Final Discussion Summary

Jim Fruchterman: Our field tends to follow trends in the larger technology field with a lag of a few years. The general technology field is shifting to purchase over the Internet rather than through dealers. How will we deal with that change and with training and other things that are hard to do over the Internet? Some users are moving their software off the PC and onto a server. The local PC becomes a simple device that doesn't break as often, and an expert takes responsibility for running all software at serverside. This could be a solution or lead to a whole new set of problems.

The issue of open source code available over the Internet is increasingly important. In the next year or two this will become common in our field; open-source projects already exist in text-to-speech code. Ray Kurzweil talked very well about what will happen ten to twenty years out, but we will see some wild times between here and there.

Marc Maurer: There's been lots of conversation about MSAM (Microsoft Screen Access Model). Microsoft worked with O.N.C.E., EuroBraille, and Baum to develop MSAM, and there was talk about making it open source. The NFB was approached about setting up a company to manage this code in the open-source market, stipulating that anyone who updated the code must provide it to the company for general use. It now appears that MSAM is not being released for general use, so that particular project does not have a future, but the concept does, providing that everyone plays by the rules of the game and gives updates to the managing company to incorporate for general use and that the market is open enough to stimulate new products and enhancements to be managed. Who knows what proprietary or nonproprietary products may be developed that should be handled in this way, but it is an intriguing idea. The notion that, if we work together, we will all have more than we would if we do not is tempting to think about.

Brian Buhrow: This model is close to the Linux system, in which the operating system and most of the software are free, and companies find their niche in providing technical support and packaging. The question for us is whether consumers in our field are willing to pay for technical support. Now support is mostly free, at least for a period of time. Will users and rehabilitation agencies begin paying for support, and do vendors think there is money to be made developing training and support packages for systems they have not created?

Richard Ring: I don't know if consumers would pay for support; I think some would. But if they do buy it, it had better improve drastically from what is often now provided. Calling a customer back the next day or giving unsatisfactory answers will not do when people are paying. I can talk to two technical support people from the same company and be given two completely different answers, neither of which is right.

David Andrews: An example of a successful release of source code and development of it in the public domain is NFBTrans, which we released in 1992. Originally written in Pascal, it was converted to C by a blind person who continued to upgrade it and add features and capabilities. Then two years ago Kurzweil made it a 32-bit program and incorporated it into the K1000. Just last week Larry Skutchan talked with me about incorporating it into an APH product. It seems clear that this approach has some merit for this field.

Oscar Fern`andez: [He spoke briefly about O.N.C.E.'s efforts to make Microsoft Windows more accessible.]

Larry Skutchan: The open-source model is certainly useful in many situations. Microsoft may not be happy with this statement, but it is absolutely essential for the operating system to support the screen-access model directly because MSAM, and all the work done by O.N.C.E. and the others, will be worthless to us in two years when a 64- or 128-bit version of NT comes out. We will have to start over from the ground up. If the operating system supported this natively, blind computer users would be able to use the technology as soon as it hits the street, and every vendor wouldn't have to start over every time there was a change in the operating system.

After a break the group gathered for some discussion of ways in which the group might engage in cooperative activities between conferences.

Marc Maurer: A technology review board to assess the accessibility of products might be a place to begin. It would be educational at first since no one would know what it was. But the models of Underwriters Laboratory and Consumers Union show the way. Already a group is assessing the quality of access to Web sites for disabled users. This board could be something like that.

David Andrews: There is a crying need for such a board to set standards and apply them. We could establish a private e-mail discussion group to continue this discussion if that would be helpful.

Marc Maurer: This is an idea worth pursuing though some who are not present today might be part of such a listserv as well.

Michelle Brul`e: I would like to see any forum or board serve both the U.S. and Canada.

Marc Maurer: If we limit it to one country, we won't get the broadest result we could hope to achieve.

Jim Fruchterman: Is this board concept aimed primarily at adaptive technology or mainstream organizations and products? We are entering an era when mainstream products are having to meet a higher standard of accessibility, and I would rather see them paying this kind of money and meeting the standards set. For small companies in the adaptive corner of the market, $25,000 is a lot of money.

Marc Maurer: Twenty-five thousand is a lot of money, but we want people who are genuinely interested in this idea and are willing to commit to it. Participating will be important enough to pay this kind of money only for those who are really committed. The figure would keep those who are peripheral to the process out of it.

Curtis Chong: Such a board is a good idea, but not for assistive technology developed specifically for the blind. More than ever before blind people face application programs, set-top boxes, small appliances with flat control panels, and so on, and nobody is dealing with these access problems. We have to find a way to expose the fact that these things don't work for blind people and publicize the fact. If this board works, after a while producers will feel some shame and eventually will look to the board for indication that their products are accessible.

David Andrews: I think the blindness organizations like the NFB, ACB, and AFB might put up their contributions as seed money to hire staff and whatever is needed to begin because our constituencies give us a vested interest. The group would establish standards for the products Curtis was talking about to be usable by blind people. Then producers would pay a fee to have products--software or appliances--tested. With state laws about nonvisual access being passed and Section 508 requiring genuine accessibility, we might get laws changed to say that a seal from this board would demonstrate accessibility. The fees paid by the producers would then make the system self-supporting.

David Pillisher: The Underwriters Laboratory (UL) seal stays with a product even when it undergoes changes that perhaps make it less safe than the original one that was tested. Computer products are changed even more frequently and could lose their accessibility without losing the seal.

David Andrews: The board would approve major version changes.

Marc Maurer: These are logistical details that can be worked out. But you get what you pay for, so we wouldn't give away the seal.

George Kerscher: We want to encourage universal design, and I am always the first one to point out that the blind have been left out. Would this system include multi-media educational tools entering schools?

Marc Maurer: It would if we can find a way conveniently to make it do so. We still have to write the standards. Does anybody now know what a company has to do to make its products accessible? We have ideas, but they may not be consistent. Even those who have thought a lot about the problem don't have all the ideas. We will have to pool our ideas, but there should be a place people can go to find out what they have to do to make their products accessible.

Paul Schroeder: I like the direction we are going in trying to bring us together to focus on access to mainstream products and setting standards. Money is going to be the rub, and I would like to begin the process and avoid the money question for a while. Deciding the scope of products to be evaluated by such a board and beginning to develop the standards for doing so could be done by the organizations in this field before worrying about the financial structure and who controls it.

Jim Fruchterman: There are places to begin: Section 508, Section 255 of the Telecom Act, the Web Accessibility Initiative. What's missing is someone to interpret those who know something about the needs of blind people. The organizations of and for the blind have a significant stake in that, and the technology producers can make a significant contribution because of our expertise. The most valuable thing we producers could contribute would be our time and knowledge.

Deane Blazie: In the early eighties the Assistive Technology Division of the Electronic Industries Association was started by some of us vendors. It provided a little seal to say how accessible a product was for people with disabilities. If you went to the Electronic Industries Association, and particularly to CEMA (Consumer Electronics Manufacturers Association), they would be very interested in supporting such an organization and working with you to set standards. They could let member organizations come to the board with cell phones and learn how to make them accessible. They have a lot of money. If you go to them with the idea that you will help them if they will just support your organization, I think you will get a lot of cooperation. We did when we had this Assistive Device Division.