Podcast transcript: Mosen at Large episode 183, Apple surprises and delights the blind community with Eloquence, HumanWare talks Braille HID, and to capital B or not to capital B?
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Jonathan Mosen: I’m Jonathan Mosen. This is Mosen At Large, the show that’s got the blind community talking. This week, Apple delights the blind community as Eloquence comes to iOS. HumanWare speaks out on Android’s lack of Braille HID implementation, and to capital B or not to capital B.
Voice-over: Mosen At Large Podcast.
Jonathan: Have you had a good week? Are you happy? Well, as I put this podcast together, we are in the middle of thunderstorms, we’ve got rain pelting down outside the studio, but nothing, nothing can dampen my mood. All the way back in Episode 2 of this podcast back in 2019, we did a feature on what psychologists call flashbulb moments.
Jonathan: No. Not flashback, flashbulb moments. Some of them can be happy, some of them can be sad. Many of us remember where we were when certain things happened in the news that are of consequence, like political assassinations or the death of somebody in music that we particularly admire. They can be happy things like the birth of children, that kind of thing. Well, for me, I had a flashbulb moment this week.
Jonathan: No. Would you stop that? When I installed iOS 16 Developer Beta 1 on my test iPhone to find, to my surprise, and I was never ever picking this, I dreamed about it but I was never picking it, that Eloquence was available to VoiceOver users.
Voice-over: It’s fantastic.
Jonathan: Yes, I know. As you can tell, the Mosen At Large intrepid team has been reaching out to the world for comment about this amazing development. Boris Johnson, he’s had a busy week, but still, what do you think, Boris?
Jonathan: Yes, you could have another party and celebrate this. I’m sure it’s worthy. I think, as is often the case, former president Barack Obama put it so well, so eloquently, if I may use the expression, when he said:
Barack Obama: They said this day would never come.
They said our sights were set too high.
Jonathan: Yes, they said all those things, and yet, here we are with Eloquence in the first developer build of iOS 16. It is a stunning act of customer responsiveness specifically to the blind community. Only the blind community wants Eloquence, so we can be efficient and productive with our screen readers. There are some who evaluate what constitutes a good text-to-speech engine differently.
Some people want more natural human-sounding voices, and that’s an absolutely valid way to feel, but there are some of us who believe that Eloquence stands out there alone, unique in its excellence because of how intelligible it is at fast speeds because most of the time, not all, but most of the time, if it mispronounces something it’s a typo. It reads very naturally; the inflection is natural. It handles exclamation marks well most of the time, so there are many valid reasons why Eloquence’s arrival, or if you’re not running this crazy beta imminent arrival, is being so widely celebrated in the blind community.
Companies are made up of human beings, fallible human beings, and that makes companies fallible, so sometimes a company will get things wrong. Sometimes Apple gets things wrong, but because companies are made up of human beings, I think that it’s important when Apple gets something as right as they have done in this instance to unequivocally unambiguously say, “Good stuff.” No ifs, no buts, the bugs, all those other things they’ll keep for another day, but putting Eloquence in iOS 16 is just brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.
I want to congratulate and thank Apple, everybody involved because these things don’t magic themselves into the code. People have been spending time doing this, responding to the numerous requests for an oft-asked-for feature for blind people. To everybody who’s coded it, who continues to test it because there are one or two little glitches at this early stage of the cycle, and we would expect this, you hit it out of the park. Well done. Unreservedly well done. In fact, I was so moved by this development that I was even inspired to write a little blessing, which I wish to bestow on everybody involved in the coding, the testing, the product management, decisions that led to this epicness. I’ll do it for you now.
May the sun always shine on your Cupertino home. May your code always compile the first time. May your upward mobility in the Apple Orchard be swift, so you have a shortcut to the top of your field. May you receive all the FaceTime with Tim that your heart desires, be that more or less of it. May your Apple Wallet never be empty. May your ongoing screen time continue to be time that adds value for humanity. May the green tea that powers your focus be so rich in antioxidants that your brain works faster than an M3 chip. Go well with our blessing, and thanks.
There are many new English voices in iOS 16. I’ve got Eloquence set as my default voice. We’ll take a look at some of these in just a moment, but before we go there, let me talk a little bit about the state of the beta cycle at the moment because the moment that word started to spread that Eloquence was in iOS 16 I can’t tell you how many emails and messages I’ve had from people wanting to find out about, first, how to get this, and second, what the consequences are.
People will have different levels of tolerance for beta code, but I have to say that this is a Developer Beta 1. It’s not even a public beta at this point. We’re expecting the first public beta to come in July with Developer Beta 3. What we should expect is that when Developer Beta 3 comes out, all being well, there’ll be a day or two worth of gap and then you will get Public Beta 1. It is very easy to enroll for free in the public beta program.
I have the developer build on a test iPhone at the moment. It’s an iPhone 11. I don’t think that I would recommend putting it on a phone that you depend on, particularly for work purposes. If you’re not employed and you’re at home most of the time, you don’t tend to use your iPhone to get you out of any safety situations, like maybe you need to call an Uber or something like that, well, you might consider it, but even then, it is buggy code. That’s what developer betas are all about at this early stage, so there are no guarantees about anything.
You would want to be the kind of person who knows how to get out of a buggy situation or you may find yourself in a situation where the phone just stops working completely. Nobody wants their phone to stop working completely. It’s not for me to tell you what to do, of course, but if it were me, if I didn’t have a test machine, I would just wait. I know that people are very enthusiastic about Eloquence. It will come, and when it does, people will have beaten up on the code to the extent that it’s a lot more stable than it is now. I’m not going to talk about the instabilities because I don’t think that’s particularly fair. It is beta code. We expect bugs at this point in the process.
If you’ve got your heart set on doing this, on installing the Developer Beta 1, what I would say to you is I wouldn’t dream of installing it on a device that you use for day-to-day things without first connecting your phone to your computer, be it a PC running iTunes or a Mac running macOS and performing a full encrypted backup so that if you really need to get out of the bind, that could be iOS 16 for you, you’ll be able to go and do a full system restore, take the operating system back to iOS 15 and then restore from that encrypted backup.
Keep in mind, I doubt that Apple will help you to do this. It’s not a recommended process. I’m not even sure if it’s a supported process, but it does work. I’ve done it in the past and I’m pretty sure that it still does work. It’s time-consuming, it’s frustrating, so do take those precautions. If you don’t have a test system and nothing anyone can say is going to stop you from [chuckles] installing this thing, then do at least, please do that encrypted backup because an iCloud backup is not going to work the same way. An iCloud backup is not going to let you regress back to iOS 15 if you absolutely have to.
If you know what you’re doing, if you have a test machine and you want to play, then why not? One of the things that I’ve been heartened by, as I’ve been using the beta code on my test device, is that there have been one or two situations where something has gone pretty wrong and a little dialog, a screen has popped up that has allowed me to report that situation to Apple. What’s happened is that Apple has recognized that there’s a problem, and it is taking data, it is taking logs and sending that off for you if you agree. When you go through that process, you are able to tell Apple what you were doing to cause this bug.
This is really good because sometimes things happen during a beta cycle and you can’t duplicate them on demand, but if the code is sensitive enough to detect that and say, “Hey, we see a problem here. Is it all right if we gather information and send this off to developers?” That is good news. Of course, then the test will be how overwhelmed is Apple going to be with this data. Can it actually act on the data that it’s getting, particularly in the context of voiceover? That’s a very positive move. Hang in there and let’s just see what Public Beta 1 is like in terms of bugginess. Right now, it is a little bit rough around the edges, depending on what you’re doing.
Note, the next section of the podcast contains a demo of the voices in iOS 16, and because of its dependence on hearing the audio, has not been transcribed.
Voice-over: Mosen At Large Podcast.
Jonathan: First impressions after the WWDC keynote and people having installed iOS 16 Developer Beta 1, Christian says, “Well, Jonathan, our wish has finally been granted. I might be crazy enough to install the first public beta of iOS 16, just to get Eloquence. I might not have to switch to Android after all. One of the key selling points for me to switch was Eloquence.” Well, of course, that’s only the case if you’ve got Eloquence already because it’s no longer available in the Google Play Store. Even if you’ve got it, you had to buy it in the first place.
The great thing, in this case, is that it’s built right into iOS. There’s nothing extra to pay for, nothing to install. I actually think a lot of blind people would have been willing to pay, so good on Apple for doing that. Here’s Ben Watson, who says, “Hello, Jonathan, I just finished listening to your recap of the WWDC keynote. Thanks to you and other guests for your perspectives on what’s coming in iOS and iPadOS 16. It’s always an interesting and fun podcast and I look forward to it each year. Keep up the good work.
