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NFB Streams 2009 Convention Using Inaccessible Silverlight Technology

July 5, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In an overwhelming display of hypocrisy, the National Federation of the Blind, claiming to be the representative voice of all blind people in America, has chosen to stream its 2009 national convention using inaccessible Silverlight technology.

While blind people can listen, they can’t control the volume, mute or use any of the player’s controls. While NFB is the primary actor in a lawsuit against Arizona State University over inaccessible textbooks, the organization delivers a listening experience to blind people that is inferior to that provided to the sighted for the purpose of hearing their own convention broadcast live on the net! Shame on the National Federation of the Blind for insisting that others be accessible while failing to practice the very message they claim to preach!

In contrast to NFB’s poor example, The American Council of the Blind is broadcasting their convention coverage live through its long-established ACB Radio outlet using fully accessible technology. We urge all of you to enjoy the ACB convention and use the feedback option, one of the few accessible elements on the NFB’s convention streaming site, to tell the organization’s leadership exactly what you think about their blatant discrimination against the blind community they claim to serve. Choose accessible!

The SMA May be Dying, But I’m Not Celebrating

January 29, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Serotek has just announced that it will no longer charge its customers for a software maintenance agreement (SMA) in order to keep their products updated. This development is, of course, good for consumers in that it eliminates a nagging cost of owning assistive technology. It can, unfortunately, also be bad for us. At this point, you may be asking how on Earth can the removal of an SMA be a negative? The answer is, alas, remarkably simple. Without ongoing revenue, what is the ultimate motivation for a company to constantly enhance its product to cope with a dynamic, ever-changing environment full of inaccessible technology?

As a blind person who has worked in the mainstream technology industry for over 13 years and is now completing his college degree, I need a screen reader that is both capable and reliable. When new technology is developed, I need my screen reader to support it as soon as possible. It is absolutely critical that my screen reader not stop working or cause other problems that halt or limit my productivity. If other assistive technology companies follow suit by eliminating or reducing their SMA fees, I am concerned that we will be left even further behind than we are right now. Let’s just make sure we are wisely considering questions besides the all-too-often asked “how much does it cost?” We had all better be careful for that which we wish, as we might just get it and suffer some unintended negative consequences.

Categories: opinion, Serotek

Thomas Jefferson: Founding Father of an Evolving Natione!

September 14, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I made this post in my History (HST) 109 course discussion forum in response to the following class discussion question:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Ever seen these words before? Sure you have. They are from the Declaration of Independence and they were written by Thomas Jefferson. Did it ever strike you that these words about “all men” being created equal and having certain rights were written by one of the world’s largest slaveholders? How do we, as Americans, reconcile Jefferson’s words with Jefferson’s deeds? Is it just that TJ is cranking out political rhetoric to stoke a revolution that he hopes will preserve him from bankruptcy? Is he a racist who in using the phrase “all men” knows that his readers know he is excluding what he considers to be lower races (Native Americans, Blacks), or is he simply one of the premier hypocrites in American history? His putative sex life with a slave mistress would probably make even Bill Clinton blush. What’s your take on Jefferson? Which of the above categories does he fall into, or does he fit into “all of the above?” Why do we consider him such a great man?

In some ways, Thomas Jefferson was ahead of his time while in others he was not. On one hand, Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in the writing of the Declaration of Independence and the overall foundation of the United States of America. These developments served to synthesize the works of people like John Locke and Thomas Paine into a real, workable national republic ultimately leading to what we have today as our American society. It seems quite obvious that Thomas Jefferson helped to initiate an evolutionary process of moving toward equal human rights for everyone. It is quite likely he had no clue that his actions would bring out such momentus change in the world. We must take special care to avoid judging our Founding Fathers according to our modern world view.

