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First Impressions: A New BookSense Owner Compares the New Audio Player and Book Reader to HumanWare’s VictorReader Stream

July 11, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This article compares the new BookSense product sold by GW Micro and manufactured by Hims Co, LTD.” with the well-established VictorReader Stream manufactured and sold by HumanWare. Both products are ultra-portable devices that enable the blind to read audio books, access books in several electronic text formats and listen to music. I have presented this information in a way that expresses what I believe, in my personal and professional opinion, to be the pros and cons of the new BookSense as compared with the VictorReader Stream from the perspective of an advanced blind technology user who has owned the Stream for almost two years and has just started using the BookSense two days ago.

BookSense Pros

The BookSense sports a plethora of new features and enhancements over the VictorReader Stream which are the basis for the vast majority of its strengths.

BookSense has a text-to-speech synthesizer that seems far superior than that in the VR Stream. It uses the Kate and Paul voices at, I believe, 22 KHz. The vastly improved TTS engine is the primary reason I decided to purchase the BookSense despite my already owning a Stream. I read lots of electronic books during the fall and spring semesters in journalism school, and I was finding the TTS on the Stream slightly hard to handle for that purpose at times. In contrast, I have been reading a book I downloaded from Bookshare yesterday morning and have been enjoying it on the BookSense reading with the Kate voice. Kate and Paul are terrible when used as speech synthesizers for computers, in my opinion, but they’re quite appropriate for use on a book reading device like the BookSense. I heard these voices during the BookSense presentation, and I was sold after doing a bit more research.

BookSense is significantly smaller in size and lighter in weight as compared to the Stream. It is supplied with a lanyard that enables wearing the unit around the neck. The BookSense appears to be well-constructed with tough plastic and flatter buttons that seem to be less susceptible to wear and tear as compared to some of the controls found on the Stream.

BookSense enables charging of its battery through the USB connection while the Stream does not. This offers an obvious practical enhancement over the Stream, where only its proprietary charger may be used. Although charging through the USB connection requires a little more than twice the time (5 versus 2 hours) to complete, the increased flexibility more than makes up for that minor disadvantage.

BookSense supports many formats not available on the Stream, including Audible Enhanced (high quality stereo books from, iTunes, MP4 and others. Support for WMA protected files, such as the Overdrive books you can acquire through public libraries, is promised in a future firmware upgrade.

BookSense has a clock! That’s right. The device can act as a talking clock and you can hear the time even when it is otherwise powered off. Hardware limitations mean that the Stream will never provide this unless a revision is made requiring owners to purchase new units or spend a significant amount of additional funds on an upgrade. Lack of a clock on the Stream means that formats like protected WMA will never be supported because they require adherence to expiration dates and similar licensing rules. Besides, I find it annoying that something as simple as a clock was left out of the design of the Stream.

BookSense incorporates a pair of internal stereo speakers that’s actually loud enough to be useful!

BookSense records in honest-to-goodness stereo MP3 or wave formats at sampling rates high enough to be useful for podcasting, sound seeing tours and other situations outside the traditional classroom scenario imagined by the designers of the Stream.

BookSense XT sports an FM radio that allows blind users to finally enjoy some of the basics the sighted have always had, including verbal frequency read-out and station presets. I know this is rather silly, but I’ve always wanted a radio that would tell me the frequency and allow me to store presets in a way that’s fully accessible. Of course, some ham radio gear has contained this level of accessibility for years, but it’s nice to finally see it on a broadcast receiver.

BookSense XT has 4 GB of internal Flash storage, where the Stream has none at all. The BookSense is supplied with a 2 GB SD card and the BookSense XT is supplied with an 8 GB SD card. You’re completely on your own to purchase an SD card for the Stream, which requires one to operate since it sports no internal storage.

The BookSense XT features Bluetooth for connection to a wireless headset. While this feature currently appears to be unreliable, I am confident the issues will be resolved in short order and the use of a wireless headset will be an enjoyable experience for BookSense XT owners.

Finally, but certainly no less important, the BookSense is sold in the United States by GW Micro, developers of the popular Window-Eyes screen reader and a company known for its high touch and attention to customer service and support.

BookSense Cons

Despite the arrival of this new book reader and player on the market, there is no combination of hardware and firmware that is 100 percent perfect. This couldn’t be more true in the case of the BookSense. It is quite likely, however, that many if not all the disadvantages of the BookSense will be addressed in the near future by GW Micro and Hims, its South Korean manufacturer.

HumanWare has done an excellent job with the controls on the VR Stream, making it, perhaps, one of the easiest blindness technology products to use in the field as of this writing in mid-2009. All controls on the Stream feature good spacing and tactile features making them easy to identify and locate from a blind perspective. Although it is obvious that efforts were made to ensure a similarly easy experience with BookSense, its flatter, smoother controls may put off some users who might find them difficult to manage due to other conditions such as nerve damage in the fingers from diabetes.