I want to comment on the use of live text. My first contact with it was when a friend sent me the notes of a presentation he made. He simply took a picture of the page in question and attached it to a text message. Immediately, my phone read it perfectly. In recent years, the chapel in the retirement center where I live has begun publishing a bulletin. While I can use Voice Dream or OneStep Reader to read the bulletin, I found it just as easy and just as accurate to scan this small one-page document and get the information I want and bring it up on my BI 20X Braille display.
That’s my experience with live text. I haven’t used it as extensively, but do see a use for it. Thanks again for your podcast, and especially for the WWDC recap episode each year.” Rebecca Skipper says, “I had to laugh when the presenter said that the speakers in the new M2 MacBook era under the keyboard Apple has taken a feature right from the Surface laptop line. Will the iPhone webcam feature for the Mac serve as a camera for OCR? In other words, could a Mac user open an app for scanning and convert images to live text?”
I guess it remains to be seen, Rebecca. Perhaps somebody who’s running the new macOS Ventura Beta can comment on this. I got the impression that at least the primary purpose of this feature was to use it as a webcam for conference calls and that the API was structured accordingly, but I guess we will see. She continues, “While the medication tracking feature is nice, I would like to see that expanded to include the ability to import medication lists directly from electronic records or clinic and hospital apps so that the visually impaired could get information in real-time.
Dennis: Hey, Jonathan, it’s Dennis calling to comment on the Eloquence in iOS 16. That is the best news of the year. Apple is paying attention to its blind users and what they’ve wanted for years. That’s a good thing. Other companies should follow suit and pay attention because we’re customers too. We spend money just like every other customer. Apple didn’t have to do this. Who cares outside of the blind community about Eloquence? Nobody. Most people say they can’t understand it. It’s hard to understand.
They can see that’s the response, so Apple certainly didn’t have to do this. As far as I’m concerned, they could have stopped here for accessibility. There’s so much more that Apple has added. The ability to unsend an email. The ability to unsend a text message or edit it. There’s just so much that they’ve added otherwise, but they could have stopped with accessibility features of Eloquence. I’m excited. I’m using it now. It works really well. Awesome job, Apple. Thank you for listening to your users. This is why Apple is number one as far as accessibility. They clearly listen to their users.
This is why so many blind people have iPhones. This is why when you ask people what’s more accessible, iPhone or Android, you get iPhone, because they listen to their users. It might take years, but there’s a lot of things behind the scenes that people don’t know about that go into making this happen. People need to keep that in mind too, when they say, “Oh, it takes forever for Apple to do things.” What goes on behind the scenes? Sometimes you can’t replicate a bug easily. Sometimes it’s not easy to add things like Eloquence into the iPhone, but they got it done. That’s what matters. Thank you very much, Apple. It’s very much appreciated.
Jonathan: In the UK, Jackie Brown says, “I couldn’t believe it either when I read of Apple’s move to include Eloquence in iOS 16. I’m as thrilled about that as your good self.” While she’s writing, Jackie talks about something that we are going to talk about later in this show, she says, “As for capitalizing Braille, I always have and always will capitalize the B. I just can’t understand why you wouldn’t, to be honest.”
Matthew Whitaker is writing in and says, “Hello, Jonathan and listeners. Hope all as well. I wanted to give my thoughts about Apple’s WWDC event. I did enjoy it very much and am looking forward to all the updates coming to all the operating systems. I may grab the developer or public beta versions for testing and providing feedback. The more feedback, the better. Question for you, Jonathan, which version of the beta should I get, the developer or public? Is there a difference?”
No, typically there isn’t. What happens, Matthew, is that the developers get the builds first. Sometimes that can be sometime in advance during the early stages of a big release like this. Usually, they tighten up. You might get usually a developer beta that comes out on day one, then on day two or three, that same build goes to public beta. The advantage at this stage of jumping on the developer builds is that you are getting them now whereas Apple knows that what they have is not really fit for any kind of public consumption. It’s rough. They know it. We shouldn’t be panicked about that.
This is nice and early in the cycle. You’ve got to expect bugs, as I mentioned earlier. That’s the choice, the trade-off that one makes. Matthew says, “I’m super excited about the new voices that will be available for us to use. I wonder if they will also work with Siri. I’m also looking forward to the new iPhone that will be coming this year. I know we don’t have that much info yet, but it’s getting closer to the time when Apple announces it. Thanks for doing your recap of the Apple event on your podcast. Shout out to everyone else that was a part of the discussion.”
Thank you, Matthew. No, those voices are not going to be available to Siri. Siri is considered a different product, so you won’t get those voices there. Thabo is writing in and says, “Hi, Jonathan. Those were some great announcements made at WWDC, but like one of your guests said, I am so looking forward to the door detection feature when it is made available. For sure, that gives me even more reason for wanting to return to iPhone because I’ve never loved Android even though I’ve used it for a year now, I guess.”
Well, Thabo, I’ve heard very good things about the door detection feature in iOS 16. Some people have been out and about testing this. The door detection feature is cool if you just practice in your home environment, of course, because then it becomes a proof of concept. I have seen feedback from people who have actually gone out into unfamiliar surroundings, using a combination of the new maps feature, where you get information about where you are heading in a very blind-friendly way now and then the door detection to help you find that final place.
Apparently, it is reading signs. It is detecting doors. It is doing super well. It’s the kind of technology that’s making a practical difference to people’s independence. Those are some of the preliminary comments that I have heard. That’s really promising.
Voice-over: What’s on your mind? Send an email with a recording of your voice, or just write it down, email@example.com. That’s J-O-N-A-T-H-A-N@mushroomfm.com, or phone our listener line. The number in the United States is 864-60Mosen. That’s 864-606-6736.
Charlie: Hey Jonathan. I just listened to your podcast right now. It’s Charlie speaking. It was on Episode 181 where I heard this and I was just responding to the person that was asking about Zendesk. The gentleman said he was changing jobs. Has a little bit of complications from what I could observe because I was using NVDA at the time when I was using Zendesk. I was doing those where you can do those jobs sitting at home and on your bed. I was doing those jobs. It was quite fun the time it lasted, but setting up the system and getting it to work with Zendesk was a little bit problematic because with Zendesk I had to use object mode in order to make everything work.
Yes, Zendesk has a little bit of problems in order to make it work, but once you get it up and running, it works flawlessly, like a bomb. You don’t have to set it up again. You set it up only once and then once it’s set up you can just use the proprietary software that will come loaded on Zendesk in order to give you that phoning and calling quality and everything. For me, it worked fine. I could do everything. I could hook up my headsets and do a phone call, and it worked perfectly fine. I could transfer calls. I could even direct calls.
I was doing call center at the time and it was fun. It was really, really fun, just that my contract ended last year, 2021, and I could not continue. Otherwise, than that, I enjoyed it thoroughly. For anyone who is actually thinking of going the route of doing maybe a job like that with Zendesk, it’s quite a nice app to do. I just want them to just put in some more accessibility in the app itself in order to get it set up nicely, workable and stuff. That will be good. I’ll enjoy that very, very much.
Michael: Hey, Mosen At Large listeners, it’s Michael in beautiful Coquille, Oregon. First of all, Jonathan, I congratulated you on Twitter for the amazing news you got, but there’s nothing like hearing the real human voice say “congratulations”. That’s exciting and I’m super excited to see where this adventure takes you and your family. Now, I wanted to reply to the Zendesk inquiry that was just dropped in there. I figured I should reach out.
I’ve used Zendesk in a couple of different environments, and for the most part, everything is doable/accessible. I have encountered some places in the admin interface where you need to disable virtual viewer while using JAWS. If you’re a VoiceOver user, there’s a lot of interacting with tables that are inside of tables, so just be aware of that. My best experience for Zendesk is JAWS 2022 with Chrome on a Windows computer. Probably could be done with Edge, but I don’t use Edge as much as I need to.
Two quick tips. A, to get through the tickets quickly, and it took me a little bit to realize this because sometimes I turn my verbosity on, so I don’t even know that they’re there, use O for articles to jump between the ticket. Then you can just down arrow. Really helpful, especially if people have long signatures and you just want to get to the contents. You could play around with Flexible Web to make the experience a little better as well. I’ve done that myself.
Second tip is, if you are taking calls with Talk inside of Zendesk, you’ll need to, and if you find an easier way, please let me know, do a find for– I do EPT for accept and then press enter to enter the call. Then I do a find for mute because I don’t want to accidentally hit enter and hang up on the call. If I hit enter and mute, it’s a different thing. Because mute is directly above the hang-up button when taking calls.
One last thing is Control + Alt + P will pin a ticket, S will solve a ticket, and O will keep a ticket open. Hopefully, this helps a little bit. If you have any questions, feel free to reach out. I will include my email so Jonathan can send that along to whoever may need. Reach out and I can answer some tips and ideas. From what I have heard, Zendesk is open to discussing accessibility and improving the experience.
