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Keep The Books Talking

May 31, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Keep the Books Talking
Congress should fund the digitization of a vital audio library for the blind.
Wednesday, May 30, 2007
A HALF-MILLION Americans stand in danger of losing their public library. They are
the nation’s blind, and their library is Talking Books, through which the National
Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped of the Library of Congress
(NLS) provides 500,000 Americans with free audio recordings of about as many books.
Unlike the “books on tape” that are sold at retail bookstores, these recordings are unabridged, extensive and diverse — and are designed for people who have no other
way of reading print.
Unfortunately, today’s Talking Books technology is ready to meet its maker. The program currently uses half-speed audiotapes that patrons listen to on special devices. These tape players, like the Talking Books record players that preceded them, are obsolete, and are no longer even being manufactured. To bring the program into the 21st century, the NLS hopes to digitize its entire library and create new players. It has spent 17 years researching, building and testing new products, and it is ready to manufacture a fully accessible flash-drive player. The Library of Congress has asked Congress
to appropriate about $76.4 million to produce the players and digitize thousands more books.
A forthcoming Government Accountability Office report, however, may derail the NLS’s plans. In a draft version of the report completed several weeks ago, the GAO faulted the NLS for not considering existing commercial products such as CD players and iPods instead of creating a new device. This sounds like a reasonable concern, given tales of exorbitant government spending on $792 doormats and $400 hammers. But creating special, noncommercial players is crucial to the continued existence of Talking Books.
Commercially available products, which often use visual screens and are not labeled in Braille, are not accessible to the visually impaired. More important, to comply with U.S. copyright law, Talking Books can record and distribute only audio books that cannot be played by commercial devices.
Should the GAO keep this misguided criticism in its final report, lawmakers should not be swayed by it. Instead, Congress should fully fund Talking Books’ digital upgrade, a project that will grant many disabled Americans the same literary access afforded to the sighted.
SOURCE: Washington Post

Categories: Uncategorized

New Skype Version Fixes Options Dialogue Accessibility for Most Screen Reader Users

May 31, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I am able to confirm, through my own testing as well as reports from others,
that the Options dialogue box in this new version of Skype is now fully
accessible with JAWS 8.0.2107 and System Access 2.3. The tree view of
option categories is not spoken at all in Window-Eyes 6.1 at this time.

Skype version is now available and one place where you can
download it from is at

Here are the changes in this version:

feature: Getting Started Wizard improvement
bugfix: Installer error 1603
bugfix: Sound setting not saved on Vista
bugfix: Accessibility problems with screen readers resolved
bugfix: Delay when playing notification sounds
bugfix: Incoming call is not sent to Voicemail if user rejects it
bugfix: On some rare cases conference call participants were muted
bugfix: Skype crashes sometimes when ending a call
bugfix: NTLM proxy authentication did not work
bugfix API:App2App transfers did not work as expected
Language files updated

