Blind Advocates and Executives

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

the  future.


 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.


— End

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Ravings of an Irritated Consumer

In today’s entry, I had planned to continue with the boundaries thread I started yesterday. However, my topic for today’s entry changed abruptly as I battled my way through the process of trying to officially add myself as one of Blind Confidential’s authors. It would be an under statement to describe the user experience I was subjected to when trying to accept an invitation from a pre-existing blog owner as a pain in the ass.

In theory, all I had to do was click on the link in the email from Chris, sign in to Blogger, and voila. Easy, right? Wrong. The reality proved to be far different and more difficult, thus inspiring my post (or rather rant) for today.

Can I just say that I am so incredibly tired of mainstream companies (especially ones with substantial financial resources) who seem oblivious to the needs of customers with disabilities? (Not mentioning any names–Google, Apple, and Yahoo!.) I mean, it’s not like these corporations are garage-based start-ups with 2 employees who work around the clock just to try to turn a profit. These are organizations with annual revenues in the billions, for God’s sake. So you would think they could scrape together a few bucks to hire an accessibility consultant to advise them that iTunes is not particularly easy to use with a screen reader; that requiring someone who is blind to be contacted by a customer service representative when they want to do something as simple as set up a Yahoogroup is … um …stupid at best; and that designing web sites with links that have no labels or text-based alternatives is not part of the list of accessibility best practices. I would like to suggest that the technology industry institute a mandatory “leave your mouse at home” day. Or perhaps we could orchestrate a large scale coup that involves painting over every computer monitor we can find with a lovely impermeable shade … like black. The scary thing is that the companies I named above (at least to my knowledge) have all attended the CSUN conference. I’m wondering, did they learn anything while they were there? Do they know that there are 54 million Americans with disabilities, and that this number is growing steadily with the aging of the Baby Boomers and returning war veterans? Have they thought about the fact that if anyone is going to use online services, it’s probably going to be a population with transportation or mobility issues? I know there are companies out there that have established accessibility divisions, but how many of those have done so without first being threatened with legal action?

Talking about this reminds me of Chris’ Monday morning post. The one where he talked about the need to have more than one screen reader installed on one’s computer, and where he mentioned the inaccessibility of applications that are essential in management-level jobs? I whole heartedly agree with his observations, and have 2 screen readers on my computer as well. Not to mention a braille display.

However, I also wonder if there is a connection between the growing number of usability and accessibility issues we are encountering, and the increasing number of non-disabled executives in the assistive technology industry. Of course I know that there are many people with disabilities who design, sell, and market AT products, but how many of them are in management positions? In the old days (prior to all of the mergers that have given us the larger AT manufacturers of today), there were a number of small companies who were led by individuals who actually used the products they created. I think this is happening less and less often in the industry’s current incarnation, and I think it is generating a number of very large problems for computer users with disabilities. Not that I think every executive position needs to be filled by someone with a disability, but I think that it’s odd that people who don’t know braille are often making key decisions about the design and production of products like braille displays and embossers.

A small but poignant example of the growing distance between some of the people in the corner offices and their consumers was brought to my attention in a conversation I had with a visually impaired peer. This individual observed how strange it was that so few braille notetakers are sold with protective cases; particularly given how expensive they are. When you think about it, practically every mainstream product out there (cell phones, PDA’s, laptops, etc.) is released with its own line of accessories, so why not their AT product equivalents?

There are definitely some positive aspects to the growing similarities and the blurred lines between the assistive and mainstream technology industries. Mainstream devices are often less expensive (simply because of the whole supply and demand thing). In addition, familiarity with mainstream technologies is often more impressive to potential employers. I mean, it makes more sense to someone if you tell them that you are proficient with Windows Mobile, rather than a proprietary AT interface. Finally, I think it is a very good thing that more and more people are becoming educated about the strong overlap between accessibility and usability. On the other hand, one of the biggest drawbacks from my point of view, is that we are now purchasing products from more mainstream companies who are unfamiliar with the importance and implementation of good accessibility principles, and we are also purchasing products from assistive technology companies who seem increasingly out of touch with what we (their consumers) actually need day to day.