Jonathan: It’s always great when the Mosen At Large community comes through with answers like that to a listener’s question. Thank you both Charlie and Michael for that. Michael, it gladdens my heart to hear you mention Flexible Web. This is one of the most powerful and frequently underutilized features of JAWS. You can really customize your web experience with Flexible Web.
If you’re in an environment where you depend on a well-functioning website for your job, I can’t encourage you enough. Go in there and have a look at Flexible Web’s documentation. Get to grips with it. You will be amazed at how you can cut out the clutter, how you can emphasize certain things that need to be emphasized. It’s a brilliant feature in JAWS. In Episode 179, we heard from Rebecca Skipper who was experiencing with virtual machines. This has inspired Christopher Wright to write, not with a howdy even though he is in Texas, but with a “Hello Jonathan”. He says, “Sorry to disappoint, but I don’t particularly like or understand the weird speech patterns Texans have.”
Oh, mercy. That’s telling y’all. “Regarding virtual machines, my understanding is that the only screen reader compatible products are VMware Player, Workstation, Fusion, QEMU for Linux, and UTM for macOS. Hyper-V is 99% accessible, but I’ll get to that shortly. If you use Windows, stick to VMware Player or purchase Workstation if you want advanced features such as snapshots. Snapshots are awesome. They allow you to save the state of your virtual machine at any point in time and quickly restore to that saved state in the event something goes wrong.
QEMU works quite well if you use the graphical virtual machine manager interface with Orca. I found the performance to be much better than VMware, which is why I really wish Hyper-V was an option on Windows. Unfortunately, QEMU requires a little more tinkering in terms of installing drivers on Windows guests, so it’s not for the faint of heart. The same can be said for UTM on the Mac as it uses QEMU under the hood.
As I said before, Hyper-V is 99% accessible, the problem is the lack of sound. Hyper-V doesn’t emulate a sound device on the host computer. Perhaps this is because it was originally meant for Windows Server where the idea was that you didn’t really need sound. However, it’s been 14 years since Windows Server 2008, and it’s now included with editions of Windows 8 Pro and higher. We still don’t have native sound support.
Microsoft documents some sort of enhanced session mode, but in order to use it to get sound working you have to enable Remote Desktop Services in your VM. If you can’t hear the virtual machine, obviously this can’t be done by someone who was totally blind. It also means this only works with Windows, not Linux. The best solution I’ve found is to get someone sighted to enable remote desktop and then RDP into the VM from the host computer.
This is unacceptable in 2022. Isn’t there a statement somewhere on Microsoft’s accessibility website that says something about empowering every person on the planet? They claim they want to help people with disabilities and increase employment opportunities, yet I’ve heard nothing concerning Hyper-V and remote access. You can’t tell me the talented people working at Microsoft could take maybe a day or week to come up with a solution to this, emulate a USB audio device or a really common sound card and allow it to be selected during VM creation.
Imagine all the potential employment opportunities this could open for a blind system administrator. I encourage everyone to report this oversight to Microsoft immediately. The sooner this is resolved, the better. Hyper-V performs much better than VMware as far as I can tell and it’s ridiculous we are locked out simply because it doesn’t support sound. You can create all kinds of virtual machines. For example, I have a Windows XP virtual machine I run to play some old audio games that don’t work well on modern Windows.
If you’d like to try Linux, I highly recommend Linux Mint MATE in a virtual machine. The MATE desktop works the best for a blind user and I have found Mint to be the most stable distribution. Orca doesn’t crash nearly as much as it does on everything else I’ve tried. Orca is a completely different topic, though. All I’ll say is it would be great if the blind Linux community was much more active because maybe Orca would be in far better shape than it currently is. What we really need is NVDA for Linux,” concludes Christopher.
Voice-over: Mosen At Large Podcast.
Jonathan: This email says “Hi, my name is Sonya. I have been listening to Mosen At Large for about two years, but it is my first contribution.” Well, a warm welcome to you, and thank you for listening all this time. “First, I wanted to say thank you. You introduced me to a few gems like Castro, Lire, and Spring. Mosen At Large is a very interesting podcast, full of information and diverse opinions. Something I wanted to share regarding my new ride, the Spirit Fitness XBR55 Recumbent Bike.” Wow, that almost sounds as good as a Nimbus 2000, doesn’t it?
“I already had a Spirit Fitness bike when my eyesight dropped. I was able to still use it thanks to the physical buttons, but lost access to a lot of useful data, RPM speed, heart rate, et cetera until I upgraded to the Bluetooth-enabled XBR55. With the Spirit Plus application, I regained access to that data. The app is what I would call accidentally accessible and not perfect. I contacted Spirit Fitness with comments and suggestions, but considering how hard it is to find even remotely accessible fitness gear, I wanted to share. Since being diagnosed with MS Back in 2017, I made several changes in my life, especially regarding diet and exercise. I lost 75 pounds in the last five years.” Wow. Congratulations.
“Regaining access to workout data will make it even more effective and safer, so I’m very glad the app is as accessible as it is. On a completely different subject, I have a question you or your listeners might be able to help me with. Along with my eyesight, my hearing deteriorated. Listening to the TV is a challenge, especially newer stuff where the music volume is loud and often makes dialogue hard to hear. I have a Samsung TV connected to the TVLink box, a Phonak device allowing the TV sound to be directed straight into my Phonak hearing aids.
I’m trying to improve the sound quality and address the issue of the too-loud music. Would a soundbar help by allowing for music to be sent to a different channel than dialogue? I also wonder if the sound by output could be sent to the TVLink. I hope my question is clear. I’m a fairly newcomer where audio setup is concerned. A huge thank you in advance. You do great work and it is very appreciated.” Thank you, Sonya. It sounds like you have gone through a lot and you’re doing your best to get on with life and make the most of it. Congratulations for taking that attitude. It’s not always easy, I’m sure.
When I was on the Phonak ecosystem, I did have a TVLink. It worked well enough. If you were to get a soundbar, there is no way to separate music from dialogue so that you could just have the dialogue going to your TVLink and music playing on the soundbar. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way. If you’re having trouble hearing dialogue from the TV, then it’s possible that the TVLink program on your hearing aids might need some adjusting. If you can explain to your audiologist what’s happening, they may be able to tweak the equalization settings of the TV adaptive program to emphasize speech frequencies better.
Also, better use of dynamic audio compression may mean that you can make the speech come up through the noise a little more prominently. I’m not sure whether there’s any gear that you might be able to buy that would improve this any. My first suggestion would be to have a chat to your audiologist and see if they can work with you on trying to get the speech sounds up in the program that you have. Best of luck, I hope they can come up with something that improves your enjoyment of TV.
Voice-over: Be the first to know what’s coming in the next episode of Mosen At Large. Opt into the Mosen media list and receive a brief email on what’s coming so you can get your contribution in ahead of the show. You can stop receiving emails anytime. To join, send a blank email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s media-subscribe@M-O-S-E-N.org. Stay in the know with Mosen At Large.
Jonathan: Over the last few weeks, we’ve been talking about Braille HID in TalkBack for Android 13, or should I say the lack thereof? Why is this important, and what’s going on? For those people who own Braille displays that support HID exclusively and who bought them in good faith thinking that the industry would coalesce around this standard, what do we do? I’m joined by Andrew Flatres from HumanWare to talk about this. Andrew, I really appreciate you being willing to come on the podcast and have a chat. Welcome back.
Andrew Flatres: Oh, thanks for inviting me, Jonathan. It’s always a pleasure.
Jonathan: I know that people who are listening to this podcast are at different stages of understanding, so could you explain for the beginner what Braille HID is, why it’s so important, and why HumanWear really has gone all in at this point on the standard?
Andrew: Sure, no problem. It all started, I guess, around about 2017, so many years ago, where members of the USB-IF HID working group, which include the likes of Microsoft, Apple, and Google, we all came together, including the support of Braille manufacturers like HumanWare, HIMS and others AT companies like Freedom Scientific, where we wanted to bring in a standard that will improve Braille display implementation, decrease cost and time to market, and ultimately, empower the people who are blind and have low vision. That they can just connect their Braille displays and it will work seamlessly without the need of custom software and drivers created for particular screen readers and devices.
That’s over the past few years, Braille devices connecting to Apple devices, Microsoft computers, you’d always have to install software to detect the drivers. Think of this Braille HID standard as a keyboard where you plug in a keyboard or a mouse to your computer it automatically detects with no need to interact with any additional drivers. That was the implementation and the goal behind this whole group gathering together to create this new Braille HID standard. That started in 2017 at CSUN. The anticipation of support was going to be bringing around about 2019.