On a similar note, HumanWare does a good job of packaging the Stream. The accompanying CD-ROM containing companion software, documentation and the tutorial is supplied in a case that is labeled in Braille for easy identification. The power supply has a rather unique rectangular shape and features several smoothed edges that make it easy to identify and set it apart from other adapters. In comparison, the BookSense CD-ROM, which contains no audio tutorial or companion software, is supplied in a basic paper sleeve with no Braille label, making it just another CD among many in one’s collection. The power supply for the BookSense does feature a nice Braille label, but a switch found next to the plug provides no Braille or tactile indicator. Presuming this switch controls the AC input voltage, one might wonder how long it will take for GW Micro technical support to start dealing with burned up adapters and related hardware problems.

Documentation is another strong point in favor of the Stream. The CD-ROM accompanying the Stream features documentation in several text formats and an excellent audio tutorial created by Jeff Bishop, a broadcaster, Window-Eyes script developer and well-recognized participant in the connected online blind community. If you purchase your Stream from a dealer along with an SD card, it may contain some of this documentation in a form that is ready to read right on the Stream out of the box. In contrast, the CD-ROM accompanying the BookSense contains only the user’s manual in four text formats: rich-text format (RTF), plain text (TXT) and two Microsoft Word documents (the older DOC and the newer DOCX). There is no audio tutorial or other content. Despite the fact that both the BookSense and BookSense XT are supplied with SD cards and the BookSense XT sports internal storage, the manual is not available on the BookSense until the user copies it to the appropriate folder.

Full text navigation is available on the Stream starting at the character level and moving all the way through paragraphs, pages and headings according to the format being read. In comparison, BookSense does not currently allow character-level navigation in text DAISY files such as those supplied by Bookshare. It is hoped this serious oversight will be corrected very soon. It is important to note that the Stream experienced similar challenges in version 1.0 of its firmware.

Overall simplicity and usability are solidly in the Stream’s favor. Each button on the Stream has a well-defined function, menus are simple in nature and it is not necessary to understand Windows or other GUI concepts in order to become an expert user of the Stream. In comparison, the BookSense is a complex device. The manual describes the use of controls including combo boxes, dialogue boxes, edit boxes and menus. Each primary feature (Book Reader, DAISY Player, Media Player, Radio) is considered an application. It may be presumed that the extensive feature set found on the BookSense makes the complexity a necessary evil.

Though the BookSense XT features Bluetooth for connecting to a wireless headset, this functionality currently contains a serious bug making it unreliable. Several new BookSense owners have reported that, after reading for a short time, all audio goes silent and the BookSense completely locks up. GW Micro and the product’s manufacturer are aware of this concern and are working to remedy the issue as soon as possible.

Finally, the BookSense is a new, version 1.0 product. There are bugs, oversights and unforeseen challenges that the Stream has already surpassed during its two years in the marketplace. As the BookSense matures, bugs will be squashed and exciting new features will be added. At the same time, HumanWare representatives have assured the blind community that the Stream will continue to prosper.

Thanks go to several Twitter followers for clarifications and updates.

Categories: BookSense, opinion

Thought Provoker: Accessibility Evangelism or Something Else?

July 6, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A reader shared with me her thoughts on the term “accessibility evangelism” as a description of the work I do to promote equal opportunity for the blind through access to information and technology. I have honored her request to remain anonymous.

I don’t like the term evangelism because of the connotation. By definition, evangelism is associated with zealots and fanatics. In my mind, evangelism, zealotry and fanaticism are things you want to stay away from because the connotation is that you will do anything to achieve your goals. The impression the term gives is of a group of people that are willing to go to any lengths to promote accessibility and I think that is a little scary or fanatical. I definitely think that the phrase accessibility evangelism is off putting.   Instead of evangelism, I would suggest champion, proponent, advocate, or campaign.

Another reader, Amber, weighed in with her own thoughts:

Well, in general, evangelism makes me think of those preacher guys on TV, you know the ones who are very powerful preachers and generally I get turned off by that. But I think it’s the term evangelism that makes me think of that.

I guess the term to me would mean someone who works tirelessly to get equal access to services and goods. And that’s not a bad thing, just tireless and thankless.

For example, I wonder if we see the similar thing with African Americans. So many people fought tirelessly for civil rights, but do African Americans think of these things when they vote, sit anywhere in a bus, or run for political office or is it something they take for granted? I’m not saying people need to be overly thankful just remember. This goes for many groups.

Steve asked “are you going to sell me an accessible bible?”

Karen has expressed similar thoughts about associating the term”evangelism” with fallen televangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

On the other hand, an evangelist can be a positive supporter of an operating system or particular technology in the computer industry. There are evangelists for the Apple Macintosh computer, the Linux operating system and the open source software movement. Oracle even has an “accessibility evangelist” on staff who works to ensure the company’s products meet established guidelines and rules like Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Now it’s your turn. What comes to mind when you hear the term “accessibility evangelist”? Do you find this term confusing? Why do you think this term should or should not be used to describe efforts to increase accessibility for the blind? I welcome your comments to this thought provoker.

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

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

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 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, 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 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 ( 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 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.