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The Braille Monitor,  July 2001 EditionThis is a line.

Answers Anyone?

by Brad Hodges


Brad Hodges uses a Braille Lite in the IBTC
Brad Hodges uses a Braille Lite in the IBTC

            From the Editor: Brad Hodges is a technology specialist working in the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind at the headquarters of the National Federation of the Blind. In the following article he announces a new service that will help people interested in technology intended to assist blind people. This is what he says:


            An old Chinese curse says, "May you live in interesting times." A variant for many blind people might be, "May you live in technologically interesting times."

            No doubt technology presents many opportunities which only a few years ago we would never have dared to imagine. Think back: who would have predicted that, with the push of a button or two, you could search millions of pages of information and have a list of results delivered to you in less than a second? Who would have imagined that sighted people with no knowledge of Braille could transcribe and produce hundreds of pages of letter-perfect Braille text with only the basic knowledge required to do the same job in print?

            Yes, we are living in technologically interesting times, and yes, for many blind people technology is a curse. In 1990 the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the National Federation of the Blind included the dedication of the National Braille and Technology Center for the Blind, later to become the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. This event demonstrated the importance of technology in the lives of individual blind Americans. At the same time the establishment of this one-of-a-kind center recognized the unique ability of the organized blind to evaluate current and proposed technologies for ourselves.

            As the IBTC moves confidently into the second decade of its mission, the pace of technological development and change is growing exponentially. In 1990 only a handful of computer systems were accessible to blind people. These systems were, for the most part, highly specialized hardware devices. The price in real dollars was staggeringly high. Nevertheless the utility of computers became immediately apparent, and the research and development that companies began doing have resulted in the current generation of Windows-access and other such programs. While this technical progress evolved rapidly from the early nineties until now, other less encouraging patterns also began to emerge--patterns which threatened to make the vast technical progress taking place a moot point.

            One of the most stubborn difficulties that emerged at the very beginning of high technology was access to information. This problem is one of the most paradoxical dilemmas many blind people face. After all, isn't the purpose of technology to provide information? How is it possible to experience a lack of information in an era in which many people complain of information overload?

            On closer inspection the problem is one the NFB has been addressing for thousands of blind people for over sixty years. The problem is getting the right information--information which is accurate and reflects the real-world experience of blind people. In this manifestation of the problem the issue is technology.

            From its beginning the IBTC has purchased and installed at least one of every hardware device and software application intended to provide computer access for the blind. Currently the 5500-square-foot lab operated by the IBTC contains technology valued in excess of $2,000,000.

            There is no indication that the pace of development and the introduction of new products will slow anytime soon. To the contrary, in the past several months entirely new categories of technology have arrived in the IBTC. These include Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS) and automatic teller machines equipped with voice guidance. We have eight APS devices available for examination by anyone who visits the IBTC. Staff from the Center have also taken these devices out into the community to describe their technical characteristics. More important than the physical availability of a comprehensive collection of APS systems is the analysis and perspective which the NFB can bring to the discussion of this critically important topic. Again, the issues are not simple technical considerations; they involve philosophy, understanding, and belief in ourselves.

Steve Booth uses a computer.
Steve Booth uses a computer.

            The ATM which stands in the IBTC is an example of the effective partnership between the NFB and Diebold, a major manufacturer of ATM equipment. While Diebold is knowledgeable about technical matters in an Automatic Teller Machine, the NFB provided the conceptual approach for the voice-guided technology.

            As a result of the problems in the 2000 elections, many improvements in voting machines that include the increased use of electronic systems are being proposed. The IBTC is aggressively pursuing the pertinent questions that must be asked and answered in order to ensure that these systems will not exclude blind citizens from using them. As you would expect, we are procuring samples of all systems of which we are aware. And as you would also expect, we will provide the analysis and apply time-tested Federation philosophy in order to make sound recommendations to election officials.

            Dozens of computers, millions of dollars of technology, prototypes, and research systems do not operate by themselves--at least they are not supposed to. People who operate them, people who host the hundreds of visitors to the IBTC, people who wade through the deepening river of information to discover value in the world of technology and answer questions from blind and sighted people across the nation: these are the members of the IBTC staff.

            Between the 2000 convention and our gathering in Philadelphia the IBTC staff has grown considerably. A single individual can no longer run the IBTC alone, so we have expanded our staff to include three technical specialists. Each brings a unique set of technical and personal qualifications to the Center. While each of the IBTC staff has individual specialties, they hold the philosophy of the National Federation of the Blind in common. This philosophy guides their work and informs their perspective on the complex questions and issues which we call upon them to address.

            While today's exciting technical developments are of interest to many who read the Braille Monitor, most of us approach technology in a more personal way. We usually own just one computer. Once we purchase it, we may take note of new developments, but we are much more concerned with the day-to-day use of our own technology.

Ann Taylor stands in front of a Braille embosser.
Ann Taylor stands in front of a Braille embosser.

            For those contemplating the use of a computer for the first time, much more personal issues take center stage. These have nothing to do with which of the new operating systems getting press attention may be most attractive or what the future of advanced technology may be. Figuring out how to obtain training on a new computer is the most important consideration--in short, information--the kind of information which individual blind people require in order to bring meaning to technology, master its use, and harness its power.

            The IBTC is a natural starting point for many of those purchasing computers and access technology. The Center also receives highly specialized calls from time to time when a blind person's job hangs in the balance. The IBTC staff takes its responsibility to answer questions seriously.

            In response to the growing need for answers to questions about technology specifically designed for use by blind people, the IBTC is proud to announce the establishment of the Technology Answer Line, now available to the public. Here is the way it works. You may reach a technical specialist Monday through Friday between 9:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. Eastern time. To use the Answer Line, simply call the National Center for the Blind at (410) 659-9314. Listen for the technology choice on the automated greeting menu, or ask the operator to connect you to the Technology Answer Line.

            Your call will be answered by a member of the IBTC staff. If the question can be answered immediately, he or she will do so. In the event your question is more specialized or the technical specialist believes that a more specific answer is required, you will be advised, and a return call will be arranged. The Answer Line will be equipped with voicemail. When the line is busy with other callers or the staff is away from the Answer Line desk, you will be invited to record your question and contact information. Your call will be returned as soon as the staff member is available.

            In order to make the best use of the Answer Line, we suggest that you have writing material or another method of taking notes available when you call. If you have questions regarding difficulties with your technology, having names of hardware and software is important. Version numbers of software and in some instances vendor information are also essential to answer certain questions.

            The power and opportunities created by technology should be available to all blind people. Providing accurate information about technology, training, and related matters is another way in which the NFB is changing what it means to be blind.

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