Since then, only Apple has actually implemented the new Braille HID. One of the few devices that include the support is, of course, the HumanWears new Brailliant BI X, the Mantis Q40 from APH, and of course, the Chameleon 20 from APH. I do believe that there are some other displays. I think it’s the Orbit that also supports the new HID standard. Many new Braille displays that are coming into the market are supporting this new standard because everyone believed it was the way forward. It was the simplicity. It was the best way forward for mainstream technology. Yes, unfortunately, not everyone has followed that, which is disappointing, to say the least.
Jonathan: If I can go back to the pre-HID days, and actually as you’ll appreciate, this is something I have some considerable sympathy for, you’ve got this great new Braille display, let’s say, and you are wanting to bring it to market as quickly as possible, get some revenue in, but most importantly, put cool new technology in the hands of blind people. You’ve got to make sure as a manufacturer that you write drivers that work, say, with JAWS, something else that works with NVDA, potentially then Narrator, potentially then iOS and Android, and on and on it goes. There is no one-way pre-HID to make one interface that means that new Braille display that you’ve developed will talk to everything.
Andrew: Exactly right. Yes, it’s a very long path to support all of the screen readers. The goal is to support many. We want to improve the user’s experience and the best way forward was to introduce this new Braille HID standard.
Jonathan: Is there a downside to it, though? Is it so generic that some screen readers may not be able to work the same degree of magic that they would if you had written a specific driver? I’m thinking, for example, that for some time at least, I’m not sure if it’s the case now, in JAWS you would go through a certification process that guaranteed some quality there. Is HID up to snuff, do you think?
Andrew: Well, it’s a new standard, and like any new standard, it takes a while for it to be adopted. There are always issues that when you first get introduced to a new standard, it’s always a work in progress. You always find something wrong with it that needs to be improved. As far as customization on other displays, it will obviously limit that. However, I do think that screen readers will have the power to introduce additional drivers for certain Braille displays if they see that fit.
Jonathan: You were all sitting around this table and a representative, at least, from Google was a part of that discussion, HumanWare, I take it, would have been fully expecting that when Google eventually got around to supporting Braille natively, shall we say, in TalkBack without the need for some third-party thing like BrailleBack that Braille HID would be a part of that new standard.
Andrew: Yes. We launched the new Braille displays last year, 2021. Of course, prior to that, we had to think about the new product. When we develop, it takes about 18 months. In this whole process of development, we decided that the best way forward was to continue with the new Braille HID standard, which was soon to be starting in 2019. Since then, we’ve worked very closely with Apple to introduce it to Apple. Apple have been tremendously supportive on the new Braille HID standard, and we’ve been working together to improve that. They’re very open to improving it even further.
Fortunately, on the Google side, they did try to implement that. I have to say they did try to implement the new standard, but they were struggling and decided to move to a different part of their roadmap on the accessibility as it was a bit of a struggle for them, I believe.
Jonathan: Obviously, there are some who’ve been working away on Braille at Google who feel a sense of frustration that what they believe is significant progress has been overshadowed by this HID discussion. They are suggesting that there may be a bit of a disconnect at Google, that people who gave that commitment to implement HID back in those early CSUN discussions may not necessarily have conveyed that message that there was an expectation that Google would go in on HID to those who could actually do the coding. Do you detect that? Do you think there is some sort of communication disconnect at Google that has now got us into the mess that we are in?
Andrew: I can’t really comment on that so much really, other than that all members that were involved in the discussion, and there was a lot of discussions via email, everyone was heavily involved, from Microsoft to Google to Apple and screen readers and Braille manufacturers. We all got involved one way or another, so the communication was through one channel and was organized mainly, I guess, from Microsoft. That’s all that I can really comment on.
Jonathan: Is HID support in Narrator at the moment?
Andrew: It’s not currently in Narrator. I do know that they are fully on board and they are working towards that. It’s currently supported in NVDA. I believe with the new Windows 11 that Microsoft are looking to incorporate that new HID standard.
Jonathan: I think right now there may not necessarily be a generic HID driver as such in JAWS. If I’m getting this right, you at HumanWare would have had to write a JAWS-specific driver for Brailliant, is that correct?
Andrew: That’s correct.
Jonathan: Yes. Why is it taking so long? Here we are in 2022 and you have a number of significant players. I just want to make sure I’m not picking on Google exclusively here because we have Microsoft where it’s not in Narrator. We have JAWS where there’s no native HID support built-in. Have you been hung out to dry as a company on this going all-in on HID so quickly?
Andrew: Again, I can’t really comment too much about why all screen readers haven’t adopted this and Microsoft haven’t adopted it. I do know that Microsoft have been trying really hard to adopt this. There were some issues with the USB-IF that was causing some tremendous issues. That had to be addressed first. I guess really some screen readers are waiting for Microsoft to adopt that. I do know Microsoft have been working very closely with NVDA and have helped them to incorporate that into their screen reader as well.
It’s a new standard. There’s always things that happen when it’s a new standard, as I mentioned, and we’re all learning, but from the HumanWare side, we do believe that it is the way forward. We really want to push all mainstream technology organizations like Microsoft and Apple and Google to continue down this path because it’s the best way forward for our users, but for the support of backwards compatibility, which I’m sure that’s a question that you are about to ask-
Andrew: -there are Braille displays that are supporting both.
It is something that we are looking into. We’ve got many new Braille displays out there, including the display for the NLS eReader. There is an NLS eReader out there that inherits the new Braille HID standard but does not support the backwards compatibility to the serial connection that Android currently supports. The limitation there is that it does not support Android via Bluetooth. I believe you can plug in a USB-C cable to the device and install the Braille TTY screen reader. That will be able to get you up and running, but for the Bluetooth side of Braille HID, that’s not compatible yet.
We will be looking to incorporate that. I can’t promise when and if, but of course, the problem with that now, it takes away dedicated resources from places like HumanWear that could be more useful to improve the enhancements on other device and other products potentially and innovate other products. Now we are here today after five years. We now have to counterintuition ourselves by going backwards to support something that really should be already supported in the first place.
Jonathan: Yes. Because Braille TTY works with HID devices over USB-C, I did wonder if TalkBack itself in Android 13 would work the same way, but I am told that it will not. Even if you connect a USB-C device and TalkBack for its Braille support, you’re not going to get HID support in any form whatsoever, so it’s obviously very disappointing. Is it a moral issue as well, though?
Obviously, it’s a resource issue for a company like HumanWare, but if you surrender, [chuckles] I guess, for want of a better term, and you introduce this old code, this backward compatibility, it lets companies with much larger resource bases like Google, which is a massive company and could deploy all kinds of engineering resources if it wanted to, off the hook, doesn’t it?
Andrew: Again, I can’t really speak too much about what they do in their roadmaps. Google have been very supportive of HumanWare’s products in the past and still to date.
Andrew: Not at all saying that they don’t, but certainly, for HumanWare it’s a strain to obviously now go backwards and try to implement a backwards compatibility. As I said, I really didn’t want to go down this path, but I understand that there are many, many users that want to have this compatibility, and so they should. We are now led that we have to lead that and take responsibility, but I really wanted to address the whole room to say that it’s not all HumanWear’s and Braille manufacturers’ responsibility. It’s the responsibility of those like Google and Microsoft and Apple to, of course, adopt this new standard, which everyone agreed back in 2017.
Jonathan: If you could do it again, would you have just put the backward compatibility in the devices from the get-go?
Andrew: I would say that we would support probably both from the get-go. I think we’ve made the right decision by going forward with the new Braille HID standard because we’re really pushing the barriers with Apple. Apple have really aligned well with us in trying to advance the new standard. Everyone’s learning. HumanWare has been learning with this new standard, Apple’s learned with this new standard.
If no one took it on, we wouldn’t be talking about this today. I think the new Braille HID standard would have just died away. I think there’s a few companies out there that are really trying to push this. HumanWare is one of them. We do believe that this is the better way forward, so going backwards, I think I would’ve introduced both, but again, it all adds up to resources that companies like HumanWare with little resources we have to manage and we have to pick one or the other.
Jonathan: Obviously, we’ve got blind people in the middle here who just want their devices to work. That’s why you are considering whether there’s something that you can do. I take it if there is, that would just come down by way of a firmware update.
Andrew: Yes. That’s the way that we’d have to incorporate this. The only concern is it could obviously add complexity, which is what we don’t want. We don’t want to add complexity to the user interface. How do we determine, or how does the user determine to know which connection to choose? We don’t want that user to choose. We want it to be seamless, so it’s something that we have to think about. We have to take on board. It’s not as simple as just adding a serial connection and away we go. We really have to think this out. How long, of course, it’s going to take. Of course, that’s going to be resources that we are using away from other projects as well.
