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Visual Verification: Request of NFB to Officially Support CAPTCHA Accessibility Initiatives

September 8, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The following letter was composed and sent to Dr. Marc Maurer, President, National Federation of the Blind, on July 28, 2007. It has been five weeks now. We continue to await a response from the organization concerning their official position and willingness to dedicate additional resources to these critical accessibility concerns.

July 28, 2007 

Dear Dr. Maurer:

My name is Darrell Shandrow.  You and I met a number of times at NFB national conventions and the National Center for the Blind.  I am an online accessibility evangelist, operating a blog known as Blind Access Journal.  It can be found at http://www.blindaccessjournal.com.  My purpose for writing this letter is to ask you to direct some of the resources of the National Federation of the Blind toward effectively advocating equal accessibility of CAPTCHA (visual verification) and other multifactor authentication systems for the blind and visually impaired.   

In CAPTCHA and some hardware based multifactor authentication schemes, a string of distorted characters is presented visually, and entry of those characters into an edit field is required in order to be granted access to a protected system.  The purpose of CAPTCHA is to differentiate between a script or other automated computer program designed to abuse a resource and a real human being who desires legitimate access.  Visual multifactor authentication schemes provide a second level of security beyond the traditional username and password.  Pictures can’t be interpreted or automatically conveyed using Braille or speech access devices and many hardware security keys still do not provide any alternative output mechanisms.  Until an accessible alternative is made available, people with vision loss can’t see the code to be entered into the box to be granted admission.  

There now exists a number of techniques to reasonably accomodate CAPTCHA and multifactor authentication for the blind and visually impaired.  The most commonly implemented accomodation is an audio CAPTCHA, where the characters in the image are audibly played back to the blind or visually impaired user for correct entry into the edit box.  America Online, Microsoft and PRWeb are examples of companies offering this form of accomodation.   

Another form of accomodation is a text based CAPTCHA.  In such a scheme, a user is asked to solve a simple logic or math problem or answer a basic question in order to be granted admission.  The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is an example of an agency that uses such a text based solution.  Some technology experts say this solution is relatively easily cracked by computer programs, so it probably will not be widely implemented in its current form. 

  A third form of accomodation involves the need for manual human intervention on the part of the company requiring the CAPTCHA.  In such a scheme, the resource is protected with a visual CAPTCHA along with a link to click, an e-mail address to write a message or a telephone number to call.  The blind person clicks the link, writes the e-mail or calls the telephone number to receive assistance.  Unfortunately, this approach is fraught with serious challenges that make it completely unworkable in most cases where it is in use.  When a blind user fills out the form, writes the e-mail or calls the number, it is absolutely necessary that the request for help be fulfilled immediately in order for the solution to provide a level of access equal to that enjoyed by his or her sighted peers.  In almost all cases, such requests for assistance either go completely unanswered or are answered in an inappropriate time frame, perhaps days after the request is made.  Another serious problem is the actions taken once the requests are answered.  Are there specific processes in place for effectively delivering these reasonable accomodations?  Are all employees who may be taking the calls properly trained to follow the procedures?  It has been proven to us over and over that the unfortunate answer to both questions is a resounding “no”.  Though some companies are willing to offer these manual interventions as reasonable accomodations, it is clear that, in all cases we have experienced, they do not take seriously the promise to actually deliver the goods.  Examples of web sites supposedly offering the human intervention method of accomodation include GoDaddy.com, Slashdot.org, ticketmaster.com and Yahoo.com. 

Unfortunately, there still exist many web sites that do not offer any reasonable accomodations to their visual CAPTCHA at all.  Examples of sites in this camp include activate.sirius.com, friendster.com and myspace.com.  When a blind person does manage to find someone at these companies to contact, assistance is rarely, if ever, offered. 

At a bare minimum, visual only CAPTCHA locks blind people out of equal participation in web sites such as information portals and social networking resources.  More seriously, visual CAPTCHA without reasonable accomodation actually prevents blind people from completing business transactions, as in the CAPTCHAs on godaddy.com and ticketmaster.com.  Finally, visual only multifactor authentication schemes, such as security keys, can prevent blind people from accessing their money or even obtaining or retaining employment! 

I am writing to ask that you direct the National Federation of the Blind, as the largest consumer organization of the blind in the United States, to show clear leadership in advocacy for access to CAPTCHA and multifactor authentication.  In the short term, please officially support the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition at http://blindwebaccess.com and make higher level efforts to contact Yahoo! executives to discuss the need for a better CAPTCHA solution on Yahoo! web sites.  In the longer term, please consistently support existing grassroots advocacy efforts in this area and carry out new efforts on an organizational level to exercise influence and, possibly, legislation to address these serious concerns. 

Sincerely, 

Darrell Shandrow – Accessibility Evangelist

We thank the American Council of the Blind for joining us in support of the Yahoo! Accessibility Improvement Petition along with the organization’s willingness to consider taking on additional future efforts surrounding accessibility issues involving CAPTCHA and multifactor authentication. A cross-organizational approach to this and other critical access needs would serve to further these vital causes.

Initial Thoughts on the K-NFB Reader

September 7, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Karen and I took a short trip this morning down to the National Federation of the Blind of Arizona’s state convention. The hotel where it is being held is only a couple of miles from our house! We took a look at several exhibits and visited with a few people we know in the Federation. There may also be a new opportunity to promote accessibility coming from this visit. I think the short visit was worthwhile, and we will be returning this evening for a couple of hours to do some more socializing.