Categories: Skype

Thoughts on Building the Blind Community and Integration with the Sighted

May 31, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker
Shortly after posting my thoughts on the current state of the blindness assistive technology industry, I received a telephone call from a concerned friend.  He expressed some worry about my assertion that I believed two thirds of the senior management of any blindness assistive technology company needed to be blind or visually impaired.  After thinking about this for awhile and losing some sleep (I really should be in bed at 11:00 at night if I am getting up at 4:30 in the morning) I finally decided to get up and post some hopefully clarifying thoughts on this subject.
My friend was worried that I might be taking a FUBU (for us, by us) attitude.  He cited a couple of examples involving the ways in which other minority groups have handled civil rights and other political issues in the past.  There are two possible extremes with which we can choose to handle our role in society as blind people.  
On one side, we could choose to deny our blindness as much as possible and fully integrate into the sighted world.  This approach would mean that blindness simply becomes another characteristic, such as hair color or one’s height.  From an assistive technology point of view, all blind people would utilize absolutely the bare minimum amount of assistive technology products to function in the sighted world.  We would still use Braille displays and screen readers, but we would not use specialized note taker or PDA type devices such as the BrailleNote, BrailleSense, Icon or PAC Mate.  Some who lean more in this direction would say these specialized devices represent part of the “blind ghetto” mentality.  Instead, we would all be using Symbian or Windows Mobile based products running screen readers like MobileSpeak Pocket, PocketHal or Talks.  I dare to suspect that we would also do as little agitation for accessibility as possible, choosing instead to accept greater dependence on sighted readers and other less effective work arounds for the sake of getting along with the sighted.  
On the opposite extreme, we could choose to stay only within our small blind community, focusing almost exclusively on our blindness as a severe handicap that constantly keeps us down and out.  This approach would tend to portray the blind as victims in constant need of care and pity for their limited, tragic lives.  From an assistive technology viewpoint, focus would be placed on devising specialized, simplified user interfaces blind people could use to accomplish the small number of jobs deemed blind friendly enough to be made accessible.  For those few blind people who even reached the point where a note taker or PDA type device were deemed necessary, products like the BrailleNote and BrailleSense would be the exclusive domain of the blind, with no need for the ability to run any third party software not already built into the product.  Even the Icon and PAC Mate wouldn’t completely meet this pure focus on blindness, since they involve a more direct connection with the device’s underlying operating system and the use of numerous third party programs to perform important tasks.  Taking this extreme, there would also be little need for accessibility evangelism, since we would be sheltered in our own little world, far away from the one in which the sighted live and work.
Obviously, neither of these two extremes is desirable for most blind people.  We need to find a middle ground.  I feel it is, indeed, vital that we grow and nurture a strong, healthy blind community.  At the same time, we must live and work with our sighted peers, doing our part to make our own accomodations when it is at all practical and insisting on equal accessibility when that is the only way we can participate on equal terms.  From an assistive technology point of view, we must be granted the ability to choose from a plethora of products and services manufactured by dynamic, innovative companies that listen to our input and turn what we have to say with our dollars and words into even better products and services.  Since I have been using note takers as an example, let’s complete that thread.  Blind people need to be able to choose between a more specialized device like the BrailleNote, a middle of the road solution like the PAC Mate or a device used by the fully sighted such as a Nokia 6682, a Black Jack or other PDA or Smart Phone running the Symbian or Windows Mobile operating system adapted with a screen reader like Talks or MobileSpeak Pocket.  It is conceivable that a blind person might start with a BrailleSense and graduate to a Windows Mobile device once their technical skills have improved. 
Our blind community might be said to exist as a kind of nation.  Though we are separate from the sighted in some respects, we must grow, nurture and maintain positive diplomatic relations with our sighted counterparts.  When a seemingly intractible accessibility issue crops up, we may need to occasionally launch initiatives, special operations or maybe even outright war with a very small segment of the sighted population until we can arrive at a satisfactory resolution that fairly meets the needs of all involved parties.  We must never be quick to resort to adversarial means, but we all must be ready, willing and able to insist on the accessibility and reasonable accomodations we must have in order to fully participate in the world around us on terms of equality with the sighted.
It is highly likely that well under 10 percent of the sighted population can be said to inherently understand our needs as a diverse blind community.  It is also critical that the decision makers within the companies that provide us with the products and services on which we rely in order to learn, live and work in society understand our needs so they will have the best possible chance of delivering solutions that really meet our needs out here in the real world.  For this reason, I feel it is vital that a majority of a blindness assistive technology company’s senior management and, preferrably, its entire staff be blind or visually impaired.  Please understand that I am saying that a majority should represent our population.  I am not saying that representation must be 100 percent.  There are many examples of sighted people who have made momentus contributions to the blindness assistive technology industry.  Those people should be honored and encouraged by all means to continue their participation with gratitude from the blind community.  Further, more blind and sighted people should be encouraged to develop the necessary aptitudes to create the innovative devices and software we will need for an ever increasingly dynamic technology future.
Finally, what I think I am really saying here is, let’s all work cooperatively together as a blind community and in the blindness assistive technology industry to constructively take actions that will result in our increased ability to participate in the sighted world around us!  Pointless litigation between companies in this small industry does not, by any stretch of the imagination, do anything to promote this critical goal. 
Darrell Shandrow – Accessibility Evangelist
Visit and ask Freedom Scientific to stop suing!
Information should be accessible to us without need of translation by another person.
Categories: Uncategorized

My Thoughts on Altruism Versus Commercialism in the Assistive Technology Industry

May 30, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I’m just taking a quick few minutes to pen my (probably oversimplistic) thoughts on the need of companies doing business in the blindness assistive technology industry to balance the benefits and consequences of their actions to the blind community (altruism) versus their need to turn a sufficient profit to make doing business worthwhile to their investors.

