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Seeking Qualified Blind People to Apply for Bookshare Job Openings

February 15, 2011 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Benetech is looking to fill four Bookshare positions with highly-qualified professionals who know how to lead teams, manage projects, plan products, write grant proposals and much more.

If you’re blind and you believe you’ve got what it takes, please check out these position postings and apply as soon as possible.

Through the employment of a representative number of blind people and others with print-reading disabilities in decision-making positions, we can restore the heart of Bookshare and guide it to a more accessible, responsive future. Let’s all get out there and fill the inboxes of Benetech’s human-resources team with awesome cover letters and resumes that will get their attention and get our people in the door!

Feds Want to Know How to Effectively Employ People with Disabilities

January 12, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The U.S. Department of Labor is soliciting ideas from people with disabilities, employers, service providers and advocacy organizations on how to effectively increase the employment of women, veterans and people with disabilities.

Throughout the first three months of 2010, the labor department will hold “Listening Sessions” in Dallas, Texas, Philadelphia, Pa., Chicago, Ill., San Francisco, Calif., Atlanta, Ga. and Boston, Mass. The agency asks that participants register on the A New Day: We’re Listening Web site established especially for these meetings.

Blind accessibility advocates, organizations of the blind and others have an opportunity to advocate for ideas that can lead to greater public awareness of the capabilities of blind people and increased accessibility to the workplace technology that can enable us to achieve and maintain gainful employment.

Categories: employment

Seeking Blind People Tossed Out of Their Jobs by Discrimination, Inaccessible Technology

October 3, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Are you a blind person who has lost your job due to blatant discrimination or inaccessible technology? If so, we want to hear from you!

In a Sept. 30 press release, President Obama said he proclaims October National Disability Employment Awareness Month.

“Fair access to employment is a fundamental right of every American, including the 54 million people in this country living with disabilities,” Obama said in the press release. “A job can provide financial stability, help maximize our potential, and allow us to achieve our dreams.”

What does this really mean for blind people? Can we have “fair access” to employment while much of the technology used by the sighted remains out of the reach of the screen readers and other assistive technologies that enable us to effectively operate computers? What happens when technology in a workplace changes without a thought to the needs of employees with disabilities? How are we supposed to respond to the removal of “financial stability,” the wasted potential and shattered dreams of blind people who have lost their jobs due to the wreckless actions of thoughtless employers who respond to technology inaccessibility by tossing away the person as though they are yesterday’s newspaper or just so much trash whose usefulness has expired?

“The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act substantially increased funding for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and provided more than $500 million for vocational rehabilitation services, including job training, education, and placement,” said Obama. “If we are to build a world free from unnecessary barriers, stereotypes, and discrimination, we must ensure that every American receives an education that prepares him or her for future success.”

Although blind people continue to face discrimination and negative stereotypes on a daily basis, many are also hired to fill positions in virtually all walks of life based on their qualifications. Through our own experiences in the world of business and employment, many of us are growing to believe the barrier of inaccessibility is a critical factor that holds us down. In an increasing number of cases, employers would love to hire or retain blind people as employees if only the software they must use in order to do their jobs could be accessed with a screen reader.

Let’s use National Disability Employment Awareness Month to make a strong case for greater accessibility. If you have lost your job because of inaccessible technology or were not hired because the software used in the workplace could not be made accessible, we would like to hear from you right away. Now is the opportunity for you to let your voice be heard around the world, not only on Blind Access Journal, but possibly in the mainstream media. Please e-mail employment@blindaccessjournal.com and tell us your story.

The State of Arkansas and SAP A.G. Settle Lawsuit, Make the Accessible Choice!

August 13, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We are happy to report that a 2001 accessibility lawsuit brought against SAP and the state of Arkansas by the National Federation of the Blind has now been settled in favor of the state’s blind employees, who will be granted full accessibility to the state’s ERP system by August of 2009. Read the blog post entitled Arkansas state computer system will be accessible to the blind along with the Computer World article covering the story in the mainstream information technology media.

