Future Reflections                                                                                          Spring, 2002

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Equal Access: Technology and the Blind

by Steve Jacobson


Steve Jacobson
Steve Jacobson

Editorís Note: As the Vice President of the NFB in Computer Science Division, the father of two blind girls, and blind user of technology, Steve Jacobson was uniquely qualified to speak to the 2001 seminar participants on the topic of equal access. Here are his remarks:

During the past thirty years technology has had a tremendous impact on our lives as blind people, yet we are finding that some of the improvements we expected would arise from advances in technology have not yet taken place. So how do we prepare our kids to be successful participants in society and what do we tell them about equal access? Iím glad to have this opportunity to share some of my thoughts with you and to hear some of yours as well. As the Vice President of the NFB in Computer Science and the parent of two blind children, this subject is one that has become very important to me.

First, letís look at what has changed during the past thirty years. And then explore what kinds of things have not changed. After that, Iíll give one manís opinion on how we take both the changes and the constants into account as we prepare our kids for the future. As the decade of the seventies began, most blind adults used canes or dog guides, but there were still many who used very short canes. It was very uncommon for children to use canes at that time. Some blind persons had begun to program computers, but it was more common for a blind person to tune pianos for a living. There were some laws that protected our rights, but much of what we accept today as common place came about during the seventies and later.

Although perhaps not complete, here are some of the other things that have happened since then.

Solid fiberglass canes became available in the early seventies. These were kind of heavy. Sometime later hollow fiberglass canes were developed that were much lighter, and, much later we began to see carbon fiber canes. The NFB played an important part in the development of each of these canes. The lighter canes made it easier to teach kids how to travel. The NFB played a major role in changing the thinking of professionals along these lines. We are no longer thought to be wild-eyed radicals for suggesting that children should be taught to use a cane.

For $2,500 in 1974 one could buy a talking scientific calculator. When a five-function talking calculator became available for only $500, we thought it was a real deal.† By the mid-80ís talking clocks and calculators were fairly cheap and common.† In 1975, the NFB assisted Dr. Raymond Kurzweil to get grants to develop a reading machine. The first units cost $50,000 each, but it was felt that before too long one could buy a reading machine for $10,000. Today many blind people use computers and scanners with OCR software to read every day.†

Although not reliable, Braille printers became a reality in the early 70ís. In the mid-70ís IBM and Maryland Computer Services led by Dean Blazie developed talking computer terminals that could be used where full screens of data had to be processed.† They only cost about $6,000 or so, which we didnít think was too bad.† A talking phone directory became available to be used, mostly, in employment settings for $10,000, but it saved a few jobs.

Specialized computers for the blind started appearing in the late 70ís.† Some of us began to use Apple computers and Commodore computers at that time.† In the 80ís the IBM computers and soon the, so-called, clones spawned the development of more screen readers and speech synthesizers and eventually more Braille displays.† Blind people began to do many jobs with computers that we had not done before. We discovered e-mail, the Internet, electronic text, and we thought we had the world by the tail.† Then along came Microsoft Windows.† This, for a time, left blind people behind.† It is not an exaggeration to say that a substantial number of people lost their jobs or were forced into unplanned career changes because of the lack of access to Microsoft Windows.† Eventually we got things back on track, and although our access isnít perfect, many of us use Windows every day on the job and at home.

In the 1980ís a project in Kentucky under the direction of Dr. Cranmer built a small pocket-sized device that used six keys and a space bar just like a Brailler to store information electronically and speak it on demand.† Dean Blazie successfully made this device famous as the Braille Ďn Speak.† This led to the creation of a whole new class of electronic devices for blind persons commonly described as note-takers. These devices were small and did not depend on tape cassettes or other kinds of cartridges for storing the data.†

If youíre not impressed yet by the changes consider these: talking bathroom scales, books recorded on cassette, portable cassette players, radio reading services, our own NFB Ė NEWSLINEģ, paperless Braille displays, talking maps, and many other devices have all come about since 1970. Weíre talking about only 31 years.

