This morning I read two very interesting public posts and find that I agree with both. The first, by Darrell Shandro called, “Thoughts on Building the Blind Community and Integration with the Sighted” which you can find at his Blind Access Journal blog (link above) and the other an email from Jonathon Mosen published on a blindness related mailing list (pasted in below). Both, along with Dena’s post yesterday, address issues regarding the role of the blind executive and of advocates for our community.
Almost a year ago, when Jonathon first took his new job at FS, I received all sorts of emails asking whether I’d criticize the move. Instead, I wrote at least two Blind Confidential posts supporting his decision to leave Humanware and join Freedom Scientific. I continue to support his decision and, as a former VP at FS who, due to restrictive covenants in his employment agreement, could not seek a job in the assistive technology industry, I commend Humanware for not taking legal action against Jonathon on trade secret or some other tactic that might have prevented his free movement from one job to another in the blindness business.
I feel that having blind people at the top of AT companies that make products we blinks use is an essential component of building successful products and, as Darrell, Dena and Jonathon all point out, the influence of blind managers often makes the difference between an acceptable product and a really great one. FS has three blind people at the VP level today, I don’t think that GW Micro, AI^2, Dolphin or any competitor other than tiny Serotek, who has a blind CEO and CTO, have any blind executives.
I also know the feelings of frustration and loneliness that can befall advocates for the blind community. Jonathon has taken unbelievable shit for his career decisions from the people for whom he has always tried to make a difference. Darrell, Ranger and Jeff Bishop have taken a lot of crap for things they have written in their blogs and I have lost friends, received hate mail, phone calls, threats and all kinds of abuse for writing what I believe in this blog. All of us have received tremendous criticism on other blogs (I have been taken to task by people as different as Joe Clark and Peter Korn) and we’ve all heard privately from AT manufacturers about their displeasure with things we’ve said or written.
We continue to advocate. We do so because if we don’t, who will? At different times, we’ve been described as agitators, had our voracity questioned and heard criticism from people without the courage to stand up for themselves or the community for reasons of their own.
I don’t think I am especially courageous and, like Jonathon, have felt hurt when old friends have discarded me because they cannot accept a critic as a friend. At the same time, I ask, if we self-proclaimed advocates don’t speak out, who will? The blindness industry spends so much time crafting its message and trying to control what consumers say about it that anything resembling real criticism is rare. The AT companies seem to act as if we should thank them for accepting our money, paying their salaries and letting us use their products. As Jonathon mentions, AT isn’t a religion, it’s a business.
I do not mean to imply that those of who elect to use our voices to advocate for our community in a manner we feel is appropriate should be above criticism. I have made the decision to publish virtually every comment ever posted to this blog (I have censored a few strongly worded anonymous posts and, a couple of weeks ago, a ton of horribly racist and truly hateful statements about Arab people after the FS acquisition had been announced). I will continue to do so and I will also point out that we advocate sorts often take each other to task when we disagree with statements each other has made. Dialogue, debate and criticism is healthy if done in a manner of respect. On this front, I must commend Doug G., CEO of GW Micro, who, unlike his competitors, actually write on the GW mailing list and post to a blog now and then when he feels strongly about an issue. Doug provides a refreshing change to the executives who prefer hiding behind their corporate shield and either ignoring criticism or addressing it by dismissal.
In Darrell’s post, he suggests that two thirds of all AT executives should also be users of the products. Referring back to the post I did the other day about the need for multiple screen readers, I’m not sure that this would be possible in a relatively complex business like FS or Humanware. There are zero accounting programs that work properly with a screen reader, thus a CFO and/or comptroller could not also be a blind person. Virtually none of the human resources software packages work properly with screen readers, nor do most enterprise solutions, project management tools, drawing and diagram programs, etc. Until the tools that executives need to use are made accessible, blind people are virtually locked out of many senior management jobs. Thus, I think that two thirds of senior management might be an ideal but I doubt sophisticated investors like those that own Freedom Scientific and Humanware would trust blinks to do the jobs that their own products cannot provide access to.