In the late 18th Century and early 19th Century, during the time in which Thomas Jefferson lived, white males were the only people recognized as full citizens in Western Europe and the American colonies. The man was expected to do the work, own the property and care for his family in all respects. The woman was expected to stay in or near the home, bare and raise children and otherwise support the man’s goals. By and large, she was not expected or permitted to act as an independent individual. For example, American women did not gain such basic human rights as ownership of property and the right to vote until the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. Native Americans were simply swept aside as white men of European descent mercilessly conquered the New World. It has never been the tradition of any society to recognize the basic human rights of those they wish to subjugate for their own purposes. The rights of African Americans were not considered based on the simple explanation that they were usually bought and sold as property in most of America. Finally, people with disabilities were viewed as being crippled and, thus, incomplete. Their individual needs and desires were never accommodated or considered. Such people were often sheltered by their families, forced to depend on meager charity or outright killed as a means of relieving a burden from the community. In all ways, prior to the late 19th Century, women, minorities and people with disabilities all had one thing in common: they were viewed as less than a complete person by the dominant white male society. further, no laws existed as a means of changing society’s attitude or protecting these groups against persecution.

In most respects, Thomas Jefferson was simply a product of his time. As a farmer and property owner, he was a part of the accepted dominant class of American society. Should we be surprised that he owned slaves? Of course not! Many of his contemporaries also owned numerous slaves. Few white males entertained the possibility that ownership of another human being might be wrong, and the opinions of those from other groups were simply not considered. Should we be shocked when we learn that Jefferson was promiscuous and unfaithful? Absolutely not! Remember, white males dominated. Anytime someone dominates, they hold all the cards. What power did Martha have in the relationship? How would we propose she was going to stop her husband from messing around and having children with other women? He could certainly divorce her if he became unhappy, while it was quite unlikely she would have been able to initiate her own divorce.

Ultimately, we see that the initial intent of the Declaration of Independence was simply freedom from British domination. The rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” applied only to white males in the dominant class of American society. Women, African-Americans, the “Indians”, people with disabilities, and all others were deemed less than full citizens and, thus, not entitled to the same guarantees provided by early American doctrines such as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. While the Declaration of Independence signifies the beginnings of the United States, the Constitution is the document that gives real staying power to the new nation. It is quite fortunate, however, that our Constitution provides mechanisms permitting the United States to evolve toward a “more perfect union.” The Judiciary interprets the Constitution while the legislative branch can amend the actual Constitution! It is only through these amendment and legislative processes that the slaves were ultimately freed, women were finally granted the right to vote and people with disabilities are finally starting to have a real chance at participating as full American citizens! We can credit Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin and the rest of our Founding Fathers for demonstrating the foresight necessary to establish a nation with underlying principles that allow it to evolve away from dominance by one small class of men and toward full inclusion for all its citizens!

Categories: human rights, opinion

Delphi Programmer Says Freedom Scientific Does Not Play Nice with the Mainstream Developer Community

July 3, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

We already know that Freedom Scientific’s JAWS end user license agreement is not friendly to mainstream developers and testers as they work to implement accessibility into their products, services and web sites. As a follow on to this concern, we now hear from Craig Stuntz who reports that no developer program exists for those who have purchased JAWS for this critical purpose. In his most recent blog article, he writes:

One would think that the makers of JAWS would want software producers to test their products with JAWS. But according to a salesperson for Freedom Scientific, there is no developer program for the tool. JAWS is moderately expensive — about $900 — but this is not a barrier for us. What we would really like is to have access to a defect reporting system for JAWS and early access to future versions of the software.

We in the connected online blind community very much do want to see developers striving to improve the accessibility of their applications! The accessibility or inaccessibility of technology makes the difference between our inclusion or exclusion from participation in critical life activities such as those involving education and employment. We urge mainstream developers to continue their efforts using screen readers from companies and open source projects that actively invite and request participation from the mainstream developer community:

We ask all mainstream developers to increase the accessibility of their software and to do so in the most favorable economic manner. Spending a thousand dollars on a screen reader for testing purposes is unnecessary. Download free evaluation copies from companies with more friendly license agreements toward developers or take advantage of free open source alternatives. Accessibility need not break the bank. We’re not asking you to go out of business. Instead, we are just asking for the reasonable accomodations that can afford us the opportunity to learn, work and participate in leisure activities.