  • It is my belief that the initial reasons for creating businesses in this field are altruistic. The people involved in starting the business really want to see blind people succeed using the new company’s technology. There are many reasons for this desire. For instance, maybe one of the company’s founders has a spouse, child or other close relative who happens to be blind or visually impaired. It may also be the case that the company is founded by one or more blind persons who feel they can do better than the current state-of-the-art or a category of assistive technology is needed which currently does not exist. In either case, the initial reasons for getting started are usually grounded in a desire to help the blind.
  • Being businesses, it ultimately becomes important for the company to justify its existence to its creditors, investors, government agencies and especially its blind and visually impaired customers. Doing this means providing a product or service that customers will buy at a price that allows the company to pay its debts, satisfy its investors, pay its employees, continue development and support of existing products and do the R&D required to introduce new products. I recognize that accomplishing all of these important tasks is an incredibly tight balancing line.
  • Who are the customers of our blindness assistive technology industry players? Are they blind and visually impaired consumers? Are they large government agencies, such as Vocational Rehabilitation, that may be required by law to purchase assistive technology? What are the requirements of these different customers? Does the customer need assistive technology that meets their needs to gain access to the world, does the lowest bidder get the nod, is there a contract in place that requires purchase of only certain technologies regardless of the consumers needs or desires? These questions have a huge impact on the actions of the AT companies. Companies that acquire the bulk of their business directly from blind consumers are going to tend to offer payment plans, keep prices low, operate in an extremely efficient, lean manner and provide the highest levels of customer service and support. For these smaller players, blind and visually impaired people are their bread and butter. The positive and negative things blind people say about them on blogs, mailing lists, consumer organization conventions and other forums will tend to have a direct and immediate impact on their behavior toward those customers. Unfortunately, companies who do the bulk of their business with government agencies, large private sector companies or anyone other than blind consumers may tend to develop a different focus. This will naturally involve meeting the agency, company or organizations stated requirements, which will be represented by rather dry factors like price and technical specifications. When these large, high-dollar customers leave out the blind consumer in their own decision-making processes, their purchasing decisions from our blindness AT companies may cause those companies to switch their focus and priorities away from the blind consumer, perhaps without even recognizing that this has happened.
  • Why do smaller companies often tend to be more innovative than the larger players? The smaller companies like Serotek do not have the same level of name recognition within the community of the large high-dollar government agencies and other organizations that purchase the bulk of assistive technology products. Instead, their bread and butter are the blind and visually impaired consumers themselves. As blind people, we have certain accessibility needs, which we would like to have met by one or more of the players in the industry. Different people have different needs. That’s why there is a choice of products. Reasonable people who care about what happens to the blind and visually impaired know intuitively that a one-size-fits-all approach does not work for anyone. So, by nature, the smaller companies who deal more directly with us are going to inherently take more direct actions to meet our stated needs and desires. I think this is just basic business sense between companies and their customers. Unfortunately, this process becomes seriously warped when the customers are anyone other than the people who directly need or want assistive technology products. It seems, over the years, that as an assistive technology company matures and gains that name recognition within the community of its high-dollar customers, the needs and desires of the people for whom the products are designed in the first place go to the wayside, replaced by and large with the legal and dry technical requirements stated by people who are not blind and whom usually have no idea how the technology is used out here in the real world.