Well, I’ve ranted enough for this morning. I have two jobs now so I’ve got to get back to work. Jonathon’s message follows and I recommend you read Darrell’s article and Dena’s post which will immediately follow this one.
Jonathon’s Note (edited a bit for brevity):
Hi everyone. I always try to subscribe to a few blindness lists to read
What people are writing about. I must confess that I am a new subscriber to the
BlindAd List, mainly because I thought, erroneously it seems, that the
List was for the trade of blindness items. I’ve just been rummaging through the
May archives, and am somewhat surprised as well as flattered that I seem to
have taken up so much bandwidth <smile. So hopefully listers won't mind
If I take one post to comment on a couple of points. I only found out this
thread was going on because one list member did an extraordinary and
radical thing. They actually got in touch with me and asked me if a rumour was
true or not.
The first one is the easiest to clear up. I most certainly am still
Working at Freedom Scientific, and enjoying it immensely. I really don’t know how
some of these rumours get started, but there you have the plain old facts
of the matter. Throughout the entire time I have been a Vice president at
Freedom Scientific, I’ve lived at my home here in Christchurch, New
Zealand. The wonders of the Internet and tools like Skype mean that I’m able to do
My job from here. I do visit Florida from time to time, usually in
Conjunction with other events such as conferences. I’ll be in Florida just before I go
to the NFB Convention in Atlanta for example. I was living in the US, in
Texas as some have rightly pointed out, for a year, but Julia and I
relocated to New Zealand in July of last year a couple of months before I
began work at FS.
I’ve been working at Freedom Scientific for 9 months now, and during that
time, I’ve sat relatively silently bye while my motives and my integrity
have been questioned and impugned all over the Internet. I’ve been
fortunate, although on rare occasions I think unfortunate, to have held
some quite high profile positions in my career. Here in New Zealand I have at
different times been the leader of our consumer movement and the Chairman
of our blindness agency. Internationally, my work with ACB Radio and latterly
in the assistive technology industry have put me in contact with a lot of
people. Through these various roles, I’ve come to accept that there will
be criticism. I try and view it as people doing me a favour. I don’t go out
of my way to read it all, but when I find it, I try and see whether there is
any merit in what people are saying, and strive to be a better person in
I do believe that we as blind people are a minority. Whether we’re a
community or not is, I accept, a point of contention. I certainly think
there is an Internet using blind community. And as a minority, we tend to
be quite tough on people who stand out from the crowd for whatever reason.
Couple that with what appears to me to be a sadly increasing trait in
Modern life on the part of many people, blind or sighted, where we attribute
motives to actions and it can be pretty tough out there at times.
In saying what I’m about to say, I fully realize that I will never change
some people’s negative opinions of me, and I have to be relaxed about
that. In the end, we can’t control what others think of us. All we can do is be
at peace with our own consciences. But there will be some who are genuinely
Interested, and I offer the following thoughts for them.
Early in 2003, when I was still hosting main menu on ACB radio, I did a
four-hour-long, comprehensive review of the PAC mate BNS. I’d been sent a
pre-production unit, and did my best to put it through all its paces. I
believe that archive is still on the ACB Radio web site. That review of
course pointed out some concerns I had with it, but I was pretty positive
about PAC Mate overall. Earlier, I had also done a review of the
BrailleNote. Again, there were lots of things to be praised, but there
Were some things I didn’t like about it, and I pointed them out. Some of them,
In fact, I didn’t have the resources to fix when I ran the BrailleNote
Product line. I was surprised no one, to my knowledge, went back and quoted me
singing the PAC mate’s praises when I worked for Pulse Data, later renamed
Humanware, nor did they go back and quote the deficits I had identified in
the BrailleNote’s approach.