Accessibility Evangelism and Unfortunate News From America Online (AOL) Radio

June 7, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Hello Everyone,

As an accessibility evangelist, of course, I disagree with any and all those
who frequently make statements emphasizing our "smallness" and
insignificance in the world at large as a means to justify doing little or
nothing about accessibility challenges. Yes. We are very tiny in number in
comparison with the rest of the population who is not blind, but that really
has nothing to do with how well we can make our voices heard in order to
achieve positive changes for the better. One possible metaphore might be to
compare us with those who profess their faith in the Jewish religion here in
the United States, which is an incredibly small minority in number as
compared with catholics and evangelical Christians. Despite their small
numbers, the Jewish seem to experience little or no difficulty making their
needs known and they tend to enjoy great success and wealth in all walks of
life.

I'd like to see something similar happen for those of us who are blind. We
can't look to others to make this happen, but only to ourselves. It must
start with us! We must decide that we are valuable human beings deserving
of our human rights, of the accessibility and equal treatment with our
sighted peers we must enjoy in order to be able to fully participate in
society on a par with the sighted. Though it starts with us, a
technological world dictates that we have equal access to information in the
information and knowledge age. Accessibility must ultimately be available
if we are to actively and productively participate in such critical areas of
life as education, employment and leisure.

We must achieve equality of opportunity through making our own accessibility
solutions where practical and advocating for reasonable accomodations when
accessibility is required in order for us to participate. The issues boil
down to one of these two needs in all cases. There is no third option of
taking the path of least resistance; not if we want to count ourselves as
fully living and breathing human beings and citizens, possessing the same
inalienable rights and responsibilities already enjoyed by the sighted.

One excellent example of a project where we are making our own accessibility
is Benetech's Bookshare project available at http://www.bookshare.org.

Blind people and others with print reading disabilities subscribe to a web
based service where they may download and read from a selection of tens of
thousands of books available in an accessible, electronic format for use on
their computers and portable assistive technology. This is all made
possible by a team of blind and sighted volunteers who scan books into
electronic format and validators who correct scanning errors and reformat
the books for final entry into the collection.

Another example of making our own accessibility is the existence of the
blindness access technology industry. We spend tens of thousands of dollars
on screen readers, Braille displays, scanners with optical character
recognition software, specialized personal digital assistants (PDAs) and a
myriad of other high and low technology items on which we have grown to
depend in order to adapt ourselves to the world. In many cases, government
agencies purchase some or all of this technology under specific
circumstances, but this is, by no means, guaranteed.

Despite our own efforts, there often remains a wide gap between that which
we are able to make accessible on our own and that technology which we must
use in the classroom, on the job, etc. When we are not able to close these
gaps through our own efforts and assistive technology, reasonable
accomodations on the part of the developer of that technology are required
if we are to be permitted full and equal participation. Failures to
reasonably accomodate our needs often result in the curtailment of
educational opportunities and even the needless loss of jobs!

As a blind community, we can take actions such as the following to improve
our accessibility to the world of technology around us:
* Understand that we need equal accessibility in order to participate in
society on a par with our sighted peers.
* Believe and live the concept that accessibility through reasonable
accomodations is a human right and the right thing to do in all cases.
* Check with other individuals and organizations in the blind community to
see if the technology has already been made accessible.
* Write letters to technology developers asking that they reasonably
accomodate our need for accessibility.
* When available, provide suggestions and technical consulting necessary to
improve accessibility.
* Work to have existing legislation covering accessibility enforced more
consistently and frequently.
* Encourage the passage of new legislation to clarify our needs and mandate
increased accessibility in areas not already covered.

Achieving equal participation in the knowledge age is currently a hard
fought struggle, where we often seem to take a step forward followed by one
or two steps backward. The latest case with AOL Radio represents a good
example. While imperfect, blind people relying on screen readers have
enjoyed access to the company's many radio offerings. We are talking about
listening to the radio, which should most certainly represent an activity
that ought to be inherently accessible to the blind.