I posted the following public comment to the Computer World article:

Equal accessibility is a reasonable accommodation under several laws in the United States and other parts of the world. As blind people, we spend thousands of dollars on assistive technology to make computers accessible to us. Our aim isn’t to put anyone out of business or cause anyone an undue burden. We just need and want to participate in the workplace just like everyone else. We must be granted equal access to hardware and software in order to achieve this goal. Accessibility is a meet-you-halfway proposition. Our assistive technology industry works tirelessly to create solutions that make our digital lives accessible. It is now time for the mainstream technology industry to step up to the plate more seriously to meet the other half of this proposition, by ensuring that technology works with screen readers and reasonably accommodates our needs for accessibility.

Approximately three weeks ago, I was laid off my job because SonicWALL refused to make its implementation of the Siebel CRM software accessible. It would have taken only about an hour or so worth of a developer’s time, but SonicWALL made the decision not to accommodate me. The resulting discrimination has turned me from a successfully employed taxpayer to a recipient of Social Security Disability benefits and Unemployment Insurance! I hope other developers of mainstream software and web services will learn a valuable lesson from the settlement of this lawsuit. Make the right choice! Open your eyes and work together with us to ensure a brighter, more accessible future for all your customers and end users, including those of us who happen to be blind or visually impaired!

We ask all of you to take a look at the press release, read the Computer World article and post your own comments in support of equal access to workplace technology for the blind and visually impaired!

Computerworld Article: Blind users still struggle with ‘maddening’ computing obstacles

April 21, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We have reproduced this recently published, well-researched Computerworld article entitled Blind users still struggle with ‘maddening’ computing obstacles in a simple, text format for easier reading by all blind and visually impaired Internet users. The original source of this article may be rather challenging to read for many from an accessibility perspective.

Anyone who is able to reasonably access the original article by way of the link above will find some of the comments disturbing, to say the least. If at all possible, you are urged to add a comment of your own supporting the fact that accessibility is quite simply “the right thing to do” in all cases where it represents a “reasonable accomodation” that makes the difference between our exclusion or our full participation in society.

April 16, 2008 (Computerworld) Put your graphical user interface to this test: Adjust the contrast on your display until the screen is completely black. Now, perform basic e-mail, word processing and Web-browsing tasks. What? Having a problem?

Welcome to the world of the 1.3 million Americans who are blind. For them, the world of personal computers, office automation and the Internet offers mixed blessings. That world wasn’t designed for them, but with the right assistive technology, they can take part in it. When everything works well, they have access to an ocean of information vastly greater than anything previously available to the blind. But pitfalls and maddening frustrations are a constant reality.

Screen readers

Blind computer users mainly rely upon screen-reader software, which describes the activity on the screen and reads the text in the various windows, explained Gayle Yarnell, owner of Adaptive Technology Consulting Inc. in Amesbury, Mass. Yarnell is blind.

It can take a while to wade through a strange site — it can be maddening. Jay Leventhal, editor of AccessWorld Magazine

Screen readers cost between $500 and $1,000, although there are also freeware screen readers, she noted. (Windows XP and Vista come with a screen reader called Narrator, but even Microsoft Corp. says it’s not powerful enough for serious use.)

The screen reader’s output can be sent to the computer’s speakers as a synthesized voice or to a Braille display. The latter uses tiny push pins to create a pattern of raised dots that can be read by a moving finger. A unit with an 80-character line (enough for one full line of text) costs about $10,000, and Yarnell said that most blind people use a 40-character unit, which costs closer to $5,000. Braille displays are better than speech for editing because individual characters can be isolated, she noted, and they are a necessity for the deaf-blind.
She also said that it lets her silently read e-mail while talking to someone else.

Although major operating systems usually have built-in screen readers for accessibility by the blind, they are rudimentary at best. In fact, after starting Narrator, the screen reader that comes with Windows XP and Vista, Microsoft’s introductory screen says, “Most users with visual impairments will need a
screen reader with higher functionality for daily use.” Here’s an example what a blind user would hear upon opening up Computerworld’s Web site with Narrator activated in Windows XP, the operating system most in use today.