I believe that the blind community desperately
needed, and needs once again in fact, a robust media that objectively
evaluates all blindness technology, and thoroughly investigates the
industry. I loved doing that, and I tried to make Main menu the Consumer
Reports of the blind community. But issues relating to ACB which I have
written about previously meant that I was open to looking at other
When I began work for Pulse Data, Never did I expect that I was taking on
A job for life, and never did I ever claim I was. However, while working
there, I owed it to the great team who wrote the code, did the testing and
looked after the manufacturing, and to the Board of the company, to give
it 110%. I look back on how much happened to the BrailleNote between July
2003, when it wasn’t even syncing appointments or doing wireless, and August
2006 when I left, and I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say that I
Gave everyone, most importantly blind people, their money’s worth. And I also
believe that while working for a company, it is entitled to the most
spirited, tenacious advocacy for its products you can give it.
But you know, there were some things I was not able to achieve despite my
best efforts. I don’t intend to list them because my purpose in posting
this message is not to attack any company. However, those of you who were on
The BrailleNote list at that time, or who care to search the archives, will no
the long and quite justifiable wish list from increasingly frustrated
customers, many of whom are now using a PAC mate. I genuinely feel that I
am able to make a greater, more positive difference as a Vice president at
Freedom Scientific. I think it is critical that a blind person have such a
senior role in a company as important as FS. As an advocate for blind
people all my life, I have always believed that we, blind people ourselves, are
the best people to determine what products we need. As a blind person looking
after the hardware side of Freedom Scientific’s blindness business,
staying connected with our community as I try to do, I really welcome the chance
to have so much of an influence. There are many extraordinarily talented
blind people working at FS, and that’s something that makes me feel very
comfortable. I think that a company that understands the value blind
people bring to our own technology, and who employs so many blind people,
deserves our praise.
Some people have said that there seems to be some sort of fundamental
conflict or inconsistency in managing Freedom Scientific’s blindness
hardware, PAC mate in particular, given what I used to do. I respectfully
disagree. What motivates me, is making a difference. I care very much
about how much I am able to personally do that helps people obtain or retain a
job, succeed in school, and manage their lives. Programs like FSEdit,
FSReader, FSCalc, FSCommander, StreetTalk and others are designed by
Freedom Scientific. They’re intuitive, because they were designed to be used with
speech and Braille. And I intend to work to make them even more so in the
future. But on top of that there is the ability to use whatever
application you want that has been written for Pocket PC. with appropriate scripting,
this can help satisfy more needs, more quickly. I realised that managing a
platform that is 100% closed is like running against the wind. Despite
really brilliant people, it wasn’t possible to get product out with the
speed that blind people needed.
In closing, let me say this. Assistive technology is not one’s religion,
It is not one’s morality, and it is not one’s political or philosophical
system. Assistive technology in its various forms is simply tools that
allow us to be productive and independent. I have worked with sales people at Humanware who once worked for FS. Every few weeks, I read with some longing, posts on technology web
sites about executives who have gone from Microsoft to Apple, or Google to Sun,
or AOL to Yahoo, without anyone really batting an eyelid. It happens. I have
fought all my life for blind people to have the same rights and
obligations as anyone else. That includes the right to move from one company to
What has kept me going during some rather hurtful and uninformed comments
about my own job change, is that the products that will be in the hands of
blind people will make it all worthwhile. When you release something new,
and then you eventually hear about someone using it on the job, or at
college, and you know that that product has really made life better for
them, that’s what makes some of this rather harsh criticism tolerable.
That, and the love of my family and support of my true friends, not to mention
some fantastic colleagues at FS, has been what’s kept me going.
And now I will quietly crawl back into obscurity again. Thanks for reading
I’m happy to see our friend Gabe back posting his support for Apple in spite of its crappy view of blind computer users. Sure, one can use iTunes on a Macintosh but find me a single blink who got a job or could attend a university based upon her ability to download pop songs?
If the text of Jonathon’s post appears strangely formatted, it is because I copied it from a plain text email and didn’t feel like spending the time to clean it up anymore than I could do very quickly.