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.