But knowing what the screen is saying is just the beginning — the blind user then has to issue commands using keyboard shortcuts, because the mouse cursor is useless. Using shortcuts involves a lot of memorization, but at least the option is always available — or at least it used to be. “Starting with Version 3.1, Microsoft tried to make sure there was a keystroke to do everything in Windows,” noted Dave Porter, an accessibility consultant and head of Comp-Unique Inc. in Chicago. “But with Vista, we seem to have lost that thread.” The main problem is that, with Vista, the effect of a keystroke depends on the situation about a third of the time. Also, there are things that simply can’t be done with keystrokes, said Porter, who is blind. “It’s not so much that the keyboard shortcuts are different but that the user interface has changed,” said Rob Sinclair, director of accessibility at Microsoft.
“We have gotten away from a lot of menus and created a more simplified experience. No one would argue that there is no learning curve, but we have seen value and heard great feedback from those who have taken the time to learn the new version. “There are some amazingly powerful features in Vista for those with disabilities, like a Start function that begins with a search field,” Sinclair added. “You can type in the name of an application, or a command, or search for a keyword in a document or an e-mail. You can launch any application with a few
keystrokes, easier than using menus.” He also noted that the latest version of Microsoft Office still supports the old shortcuts.

Beyond Windows

Speaking of user applications, compatibility with a screen reader can be a crap shoot, and some commercial software packages include custom controls that screen readers can’t recognize, said Dan Weirich, co-founder of GW Micro Inc., a screen-reader vendor in Fort Wayne, Ind. “In the days of DOS, there was a fixed number of characters across the screen, so identifying the information in the different parts of the screen was relatively simple,” he said. “Finding the boundaries of the information is harder now, since there is no native indicator as to what is inside each window when you scrape the screen.” He said his software comes with scores of preconfigured settings for various software packages, but no tweaking is required to run with the most commonly used applications.

Finding ways for a screen reader to process new display technologies — especially on the Web — is a constant struggle, Weirich added. “Different standards come along that are difficult to handle, and then there is a breakthrough and we have a fix, and it works. That is ongoing.” He also said that Microsoft worked with screen-reader vendors so that Vista versions were available the day Vista hit the shelves — whereas there was a delay of six to nine months after the release of Windows XP.

Beyond packaged software lies the world of in-house applications, where things can really go haywire for the blind user. “We often find that screen readers don’t work with in-house applications — it’s too easy to break the interface,” said Curtis Chong, president of the computer science division of the National Federation of the Blind and an official at the Iowa Department for the Blind in Des Moines. “It can be as simple as an application that puts up a lot of windows on the screen which are not windows from the viewpoint of the operating system. The screen reader will see one huge blob of information and read across the window boundaries,” said Chong, who is blind. He said this can cause problems for job applicants, for example. “You can have the best paper credentials in the world, and pass the HR screening test, and be the person they want — and then the question comes up of, ‘What e-mail program can you use? What word processor can you use?’ Your answers can cause the job to evaporate,” Chong said.

Porter was actually nostalgic for the 1990s. “It was all DOS and mainframe interfaces. If you knew how to handle DOS and word processing, you could probably get a job. We could train people to do a specific job, and it worked, and the employer got a loyal employee determined to keep that job and fight to keep up with changing technology. These days, they want a jack of many trades — computer skills, plus phone skills, Internet surfing, marketing, people skills and the ability to travel.”

The Web

Of course, these days, many computers are used principally to access the Internet — and there is no telling what a blind person will encounter there. “It can take a while to wade through a strange site — it can be maddening,” complained Jay Leventhal, who is blind and serves as editor of AccessWorld Magazine, produced by the American Foundation for the Blind in New York. “Sometimes you find what you want to buy, but then you can’t find the submit button. It seems to literally not be there. A skilled [blind] user can navigate a majority of the sites on the Web these days, but you have to master certain tricks, like jumping from header to header in order to skip over a lot of junk, and use the search function to get the information you want. An average user can struggle for a long time looking for something and will even struggle on a familiar site.”