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Blindness and Boundaries

By Dena Schumilla 
 I would like to begin by thanking Chris for asking me to act as a coauthor for Blind Confidential. I was very honored to be included in such an important aspect of his life, and hope that I will be able to live up to his expectations of me. Chris is not only one of my professional mentors; he is also a cherished and loyal friend. In addition to all of that, he is one of the best story tellers I’ve ever known. I am trying to convince him to let me help him write his memoirs, though they might require the literary equivalent of an “X” rating.


For several days, I have been struggling with what to write in my blogging debut. I sort of feel like a kid who is trying to make a positive impression on her first day at a new school. After much thought, I decided to touch on an issue that I think is relevant in the lives of many B/LV people. That is, the challenge of having one’s personal boundaries (whatever they may be) tested on an almost daily basis.


Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that everyone I interact with tries to push the envelope. In fact, I think that my blindness has brought me into contact with some of the most unfathomably nice people I can imagine. You know, the sort of person who offers to walk 6 blocks out of their way (on a frigid winter day) to show you where a particular building is? Even as I write this, one such helpful person comes immediately to mind.


It was 1993. I had just moved to Toronto, and was experiencing my first taste of living independently in a big city. One afternoon, I decided to visit the neighborhood grocery store to pick up a few items.


When I walked into the store, I was promptly greeted with a friendly. “Can I help you?”


I accepted the offer of assistance, and was 45 minutes into my shopping expedition when I learned (to my horror and incredible embarrassment) that the man pushing my cart did not work at the store.


That was the day I learned to follow every offer of help in a retail setting with the question. “Do you work here?”


I initially believed that the young man’s motives were completely selfless, but I grew suspicious when he kept trying to convince me to join him at a downtown club that evening…


But I digress. I was talking about boundaries. You probably know the kinds of people I’m referring to. They seem to be under the mistaken impression that my blindness entitles them to ask me the kinds of questions that would get them a total ass kicking in any other social situation. I have been asked (at various points, by complete strangers): who I live with,, how much money I make, how I get dressed in the morning, and how I have sex.


I wish I could take credit for this come back, but alas… I know someone who was asked the infamous “Who dresses you in the morning?” question, while traveling to work on a busy commuter train one morning.


She smiled, and replied. “Well, honey. That depends who I sleep with the night before.”


I hope to be able to use that some day.


My other favorite is the unavoidable doctor’s office visit. You know how there are all of those medical forms that need to be filled out? On more than one occasion, I have been standing at the appointment desk (an entire waiting room of people behind me), when the receptionist has asked me loudly what my social security number is. Knowing the questions about my most recent period were not far behind, I insisted that we retire to one of the examination rooms before I would agree to begin. I have also been asked, by a medical professional no less, how I was able to go to the bathroom without seeing. I wanted to ask her how she was able to practice nursing without a brain, but since I was less than 12 hours post-op, I settled for throwing her out of my hospital room instead.


I think that the need to ask for the assistance of complete strangers forces me (willing or not), to throw all pretence of modesty out the window. Several years ago (while still living in California), I had to make an emergency trip to my local Walgreen’s to address the unfortunate problem of a surprise yeast infection. (I appreciate the sympathetic cringes of those women who are reading this.)


Upon entering the store, I proceeded directly to the pharmacy counter (not wanting to risk being paired with whatever male Stanford student happened to be working the register at the time). Thrilled to find that a female pharmacist was on duty, I leaned across the counter and quietly asked. “Would you please get me a box of Monistat?”


“Oh. Sure.” She whispered back. I immediately felt much more relieved, and much less self conscious… Until she yelled to me from several aisles over. “Do you want the cream or the suppositories.”


Have you ever wanted to just disappear?