Jonathan: Obviously, you would be hoping that the lack of Braille HID support in TalkBack for Android is fairly short-lived.
Andrew: We would hope so and we would encourage users to contact Google to inform them of this. To really approach Google and say that we are really disappointed that we’re unable to connect these new Braille displays with the new Braille HID standard. That’s what we would encourage for now. I think really it’s about the number of people that really communicate that to Google and hopefully, that they can jump shift on their roadmap and really pay attention to this and incorporate that new Braille HID standard.
Jonathan: Thank you so much for coming on the show, Andrew. We will keep in touch on this.
Andrew: Oh, more than welcome. Thank you very much, Jonathan.
Voice-over: Mosen At Large Podcast.
Jonathan: The American Council of the Blind will soon be assembling for a hybrid convention. Those attending in person will be heading to Omaha. You might say there are a lot of stakeholders attending. In preparation for the event, its resolutions committee has been meeting. The committee has received two resolutions about a topic that we have discussed extensively on this podcast. The capitalization of the word Braille when referring to the code. Now, the ACB Students division submitted a resolution supporting the capitalization of Braille in all cases, if I might use that expression.
Given that a considerable majority of contributors to this podcast support the capitalization of Braille, many may be surprised to learn and indeed believe it’s a bit ironic really that the Braille Revival League submitted a resolution opposing the capitalization of Braille. To discuss the question of “to capital B or not to capital B”, I’m joined by Braille Revival League president, Paul Edwards. Paul, it is a blast having you on the show. I can’t remember the last time we did any internet radio or podcasting malarkey like this.
Paul Edwards: We should have done more, but I truly appreciate the opportunity to come on and discuss this question with you. I think that the Braille Revival League feels fairly strongly about the position that we’ve taken, though there are no dueling resolutions anymore. BRL withdrew theirs. The other resolution, that is the Students’ resolution, went forward from the resolutions committee with no recommendation. essentially, and I’m saying this in advance because I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding, in order for it to be voted on, somebody will have to move it.
Jonathan: I am fairly confident that there will be no shortage of remover for this.
Paul: I think that is the case.
Jonathan: For those who are unaware, what is BRL, the Braille Revival League? What is its purpose?
Paul: Braille Revival League was started in 1980 or so, and I think there were two factors that led to its beginning. One was the overweening desire of the American Council of the Blind to form as many damn chapters as they could under the leadership of Durward McDaniel. The other was, we were at that point, and really, in a way still are at a crossroads with regard to Braille in that speech had just materialized on the scene. We were just beginning to see the very first Braille displays that you and I played with in the ’80s.
What we were also seeing was this huge movement in the United States anyway to essentially have school systems say, “We don’t need to teach blind kids Braille anymore because they’ve got speech computers. It’s a lot easier for them to learn. They can do everything they can do with speech. They don’t need Braille, and it’s hard for them to learn. We don’t have the teachers who know how to teach it.” At the same time, there was some serious question as to how committed the National Library Service was to ongoing Braille production and not altering the amount that they produce because of how expensive producing hardcopy Braille is especially in bulk.
We felt that there was a real need for an organization that would promote the use and the value and the valuing of Braille as an entity. There used to be an NFB organization that was similar to ours called NAPUB, the National Association to Promote the Use of Braille, but I think NAPUB has gone by the wayside. I think the only consumer organization promoting Braille at this point is the Braille Revival League at least in this country.
Jonathan: When you look at the renaissance that has gone on with Braille devices now and indeed, NLS is distributing these e-readers, which is just a remarkable turn of events, very exciting.
Paul: It is.
Jonathan: Has BRL ran its course? Has it achieved its objective? Does it need to exist anymore?
Paul: Yes. Four quick reasons, and there are probably loads of others. The first is that one of the things that will happen with the emergence of these e-readers is there, I think, will be much more pressure provided by the government, perhaps even provided by NLS to discontinue or severely limit the production of hardcopy Braille. I’m not sure that’s a good thing for loads of folks, especially those who are so old that they’re not going to adjust well to electronic devices and really depend on value hardcopy Braille. I think the second factor is, it doesn’t matter how many devices you produce.
If you don’t have a population that’s going to be able to utilize them effectively and appropriately, the number of Braille readers continues to decline with the National Library Service. I am concerned that rehabilitation agencies are being squeezed much by an absence of funding, particularly for serving seniors, that one of the results is the amount of time that that’s available for teaching Braille gets constrained to the point where people don’t leave with enough knowledge even to play in the Grade 1 courtyard.
Finally, the last thing that I think is important is I think that once we get to the point where Braille displays are everywhere, one of the things that is likely to happen, assuming I’m correct about NLS cutting down on its hardcopy Braille production, is we’re going to see the absolute disappearance of an infrastructure for the production of paper Braille, period. I think that would be scary.
Jonathan: You’re comment about in the 1980s when speech devices started to really blossom that Braille had had its day, it was obsolete. I’m very familiar with that argument. That segues us nicely into the primary discussion, really. Because what goes on in the United States tends to influence the rest of the world for better or worse. When I was a kid, and I assume that this was also the case when you were a kid because you were a kid before I was. [laughs]
Paul: I was. I was kiddy-er.
Jonathan: Braille was always capitalized. Then gradually, I started to see the capital B being dropped in American books. Of course, it was hard to tell with British books because they didn’t capitalize anything.
Paul: They did not.
Jonathan: Certainly, I noticed this from American books. Then of course in 2006 BANA was fielding a lot of questions, the Braille Authority of North America, about should we be capitalizing Braille when referring to the code or not. They published their position statement and that’s still around today, it’s still referred to regularly, saying that Braille shouldn’t be capitalized when referring to the code. For me, there are two broad issues at play.
Paul: I don’t know that they ever. Let’s be clear about this. I don’t know that it ever went any further than being adopted as a valued by them. I don’t think they made really any significant effort to persuade any of the entities who are continuing to capitalize Braille, but they should stop.
Jonathan: See, that’s an interesting question, isn’t it, because that comes back to the matter of who has the moral authority to make these calls when it comes to Braille. Who actually owns Braille? I would suggest to you that it’s blind people ourselves who own Braille and that really, BANA lacked the moral authority to make that statement in the first place. That when you talk to rank and file blind people, they do not want this in the main. They want Braille to be capitalized.
Paul: Both the ACB, the NFB, and the Blind Veterans Association are represented on BANA and do have the ability to speak up and speak out. I think that even though the general attitude of people in this country seems to be that BANA pulled the wool over their eyes with the adoption of the Unified English Braille Code. The truth is, there was really a lot of effort to create consensus. The consumer organizations were fully consulted before a decision to adopt it was taken. The point that I’m making with all of this is I am not prepared to accept the notion that users of Braille are left out of the loop by BANA.
Jonathan: What you’ve got, though, is you mentioned NFB being a part of BANA, for example, they have in their style guide their preference to capitalize Braille when referring to the code. I worked for Freedom Scientific, and it was in their style guide when I was there that Braille should be capitalized when referring to the code. When it comes up on this podcast. The majority of people who say Braille should be capitalized when referring to the code. When I talk to people who are not English speakers, they are totally perplexed. They say, “Why is this even an issue. We always capitalize it.”
For me, there are two broad issues that play that I want to canvass with you and really explore this. First is looking at the way that similar words are handled in the English language and to consider what precedent there might be. Then the second issue is regardless of that, whether we reach a consensus about that or not, what’s right for the blind community? What’s culturally appropriate for the blind community? Can I ask you first, if Morse code is spelt with a capital M, if Fahrenheit is spelt with a capital F, if Celsius is spelt with a capital C, if Kelvin is spelt with a capital K, all systems named after their inventors and even closer to home than that, if Nemeth is spelt with a capital N, when referring to the name of the Braille code, why should we not capitalize B when referring to the Braille code?
Paul: I can’t really speak to the Nemeth code because I would argue that’s in the same position as Braille. Here are some of the arguments at least that I would use for why Braille should not be capitalized. First, none of the terms that you’ve described are verbs Braille is. We Braille a document, just as we print a document, just as we read a document, and none of those things are capitalized. Another factor is while I absolutely believe that Louis Braille was pivotal to the development and the implementation of Braille, I think that unless an awful lot of other things happened, Braille would not be in anything like the position it’s in now.
Our obsession almost with Louis Braille is the only person whose name and whose history we know, I think, loses sight of some very brave and amazing people throughout the history of Braille. One of them, for example, is the superintendent of the Missouri School for the Blind in 1851, who had the courage to say, “I want to stand up for Braille, and I want to adopt it in my school.” It’s amazing how brave that was. It hadn’t been adopted in France by then. There’d been no effort made to do very much. Early organizations other that for blind people in the United States and in Britain also truly rescued Braille from all of the other strange approaches to writing that were being promoted.