One of the neat opportunities we enjoyed was a live, hands on demonstration of the Kurzweil-National Federation of the Blind (K-NFB) Reader. Though the device is, indeed, very portable, we were both disappointed at the lack of tactile controls on the PDA. All the keys on the front panel are close together and there is precious little tactile differentiation between four of the most important controls. Despite the use of mainstream technologies in both the camera and PDA components, we would expect the people integrating them to ensure the greatest possible usability of the final product. Our concerns are that people with nerve damage and those who are novice technology users may have significant difficulty locating and pressing the keys on the front of the PDA. The representative suggested the user might add these tactile features, but I feel this is an unreasonable burden posed by an assistive technology product of this nature. As always, your thoughts are appreciated.

Categories: opinion

Imagine The Dark Future of CAPTCHA and Multifactor Authentication for the Blind

August 25, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

If you’re blind or severely visually impaired, imagine that you wake up one day to find…

  • You compose an e-mail to your sister, only to discover you can’t send it due to a visual CAPTCHA that provides no audio playback or other reasonable accomodation. A telephone number is given for visually impaired users. After waiting on hold for an hour, the person at the other end of the line has no clue how to help you. You consider switching e-mail providers, but you wonder if your bank account balance would support such a decision…
  • You log into your bank’s web site, only to find that a new visual security scheme has been implemented without considering your need for equal access. Since there is no reasonable accomodation for you as a blind person, your username and password are no longer sufficient and you have lost the ability to access something as simple as the balance of your own checking account! Since you do not live with a sighted person, you’re out of luck for a few days until you can find one with whom you trust with your personal bank account. Personal web surfing, for any reason, is not permitted at the office, so a co-worker is not an option.
  • You decide to log into PayPal to check your account balance there, only to find that the PayPal Security Key is now required for all customers! You never got one of those because the numbers it displays are only delivered visually. You assumed it wouldn’t be a requirement, or that accessibility would be considered before that happened. You’re now also locked out of your PayPal account! You give up, get showered, dress and leave for work…
  • At the office, you find yet another nasty surprise. All computers are now equipped with a visual display token for purposes of authentication and heightened security. The token displays a sequence of characters you must enter, in addition to your existing username and password, in order to be granted access to your work computer. Furthermore, due to the high security nature of the job, this process is required once every hour and anytime you leave your desk for breaks, lunch, etc. You suggest asking a supervisor for help with this process until it can be made accessible, but your employer sees fit to go ahead and get rid of you instead. Accomodating your needs would just be too much of an “undue burden”… You’re fired!
  • You return home to begin the process of applying for Social Security, Unemployment and other welfare benefits, only to find that most of the web sites require solving a visual CAPTCHA. You’ll have to go down to these separate offices in person! Getting assistance in person is an absolute nightmare! After waiting in line at Social Security for an hour, the agent says she is too busy to help you due to the need to serve other clients and, anyway, isn’t all this done online nowadays? You’re given a bunch of paperwork to have filled out by some sighted person, one of these days…
  • It takes so long to find competent sighted help that you don’t start receiving any welfare benefits for almost two months! In the meantime, you have lost your house and are now living in a homeless shelter! You can forget about another job, as most employers now require secure visual authentication, and most job related computer applications are virtually totally inaccessible to blind people…
  • Most assistive technology companies have since gone out of business, due to the implementation of visual authentication and the almost total lack of mainstream technology that even approaches any level of functionality with screen readers. Only a single company remains, delivering a screen reader to the few remaining blind government employees who retain their jobs by a thread. The Federal government is dying to be granted the ability to use the same visual authentication scheme as that employed in the private sector, if only they could successfully get Sections 504 and 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act repealed. There are national security reasons for doing this which clearly trump the needs of a few blind people. Congress and the President are in negotiations to make that happen any day now…

We should be afraid, be very afraid, of the clear and present danger posed by inaccessible CAPTCHA, visual only multifactor authentication schemes and other technologies that do not reasonably accomodate our needs. Our fear should not result in our cowering in a corner waiting for it to happen. Instead, we must become angry enough to start really doing something about it! Anger is not always a bad emotion. It is often a response to injustice, which we can choose to channel into taking positive action. As a blind community, are we up to the challenge of absolutely insisting that our need for equal accessibility be reasonably accomodated? As a blind individual, what actions will you take right now and later to ensure a brighter, more accessible future for you and your blind brothers and sisters? Don’t choose to remain in the dark one more second! Please feel free to take our poll on accessibility and provide your feedback by way of posting a comment to this article.

Visual Verification: Changing the Frame of Reference?

July 22, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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

Straightforward Example of the Selfishness and Poor Attitudes We Must Defeat

July 22, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The following comment was cowardly posted to the journal under a cloke of anonymity.

I completely disagree with you. Blogs are essentially private domain, and the use of them in any capacity is a privilege that is extended by the owner to visitors. Your assertion that someone has to spend more time and energy into generating blind-friendly CAPTCHAs is selfish. It is hard enough to stay 1 step ahead of the spammers without having to cater to the needs of a relatively small subset of users. It is unfortunate that you are blind, and in many places the law forces businesses to provide for your special needs. This requirement causes enough problems and extra costs in the real world, the last thing we need is it bogging down innovation in the internet so that the other 99% of us have to deal with more spam so you feel included.

I just have a couple of questions… In the era of segregation, business owners were afraid they would lose their white customers if they permitted African-Americans to eat in their restaurants and shop in their stores. They did not want to accomodate African-Americans for business reasons. Are you saying that it was wrong for the government to finally pass laws making segregation illegal? Also, if you had a spouse, brother, sister, relative or close friend who was blind or visually impaired, would you really want to see their needs treated in the cavalier manner in which you suggest?

Categories: accessibility, opinion

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

July 21, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 13, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Objectivity versus Opinion, or the Difference Between Journalism and Evangelism

May 19, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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