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Press Release: Yahoo! Asked to Reasonably Accomodate the Blind by Adding Audio CAPTCHA

July 24, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Yahoo! Asked to Reasonably Accomodate the Blind by Adding Audio CAPTCHA

An online petition is being circulated worldwide asking Yahoo! to implement an audio alternative to their graphical CAPTCHA (visual verification) process so that the blind and visually impaired will be afforded the same level of access enjoyed by the sighted. All Internet users are asked to sign this petition and support the concept that the blind and visually impaired should be reasonably accomodated with respect to multifactor authentication and visual verification systems.

Tempe, AZ July 24, 2007 — We at Blind Access Journal ask all blind and sighted Internet users to sign the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition at BlindWebAccess.com asking Yahoo! to make available an audio alternative to their CAPTCHA as a reasonable accomodation affording blind and visually impaired people the same access to the company’s resources as that currently granted the sighted. Right now, Yahoo!’s graphical visual verification prevents full independent access by the blind or visually impaired computer user to many of the company’s services. Pictures can’t be interpreted or automatically conveyed using Braille or speech access devices. Until an accessible alternative is made available, people with vision loss can’t see the code to be entered into the box to be granted admission. Tell Yahoo! you want them to provide an alternative way for blind users to verify their human status. If you close your eyes, don’t get caught by the CAPTCHA! Please visit www.BlindWebAccess.com and sign the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition today!

Visual Verification: Changing the Frame of Reference?

July 22, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Recently, I have been engaged in discussions with several close friends and colleagues concerning my ongoing comparison between the exclusion of the blind from online participation through visual only CAPTCHA and the historical issue of racial segregation in the United States. These friends tell me the comparison is too controversial, that it doesn’t really work (either as a vehicle to explain the harm done by the exclusion or as a means to persuade others to do the right thing) and some find it deeply offensive. Though I will continue to use the “No Blind People Allowed” sign as a description of the problem caused by these visual verification schemes, I will cease using the segregation analogy. It is still absolutely critical that a workable analogy be found that can be used as a frame of reference to explain the harm caused by inaccessible CAPTCHA and persuade those without a reasonable accomodation to change their attitude and simply do the right thing as soon as possible. I am thus opening the floor for your thoughts on an alternate frame of reference. Please post a comment to this article or feel free to e-mail editor@blindaccessjournal.com with your frank, honest thoughts on anything we can do to move this issue along in a constructive way.

Accessibility Is A Right, Not a Charity, Convenience, Luxury or Privilege

July 21, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Blind Access Journal is almost three years old. We will be celebrating our third anniversary of concerted online accessibility evangelism on December 17,2007. Now that we have embarked on our second major CAPTCHA (visual verification) accessibility initiative, I thought it would be a good idea to make the agenda of Blind Access Journal plainly clear to both long time and new readers. The overarching statement we consistently make in the pages of this journal is: “accessibility is a right”. Accessibility provides blind and visually impaired people with the opportunity to participate in society on terms of equality with the sighted. Inaccessibility excludes the blind and visually impaired, resulting in exactly the opposite condition. We must have accessibility in the form of “reasonable accomodations” that permit us to participate, in order that we may be afforded the opportunities to live, learn and work in the world around us. Though we greatly appreciate anyone who is willing to work cooperatively with us, we must also keep in mind that full and equal participation of the blind in society ought not, ultimately, be a charity, convenience, luxury or privilege, but rather a human right in just the same way as those earned by women, minorities and other groups of human beings who have found themselves disallowed from full participation in one or more important elements of their society at different times in history.

The concept of charity revolves around the ability and willingness of people who have something (clothing, food, shelter) to share that wealth with those less fortunate. Rescue Missions, soup kitchens and other efforts to feed and shelter the homeless population are excellent examples of wonderful charities. In many cases, these organizations simply hand out food to the people who are eligible for their services. We also have non-profit, “charitable” organizations within the blind community that provide us with opportunities we would not otherwise be granted from companies in the business sector. Benetech and The Seeing Eye are excellent examples of two such organizations. Benetech now provides over 35,000 scanned electronic books to its subscribers, increasing their opportunities to read for entertainment and educational purposes. The Seeing Eye provides trained guide dogs to blind and visually impaired people to increase our ability to safely move through the world around us. Organizations like Benetech, The Seeing Eye and many others are charities in that they are non-profit, tax exempt entities with a mission to provide services not otherwise available to a minority population. In this sense, the concept of charity is quite positive. Unfortunately, there’s another side to the concept of charity that is not so great with respect to accessibility issues.