  • Why do the larger companies seem to take actions that are viewed as attempts to eliminate the smaller players? Well, obviously, this is a huge, muddy question, but I think it ultimately comes down to money. As a company grows, it needs more resources. Product sales drive the need to hire more employees, acquire larger facilities, gather more investment, take advantage of loans and other credit opportunities and do all the things a business must do in order to meet the customers’ demand for more product. As technology advances, products must be maintained and new products must be devised to meet the evolving needs of customers. While all this goes on, the company must constantly strive to support all its existing customers. Just as it seems to be with individuals, the acquisition of more and more wealth results in the spending of more and more money to expand that success. Things move along rather nicely in most cases so long as the assistive technology company’s customers remain largely from the blind and visually impaired consumer base. But government agencies and other large players have a great deal more money to throw around than the typical blind consumer. The more money a customer is able or willing to spend on something, the more willing the provider is going to be to do all they can to meet that customer’s needs. This is just another one of those unchangeable business constants. Those with the gold ultimately make the rules, whether we like it or not. It isn’t going to be changing anytime in the near or even distant future. This has a lot of implications. Innovation costs money and other resources and “necessity is the mother of all invention”. It seems like the larger players in our industry are innovating only when it is deemed necessary by their high-dollar customers, rather than by blind and visually impaired consumers who may need innovative technologies in order to educate themselves, obtain or retain their employment, live their daily lives, etc. For instance, why does it seem that one company appears to have fallen behind the curve with respect to Windows Vista and now seems to be struggling to catch up to other players in some areas? Most large businesses and government agencies wait at least a year before implementing a new operating system. Did this company feel they had more time before they had to innovate, in order to spare the expenditure of resources until it came time to meet the needs of their high-dollar customers? Did it jump because it was surprised when some of those large customers said they were moving to Vista sooner than expected? Did the smaller players decide to innovate faster and take Vista more seriously because some of their blind customers said they needed access to that operating system to keep their jobs or just because they wanted to buy a new computer that no longer offers support for Windows XP? Was all of this just too much? Did they decide to start filing lawsuits, make threats and do other underhanded things to some of the blind community consumer activists and smaller players in the field to allow them some time to catch up and hold onto that coveted big business?
  • Why litigate rather than innovate? Why is there a lawsuit over an aledged trademark violation that has been happening for almost seven years? I’ll say just this much on this direct subject. There are a lot of questions coming from all over the blind community as to Freedom Scientific’s supposed motives for filing this lawsuit. I’ll just state what I believe to be a foregone conclusion should Freedom Scientific win all it requests in the case. If the case goes to trial and Freedom Scientific wins, then Serotek will no longer be a going concern. It is that simple. Whether intended or not, an important player will have been unceremoniously deleted from the field. It is just that simple, boys and girls!
  • Why do we as a blind community have so little impact on not only the mainstream world around us but also the assistive technology industry? I’m afraid the reasons for that are simple as well. We have at least a 70 percent unemployment rate. While a lot of discrimination and misunderstanding do exist on the part of employers, I strongly believe that much of the problem is simply that most blind and visually impaired people make the choice to take their Social Security checks, public housing and other government-provided welfare benefits and sit home. They aren’t getting an education, volunteering or even trying to acquire gainful employment. I played the TLC song “No Scrub” on my show on ACB Radio Interactive the other night for a reason! If most of us are just subsisting, then we don’t have enough money to spend in order to significantly impact the business decisions made by our assistive technology companies, let alone insist that mainstream technology companies make their products and services more accessible to us.
  • Why does it seem the two largest blindness consumer organizations in the United States are hesitant to weigh in on the Freedom Scientific Versus Serotek case? I’m afraid I must come to the conclusion that this organizational paralysis simply has just about everything to do with the fact that Freedom Scientific donates sizable sums of money to these organizations, whose leadership can’t be blamed for not wanting to bite the hand that feeds them.