Anyway, this post has become far longer than I intended. Thanks for reading my entry. I know change is difficult to deal with sometimes, but I hope that you will come to appreciate my stories and perspectives in time. 





We haven’t set up the blogger feature to let Dena post directly to Blind Confidential yet.  Once we do, her items will be marked with the familiar “posted by…” line with her name following.  In the meantime, I will post Dena’s stories for her with a by-line that identifies her as the author.  So, do not get confused, although this story claims to be posted by BlindChristian, I have never experienced a yeast infection.


— End


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The Need for Multiple Screen Readers

This morning I read a post on Blind Access Journal (link above) that Darrell made yesterday criticizing Freedom Scientific– a topic on which I will mostly reserve comment. One concept in Darrell’s post, though, that I find both interesting and annoying is that, to perform many full time jobs, a blind person needs to have multiple screen readers installed. On my primary work computer, I have JAWS 8.0.2107, Window-Eyes 6.1, System Access 2.3, NVDA, Thunder and, of course, Narrator which is there by default.

As I’ve said on numerous occasions, I mostly use JAWS. One reason for this choice comes down to the fact that nothing comes even close to the support one gets in VisualStudio with the combination of JAWS and the scripts on which Jamal Mazrui has led the development and many blind hackers from the blind programming list and elsewhere have contributed. Perhaps the others can catch up if they add a scripting facility but, for now, JAWS remains the only game in town.

I also spend a lot of time in Microsoft Word. I write this blog in Word as well as do my scholarly writing for publication, write various reports for professional tasks and do my creative writing using the popular word processor. For reasons I do not understand, JAWS performance in MS Word requires that I spend a lot of time waiting – it has grown too slow for my taste. Meanwhile, Window-Eyes and System Access both perform with a level of efficiency that I find quite usable. So, when I want to use Word, I quit JAWS and launch one of its competitors. Unfortunately, neither Window-Eyes nor SA does a very good job with the more advanced Word features that I must use when working on a collaborative project. Thus, if I need to merge my work with that of another on the same project, I need to quit SA or Window-Eyes and launch JAWS, deal with the sluggishness while merging the edits submitted by my colleagues and then jump back into another screen reader to do large scale writing. Microsoft Word is probably one of the single most important programs used by screen reader users – it boggles my mind that I cannot use any single screen reader to accomplish everything I need to do in Word.

Those of us who can afford to keep multiple screen readers installed can feel lucky. Switching from one AT product to another might annoy but it sure beats having only one solution. This, quite unfortunately, faces most blind computer users.

One of the biggest problems with the screen reader market is that the customers, those who make the purchasing decisions and write the checks, rarely also use the screen readers themselves. Thus, many purchasing decisions happen without a fully informed consumer and, in the worst cases, a blind person receives a bit of AT with which he cannot actually perform his job. This problem can only partially be blamed on AT vendors as, with a increasing frequency, accessibility decisions are informed by a mainstream company’s claims that their product works with a specific AT product.

So, if screen readers can, at best, provide a 90% solution, how can a blind person perform 100% of a job? In this case, JAWS, because of its incredibly powerful customization facilities becomes the only true workplace solution. If a blind employee needs to use a particular program, it is far more likely that JAWS can be customized to work with it than any of its competitors. Of course, only a small number of companies have the financial wherewithal to hire a consultant to write JAWS scripts for a small number of employees who happen to need a screen reader.

There are quite a lot of jobs that can be performed with a single screen reader. Unfortunately, a screen reader user can find themselves passed over for promotion because the next job in an organization’s hierarchy requires applications that do not work with the screen reader the purchasing people chose for the employee to use. I find it sad that Microsoft Project, a program used in many companies that is essential to getting a management job cannot be used with any screen reader. No major accounting software, to my knowledge, works with a screen reader. Visio and other programs used to draw diagrams are not accessible. Few, if any, UML editors have been made accessible. The list of applications and application types that have no screen reader accessibility that are essential to performing some of the highest paying jobs can not be used by blind people which, in effect, holds our community back.