In the old days, perhaps as recently as the 1960’s here in the United States and today in other parts of the world, blind beggars would stand on street corners handing out pencils and accepting coins from passers by dropped into a can or cap. In the modern world, most blind people receive monthly checks, such as those from Social Security here in the United States, as a replacement to begging. In both cases, begging and Social Security checks simply represent a way for society to show charity toward a group of people deemed too needy to effectively care for themselves. Since the blind endure an approximate 75 percent unemployment rate, the continuation of this charity remains absolutely critical. Unfortunately, there is a dirty little secret to this form of charity. The concept involves the assumption that these poor, pitiful handicapped people should be grateful for whatever they get and should thus take their charity and leave everyone else alone. People harboring such attitudes tend to feel, whether consciously or not, that whatever small measures they take to help us should be good enough. Any indication on our part that their actions may not be sufficiently helpful is written off as whining and complaining and met either with silence or, when we are lucky, with a statement of this attitude. They resent any insistance that a better job be done to work with us for a more positive result. Karen and I call this a settle-for-less attitude, for lack of a better label. This settle-for-less attitude is deeply and profoundly offensive to those of us who simply feel we must be granted the same opportunities as people without disabilities.

Unfortunately, many government agencies, businesses and even some non-profit organizations continue to take this settle-for-less attitude with us. For example, paratransit providers like East Valley Dial-A-Ride here in Arizona often take the attitude that “we’re doing the best we can” while refusing to hold themselves accountable for errors, act professionally with their customers or listen to constructive input from the community. This same attitude and approach to challenges is often clearly evident in the people working for the Social Security Administration, Vocational Rehabilitation and many other agencies and organizations with a mission to help people with disabilities. While people with disabilities are required to follow the provider’s policies to the letter as a condition of receiving the help they need, the provider feels free to violate their stated responsibilities, often without as much as a sincere apology and explanation of the actions that will be taken to insure the violation is not repeated in the future. The settle-for-less attitude is even clearly evident on the Internet.

Many web sites now feature a CAPTCHA (also known as visual verification) during the registration process or even as a condition of completing business transactions. The CAPTCHAs are designed to make abuse of the web site virtually impossible for scripts and other automated computer programs, requiring that a real human being be present to pass the test. The customer or user is asked to look at a picture of a string of distorted characters and enter them correctly into an edit box in order to be permitted passage to the promised land they seek. Some web companies, such as America Online, Google and PRWeb offer an audio playback of the characters as an alternative for the blind, visually impaired or even sighted users who simply need a different way to pass the CAPTCHA test. The job of implementing audio CAPTCHA on any given web site has become much easier over the past year. For example, the FormShield CAPTCHA tool for the Microsoft .Net platform provides quite an effective audio and visual verification scheme. Another example is the free ReCAPTCHA service that provides audio and visual CAPTCHAs that also serve to assist in the process of the optical character recognition of books from print into digital formats. There is even an example of a text-based CAPTCHA, WP-Gatekeeper that permits readers of WordPress blogs to post their comments after answering a basic, text-based challenge question. Though the audio CAPTCHA continues to exclude some users, such as the deaf-blind, it represents the current technological state-of-the-art, and there’s absolutely no excuse at this point for any web site to be using a CAPTCHA without at least an audio playback as a reasonable accomodation for the blind and visually impaired. Concerted research and development must continue in order to ultimately devise and implement solutions that can tell computers and humans apart in a method that is non-censory, so that all human beings will be able to pass such tests and access online resources.

Unfortunately, there still exist many companies and organizations on the web that insist on the settle-for-less attitude. Two examples are Yahoo! and Western Oregon University. Yahoo! invites the blind person to complete a separate form and wait for a human to call back in order to complete the action protected by the CAPTCHA, while WOU invites blind students to contact a telephone number that is supposedly staffed 24×7 in order to receive assistance. A student at Western Oregon University has told me that the results of their CAPTCHA accomodation have been less than acceptable. Many blind Yahoo! users tell us that, after completing the form as requested, the promised callback from Yahoo! personnel simply never comes, even after numerous attempts to request help. A petition has recently been initiated asking Yahoo! to add an audio alternative to their CAPTCHA. Western Oregon University, Yahoo! and all other web site operators that either provide no accomodation at all to their CAPTCHA or provide a manual process requiring human intervention are examples of those who seem to believe in the settle-for-less attitude. When no accomodation is offered, a blind person must rely on the help of a sighted individual, who may not be available for hours or even days. Many manual intervention approaches tend to result in no follow up at all or the follow up comes hours to days after the request for help is made by the blind person. In both cases, either no access is provided at all or the access is vastly inferior to that granted sighted users, who are allowed instant gratification as soon as they are able to pass the visual verification process. Some in the blind community, myself included, feel that the current state of affairs with inaccessible CAPTCHA is tantamount to the segregation experienced by African-Americans before the mid to late 1960’s.