As you can obviously see by now, this article has become something of a stream of consciousness on my part concerning my thoughts on the assistive technology industry for the blind and visually impaired. I do believe I have one idea that could start us on a path to a rebirth of the blindness assistive technology industry in a way that would meet the needs of all the small and large companies as well as blind and visually impaired consumers. This is going to be controversial, but here it comes anyway. Have I ever shied away from controversy on this blog or otherwise in the blind community? The idea is simply this: Two thirds of the senior management of all companies doing business in the blindness assistive technology industry should meet the definition of legal blindness and of course should be otherwise qualified to hold their positions. These management teams should also equitably represent the full spectrum of legal blindness from highly partially sighted to totally blind. It is my long held belief that only competent blind and visually impaired people from our community can correctly assess our needs and take positive actions that really benefit the blind and visually impaired. As always, your comments are highly encouraged.

Coming up on Main Menu and Main Menu Live for the week of May 30

May 28, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This week on Main Menu, Rick Harmon from the Blind Geek Zone web site reviews the use of welcome center, ease of access center, media center, backup and restore center and speech recognition  on Windows Vista with JAWS for Windows Public Beta 2.

During the second hour of Main Menu Live, we hear an AccessWatch review of TypeAbility version 2.1.1. After that, it is all open phones with our panel of blind technology experts: Jeff Bishop, Darrell Shandrow, Don Barrett, Randy Knapp and Rick Harmon. Feel free to call into the show or send a MSN / Windows Live Message about any topic related to technology from a blindness perspective.

The number to call into the show is 866-400-5333. You can email your questions to You may also interact with the show via MSN Messenger. The MSN Messenger ID to add is

Would you like to interact with a group of Main Menu listeners about the topics heard on Main Menu and Main Menu Live? You can do this by joining the Main Menu Friends email list. The address to subscribe is Come join an already lively group of users.

Would you like to subscribe to podcast feeds for Main Menu and Main Menu Live? The RSS feeds to add to your podcatching application are:

Main Menu –

Main Menu Live –

Main Menu and Main Menu Live can be heard on Tuesday evenings at 9:00 Eastern, 6:00 Pacific, and at 1 universal on Wednesday mornings on the ACB Radio Main Stream channel. To listen to the show, just click this link:

Jeff Bishop and Darrell Shandrow

The Main Menu Production Team

Categories: Uncategorized

Milestone in the Save Net Radio campaign

May 28, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

US Net Radio legislation crosses the hundred member mark
May 27th, 2007 – 11:45 UTC

A bill that would save the Internet radio industry from a dramatic increase
of fees webcasters pay to play music has gained the support of its 100th
member of the US House of Representatives. Introduced by Representatives Jay
Inslee (D-WA) and Donald Manzullo (R-IL), the Internet Radio Equality Act
(H.R. 2060) would vacate the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) decision that
increased the royalty rates by 300-1200 percent over the next five years.

"Members of Congress are hearing loudly and clearly the passionate voices of
webcasters, music fans and artists who have marched on Capitol Hill with
their feet, their calls and their letters. Reaching 100 cosponsors in three
legislative weeks is extraordinary, and is a major milestone for tens of
thousands of webcasters, millions of Internet Radio listeners, and thousands
of artists invested in the future of Internet radio," Jake Ward, a
spokesperson for SaveNetRadio said. SaveNetRadio is a national coalition
comprised of hundreds of thousands of webcasters, artists, listeners and
labels from throughout the country committed to preserving the future of
Internet radio.

Legislation currently before Congress, H.R. 2060 and S. 1353 – the Internet
Radio Equality Act – would vacate the Copyright Royalty Board's decision and
set a 2006-2010 royalty rate at the same level currently paid by satellite
radio services (7.5% of revenue.) The bill would also change the royalty
rate-setting standard used in royalty arbitrations, so that the standard
applied to webcasters would align with that applied to satellite radio.

For more information on the SaveNetRadio coalition, visit:

Categories: Uncategorized

Memorial Day and the Concept of Accessibility

May 28, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker
Today is Monday, May 28, when we observe Memorial Day here in the United States of America.  On the last Monday of May each year, we honor those in the military, first responders and others who have given their lives in service to their country.  These men and women are American heros who have paid the ultimate price to preserve our way of life.  This American way of life has evolved to include the right to equal and full participation in society by all citizens, including minorities, women and people with disabilities.  By promoting the American way and combatting terrorism and tyranny here in the U.S. and around the world, our American heros deserve much more than just one day of cook outs, parties and picnics.  As we all work or celebrate the unofficial beginning of summer today, let’s also take some time to remember those brave seouls who died on 9/11, in Afghanistan and Iraq, right here in the United States and elsewhere.  Not only should we remember those who have died, but we should keep those who are serving our nation right now around the world in our thoughts and prayers.  In a sense, all these people who continue to press on in support of the American Way may be, whether or not they realize it, indirectly considered evangelists for the equal rights and full participation we deserve as blind and visually impaired American citizens!
Categories: Uncategorized