It also wasn’t until a Braille printing press was invented in the 1880s, which suddenly made mass production of Braille possible, that Braille really began to take off because it was a lot easier to produce the other kinds of devices than it was to produce Braille materials. As late as 1947, the Perkins folks invented the Perkins Brailler, which has certainly-
Jonathan: With a capital B?
Paul: -revolutionized Braille access. Perkins, yes, and Brailler, not often. If you see, use your Brailler to write, generally, that’s not capitalized, nor should it be. I could provide you with 25 or 30 more examples of people who are amazingly influential in the evolution of Braille. My point is that I believe that it’s absolutely appropriate and wonderful to venerate Louis Braille for what he did, but I think it detracts from our understanding of the complex and amazing history of a medium of communication, not to include those others and to almost overshadow their importance by our stress on Louis Braille.
Jonathan: I’ll come back to the verb question in just a moment because I think that is very interesting. You describe Louis Braille as pivotal to the invention of Braille. He is the inventor. It’s his system. Without detracting from others who helped to develop that system, they wouldn’t have had a system to develop without the Braille code. It’s a bit like saying we shouldn’t capitalize Celsius because of all the electronic thermometers and other people who lobbied for the implementation of Celsius around the world. In the end, it’s his scale. Braille is Braille’s code. None of the other people that you talk about could have been influential without Braille, the code, invented by Braille, the man.
Paul: I don’t know. There was a lot of evidence in France in the 1850s that there was relatively little support for Braille and that the school where Louis taught after his death generally determined that that wasn’t the direction they ought to go. It was other people who ended up rescuing it. Really, I think folks in England and in the United States who eventually in the 1880s and ’90s, and particularly in England, soon after the turn of the 20th century, when they adopted Grade 2 Braille or its equivalent was the time when it seems to me anyway, a lot of what we today know is Braille came into being and came into existence.
At the same time, there are so many other kinds of Braille. Louis Braille certainly had something to do with music Braille, but most of the other kinds of Braille that have emerged since then, while they’re based on the same six thoughts are entirely different and extended the usability and the viability of Braille substantially.
Jonathan: It was Louis Braille who came up with that unique pattern of six dots in a configuration, the dots’ just the right size for the human finger to be able to quickly whisk over them and turn those dots into language. You’ve really made the point that without his genius, none of these other iterations of the Braille code that you talk about would’ve happened because Braille invented the code in the first place.
Paul: Whenever we talk about Louis Braille, of course, we should capitalize it. I suppose you might be able to persuade me perhaps, though, I’m not sure, that when Braille is a noun I could probably live with capitalizing it.
Jonathan: I wanted to come back to your verb point because I haven’t responded to that and I think that is really important. In New Zealand now, we are having this discussion. There is finally a democratic process about capitalizing B when referring to the Braille code. One of the things that has come up in that discussion is this verb question, and whether it should be capitalized in that instance. I think that’s a much more contentious nuanced point. An example is Google, which these days is a noun an and verb. I don’t actually know, and I’m not sure how often I’ve seen it written down where somebody says, “I Googled this the other day, and here’s what I found.” I don’t know whether in that situation you capitalize the G or you don’t.
Paul: I wouldn’t. I’m not sure I’d capitalize very many verbs.
Jonathan: What we are talking about here, though, is not simply that question of, “Should you capitalize Braille when you’re talking about it as a verb?” It has become the recommendation of BANA that when you are talking about the code, in other words, “I wrote this down in Braille today.” We’re not talking about, I brailed this. I wrote this in Braille. You should use a lowercase B in that context. That is, I think, what a lot of people find not only disrespectful, but actually offensive.
Paul: I absolutely do not. I’ll tell you one of the reasons why. I think one of the things that we in the Blindness Community have fought ever since Braille became prominent is a notion that Braille is not a medium of communication but is in fact a language. There are many who argue that it has nothing to do with Louis Braille that the capital B happen, but rather, because a lot of orthographers who write rules for spelling believe that Braille is a language and therefore capitalize it as they would French, or English, or German, or Swahili. That does, for me, immense harm to blind people and to the notion of the medium of communication that they have because it creates and perpetuates misunderstanding which we flat out don’t need.
Jonathan: We all agree that it’s not true, I believe, at least I hope we do. Braille, of course is not a language. It’s a code that makes language accessible to blind people. I think that there would be more debate about the idea that somehow capitalizing Braille was a thing that sighted people did under the misapprehension that Braille is a language. Because as I’ve said, we capitalize a lot of systems named after their inventor. Suddenly, we’ve decided that Braille, for some reason, should be different. If that reason that it should be different is to say to the world Braille is not a language, are there not other ways to do that? Can’t we continue public education without having to disrespect Louis Braille’s contribution by not capitalizing Braille when referring to the code?
Paul: I think we have to educate them by doing the one tangible and effective thing that we can, which is to say to them, “Stop doing what is misleading and inappropriate, and begin to do what characterizes the real situation with the Braille code.”
Jonathan: The problem you’ve got is that there’s a significant groundswell of blind people who don’t agree that it’s inappropriate. In fact, they would say the reverse. They believe that it is inappropriate not to capitalize B when referring to the Braille code, taking the verb thing to one side for a moment. There’s just not that general support out there for that position.
Paul: I don’t have a sample size that’s large enough to indicate to me what the situation is in informal polls that we have done in talking with individuals who have tuned into ACB’s resolutions meetings. What I have found is that a majority of people appear to believe that capitalization of Braille isn’t appropriate. In our context, there are some reasons why that may be the case that have nothing to do with the correctness of the situation. Clearly, we, as the Braille Revival League are the affiliated in the American Council of the Blind that is supposed to represent Braille. It could be that we get some name recognition and also that what we say is perhaps given some value that might not exist for the students’ group.
I worked very hard to make sure that the students’ group got a hearing because as you know that’s just the way I believe that things have to happen. One of the things that I did was to send them the document that you wrote a few months ago about Braille to the whole resolutions committee. They’d have an opportunity to read that. Because like you, I’m not interested in peddling something that is likely to be denigrated by people who are blind. That’s entirely the opposite from the point of view that I operate with. However, it is certainly my belief as a blind person that I gain more by not capitalizing Braille than I do by capitalizing it.
Jonathan: Morse code, if I can come back to that example. Because I think that’s actually quite analogous, really. It’s a code that interprets language in another way. Braille is tactile, Morse is audible. You don’t hear the argument from radio amateurs, for example, that Morse shouldn’t be capitalized. It’s pretty much always capitalized when I’ve looked, and nobody thinks Morse is a language, at least to the best of my knowledge.
Paul: I think there are two things. I think that in a way, Morse code comes closer to being a language than Braille does because there are individuals, particularly individuals who are multiply disabled whose only ability to communicate involves using Morse code.
Jonathan: Surely, a DeafBlind person’s in the same position with Braille.
Paul: In a similar one, yes. I don’t think it’s precisely the same, but I think it’s similar. I’ll give you that. I don’t know where, so I can’t make an argument for or against it, the notion of capitalizing Morse code came from. I don’t think it was simply to venerate Samuel Morse. Clearly, the code that he’s developed has survived and done well and made a huge difference by enabling the development of the telegraph and creating almost instantaneous communications across huge distances. I’m certainly not minimizing its importance.
Jonathan: I agree with you about that. I don’t think it’s capitalized to venerate him either. I think this comes back to my first point. I’m going to come back to the veneration thing. This comes back to my first point, that when you look at scales or inventions of that nature, such as Celsius, and Fahrenheit, and Kelvin, and the Morse code, and the Nemeth code, those things are capitalized through no veneration. It’s simply because it’s custom and practice to capitalize those sorts of things which have been invented by an individual. I’m wondering why, in that case then, Louis Braille’s invention should be treated differently by a group of the very people whose lives it changed. Apart from the disrespect angle, it doesn’t seem grammatically appropriate to me.
Paul: I don’t know that it’s grammatically appropriate or inappropriate to treat it in either way. I do believe that some veneration is due to Louis Braille and certainly always capitalizing his name is relevant. As I told you before, I could probably live with capitalizing Braille as noun, but I can’t go along with capitalizing anything else. Because as an adjective, I think Braille refers to a whole range of things. If we’d look at other words that refer to similar things that are being done as with Braille, we don’t capitalize printing, we don’t capitalize copying, we don’t capitalize a whole range of words that describe the act of producing Braille.
We don’t capitalize writing, we don’t capitalize reading, we don’t, in fact, do anything but recognize them for what they are and fit them into the whole pantheon of words that we use to describe actions that are similar and that characterize the way Braille helps us.