We have now learned that, as of Monday, June 9, 2008, AOL and CBS are going
to take away from the blind the ability to listen to their Internet radio
streams through the implementation of a player that is known to be
inaccessible to screen reading software. Many blind people have been
enjoying this content for several years. Simply yanking it out of our hands
is a thoughtless act at best. The director of AOL's accessibility team has
informed us that the inaccessibility of the new player results from
technology used by CBS and tells us that solutions are being investigated
for implementation sometime in the undetermined future. We believe this
answer is not quite sufficient and that temporary alternative listening
options should be made available to the blind until such time as the
accessibility problems with the embedded web based player have been solved.
If you agree that AOL Radio should continue to allow blind and visually
impaired people to listen to their Internet radio channels, we urge all of
you, including those sighted people who care about what happens to us, to
send a note to AOLAccessibility@aol.com asking that they continue working to
restore accessibility to the AOL Radio player and, in the meantime, make
direct links available to the blind for listening on other devices and media
player software. We also ask you to visit CBS at

http://www.cbsradio.com/contact/streaming.html, select your radio station of
interest and request the implementation of a more accessible player to
accomodate the accessibility needs of blind and visually impaired listeners.

As a community, it is both our collective and individual responsibilities to
evangelize accessibility. Simply leaving the work to others is not going to
be effective, especially given our small numbers. This AOL Radio issue is
just one small one among many much more significant challenges. All the
same, let us all take this moment to remind ourselves that we can and must
make a difference! Now, everyone, let's all go forth and make our voices
heard often and loudly!

Response to David Pogue: Are Efforts to Acquire Accessibility by the Blind Being Lumped in with Piracy?

May 25, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

May 25, 2008

Dear Mr. Pogue,

It is really disappointing to see blind people mentioned categorically in a negative light through your article entitled Can e-Publishing Overcome Copyright Concerns? in the New York Times. Unless there have been piracy convictions in a court of law, you have no absolute proof that those two blind people to whom you provided electronic copies of your books were the same ones who posted the illegal copies two days later. As people who lack physical eye sight, or who’s sight is extremely limited, we endure serious information accessibility challenges. This circumstance is completely beyond our control. Despite current technologies, we probably have access to easily 10 percent or less of the printed material you enjoy as a fully sighted person.

There are protected ways in which you may provide your books in an accessible format, one of which is Bookshare at http://www.bookshare.org. You could have also asked for some reasonable proof of disability before sending your books to complete strangers in an unprotected format. Please consider dawning a blindfold and a free screen reader like System Access to Go (http://www.satogo.com) and experiencing the world our way for a few hours, then consider clarifying your position toward blind and visually impaired people and the accessibility obstacles we face.

I hope you will consider making this right, so that your words don’t negatively impact our abilities to acquire an education and avail ourselves of employment opportunities through further worsening of the bleak inaccessibility we continue to encounter on a daily basis.

Best regards,

Darrell Shandrow

Accessibility Evangelist

Bookshare Volunteer Coordinator Position: Putting the Rumor Mill to Rest

May 4, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In January of this year, I learned of an opening at Benetech to fill a position as volunteer coordinator for the Bookshare project. Of course, since Bookshare is an initiative I strongly support and have featured several times in these pages over the past three and a half years, I immediately applied for consideration. Six weeks later, I was contacted, and a seven week hiring process ensued. There were ten telephone interviews with others on the Bookshare team who would have been my co-workers. On April 16, I was invited to the Benetech offices to meet everyone in person for further interviews as the next step in the process. All seemed to go very well and it was certainly an honor to meet and put faces to the names of all the staff behind my favorite blind community project. After my return home that night, it was simply a matter of waiting as feedback was collected from everyone who interviewed me, the hiring process moved forward and Jim Fruchterman made the final decision. Near the end of the process, several rumors started to be passed around Twitter and I received several e-mail and MSN (Windows Live) Messenger communications congratulating me for landing the job before I had heard any official word from Benetech!

Ever since Bookshare got started back in February of 2002, I had wondered how I could participate in a more official, paid capacity beyond my volunteer efforts as a book validator. This volunteer coordinator position was an excellent fit for my hard and soft skills, and I still believe it would have been the most compatible for the project as well. As an accessibility evangelist, I have always wanted to take a paying, action oriented position with an organization I felt was doing real work to fulfill our hopes and dreams for a brighter, more accessible future. This position represented for me and for Benetech a fantastic opportunity to reach even higher levels of book accessibility and an increased standing of the entire Bookshare.org project inside and outside the connected online community of people with print reading disabilities. My wish to be granted this opportunity to serve my blind brothers and sisters was second place in my life only to that April 1, 2005 date when I proposed marriage to Karen!