A convenience or luxury item is clearly defined as something that is nice to have but is not required in order to fill basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter. For most people in society, the acquisition of those basics ultimately requires gainful, paid employment. Most jobs now require the employee to use a computer and other electronic office equipment. If an employee is unable to use one or more critical job-related computer programs, they are unable to be considered as candidates for the position or may lose their existing employment. This happens to blind people on a regular basis. It would have happened to me in February of 2006, had I not put my foot down and absolutely insisted on a better outcome. We are regularly receiving testimonials from others experiencing situations where their employment is in jeopardy simply due to a lack of cooperation on the part of software developers to make reasonable accomodations that would allow their software to function with screen readers and other assistive technology. These accessibility issues are further frustrated by the fact that most of the currently entrenched screen reader manufacturers refuse to innovate in ways that would increase the usability of those applications that have already been identified as inaccessible. It is absolutely critical that all assistive technology companies focus on innovation and stop engaging in destructive, unproductive, wasteful efforts such as filing lawsuits and other similar anti-competitive moves.

In addition to technology access concerns, transportation is an issue for many blind and visually impaired individuals. Most sighted people drive themselves to work, while a small percentage of the sighted ride the bus, subway or some similar form of public transportation. While most blind people are able to safely utilize buses or subways, many are not for various reasons. Those who can’t take advantage of the regular public transportation system in a city may rely on a paratransit service such as Dial-A-Ride. When a paratransit service causes their customer to be late to their job due to an issue outside the customer’s control, the employee may be written up and, ultimately, may lose their job altogether, even after successfully working around the technology access challenges. Such scenarios are, of course, also quite inexcusable.

Accessibility is not a convenience or luxury item! We must have equal accessibility to information and transportation in order to educate ourselves and acquire gainful, paid employment. It is just that simple and obvious. Consideration of accessibility as a convenience or luxury item is another component of the settle-for-less attitude demonstrated all too often by the agencies, assistive technology companies and organizations with a stated mission to help us, Federal, state and local government agencies charged with the duty to serve all citizens, the developers of mainstream products and services and even most blind people who are willing to accept inaccessibility without insisting on something better. When we encounter a case of inaccessibility that holds us back, we must start by politely asking for positive change, but we must also be willing to insist on the right thing being done and, even, demand equal accessibility when necessary. In most cases, sadly, accessibility is going to continue under the settle-for-less banner unless we, the blind and visually impaired community negatively impacted by the lack of equal opportunity caused by inaccessibility, stand up and take action!

Although most sighted people in modern times would probably consider it a right, the ability to drive an automobile is actually an excellent example of a privilege. The driver must pass a test showing basic competencies, acquire a driver’s license and purchase the vehicle along with auto insurance, fuel and maintenance. Only after that do all the components exist for driving. Driving most certainly requires either gainful employment, retirement income in the case of senior citizens or some other substantial form of financial support. You do not have a legal right to drive a car. If you are willing to use public transportation or walk, you do not need to drive in order to meet your basic food, clothing and shelter needs. You can acquire most forms of education or employmehnt without independent use of a vehicle. The case is similar with luxury items, such as cable television or the ability to eat dinner out at a nice restaurant once in awhile. Of course, when accessibility allows blind people to acquire paid work, we are sometimes afforded these luxuries equivalent to similar opportunities afforded the sighted.