Jonathan: I hear this argument a lot from proponents of not capitalizing Braille when referring to the code. The difference, of course, is that all those things you mentioned were not systems designed by an individual. There’s no Mr. or Ms. or Ms. Print or Copy or Read. Maybe another solution rather than disrespecting the inventor by not capitalizing his system in the same way that so many other systems are is to change the name of the code. It’s interesting that Louis Braille himself called it dot writing. If it is found so inappropriate to capitalize the code name, why don’t we agree on another name that doesn’t involve the name of the inventor? Because I suggest that that would really bring this issue into the sunlight and a lot more people would realize what’s going on here.
Paul: They would. I suspect, as I think you do, that if anybody attempted to do such a thing, people would say, “How dare you?”
Jonathan: Exactly. Which is what I’m saying to you about this very things.
Paul: I understand that that’s what you’re saying. Sure. I think the other thing that we need to recognize, though, is that there’s no universality about the way that our world treats people. I don’t know of anybody who speaks of Gutenberg-ing, do you?
Jonathan: No, but we are going to park the verb thing. The verb thing I think is a slightly more–
Paul: It doesn’t matter. We don’t speak of a Gutenberg-er for a printer.
Jonathan: No. I think that if we were talking about the verb, it’s a much more nuanced discussion. What BANA, since 2006 and what you seem to be saying, although you’re saying that you could be persuadable, and I want to come back to that in a bit, but what BANA has said for all these years is you shouldn’t even capitalize Braille when referring to the code. I think it’s that that a lot of people just find fundamentally wrong and disrespectful.
Paul: Yes, but I don’t support that notion because of BANA. I support that notion as a blind person for the reasons that I’ve tried to do my best to elucidate to that. Probably, I’m not the best debater God ever built.
Jonathan: I’ve known you long enough to know that if anyone has their own mind, it’s Paul Edwards.
Paul: He tries.
Jonathan: Can I just move us on to the question of the veneration that you’ve sort of talked about?
Jonathan: I must admit your comments about this made me feel quite sad. I want to share my perspective on this with you, so that perhaps you get a feel for where I’m coming from.
Jonathan: A few years ago, I began a meditation practice. It’s made a huge difference in my life. As part of that, I also began keeping a gratitude journal where I force myself, even on the darkest of days, to write 10 things that I’m grateful for. in that gratitude journal, I quite regularly express gratitude for Braille, the code, which was given to me by Braille, the man. When all is said and done, he started this whole thing off, this whole amazing path to literacy, this priceless gift that we have. He was a blind man. Braille was a blind man. You referred to this, you referred to the waning of the Braille code for a while in Paris. Braille lived actually to see his books burned for a time because it was thought that the sighted way was the superior way.
Louis Braille, in my view– I hope this resonates with you as a very effective advocate, Louis Braille was the original example in a blindness context of nothing about us without us, that when we solve our own problems, better outcomes follow. In my gratitude journal, I frequently think of the jobs that I’ve been able to do, the speeches, and the presentations, and the radio shows, and all of that stuff, and most important of all, the bedtime stories that I’ve read to my kids, and I’ll soon be reading to my grandchild. Louis Braille’s genius and his code, it gave all of that to me.
Do you see where I’m coming from? For you to almost sweep what he did under the carpet in quite a dismissive way, it hurts. I think he’s given us so much. My life would’ve been so different without his sacrifice and his genius.
Paul: I don’t think there is anybody on either side of the debate who would attempt to sweep Louis Braille under the carpet. It’s certainly not my intention, but it is my intention to suggest that we could look back in the history of science to innumerable inventions that were perhaps as important and perhaps as relevant as Braille’s that went nowhere for a variety of reasons perhaps because of the times that we were operating in. There were a number of scientific discoverings that were made, for example, during the middle ages, which the church declared inappropriate.
If we take Galileo’s history and some of the early astronomy that was practiced in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries, one of the things that resulted from that is that many good men of science were burned because they had the courage to stand up for what they believed and for the values that they had. I don’t make that point to denigrate Louis Braille, but rather, to say it’s not uncommon in our civilization to have heroes who rise significantly above the level of us ordinary mortals by what they do and by the courage that they’re prepared to exert. Louis Braille is one of those folks, but so for me is the superintendent of the Missouri school.
So are blind people who in the face of Moon type and a whole range of other things had the courage to stand up and say to those people on whom they depended because of their involvement in sheltered workshops, “We believe that Braille is the right answer, and we believe that you need to adopt it.” I feel the same way about the blind people in the UK who said, “Braille is never going to make it if it simply remains Grade 1. We have to invent a series of contractions that we agree on. That is the only way that we’re going to be able to produce Braille in enough quantity and in a small enough space that we can actually circulate it. Let’s agree on a set of values and a set of contractions that will work.”
All of these people to me are amazingly courageous and amazingly important in creating what we have today. Please don’t misunderstand me, Jonathan. I, like you, know deep in my heart that I could not have done the things I’ve done in my life without Braille. I would not be nearly the effective communicator I am were it not for my ability to utilize and write and read. Bedtime stories for kids, been there, done that. Bedtime stories for grandchildren, been there, done that. I don’t undervalue Braille, nor I hope do I not venerate Louis Braille, but I see Braille, and science, and progress as a continuum. We’ve got to be careful that what we don’t do is raise one single individual to the pinnacle of the mountain while we’re burying everybody else under ground.
Jonathan: I went through a bit of a journey via this podcast, in fact, where I was persuaded through the discussions that we’ve had on the podcast, that there is such a thing as blind culture. For a long time, I resisted that concept. Now, I believe it’s true. I think there are all sorts of things that can cause one to have a culture, and you can be an adherent to multiple cultures. I do think it’s important that we record the evolution of the liberation of blind people. There are many people, whether it be through the literacy that we’ve been talking about or advocacy, who have made possible the things that many of us take for granted.
I welcome the idea of us celebrating our history. I don’t know if you are familiar with the work that Peggy Chong’s been doing, and she has called herself The Blind History Lady, and she has uncovered some amazing things relating to people who have largely been long forgotten. I think that’s absolutely fantastic. With respect–
Paul: I’m not nearly as familiar as I should be with her. I’ve heard-
Jonathan: She’s done some great stuff,.
Paul: -many wonderful things about her.
Jonathan: I welcome this because we we’re
Paul: Me too.
Jonathan: all on this journey. We’re all on this continuum. Hopefully, we will hand things over when our time comes to people who will further take us on this journey of emancipation and equality and all those things. It is a continuum, but in the end, you see the, Braille code represents literacy. That boils down to we were functionally illiterate before the Braille code. I wanted to ask you about something. We had a discussion about Braille as a verb, and I’m agreeing with you that that is a slightly more nuanced discussion. What I wondered was would you consider a friendly amendment to the resolution in the interests of a consensus that said, “ACB should support capitalization of Braille when it’s referring to the code.”
Because essentially Braille is talking about the Braille code. When we talk about Braille in that context, we’re using shorthand for the Braille code. In this iteration of the resolution, it’s made clear that this only refers to capitalizing Braille when referring to the code, essentially the discussion continues about the verb. There’s simply no comment on that. That would represent progress, wouldn’t it?
Paul: It would. My hands are tied because this resolution was adopted by the board of the Braille Revival League, so that if I was going to propose a friendly amendment, such as the one you’re referring to, it would have to be approved at least by them. Now, before the convention, we actually will be holding a business meeting for BRL. What I can promise is that I’ll bring up the issue there and see what happens to it. BRL’s interesting because it’s one of the few affiliates in ACB that’s actually growing. We went from about 150 members last year to a little over 260 this year. The point is we do calls every couple of months under the name Braille Buzz.
We typically break the bank of our poor little Zoom room by having more than a hundred people there. The point that I’m making is I expect we’ll get a pretty large group of folks at our business meeting, and I’ll certainly raise the issue. I’m not sure how I feel about– Part of my concern. I’d like to think of myself as a consensus builder, but I think once you begin, once you begin to say, “Let’s do this part of the time and this, the rest of the time,” what you end up doing is mudding the waters and people eventually say a plague on both of your houses, “We’ll do what the hell we want.
Jonathan: Actually I think that’s where we’re at because Braille is capitalized when referring to the Louis Braille’s name. BANA is suggesting it not be capitalized in any other context, and yet, many people continue to do so. They do so with considerable pride. It’s something that’s become a badge of honor among some who do it. Do you think, in terms of the optics of this, given that the students have moved this resolution, it seems to me this is coming from a blind pride angle, that they are proud to be carrying on the legacy of Louis Braille, that they want to honor Louis Braille’s legacy.
You are in BRL being a bit curmudgeonly and almost, “Get off my lawn.” It seems a shame to dampen the student’s passion for advocacy and for remembering their history in this way.