Best Practices

Here are a few official HTML guidelines:

  • A text equivalent for every nontext element shall be provided.
  • Equivalent alternatives for any multimedia presentation shall be synchronized with the presentation.
  • Web pages shall be designed so that all information conveyed with color is also available without color, for example from context or markup.
  • Documents shall be organized so they are readable without requiring an associated style sheet.

A major sin among Web sites is a failure to use the HTML ALT attribute, which can be used to attach a descriptive label to a nontext item. If an image, for example, has an ALT label, the screen reader will read it. Otherwise it is forced to read the file name, which often amounts to useless gibberish.

There are accepted guidelines for designing accessible Web sites, especially the guidelines derived from Section 508 of the U.S. Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as amended. Cyndi Rowland, director of WebAIM, an accessibility organization at Utah State University in Logan, noted that the guidelines are mandatory for federal Web sites and for organizations doing business with the U.S. government. A number of states have also adopted the guidelines. Her organization has a checklist of 16 requirements derived from Section 508, including use of the ALT description for images and image-map hot spots. Among other things, they state that frames should be given descriptive titles and that data tables should have row and column headers. There is a separate list of 12 requirements for applets.

One percent compliance

Rowland noted that in 1999, her organization surveyed 100 higher-education Web sites. Twenty-three percent of the opening pages were compliant, but compliance dropped to 3% for pages one link away and fell below 1% for pages two links away. Meanwhile, a recent survey of random university Web pages found only 1% compliance. “In almost 10 years, there has been almost no improvement,” she said. Leventhal said it’s fairly obvious when Section 508 guidelines have been followed. “You will find an invisible link — which the screen reader can see — that lets you skip the junk and jump to the main content. For some reason, many Web sites have large groups of repetitive links that you’ll want to jump over. Meanwhile, not using the ALT tag is like not using punctuation. It’s maddening.”

Such frustration can produce lawsuits, and the National Federation of the Blind is currently involved in a class-action lawsuit against Target Corp. because the Target site proved to be inaccessible for blind users. Chong said the basic problem was a “next” button that was coded in such a way that it was invisible to screen readers, leaving blind users stranded. The problem has been fixed, but the lawsuit continues because Target hasn’t committed to accessibility, Chong said. Rowland noted that similar lawsuits in the past never produced any legal precedents because they were settled out of court, so this one will be watched closely. The federation’s lawyer, Dan Goldstein, said the lawsuit is scheduled to go to trial in March 2009. He wouldn’t comment on the possibility of a settlement, and Target didn’t respond to requests for a comment.

But what literally frightens blind users is the rise of so-called CAPTCHA technology for Web site security. (CAPTCHA stands for Completely Automated Public Turing Test.”) To deny access to bots, the user must input a password that is displayed in a moderately distorted image that a machine can’t read. Of course, the screen readers can’t read it either. “Many blind people are aware that they can’t use particular sites, but they don’t know why,” Leventhal said. He said his own site simply asks a question whose answer would be known to human beings, such as, “What color is the sky?” Some sites have an optional button to play an audio file that reads the password. However, this still leaves out the deaf-blind.

Beyond computers, sources complained of cell phones so complicated that they, too, need expensive screen readers. Many have small, flat buttons that are useless to the blind, culminating in the iPhone with no buttons. The iPod and its imitators don’t have buttons either, and even kitchen appliances today often have digital readouts that are useless to the blind. But Rowland noted that such considerations need to be weighed against the vast increase in electronic information during the past several years, at least part of which is accessible to the blind. “You can’t say that cup is half full, but there is something in it,” she said.