On Friday, May 2, I finally received the horribly disappointing telephone call from Lisa Friendly, Director of Bookshare Operations, telling me that I was not selected. I came in “second” to a sighted lady with more “volunteer management” experience. Obviously, I feel the decision against me is a huge let down not only for me but for the entire community served by Bookshare. Those of you who know me or have been readers of Blind Access Journal for awhile will be keenly aware of my position that any organization, or project within an organization, that serves the blind and visually impaired ought to be filled with qualified employees from our population at all levels of influence and leadership. Bringing me on board would have represented an excellent chance for Jim, Lisa and the rest of the Bookshare management team to have further demonstrated to the world the true innovation of the Bookshare project, that of the fully sighted working in concert with those with print disabilities to enhance our accessibility to the information around us, especially as compared with the institutional nature of most other organizations in our field. I was the right man for this job!

Despite everything written thus far, I continue to believe that Bookshare is one of the best initiatives currently going in the blind community. I urge anyone who is eligible to sign up for Bookshare, giving you access to more than 37,500 books in all genres. I also ask everyone, whether or not you have a print reading disability, to volunteer your effort and time to the cause. You may scan and submit new books to the collection, or validate (correct formatting and scanning errors) books already submitted as they are processed toward ultimate availability to Bookshare subscribers. Even in light of the hurt caused by this rejection, my own book validation efforts continue with gusto. Each newly scanned and validated addition to the Bookshare collection brings us one tiny step closer to the dream of full accessibility to all that is already made available to the sighted in the wonderful world of books.

I wish all the best to the newly appointed Bookshare volunteer coordinator. She has a lot of work on her plate right from the start. Expectations from this volunteer community are quite high to provide some much needed direction and fill some long-standing gaps. I trust that all of us in the Bookshare subscriber base and volunteer teams will do everything we can to ensure that our needs are met and that the project moves forward in an effective manner that works not only for the Department of Education grant but for the best interests of the entire community.

Categories: Benetech, Bookshare, opinion

Concerted, Multidisciplinary, Organized and Systematic Approach to Accessibility Evangelism Needed

March 1, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I’ve been thinking long and hard about accessibility evangelism in general as of late. Although a few positive differences have been made along the way, the overall results of our efforts here at Blind Access Journal have represented significantly less than the proverbial drop in the bucket. Once in awhile, an online petition is initiated, a company voluntarily decides to make its products and services more accessible or an organization files a lawsuit in an attempt to compel a company to become more accessible based on existing, vaguely defined legislation. Despite continuous, ongoing technological innovation for the sighted, we blind and visually impaired people are being left further and further behind, both by a mainstream technology industry that largely ignores us and an assistive technology industry that can’t or simply won’t innovate to the level that is really needed in order for us to participate in society on anything approaching parity with our sighted peers. Unfortunately, a few dedicated souls in the online, connected blind community can’t reverse these disturbing trends alone. Successful accessibility evangelism that results in our being afforded the opportunity to fully participate in the information age is going to take a concerted, multidisciplinary, organized and systematic approach directed by an organization with a positive track record of acting in the best interests of the blind and visually impaired.

At the Blind Access Journal, I can count on the fingers of my two hands the number of people who have provided us with anything approaching a significant amount of assistance with any of the accessibility evangelism we have undertaken. As this continues to be the state of affairs, we at the Journal become discouraged, decreasing our inspiration to do our critical work. Any accessibility evangelism efforts must involve a consistently concerted effort on the part of at least tens or hundreds of members of the blind community and those who care about what happens to us. Until the amount of participation in accessibility evangelism increases by leaps and bounds over its current levels, no major steps forward can be taken. The following represent examples of steps one could take to further the cause of equal accessibility for the blind:

  • When you see an accessibility issue, send an e-mail to the company asking for its resolution in a reasonable way that permits our participation.
  • Promptly sign online petitions, write letters and take other steps requested of you by accessibility evangelists.
  • Send an e-mail to us or to others you believe to be effective accessibility evangelists asking what you can do to help further the cause of equal access.
  • If you are a blogger or podcaster, whether blind or sighted, discuss accessibility and ask your audience to take positive action.