None of this can be blamed on Freedom Scientific or JAWS as, by quite some distance, more professional applications work with it than any of the other players. I will remind the reader, though, that JAWS users have enjoyed much greater access for a long time. Given technology available today, I could not do my various jobs without JAWS, I admit that I do my work more efficiently because I have a number of screen readers installed and I find a lot of value in the JAWS competitors but, if I had to give up all but one, I would keep JAWS as its power out distances its flaws by a large margin.

The economics of blindness, however, with sighted people making buying decisions, mainstream companies doing the minimum to avoid discrimination complaints and the fact that all AT companies remain fairly small and need to be cautious about investing in engineering that might not pay off in growing sales, will continue to cause difficulty. Open source solutions, with large corporate sponsors like Sun and IBM, seem to be gaining traction on the GNU/Linux platforms, perhaps NVDA will catch fire on the Windows platform?


I know that I promised not to write about AT because I cannot be even moderately objective. Thus, the reader should be reminded that the above was written by someone who proudly worked for FS for six years and still feels strongly about the good work he did while there and who maintains a high degree of confidence in the team of programmers at FS who work on JAWS.

Update: I received a phone call about the original version of this post that pointed out some factual errors. I have removed the offending passage but the rest of the post is as it was originally published.

— End.

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Changes to Blind Confidential

In the Afterward to the post I did on Friday, I mentioned that some changes to Blind Confidential would come soon.  Instead of authoring all articles myself, other authors will join BC and we will act like a team rather than just representing my own world view.  As the team grows, I can predict that we may not always agree on some issues and that BC will provide a more well rounded picture of opinions, ideas, concepts, subjects and areas of expertise than before.  I hope you, my loyal readers, will enjoy the changes.


I am very proud to announce that my good friend Dena Schumilla will join BC as the blog’s second author.  Dena has a Master’s Degree in Rehabilitation from U. Wisconsin, has worked in the accessibility world for some of the top mainstream companies out there, is an expert in guide dog handling, has a terrific sense of humor, is a very good writer, can be as cynical as me and is one of the sexiest people in the blindness biz. 


I expect Dena will bring some very fresh views to BC and will provide a woman’s point of view which, although I have been called metrosexual, will be quite different to my own.  Dena grew up in Canada so may bring a view from the north that I wouldn’t see as a guy from New Jersey.  Dena is also about 15 years younger than me so she has a far more youthful set of attitudes than me.


I’m not quite sure when her first post will happen but I certainly look forward to reading it.


We also plan on reviving as soon as I can get the domain moved into an account with my name on it (don’t ask).  Dena and I have discussed a number of ideas for the site and we will likely take it in a direction fairly different from that which we had originally planned.  In the months since I first envisioned and wrote its now very stale “under construction” page, a lot of other blind hackers have started similar projects.  Thus h.c will point to those guys but Dean and I plan on taking it in a different direction and hope people like it.  We do hope to recruit authors for the site so, if you’re interested, drop me an email with some writing samples.


I very much look forward to the new and improved Blind Confidential and expect the blog will be enjoyed by a larger audience as we start putting in the new bits.


— End

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Careers and Software – Why the Screen Reader is Essential

I often hear from blind high school students who write to me asking what they should study in college in order to find themselves prepared for a highly competitive job market once they graduate.  I also hear from a lot of people like myself who lose their vision later in life (I had past my 37th birthday when I started using a screen reader) who need to find new careers as their previous line of work became impossible without vision.  I was fortunate in that I had almost 20 years professional experience in the software arts when I lost my vision so my transition brought me from making computer programs using my eyes to using JAWS but I didn’t have to learn an entirely new career.