Visual Verification: ReCAPTCHA System Improves Internet Security and Book Searchability

May 27, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

It sure would have been nice if the Carnegie Mellon University folks
would've thought about accessibility when they invented CAPTCHA in the first
place, or, at least, those who probably placed Federal and other funds into
the work leading to the invention. I'm just glad that audio CAPTCHA is
going to be a part of this new project. Of course, as we know, audio is
ultimately insufficient and a better way to secure resources must be

CCN Magazine, Canada
Sunday, May 27, 2007

ReCAPTCHA System Improves Internet Security and Book Searchability

2007-05-27 13:04:35

A Carnegie Mellon University computer scientist is enlisting the unwitting
help of thousands, if not millions, of Web users each day to eliminate a
technical bottleneck that has slowed efforts to transform books, newspapers
and other printed materials into digitized text that is computer searchable.
Luis von Ahn, an assistant professor of computer science and recipient of a
MacArthur Foundation "genius grant," says the project will also improve Web
security systems used to reduce spam and make it possible for individuals to
safeguard their own email addresses from spammers.

Key to the new project is assigning a new, dual use to existing technology:
CAPTCHAs, the distorted-letter tests found at the bottom of registration
forms on Yahoo, Hotmail, PayPal, Wikipedia and hundreds of other sites
worldwide. CAPTCHAs, an acronym for Completely Automated Public Turing Test
to Tell Computers and Humans Apart, distinguish between legitimate human
users and malevolent computer programs designed by spammers to harvest
thousands of free email accounts. The tests require users to type the
distorted letters they see inside a box – a task that is difficult for
computers, but easy for humans.

Working with a team that includes computer science professor Manuel Blum,
undergraduate student Ben Maurer and research programmer Mike Crawford, von
Ahn invented a new version of the tests, called reCAPTCHAs, that will help
convert printed text into computer-readable letters on behalf of the
Internet Archive. The San Francisco-based non-profit group administers the
Open Content Alliance and is one of several large initiatives working to
digitize books and other printed materials under open principles, making the
text searchable by computer and capable of being reformatted for new uses.

Optical character recognition (OCR) systems that automatically perform this
conversion are often stumped by underlined text, scribbles and fuzzy or
otherwise poorly printed letters. ReCAPTCHAs will use words from these
troublesome passages to replace the artificially distorted letters and
numbers typically used in CAPTCHAs.

The new tests continue to distinguish between humans and machines because
they use text that OCR systems have already failed to read. And because
people must decipher these words to pass the reCAPTCHA test, they will help
complete the expensive digitization process.

"I think it's a brilliant idea – using the Internet to correct OCR
mistakes," said Brewster Kahle, director of the Internet Archive. ReCAPTCHAs
will speed the digitization process while also helping to improve OCR
methods and perhaps extend them to additional languages, he said. "This is
an example of why having open collections in the public domain is
important," he added. "People are working together to build a good, open
system." Von Ahn hopes to substitute his reCAPTCHAs for as many conventional
CAPTCHAs as possible. "It is estimated that 60 million or more CAPTCHAs are
solved each day, with each test taking about 10 seconds," he said. "That's
more than 150,000 precious hours of human work that are lost each day, but
that we can put to good use with reCAPTCHAs."

With support from Intel Corp., von Ahn's team has devised a free, Web-based
service that allows individual webmasters to install reCAPTCHAs to protect
their sites. Individuals can also use the service to protect their own email
addresses, or lists of addresses they post on personal Web pages. In the
case of some commercial Web sites with heavy traffic, reCAPTCHA may charge a
fee to pay for additional bandwidth.

To make certain that people are correctly deciphering the printed text, the
reCAPTCHA system will require Web site visitors to type two words, one of
which the system already knows. Each unknown word will be submitted to
multiple visitors. If the visitor types the known word correctly, the system
has greater confidence that the unknown word is being typed correctly. If
several visitors type the same answer for the unknown word, that answer will
be assumed to be correct.

An audio version of reCAPTCHA, which will transcribe portions of radio
programs that have defied speech recognition programs, will also be
available for blind Web users.