The blind community is small, yet there are at least tens of thousands of us already connected to the Internet. If a company’s representatives hear from only one or two people asking for an accessibility accomodation, those requests are likely to go largely ignored in most cases; however, if they hear from even a couple of hundred people asking about the same issue, that’s bound to be sufficient to garner some serious attention. This is especially true if many such requests can get escalated up the company’s or organizations management chain of command. If these requests can be made by a large number of people in an organized, systematic manner, the impact could be even greater.

In order to be most effective, I have come to the conclusion that accessibility evangelism needs to be done in such a way as to coordinate the efforts of individuals in an organized, systematic manner. The employees and management of companies and organizations will become confused if many individuals make complex requests for wildly differing forms of accessibility accomodations. It is obvious that such confusion and complexity would turn anyone off to the possibility of working with us to meet our needs in a reasonable way that allows us to participate while minimizing the economic and time impact to their business operations. Both the individual and the organizational components of such evangelism are critical. The following are examples of steps that could be taken to make accessibility evangelism a more organized, systematic enterprise:

  • House an accessibility evangelism department or team within the umbrella of an organization that truly cares about what happens to blind and visually impaired people. Examples of such organizations might be the Accessibility Is a Right Foundation, The American Foundation for the Blind or Benetech.
  • Devise an accessibility help desk blind and visually impaired people may contact when access barriers are encountered, assign the access issue a case number and work the problem toward an acceptable resolution as would any other technical support help desk operation in the world.
  • Create a knowledge base featuring assistive technology and mainstream solutions to accessibility barriers.
  • Establish sound policies and procedures for handling accessibility advocacy projects from the initial request for help, through appropriate escalation steps to final disposition.
  • Using information from the help desk in accordance with policies and procedures, initiate private and public advocacy campaigns in both the blind community and the sighted world at large to encourage positive resolution to those barriers that seem particularly intractible.

Such a mammoth project clearly requires coordination and support by a team of core individuals who are able to direct and encourage the advocacy efforts of the entire blind community. This core group should represent a multidisciplinary cabal of men and women from a widely diverse field of interests and professions. Experts in communications, marketing, public relations and sales could make requests of companies and organizations to improve accessibility and relate positively with the entire blind community to encourage their proactive participation in the accessibility evangelism process. Computer programmers and other technology experts could devise solutions to access barriers and educate other programmers on all the cost effective ways to go about resolving the issues effectively. Journalists could objectively report on the current state of accessibility issues and write opinion pieces covering all the ways the barriers may be effectively reduced or eliminated. As a last resort, lawyers and political scientists could address accessibility issues from a legal and political point of view, attempting to achieve structured settlements, filing lawsuits and encouraging the passage of additional, relevant legislation as needed. It takes significant depth to properly address these critical issues in ways that can result in successful outcomes.

It is our human nature to take the path of least resistance. We are often finding excuses for doing nothing about the issues that impact us. We believe “someone else” will take care of the problem on our behalf. This is an incredibly destructive fallacy for our community. There are far too few someone elses available to do this critical work. A truly effective accessibility evangelism effort must be concerted, involving effort expended by a large number of members of the blind community as well as those in the sighted world who care about what happens to us. In order to achieve any lasting impact, accessibility evangelism ultimately must be housed within a recognized organization and be comprised of a team effort with a dedicated core group of multidisciplinary professionals who will utilize a solid set of policies and procedures to direct the efforts of a much larger group of volunteers and the entire blind community. If we really desire the accessibility we must have in order to participate in society on an equal footing with the sighted, it is time for us to get serious by combining individual and organizational resources into an accessibility evangelism project that can take the needs of the blind community and educate the rest of the world in ways that turn problems into effective solutions.

Why Not Enjoy a Little Fresh Air?