The first thing I do when I talk to someone looking to choose a career is listen to them describe what they enjoy doing and where they think their talents lie.  The next thing I do is recommend they find a professional career counselor with expertise in blindness as I have a fairly narrow level of knowledge in the field and tend to try to suggest that everyone find something to do that involves computing.  The people who turn to me then often tell me that career counselors have done little more than discouraged them and that they wanted some advice from actual blind people who have pretty successful careers.  I then remind them that I have only recently started working full time after a nearly two and a half year layoff so I don’t think “success” is the proper adjective for me but they usually insist so I do my best to help.


Over the past seven or eight years in which I have provided people with amateur career advice, I found that, no matter what the individual found interesting, that they would need at least some computer skills to achieve their goals.  People with careers varying from freelance poet to insurance claims adjuster to call center employee to software engineer all need a screen reader to do their jobs.  Yes, a poet can write their work on a manual Brailer or slate and stylus but sending their work in that form to a publisher would probably find itself causing strange questions in an editor’s office.  Also, I write both professional and creative works and find that editing becomes far more efficient in MS Word with JAWS or Window-Eyes (I prefer WE in longer documents as it feels a bit more responsive but I like JAWS much better if I’m collaborating on a document as it works better with the sharing tools) than I could imagine it using paper and a slate or Brailler.  Nonetheless, computer skills are virtually essential for a blind person to effectively compete in the workplace.


A few years ago, while working at FS, I coined the term, “JAWS generation.”  Members of the JAWS Generation were the high school students I had started hearing from who had spent their entire lives, from Kindergarten and in some cases before, using JAWS or some other screen reader.  These young people could not envision a world without talking computers and they bring a level of creativity and ideas to user interface metaphors that people who joined the talking computer world later can not.  In the mainstream, the equivalent are the kids who cannot imagine a world without graphical computing environments who, today, are inventing super cool things that the old Greenblatt Windowing System or Xerox Star gang couldn’t even imagine.


At the same time, people who lose their vision later in life have far more experience using a computer in their sighted history so making the transition to a screen reader has a much less steep learning curve than it did even a decade ago.


Even with screen readers, though, the job market remains harder for us blinks to crack than it does for our sighted counterparts.  The only fields in which I have hands on experience looking for jobs in the past couple of years involves the software arts and computing for people with disabilities.  A restrictive covenant in my employee agreement kept me from working for any AT company for two years but I did look around in mainstream computing and research and worked in a variety of tasks in these areas. 


So, for a blind person, I feel having very marketable and up to date skills is even more essential than our sighted counterparts.  I feel that companies tend to be less likely to take a risk on a blind person with the intent of training them in a technology that has not been proven to be accessible.  This is also why the work the people on the blind programming and other mailing lists that do work on JAWS scripts and Window-Eyes configurations are so important to our community.  Over the past nine months or so, the scripting project for Visual Studio led by Jamal Mazrui has made the combination of JAWS and VS .Net profoundly more usable by blind people than ever before.  This morning, Pratik Patel announced that he has put a wiki online on his web site to host the tutorial project for non-visual .Net development that I started last fall and that Jamal has taken over recently.  This will go a long way to helping people in our community learn to develop Windows applications with JAWS and other screen readers.


[Editor’s Note: This article has fallen off its rails, I started talking about career advice and ended up talking about the software arts and screen readers with a diversion into my own job searching.  That’s why it’s a blog and not actual formal essay as I don’t plan or edit these pieces, I just let them flow.  Maybe I’ll do a best of BC and put them up as formally edited articles on when I revive that project in the future.]


Software jobs represent some of the highest paying positions that blind people can get.  I do recommend that blind people looking for jobs in software engineering, computer programming, information technology or other computing related fields try to find the skills most desired by companies hiring.  This morning, I read the article, “The top 10 dead (or dying) computer skills,” which provides a good list of skills that one shouldn’t look at.  My friends on the blind programming list recently debated those which seem to have more value these days so I suggest looking in the archives to see their opinions.



Upon reread, this article really does wander.  I hope it makes sense to some people.