Accessibility is clearly not a luxury item or a privilege. Equal access places us on a level playing field with our sighted peers, so that we may equally participate with them in society for the purpose of meeting our basic needs as well as acquiring conveniences and luxury items when available resources allow. We are not able to meet those basic needs, much less acquire conveniences and luxury items, without the accessibility afforded by reasonable accomodations. No accomodation at all is never reasonable. Sighted people employed by or in leadership positions at agencies, companies, government institutions or organizations ought to be empathetic, understanding how they might like to be accomodated if they or a close friend or relative were blind or visually impaired. Blind people must learn to become better, more persistent advocates for themselves as well as evangelists for the good message of equal accessibility. Accessibility is simply the ethical, moral, and sometimes legal, right thing to do! I can imagine the great things that could happen if an increasing number of blind and visually impaired people would simply take more actions to convince, insist and, sometimes, demand more sighted people to become empathetic or, at least, do the right thing as a result of relentless pressure applied in the right amounts and circumstances. I believe the “if you build it, they will come” approach to accessibility evangelism can work if we, as a blind community, work much harder than we are now on both an individual and organizational level to communicate with the assistive technology companies and the developers of mainstream technology, reminding them of our needs and our constant insistance on having them met effectively. Remember, my blind brothers and sisters, most sighted people still don’t even know that we are able to use computers!

Is Revisionist History at Work in the Blind Community’s Own Online Media Outlets?

July 13, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Is revisionist history at work in the blind community’s own electronic media outlets? Can important information and the opinions of certain people in the community simply be made to disappear from our public knowledge without comment? It appears, unfortunately, that there may be two clear cases of exactly this sort of thing happening in a prominent online technology news magazine produced by the American Foundation for the Blind.

In the March 2007 issue of AccessWorld, an article entitled A View from Inside: A Major Assistive Technology Player Shares Some Industry Secrets, featuring Chris Hofstader, has been pulled from the magazine without explanation.

In the AccessWorld News section in the July 2007 issue of the same magazine, the following brief story is carried concerning the Freedom Scientific Versus Serotek lawsuit:

On May 14, 2007, Freedom Scientific filed suit against Serotek Corporation, claiming trademark infringement for use of the term “FreedomBox.” The claim stated that “Continuously since May 15, 2000, the Plaintiff has used the mark ‘Freedom Scientific’ to identify its products tailored to blind and low-vision users, including software that translates the Internet and digital information into braille or audible synthesized speech, and to distinguish these products from those made or sold by others, by, among other things, prominently displaying the mark ‘Freedom Scientific’ on the products, their containers, the displays, and marketing associated therewith.”

On June 7, Freedom Scientific and Serotek jointly announced that they had reached an agreement that Serotek was inadvertently infringing on Freedom Scientific’s federally registered trademark. “It is unfortunate that we had to take this action,” said Lee Hamilton, president and CEO of Freedom Scientific, “but trademarks are valuable corporate assets, and they must be protected, or they are lost. This agreement accomplishes that, and we have agreed to dismiss the lawsuit.” Serotek will rename FreedomBox and other affected products. For more information, visit the companies’ web sites: and .

There is absolutely no coverage given to the Save Serotek Petition or any other efforts made by members of the blind community requesting that Freedom Scientific cease this action.

We all may want to start asking some serious questions about the blindness organizations to which we are members or on which we rely to provide the services we need. Does the organization’s leadership really hold the needs and desires of the blind in their hearts and minds, do they have their own personal agendas or are they catering to special interests? Do agencies, companies and other organizations donate money to these non-profit organizations, then use that fact later to exert undue influence over their actions and policies? After all, how could these organizations bite the hands that feed their small budgets? Can the people in charge of the most prominent organizations of and for the blind be trusted? It is up to all of us to ask and insist on candid answers to these and many other hard questions.

Freedom Scientific and Serotek Reach Agreement to End Lawsuit

June 7, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We here at Blind Access Journal are very glad this matter has finally been settled in a manner that permits both Freedom Scientific and Serotek to continue their business operations and retains the ability of innovators in the field to provide the products and services we must have in order to participate in the world of technology alongside our sighted peers. This news calls for celebration!

(St. Petersburg, Florida, and Minneapolis, Minnesota – June 4, 2007) Freedom Scientific and Serotek jointly announced today that they have reached an agreement whereby Serotek has agreed that it was inadvertently infringing Freedom Scientific’s federally-registered trademark.

“It is unfortunate that we had to take this action,” said Lee Hamilton, President and CEO of Freedom Scientific, “but trademarks are valuable corporate assets, and they must be protected, or they are lost. This agreement accomplishes that, and we have agreed to dismiss the lawsuit. As part of this agreement, Serotek has agreed not to use our trademark or any other trademark that is similar.”

“We are pleased with the settlement agreement,” said Mike Calvo, CEO, Serotek. “We will be renaming the FreedomBox and other affected products and services in a separate announcement in the near future.”

   

See the Freedom Scientific and Serotek Agreement press release for public confirmation of this wonderful news.