February 9, 2008 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

On January 31, 2008, the Accessibility Is a Right (AIR) Foundation was launched. The foundation’s first initiative is to provide a free screen reader to all blind computer users, or those who would like to be able to access computers, around the world. The blind still suffer at least a 75 percent unemployment rate in the United States and the other developed nations, and it is much higher in the rest of the world. Though initiatives do exist to get computers and even Internet connectivity into the hands of the less fortunate, these well-intentioned efforts almost always leave blind people behind. The result is that, though many blind people may be able to acquire a computer, it would be totally useless to do so without the needed access technology to read the information displayed on the screen. In the vast majority of cases, the less fortunate members of the blind community are not even able to afford $1,000, $600 or even $24 per month for the privilege of using a computer. This statement is not intended as one of complaint regarding the plight of a miserable, poor, small minority, but simply one of fact for tens of millions of blind people living outside the confines of the United States, United Kingdom, Western Europe and Japan.

The current assistive technology industry is based almost exclusively on the status of people with disabilities in the developed world. Blind and visually impaired people here in the United States have a number of ways to obtain expensive assistive technology products costing thousands of dollars. If they are children, parents and the school system work together to ensure the necessary hardware and software is made available. If they are working toward a career goal, Vocational Rehabilitation agencies may purchase all or most of the equipment. If they are employed, they may be able to afford some of the costs outright, arrange a payment plan with the assistive technology company directly or even purchase it on credit. Finally, in some cases, service organizations such as Lions International may step in to cover the costs. The availability of all these pools of funding helps to set the price of assistive technology. Companies in the field determine their research and development, overhead and other costs, then make wise business decisions concerning the price they can charge according to the basic economic principles of supply and demand.

With a 75 percent unemployment rate in the developed nations, most blind people simply can’t or won’t make their own assistive technology purchasing decisions. This means the “demand” for such technology is not ultimately coming from the blind consumers who will use it, but from schools, Vocational Rehabilitation Agencies and others. The result is that most of our current crop of assistive technology companies charge the prices they can get in the developed world, while they listen to those who “demand” the technology by spending the money. The people who spend the lion’s share of the money on assistive technology are not those who use it on a daily basis. The incentive on the part of businesses in this field is, thus, to listen to the stated needs of agencies, schools and other organizations rather than to the individual when determining the capabilities, enhancements, pricing and all other attributes of their product offerings.

Outside the nations known as the “developed” world, the situation remains bleak for the blind. In addition to barriers imposed by poor social attitudes regarding the capabilities of blind people, there is almost no access at all to the expensive assistive technology we enjoy here in the USA. While sighted people in these nations also don’t tend to own computers, they are often able to visit Internet cafes, libraries and other public places where computer and Internet access is made available at a reasonable price or no charge at all. Sadly, with very few notable exceptions, these public computers do not feature the necessary access technology to permit use by a blind person. Once again, blind people are left behind with respect to their sighted peers.

The AIR Foundation is here to change this bleak state of affairs for the blind all around the world. Serotek has donated the company’s System Access To Go (SAToGo) screen reader to the foundation for the purpose of making it available to the blind completely free of charge in as many languages as possible. Now, any blind person who can get their hands on a computer with Internet access running either the Windows Vista or Windows XP operating system can also read the screen using a free screen reader provided by the AIR Foundation. A blind person visiting an Internet cafe, public library or any other public computer access facility can now use that computer right alongside their sighted peers, without the need to have a specialized piece of software installed. Any blind person who needs to access web sites, exchange e-mail, write letters, work with the computer’s operating system or perform other common computing tasks will substantially benefit from the free screen reader offered by the AIR Foundation in partnership with Serotek. The foundation is also working with companies such as Lenovo to make the free screen reader available in mainstream computers right out of the box.

Will System Access To Go replace all other screen readers? Certainly not. Many blind people will continue to need the configurability, scripting and other advanced features found in JAWS or Window-Eyes to access complex educational software and the applications used in today’s busy modern workplaces. We can only hope that innovations such as the AIR Foundation and solutions such as Serotek’s Remote Incident Manager will serve to turn the blindness assistive technology industry upside-down, breaking the stranglehold of the agencies and organizations who often want to make our technology decisions for us, making accessibility available to the less fortunate, and compelling the currently entrenched players in the field to stand up and really listen to the needs and desires of those in the blind community who use their technology on a daily basis.

Categories: accessibility, opinion, Serotek

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.