BC may see some changes pretty soon.  I am likely going to be joined by a friend of mine who will write articles here on topics more related to lifestyle and from a blind woman’s perspective.  We are likely going to revive as an online magazine about blindness issues mostly unrelated to assistive technology but of interest to our community.  We hope to bring a hip view of disability that does less pandering and has a more adult view of things and contains articles on topics on “Dating a Sightie if You Have a 100 Pound Guide Dog,” “The Accessible Strip Club” and more serious career oriented items.  Obviously, today’s BC post will not find its way into this new online rag as the writing sucks.


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A Tactile Vocabulary Shared Across Species

Recently, I had a conversation with my friend and fellow researcher, Will Pearson about the amount of semantic information transmitted by a guide dog to its handler through the harness it wears.  We wondered if anyone had studied this question (I haven’t found anything in a handful of online searches) and if the subtle movements made by a guide dog that a handler can understand is unique to each individual team or if there is a more generic component to it.  Finally, we wondered if these subtleties can be quantified and used in an advanced guide dog training system that would include a far greater number of things that the handler can communicate to the dog and vice versa.


X-celerator and I have been working together for almost a year now.  As time has gone on, the tactile vocabulary we use to communicate has expanded greatly.  This morning, while on our exercise walk, I started counting bits of information that he communicates to me that the trainers didn’t teach us about.


A properly trained guide dog stops walking when one reaches an obstacle.  The handler then “clears his space” by feeling around with their foot and by reaching their hand out to feel for things higher up.  Today, I noticed that when X-celerator stops at a crack in the sidewalk, he points to it with his nose and, as a consequence, his harness points upward a bit.  I noticed that he does this consistently on curbs, broken sidewalk bits and other things I might trip over.


Conversely, when X-celerator wants to indicate that I’m about to walk into a head high obstacle he stops and points his nose upward, thus lowering the handle of the harness.  Throughout our walk through the neighborhood, he did this same thing every time a tree branch or bush hung out over the sidewalk.


No one taught us that we could feel the handle move to indicate where an obstacle obstructed our path.  X-celerator, sometime in the past year, developed this behavior and I realized today that I had already intuited his meaning and acted accordingly before I grew conscious that this action joined our tactile vocabulary.


Recently, I walked with a friend of mine who trains dogs for a living.  He does obedience training and had no experience with guide dogs prior to our walk together.  He asked me how I could tell where to stop for a curb.  I said that X-celerator stops and I stop when he stops.  My friend then informed me that the stop the dog makes can hardly be detected visually, that the stopping process is not sudden but, rather, a very subtle slow down at the end of each block.  I remembered that, when the dog and I were new to each other that stops and starts were far more sudden.  Thus, a slowing “glide” approaching a stop has entered our vocabulary and works very well as a technique.


I notice all sorts of other things through the harness that I can’t quite quantify yet but will, through observation, try to define, write down and report in BC new things I learn if I can show a consistent pattern.  I can usually tell when the dog wants to tell me that he is confused and, through very subtle actions, is asking, “Is this a good idea?”  I can’t quite describe the action yet but I’ll watch out for it and see if he does something consistent in that case.  I can easily tell when he feels anxiety but, again, I can’t quite describe exactly what he does to tell me.  I also know when he feels my anxiety and will try to quantify the action he takes to say so.


A tactile vocabulary across species is pretty interesting.  I wonder what Chomsky would say about such?




If you have any experience with a tactile method of communicating with your guide dog, I’d be happy to hear your stories.  Maybe we can find out consistent patterns over a variety of dog and handler teams to see if, somehow, a similar vocabulary develops during the relationship between human and service animal.


To the person who posted the comment asking how I dealt with the boredom on a non-stop flight from New Delhi to Newark, I have an easy answer – sleeping pills and Bose noise reduction headphones.  Ambien works well and the headphones are a must for long haul travel.


