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Thoughts on Building the Blind Community and Integration with the Sighted

May 31, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker
Shortly after posting my thoughts on the current state of the blindness assistive technology industry, I received a telephone call from a concerned friend.  He expressed some worry about my assertion that I believed two thirds of the senior management of any blindness assistive technology company needed to be blind or visually impaired.  After thinking about this for awhile and losing some sleep (I really should be in bed at 11:00 at night if I am getting up at 4:30 in the morning) I finally decided to get up and post some hopefully clarifying thoughts on this subject.
 
My friend was worried that I might be taking a FUBU (for us, by us) attitude.  He cited a couple of examples involving the ways in which other minority groups have handled civil rights and other political issues in the past.  There are two possible extremes with which we can choose to handle our role in society as blind people.  
 
On one side, we could choose to deny our blindness as much as possible and fully integrate into the sighted world.  This approach would mean that blindness simply becomes another characteristic, such as hair color or one’s height.  From an assistive technology point of view, all blind people would utilize absolutely the bare minimum amount of assistive technology products to function in the sighted world.  We would still use Braille displays and screen readers, but we would not use specialized note taker or PDA type devices such as the BrailleNote, BrailleSense, Icon or PAC Mate.  Some who lean more in this direction would say these specialized devices represent part of the “blind ghetto” mentality.  Instead, we would all be using Symbian or Windows Mobile based products running screen readers like MobileSpeak Pocket, PocketHal or Talks.  I dare to suspect that we would also do as little agitation for accessibility as possible, choosing instead to accept greater dependence on sighted readers and other less effective work arounds for the sake of getting along with the sighted.  
 
On the opposite extreme, we could choose to stay only within our small blind community, focusing almost exclusively on our blindness as a severe handicap that constantly keeps us down and out.  This approach would tend to portray the blind as victims in constant need of care and pity for their limited, tragic lives.  From an assistive technology viewpoint, focus would be placed on devising specialized, simplified user interfaces blind people could use to accomplish the small number of jobs deemed blind friendly enough to be made accessible.  For those few blind people who even reached the point where a note taker or PDA type device were deemed necessary, products like the BrailleNote and BrailleSense would be the exclusive domain of the blind, with no need for the ability to run any third party software not already built into the product.  Even the Icon and PAC Mate wouldn’t completely meet this pure focus on blindness, since they involve a more direct connection with the device’s underlying operating system and the use of numerous third party programs to perform important tasks.  Taking this extreme, there would also be little need for accessibility evangelism, since we would be sheltered in our own little world, far away from the one in which the sighted live and work.
 
Obviously, neither of these two extremes is desirable for most blind people.  We need to find a middle ground.  I feel it is, indeed, vital that we grow and nurture a strong, healthy blind community.  At the same time, we must live and work with our sighted peers, doing our part to make our own accomodations when it is at all practical and insisting on equal accessibility when that is the only way we can participate on equal terms.  From an assistive technology point of view, we must be granted the ability to choose from a plethora of products and services manufactured by dynamic, innovative companies that listen to our input and turn what we have to say with our dollars and words into even better products and services.  Since I have been using note takers as an example, let’s complete that thread.  Blind people need to be able to choose between a more specialized device like the BrailleNote, a middle of the road solution like the PAC Mate or a device used by the fully sighted such as a Nokia 6682, a Black Jack or other PDA or Smart Phone running the Symbian or Windows Mobile operating system adapted with a screen reader like Talks or MobileSpeak Pocket.  It is conceivable that a blind person might start with a BrailleSense and graduate to a Windows Mobile device once their technical skills have improved. 
 
Our blind community might be said to exist as a kind of nation.  Though we are separate from the sighted in some respects, we must grow, nurture and maintain positive diplomatic relations with our sighted counterparts.  When a seemingly intractible accessibility issue crops up, we may need to occasionally launch initiatives, special operations or maybe even outright war with a very small segment of the sighted population until we can arrive at a satisfactory resolution that fairly meets the needs of all involved parties.  We must never be quick to resort to adversarial means, but we all must be ready, willing and able to insist on the accessibility and reasonable accomodations we must have in order to fully participate in the world around us on terms of equality with the sighted.
 
It is highly likely that well under 10 percent of the sighted population can be said to inherently understand our needs as a diverse blind community.  It is also critical that the decision makers within the companies that provide us with the products and services on which we rely in order to learn, live and work in society understand our needs so they will have the best possible chance of delivering solutions that really meet our needs out here in the real world.  For this reason, I feel it is vital that a majority of a blindness assistive technology company’s senior management and, preferrably, its entire staff be blind or visually impaired.  Please understand that I am saying that a majority should represent our population.  I am not saying that representation must be 100 percent.  There are many examples of sighted people who have made momentus contributions to the blindness assistive technology industry.  Those people should be honored and encouraged by all means to continue their participation with gratitude from the blind community.  Further, more blind and sighted people should be encouraged to develop the necessary aptitudes to create the innovative devices and software we will need for an ever increasingly dynamic technology future.
 
Finally, what I think I am really saying here is, let’s all work cooperatively together as a blind community and in the blindness assistive technology industry to constructively take actions that will result in our increased ability to participate in the sighted world around us!  Pointless litigation between companies in this small industry does not, by any stretch of the imagination, do anything to promote this critical goal. 
 