Yes. Things have changed a lot.† At the outset though I also noticed that some things have not changed. Probably most notable is our high rate of unemployment.† Certainly technology has opened up new opportunities for us, but some of the old opportunities, some of the traditional jobs, have disappeared.† Although we have reading machines, there are still enough things they wonít read that most of us still hire and use readers for handling professional and personal mail. We are in a constant battle to make software and Web pages accessible. But we must also carefully watch what is now accessible to make certain that it stays that way.† The law may require that a document must be provided in an accessible format, but the law canít eliminate the extra time it takes to have that document converted, nor can it make difficult formatting problems disappear.†

And then there are the household electronic devices Ė televisions, stereos, even stoves Ė where the controls are only accessible through electronic touch panel menus with a print display.†

We are also finding there is a price for technology both in money and time.† I tell prospective buyers that the cost of the computer is just a down payment. We routinely pay $100 to buy a necessary upgrade to our screen readers so that we can use the next free version of Microsoft Internet Explorer.† We spend time making sure that our hard disks are defragmented. We want to make sure that our important documents are moved onto a floppy disk or saved in some other way in case our computer crashes. We have to make sure our Braille displays are kept clean and that our note-taker batteries are charged. We find that if weíre only going to read a document once, it may not be worth the time it takes to physically scan the document, especially if the formatting is complex. In other words, technology is not the solution to all our problems. At least not by itself and not without realizing there might be a price.

So what is the answer? How do we harness technology to get the equal access that we need and want?† I believe the answer lies in the attitude we convey about technology. If we portray technology as our salvation, it will too often become our prison. Let me show you how this can happen.

On one of the e-mail lists to which I subscribe there was a cry for help.† It seemed that a gentleman was taking a semester course in programming, and he ran into a snag. He was more than half way through his course when they began studying a program environment that his screen reader wasnít able to handle. This part of the course was to last only about two weeks, but if he couldnít get his screen reader working, he was going to quit the course.† What could he do?† Should he sue somebody?† I suggested that since this was only for a small part of the course he should not let his technology keep him from learning. Although it wasnít going to be as convenient, I suggested that he hire a reader to describe what was happening on the computer screen. I received several positive comments from people who said that they hadnít thought of using a reader like this. One person said they had the same idea, but they thought everybody would laugh at them. I didnít tell them I thought they might laugh at me too, but I knew it would work. One couple thought that I was selling out rather than fighting for our right to full access. I donít know if there was a legal case here or not. However, whether one decides to fight the system to make it change should be done by choice, if possible, and not because one thinks they do not have options. In this case, the technology became the limiting factor, but a little ingenuity and flexibility allowed the course to be completed.

Another gentleman once stated to me that he didnít need a reader anymore because he had technology. Any mail that he gets that canít be read by his scanner goes into the garbage can.† I responded that my kids would miss a lot of birthday parties if I took that approach since most of the invitations were handwritten. Often the parents didnít know that we were blind and wouldnít know to let us know about the party any other way.† Again, technology can be a limiting factor.† As part of my job I have been in brainstorming sessions where we discussed solutions to problems and a facilitator wrote on a blackboard. It would be difficult to get this information in an accessible format, whether required or not. But it also isnít necessary. I can write down the ideas as they are spoken as well as the person holding the chalk or the marker. Having my own written copy I might well offer to write up the summary for the entire group, and Iíve done that on occasion.† But to do this I must be able to take good notes.† Often my notes are taken on a slate and stylus. So technology isnít even involved at all. But certainly technology can be very useful here in note taking. But technology or not, the most important skill is that of taking good notes. It takes more than technology.

The point here isnít that I am such a great employee. I work hard and people seem happy with the work I do, but I make my share of mistakes, and hopefully I learn from them.† Rather, the point that I hope to convey to my children is that technology is one of many tools that they need to learn to be successful. They need to be able to work with a reader sometimes. They need a way to be able to write without high tech items as long as sighted people are still using pencils. They must learn not to use their technology as an excuse.† If an important paper is swallowed up by a defective hard drive on a computer, itís not the computerís fault. Itís their fault because they did not create a copy on a floppy disk or someplace else.† Or at least itís mostly their fault.† One has to have a heart.†

We know that there are laws to help us, and those laws need to be enforced. But occasionally, getting the job done is more important than making someone obey the letter of the law. In other words, we must learn to choose our battles and have options from which to choose.

John Pastorus an Tommy Carrol discover a common interest in Technology at the 2001 Convention.
John Pastorus and Tommy Carrol discover a common interest in technology at the 2001 Convention

This still isnít the whole picture though.† We live in a technological world, and technology can help us. I want my kids to learn the technology that can help them as blind people and also, maybe, give them an edge on the job when it comes time to be looking for one. This is a balancing act at times, and I know it isnít easy. However, I firmly believe that if we use technology wisely, while at the same time also using those characteristics and techniques that helped us succeed as blind people before 1970, we will see more progress in the years to come.† Maybe progress isnít being made as fast as I would like it, but I am hoping by helping my kids see technology as one of many tools rather than the only tool, they will have more opportunities and achieve more than we dare to dream or hope for ourselves.† Letís work together to make that happen. Thanks.


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