Objectivity versus Opinion, or the Difference Between Journalism and Evangelism

May 19, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

When I was in high school, I had a teacher’s aid named Gloria. Gloria came to the United States a long time ago from Burma. She’s a Karen, a member of an ethnic group that has been fighting for independence for more than 58 years. The Karen are officially represented by an organization known as the Karen National Union. Unfortunately, according to the news reported on the Karen’s web site, it would seem their struggle is not currently meeting with much success.

So, by now, I’m sure you are all asking yourselves, “why in the world is Darrell prattling on about some obscure ethnic struggle for independence”? Don’t worry. I’m just setting up the stage for the rest of the discussion. It will become more relevant in very short order.

The Karens are not impartial when it comes to their independence. They believe it should be granted, that it is their right to fight for it, and some are willing to give their very lives for the cause. Others believe it is better to cooperate with existing governments in the region. They are branded by the independence fighters as traitors who have sold out their people. One part of the Karen National Union’s operations involves their web site, where news relating to their struggle is distributed for all to read. When you visit their web site, it quickly becomes obvious that they have a clear agenda. There are no statements of balance or impartiality.

The Blind Access Journal is a similar web site, though the struggle is obviously quite different. In our case, the struggle is for the blind community to be granted equal accessibility, alternative transportation options and all opportunities otherwise granted the sighted on the basis of their being physically able to see. Similar to the Karens, we also have an agenda. Though not stated as a political platform or similar document, any reasonable reader could be expected to understand that the Blind Access Journal, and, thus, its publisher, Darrell Shandrow, is an advocate or evangelist for accessibility. This means, by nature, that I am not objective. I am not going to act as though discrimination, inaccessibility or lapses of accountability in the products and services provided to us are at all acceptable by any stretch of the imagination. I am not only going to report such issues, but also work strenuously to have them rectified in a manner that benefits the blind community. My very close friend and colleague, Jeff Bishop, states the differences between opinion and balanced journalism quite clearly with respect to blogging about issues in the blindness assistive technology field.

As part of my evangelism, the most recent assistive technology issue about which I have been writing is the trademark infringement lawsuit filed by Freedom Scientific against Serotek. It should be quite clear to everyone that I have strong feelings concerning what was done and the potential ramifications not only for a small player in the field, but for the entire blind community. Being the undisputed leader in the market, Freedom Scientific has the ability to significantly benefit or severely harm the ability of all blind and visually impaired people to use technology as a vehicle to equally participate in society. By taking this action, I unequivocally believe that Freedom Scientific may set into motion a series of events that could result in the loss of innovative new technologies we need to develop and grow in the blind community right now. The company holds sway over the entire blind community, be it individuals, organizations or dealers of assistive technology products. This is unavoidable, given Freedom Scientific’s overwhelming market share. Unfortunately, when that influence is put to negative ends, the results can be absolutely disastrous not only for companies, but also for real people and their families. For example, the RAM and RIM products now offered by Serotek represent a huge potential to push open many doors to employment previously closed by the need for remote access to computers owned by sighted people. If Freedom Scientific does end up litterally suing Serotek out of business, the results could mean real consequences for real people in the blind community up to and including the inability to acquire new jobs or even the loss of existing employment!

Earlier today I asked someone, who must currently remaine nameless, a simple question about the reasons for the Freedom Scientific versus Serotek lawsuit. The resulting conversation involved their expressing concerns about the quality of my “journalism” and the possibility of that person contacting people who might decide to curtail my participation in certain activities I currently enjoy and which, I hope, benefit the blind community. It is for this reason that I must make one thing extremely clear: I am NOT a balanced, impartial “journalist”. I am, instead, an accessibility ADVOCATE or EVANGELIST who is promoting equal participation on the part of the blind and visually impaired in the world around us. Though I have not and never will intentionally mislead anyone, I do not feel obligated nor possess the necessary resources to fully research everything I write on this blog. I am also not required to present everything in a “balanced” or “objective” manner. For that matter, even the paid “journalists” don’t always get this right, and that is their job. Just read and compare mainstream media sources like the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal or the Weekly Standard, or watch CNN and Fox News for an hour each to understand my point. This is not the “fair and balanced” Fox News Channel!

I hope this post has helped all of you clearly understand the fact that I am not a professional “journalist”, I am not always going to be objective and that I do most certainly have an agenda to look out for all of you, my brothers and sisters in the blind community! Your e-mails and comments are quite welcome and encouraged!