Darrell Shandrow – Accessibility Evangelist
Visit http://www.SaveSerotek.org and ask Freedom Scientific to stop suing!
Information should be accessible to us without need of translation by another person.
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2 opinions on “Thoughts on Building the Blind Community and Integration with the Sighted

  1. Darrell:

    Good thoughts, but Iwould suggest that ownership may be even more critical then blind people in senior management. Mike Calvo is an excellent example of what I’m talking about; he deserves our support! But Russell Smith was also an excellent example and he was fully sighted!
    Ted Henter really understood what he was doing, but when he sold his company to people who really didn’t get it all the blind employees in the world couldn’t have prevented the bad choices Freedom Scientific has made.
    It’s absolutely astounding how money and a little status and power can turn a strong blind advocate in to an uncle Tom.
    I’ll take a sighted person with the ability to understand the big picture, some one like Deane Blazie, over agutless blind senior manager any day of the week!

    Your point about the 2 extreams is excellent! It’s likely however that a blind senior manager will be so invested in his or her experience that he or she will have more difficulty understanding the business implications of those choices than any skilled manager with a natural ability to listen to and understand the whole population.

  2. Separate but equal is a myth

    Separation by definition means that the separated parties will develop in response to different factors and sooner or later inequality will result. That is why Serotek has always focused its mission on accessibility anywhere. Our goal, within our sphere of influence, is to remove all barriers and eliminate accessibility or lack thereof as a reason for separation and discrimination. We believe accessibility is a right, not a privilege.

    Jonathan Mosen of Freedom Scientific has said that adaptive technology is a business, not a religion, and we agree. In fact that very perspective has pushed us towards solutions that are increasingly mainstream. The reason is that when a company focuses on solutions only for the blind community, its direction is shaped by the economic forces that govern that community. That means that government funding has a disproportionate role in sale and distribution of its products. It means that the overall market does not have the volume potential that governs the consumer or business technology markets. It takes AT out of the price/performance curves that shape the market for all manner of digital toys and tools. Instead, the people who might benefit most from digital technology are stranded and forced to seek out subsidies to pay the exorbitant prices that AT producers have to charge. And these same AT producers, because their markets are so limited, do not have access to the capital mainstream technology companies can tap and thus tend to lag the industry in applying advances in technology or in bringing innovative, cost/performance improving changes to their product offering.

    The capacity and adaptability of human beings is such that sight or lack thereof makes little real difference in the potential contribution a person can make to an organization in most functional roles. There are blind people who can match any sighted person in sales, accounting, product design, information technology, promotion, production, supervisory or executive management. There are highly capable blind janitors and CEOs; blind lawyers and accountants; investors and inventors; teachers and technicians.

    But a great many of those jobs are several times more difficult for a blind person to get and accomplish than a sighted person because the information that is essential to accomplish the job is not as accessible to the blind person. And that, we believe, is just plain wrong. That inability to access information is a barrier separating accomplished individuals from competing for jobs that they are otherwise qualified. Unfortunately, because our industry has developed and marketed adaptive technology to the “blind” community, it does a poor job of making it easy for businesses to make their information world accessible. Using conventional technology, the cost of making all corporate information accessible in a large corporation or government organization could easily be tens of millions of dollars. And for what? To give one person a chance to compete for one job? The economics as you can see push us to separation. And that keeps the blind community in its box.

    At Serotek, our goal is to make that barrier go away. We don’t think it should cost very much to make the world accessible. We think the accessibility should be built in, available for those who need it to tap into it. Accessibility should be a simple “plug-in” that can be added to any application or database. It shouldn’t require an enormous investment in dollars by the organization making the information accessible and it shouldn’t require an enormous investment in training to the individual who wants to use the tool.

    Five years ago when Serotek came on the scene, this kind of thinking was fantasy. Now it is well within the realm of possibility. We aren’t there yet, but we can see the day on the horizon when there won’t be an adaptive technology industry. The accessibility tools will always be built in.

    This kind of thinking requires that we see the blind community as part of the mainstream. It means that blind kids grow up side by side with sighted kids doing the same things. It means that asking whether or not someone is sighted is as taboo as asking their color, sex, or religion. It is not relevant information for most employment or other human activities.

    For Serotek that means we do think mainstream. We try to make our accessibility tools work for anyone. Our RIM and RAM products, for example, do not discriminate between blind and sighted trainers and technicians. The tools work equally well for either.

    As information access becomes increasingly mobile and ubiquitous, the need for hands free and eyes free access increases. Our System Access tool can browse the Internet or access an application for a sighted person unable to look at a screen just as well as it can for a blind person.

    The Adaptive Technology industry is, we believe, on the cusp of a transition. We see the economics of accessibility changing as it becomes increasingly an important mainstream functionality. As that happens, the technology gap between the tools used by the mainstream community and those available to the blind, will go away and with the disappearance of that gap, the cost/performance factor for accessibility tools will catch-up to the mainstream. Think about it. That will change the entire culture of this industry and the change may not be much to the liking of those who have shaped their business around the traditional economics of AT. Some sacred cows of accessibility, such as Braille, may struggle to find a place in a world where anything stored or transmitted digitally is accessible. Now before I get tuns of email saying I don’t want to see Braille live, I just want to say that I believe that Braille is an important part of a blind person’s life however creating Braille from accessible content is what we should shoot for. I will reserve any other comments I have about Braille for another time.

    Serotek is, as far as we know, the only significant AT company where the CEO, CTO, and the majority of employees are blind. Yet our focus is very much on making accessibility a tool for bringing together, not separating the blind community from the mainstream. Accessibility anywhere and everywhere we believe benefits all.

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