The Heart of Accessibility Evangelism

September 8, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I think we all recognize that, in many cases, there simply is not a strong bottom-line business reason for companies (either assistive technology or mainstream) to work hard on making sure their technologies function in ways that are in the best interests of all users, including those of us whom happen to be blind. There are, thus, only two major levers available to us in our advocacy efforts. The first involves the fact that, in our society, accessibility is simply the right thing to do. This approach involves the “heart” of accessibility evangelism. The second approach involves making a business case for accessibility based on the application or presumed applicability of one or more disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. In this rather rough approach, accessibility is ultimately forced as an alternative that is less expensive than continuing to ignore our needs.

In the case of screen readers, the economic incentive is simply to ensure the product works with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office and the Windows operating system. Any additional capabilities, especially with respect to custom job related applications like Salesforce.com and Siebel, is viewed as icing on the cake. Precious little effort is expended on the part of assistive technology companies to ensure the usability of many customer relationship management (CRM) and other similarly critical application infrastructures required in today’s workplaces. How many jobs do you know about where use of e-mail, spreadsheets, web browsing and word processing are all that’s required in order for a qualified employee to conduct the duties of the position?

Most mainstream technology companies claim there’s little or no real business incentive to make their products and services accessible to us. After all, blind people represent less than a percent of the world’s population and there’s just not enough money in it for companies to justify the expense. Only the possibility of legal action or the presumed applicability of some Federal laws make the expense of accessibility less than the potential loss of business from government agencies.

As we all can see, the current state of affairs remains bleak. It has been this way for a long time now, yet the problem may accelerate due to the ever-widening gap between the capabilities of increasingly sophisticated and visually oriented mainstream technologies with respect to the rather limited nature of current screen reading technology for the blind. My apologies if this offends, but it is, ultimately, the truth against which I would invite any credible challenge.

As we continue to advocate for mainstream technology companies to reasonably accomodate our needs for equal access to the technologies in our daily lives, on the job and in the classroom, we must also simultaneously advocate for our assistive technology companies to focus on innovation, rolling out screen readers that can meet the challenge of the current and future world of technology, much of which continues to be developed by people who have absolutely no inclination toward accomodating us. It is wonderful when assistive technology and the mainstream computer industry can work together, meeting one another halfway in order to provide access, but the days of screen reader developers relying on this approach have been numbered for quite sometime in all but a precious few cases.

As we insist on innovation which will permit us to continue learning and making a living, we are going to have to devise new methods of accessibility advocacy. Our approaches must convince the decision-makers in the technology industry that at least one of the following statements is true:

  1. Conscience dictates that delivering accessibility is simply the “right thing” to do.
  2. The presence or absence of accessible technology often makes the difference between whether or not a blind person is able to fill a particular position in a company or take advantage of an educational opportunity.
  3. It is better to help blind people than it is to hurt, ignore or otherwise leave us out in the cold.
  4. Accessibility is a good thing to do from a media or public relations perspective.
  5. Accessibility can represent an “interesting” project to undertake from a development point of view.
  6. A small increase in the customer base will result when products and services are made accessible to blind computer users.
  7. Blind customers of companies who take the effort and time to address our needs tend to be among the most loyal portion of the company’s overall customer base.
  8. Sighted people who care about what happens to their blind colleagues, friends and relatives may prefer doing business with companies who do the “right thing” with respect to accessibility.
  9. Religion may indirectly dictate that blind people should be afforded equal access to information.
  10. The laws in several nations of the world directly or indirectly mandate a certain level of accessibility for people with disabilities.

It is important to note that only four of the items (customer loyalty, increased customer numbers, laws and public relations) on this “accessibility evangelism top ten” list can be said to relate directly to business considerations. The rest relate to the heart. What does a person believe to be the “right thing” to do with respect to their emotional make up as well as their logical mind? Should we devise ways to shame those who would ignore us into doing the right thing? Would a person ignore the needs of their spouse, relative, close friend or colleague should they become blind? How would such a person want to see their blind spouse treated? Wouldn’t they insist on reasonable accomodations? Should we place a bit more emphasis on the “heart” of accessibility evangelism? Your thoughts are welcome as always in the form of a comment to this article.