be done.
What began with the computer has in many respects occurred with other machines. Many devices have visual display panels and a set of operating symbols that demand interaction with them. Microwaves, bread machines, televisions, stereos, and a host of other devices have interactive visual displays. In an increasing number of cases even the knobs and buttons have disappeared. When I was a boy at the school for the blind, operating a radio was easy. One knob turned it on and set the volume. The other knob selected the frequency. Occasionally, radios like my old friend at the school for the blind can still be found. However, radios now often have arrow buttons and a mode selector. It is essential to see the screen to get the frequency you want, and independent operation for the blind is completely impractical.
The frustrations in achieving access to technology for the blind are well known to us all. We have tried individually to solve them, and sometimes we have had substantial success in doing so. However, we have frequently discovered that the talent and power we possess individually are insufficient to address the universe of needs.
To meet the objectives of full access to technology for the blind, we need coordinated action. I suggest that we establish a board to review technology for the blind. We might call it the National Information Access Board for the Blind. This board would pool resources from its participating members, and it would establish standards to determine whether products are accessible to the blind. Such a board would encourage manufacturers to submit products and programs for technology-access review. It would provide feedback regarding the characteristics essential for accessibility to the blind. Organizations of consumers should be a central part of such a review board because the users of the products are those who will be most dramatically affected. However, the manufacturers will also have much to provide in judging products produced by others.
The standards for accessibility should provide that no organization is permitted to determine whether its product meets the guidelines. Each organization that wants to be a part of the board must commit resources to make such an enterprise practical, and all organizations participating will have an equal voice in decision-making. Each organization should be prepared to contribute both funding to meet the ongoing expenses of the board and personnel who are technically competent. Each participating organization should contribute $25,000 a year for the initial costs of operating the board. If this sum is insufficient to meet the on-going expenses, each should share the expense of the shortfall. The National Federation of the Blind will pledge to put $25,000 aside for this purpose, and we urge others to join us in creating the National Information Access Board for the Blind.
Can a particular device be operated by a blind person? Can it be used by a blind person to get data from the Internet? Is it effective in assisting a blind person to retrieve information from a device that would ordinarily provide it only visually? These are fundamental questions to be answered by the board. Everybody is invited to be a part of it. Today many of the answers would necessarily be "no." We must combine our energies to open the doors for the blind to enter the information age. When the answers are "yes," our joint efforts to promote accessibility will have been a success, and I think we should do it.
I offer that suggestion for thought and discussion during the remainder of this conference. We have some other presentations this afternoon. We will take those up first thing after lunch, but it seems to me that joint effort and combined action to promote accessibility is as important as anything we can set our minds to doing. I urge that we set up a system to do exactly that.