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IP Insanity

I rarely do two BC posts in the same day but I just read a terrific article by Charles Babcock in Information Week, “Three Scenarios For How Microsoft’s Open Source Threat Could End.”  It does a very good job of discussing ways in which aggressive uses of patent law can ruin small companies, hold back innovation and stifle the creativity that has fueled the high technology explosion in this country.  There is nothing in Microsoft’s new view of how its software patents relate to the open source and free software world that will, in any way, “promote invention,” the stated purpose of patent law in the United States.


I hope my readers find this article as interesting as I did and remember, always support innovation over litigation.



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First Look: MSS With WM6

Last week, I installed Windows Mobile 6 (WM6) and a private beta build of Mobile Speak Smartphone (MSS) on my T-Mobile Dash.  The WM6 installer I downloaded from the T-Mobile web site required a little sighted assistance and, because I installed a private beta (sorry readers, most of you will have to wait until Code Factory releases the new MSS to give it a try) and the associated debug certificates, I did so over Skype with the brilliant, talented and beautiful Roselle Ambubuyog, the Philippines greatest contribution to the world of blindness related technology, with me in case I needed some help.  The MSS installer from Code Factory (link above in the companies section) did not require any assistance and I could have done it without help but any excuse to talk to the lovely Roselle is a good one.


Over the weekend, I did what I could to run the Dash with WM6 and the new MSS through its paces.


The addition of Office Mobile makes for the most notable new feature in WM6 Standard Edition (for no reason apparent to me, Microsoft now calls the Smartphone version of the Software “Standard Edition”).  Under the Start Menu, one can now find an entry for Office Mobile and in its submenu, Word, Excel and PowerPoint Mobile.  For no obvious reason, you cannot use these programs to create new Word, Excel or PowerPoint files but, if you copy files to your Smartphone from some other computer or receive them on your phone as an email attachment, you can now read and edit the files on your phone.


I successfully used Word and PowerPoint Mobile with the latest beta of MSS and found the performance quite impressive.  I do not know if Code Factory did anything special to improve the speed in this release but the notes about and reviews of WM6 all say that Microsoft has made some excellent performance improvements and on a 200 mhz T-Mobile Dash, the improvements are quite nice in all areas of the system.  To my knowledge, MSS is the only screen reader to support PowerPoint Mobile which I find useful from time to time.


I next reinstalled Audible Player.  The WM6 installation completely erases the system memory on a Smartphone so one needs to reinstall all applications they use after doing the upgrade.  The Audible installation went as smoothly as any Audible experience and it still works great with MSS.  I haven’t tried the Audible utility to get my magazines sent directly to the phone yet.


I started playing around a bit with Voice Command, now included by default with WM6.  I hadn’t read the documentation and didn’t get too far with it but MSS spoke properly in all areas of the program that I tried.



WM6 includes support for Voice Over IP (VOIP) and Microsoft’s “Live” system included in the OS upgrade has support for doing voice chats from a mobile phone.  Skype has a beta for WM Smartphones that CF claims will be supported with scripts sometime after the upgrade to MSS comes out.  It’s hard for a screen reader manufacturer to support a beta as they don’t know what will change before Skype releases its final version but, knowing CF pretty well, I’m confident that they will be true to their word and support Skype on the Smartphone soon after the software is released.  Having VOIP on a mobile phone means that anyone with a data package can call friends around the world without incurring the often criminally high rates for mobile international calling.  If one makes a lot of calls around the world, having Skype on their mobile phone will more than pay for the cost of a data package in just a few calls.


I will certainly write more in the coming weeks about the new MSS and WM6.  This weekend was a first look and I haven’t really started beating it up yet.  I can say without hesitation, though, that the MSS solution with a Smartphone continues to make me believe it is the coolest solution a blind person can find for portability today.  With a wireless Braille keyboard/display from Optilec or a Brilliant from Humanware, a T-Mobile Dash and a Blue Tooth Keyboard, the entire weight comes to just over a pound.  The price of this interesting component model is considerably less than any of the integrated solutions from an AT company and, when the phone gets an upgrade (I’m waiting for T-Mobile to put out a 400 mhz Smartphone) it will be cost effective for me to give my current phone away to a friend and get the new one for profoundly less money than a hardware upgrade to one of the blindness specific products from the AT vendors.


In conclusion, WM6 is pretty cool and, if memory serves, Code Factory will sell the only screen reader for WM6 Smartphones and PDA devices when it releases this new version of MSS and MSP.  I remain very impressed by CF technology and suggest that everyone looking for a portable speech and/or Braille solution give it a try.




The Freedom Scientific v. Serotek case remains the hottest topic in the blindness blogosphere.  As I had expected Darrell and Jeff (Blind Access Journal and Desert Skies – links above) have taken the lead on this story and are on leading the community of people opposed to this sort of lawsuit with an online petition.  As I wrote on Friday, I have no experience involving trademarks (I have a long history in software patents and user interface copyright but trademark is outside my area entirely) so I will keep my opinion on this matter to myself and point to the other guys who are writing about the issue as things unfold.


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Innovate Don’t Litigate!

Critics of my writing in Blind Confidential and elsewhere and various public statements I’ve made over the years often complain that I treat Microsoft too softly.  Often, these people fall into those with religious obsessions with either Apple Computer or the GNU/Linux platform and represent the views of people who hate Microsoft no matter what the Redmond giant says or does.  This week, however, I find myself in a position in which I need to speak out against MS, a company I do believe has led the pack in their commitment to accessibility, over recent reports in Fortune magazine and, last night, on NPR about threats of using patents against users of the GNU/Linux family of operating environments.


In the Fortune article, repeated on NPR last night, Microsoft claimed that various distributions of the GNU/Linux OS violated something on the order of 235 patents held by Microsoft.  Of course, Windows probably does not violate any patents held by developers of GNU/Linux software because these developers oppose software patents and haven’t filed for any.  In a traditional intellectual property battle between corporate giants, each company will show up with its portfolio of patents, assert which ones they feel the other company violates and they will trade licenses and a bit of cash if one has more than the other. 


When a huge corporation takes on a small player, the little guy probably doesn’t have a lot of patents with which to defend itself and the bully effect can force a small innovative company into bankruptcy just trying to defend itself against legal action – frivolous or not.  In the inverse situation, when a small but highly innovative company tries to protect its intellectual property against an industry leader, the large player can often keep the case in court long enough to force the smaller player to fold its hand due to outrageous legal bills. 


In the big company versus small company battles, the big company might use patents and other intellectual property laws to “drop boulders in the path of the smaller company’s road map” in order not to actually protect the innovation of the big company but, rather, to minimize competition from smaller, more nimble organizations who may actually offer more interesting products.


Microsoft can sue GNU/Linux developers for violating their patents; Microsoft can also sue users of GNU/Linux systems as, under US IP law, using a product that violates a patent is an actionable behavior.  Thus, Microsoft can sue companies who have switched to GNU/Linux systems in order to slow down the spread of the free alternative to Windows. 


Benjamin Franklin, founder of the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) certainly rolls over in his grave when he hears that patents and trademarks are being used not to “promote invention” but, rather, to block innovative competitors.  Microsoft should promise not to prosecute its pile of patents against free software developed mostly by volunteers who do not file patents which could probably cause question on many aspects of software in the Microsoft catalogue.  At the same time, people who agree that such use of patents and trademarks should look at patents held by Microsoft and try to find published prior art to challenge the patents if MS does, indeed, choose to litigate rather than innovate.




Blind Access Journal and Desert Skies (links above) both reported on a new IP lawsuit filed by Freedom Scientific against Serotek, makers of System Access, RIM, RAM and the Freedom Box line of products.  I haven’t read the complaint and, as this case regards trademark, a topic I’ve never really spent much time thinking about, I probably can’t provide much intelligent commentary on the case.  We’ll see what happens as it unfolds and I expect that Shandro, Bishop and others will probably follow the story as it progresses.


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