Paul: I would certainly hope that students don’t feel that way. Let me put it this way. Where we were on the resolutions committee was a situation where at one point the students were asked if they’d withdraw their resolution, and BRL was asked if it would withdraw its resolution. Both of us said, “No, we won’t do it.” Then I went away and started thinking seriously about it. I said, “Really, this is no progress.” The reality is, let’s move the students’ notion forward. The two resolutions, by the way, were developed entirely independently of each other.
The first I knew about both resolutions when I heard from the chair of the resolutions committee, there wasn’t any discussion by the Braille Revival League or by the students about crafting a joint resolution, which probably wouldn’t have been possible anyway. The point that I’m making and the reason that I raise it is, I think these were independently valid points of view from the perspectives of the two groups.
Jonathan: What do you think are the consequences of ACB becoming the organization that puts a stake in the ground and says, “We do not support capitalizing Braille when referring to the code, is that something ACB should be associated with or should be proud of?
Paul: I think it is. Obviously, it’s partly because I believe in the resolution that we’ve put forward. It’s also because I’ve never shied away from taking a position that I think is correct, regardless of what other people’s positions are, and neither have you. It seems to me that if ACB takes a position like this one and NFB is in a different position, even, let’s say, BANA were in a different position, it wouldn’t bother me as long as I was convinced that ACB had taken the decision that was appropriate for it and had done so in a way that honored the democracy and the values that I believe in as an organization,
Jonathan: What will people be voting on then with the version of the students’ resolution that has come out of the resolutions committee, what would it commit the organization to doing? If that resolution is passed.
Paul: Capitalizing Braille.
Jonathan: Does that mean that ACB would capitalize Braille in its own publications and would advocate as well for the capitalization of Braille when referring to the code?
Paul: We would have no choice.
Jonathan: If it’s not passed, then essentially it’s status quo, isn’t it? Because ACB is [crosstalk] to in a position.
Paul: That’s part of the reason why we withdrew our resolution. If it doesn’t pass, we really haven’t made a decision in either direction because our resolution isn’t up there for grabs. It can never be a victory. The very most that the students can lose is that they didn’t win this year, but they’re certainly perfectly capable of competing again next year on the same issue. They’re perfectly capable of coming to the Braille Revival League. We would welcome them and encouraging more debate within the organization to see if they can’t get a resolution such as the one they want through the Braille Revival League as the year goes on.
We had at least one member of the Braille Revival League board who took the exact opposite position of the position that the Braille Revival League took and essentially took a position that was like the students. It’s not like anybody in the Braille Revival League believes the way that the students do.
Jonathan: How do you think it’s going to go, what’s your gut feeling because you know how to read the mood of the ACB?
Paul: I think it’s very difficult to know because we have one of the stranger approaches this year to the way that business is going to be done. The resolution will almost certainly come up for consideration on Thursday, the 7th of July, to begin with. When it is brought to the floor, everybody will be told that there is no recommendation. The students or someone, it doesn’t have to be a student, anybody can move that the resolution pass. If there’s a second, then the resolution is debated, and it would be voted on. If the vote is absolutely overwhelming, I think that it might well pass.
If it’s close, one of the convention rules that’s been adopted this year, essentially says if 25 people get up and essentially say that they disagree with the position taken by the chair in terms of the way it comes out, if they win, lose, or draw, it then gets taken from the resolutions tray, if you like, and gets moved to the period after the convention is over to a virtual debate component where eventually people will end up and everybody who is minded to will have the opportunity to vote for or against that resolution on a ballot on the last day of the convention, which will probably be the 13th, I think. It’s a very different process, and we’ve never played with it this way before.
It’s very difficult for me to predict. I think that there’s no question that there will be a debate. I think there’s no question that the voting is not going to be overwhelming in one direction or the other. Though this is Paul Edward speaking and really nothing more, I think the likelihood is we’ll end up in this after the end of convention debating calendar.
Jonathan: Yes. You are currently being the talking head on the cable news, doing the prognostication.
Paul: Yes. Thank you, sir. I’m so glad to prognosticate.
Jonathan: There you go. The thing is that I think there’s a bit of a parable in this discussion. First of all, it reminds me of the discussions that we used to have when I was directing ACB Radio, and you were ACB president, and we would go long into the night, 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning having these debates. The second little part of the parable is it is possible to have diametrically opposing views and still be really good friends. I count you as an exceptionally good friend, and actually have discussions and disagree without being disagreeable. There could be a lot more of that in my opinion in the world, and I’m sure we agree on that.
Paul: Oh, I absolutely agree. Really, that’s why I’ve actually welcomed the opportunity to interact with students and have really worked as hard as I can to make their resolution as passable as I think it is. Because I think there were some infelicities in their language that could be fixed, and we tried our best in the resolutions committee, do that. I think the resolution is actually better for having gone through the resolutions committee process.
Now, I got a fair amount of hate mail indicating that I was misusing my position on the resolutions committee because I’m a member and exercising undue influence on the side of the Braille Revival League. It’ll be up to people to determine that. Luckily for them, I won’t be president of the Braille Revival League beyond June. Impeachment wouldn’t accomplish.
Jonathan: It’s an issue that pushes the button, isn’t it? It’s interesting.
Paul: It is.
Jonathan: I think it does represent the cultural awakening that I believe blind people are experiencing. I’m quite excited by that, that we’re acknowledging that we are a group, we’ve got a shared history. In a way, that’s what you and I were doing, God knows, however many years ago. We said with ACB Radio that there is a commonality about blindness, no matter where in the world you are, we share common challenges and common opportunities. It’s like the world’s waking up to what we were saying all those years ago.
Paul: The other thing that we said, and God knows we’re not there yet, is regardless of what other people thought, we weren’t going to allow any reason to gag ACB Radio or to prevent it from carrying content that believe was appropriate and relevant. I think that’s a core value that bunches of organizations today are in favor of losing sight of for whatever reasons. I’m not sure, I even want to go into that. The bottom line is I think there is a lot more willingness on the part of a lot of people, particularly, unfortunately, people who are blind in my opinion to go along rather than to begin to work, to develop their own senses of value.
If there are a bunch of people out there who are interested in doing that, we as organizations, and I think the Federation is as guilty as the council, aren’t making enough room for those folks to actively debate and to influence us.
Jonathan: Since we’ve segued on to that, let me ask you, Mark Riccobono made a comment in, I think, one of his presidential reports that suggested it might be a good idea for ACB and NFB to hold a joint convention. Good idea?
Paul: I proposed it a long time ago when I was president, if you remember. There was a good deal of support for it from NFB. Unfortunately, then there were some folks in ACB who began to write really nasty letters about Kenneth Jernigan after he died. The Federation talked with me and asked me to stop people from doing that. I indicated that I didn’t have the power to do that, and they said, “Forget the cooperation that we’ve begun to foster.” I don’t blame them a bit because the stuff that was being written was just inappropriate and stupid. I don’t know. As you may know, the students have proposed a resolution to that effect. [crosstalk]
Jonathan: Yes. We’ve been talking about that on this podcast, too and getting people’s–
Paul: People go forward. I’m not as sanguine about where that will go in the long run, not so much because I think we’re all that far apart. I believe then and I believe now that in 80% or 85% of the things that blind people give a damn about are organizations feel the same, and that many of the differences we operate with are artificially created. They’re not positions that are fundamental core values. If there is anything that differentiates our two organizations, it’s really the way we’re governed rather than anything else.
I think that the other thing that I would say about that is I find myself wondering whether we have finally gotten to the place where many of the members of both organizations don’t really understand why we fell apart and are really interested in seeing blind people really around the world speaking with one voice. If the American Council of the Blind, the National Federation of the Blind could end up speaking with one voice in the part of the United States, I think we could have a tremendous role encouraging people in other countries to do the same.
Jonathan: I know you’re a Monty Python fan. Are you familiar with the Life of Brian?
Paul: I am.
Jonathan: When I heard about the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front, I thought this is just the Blind Community in the United States.
Paul: [laughs] It is. It very much is. There are an immense number of absolutely wonderful people in the National Federation of the Blind. In the state that I live in, which is Florida, we have been able to develop a relationship between the Florida Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind of Florida, where we are more interested in coming up with physicians that we can jointly share and take to legislators and take to the Division of Blind Services. I’m very proud of that because I believe what it demonstrates is if you are prepared to work at it, consensus is possible.
The development of physicians that in fact affect favorably the whole blind community rather than dividing them by artificial nostrums which tends to be what we preach doesn’t necessarily have to happen.
Jonathan: It’s amazing when you and I first met in 1999, and you came over to our convention here, it is amazing how sometimes you just find somebody in life and you think “God,” a kindred spirit is just incredible. Sometimes we can go for years literally without talking. It’s as if we’ve never stopped. I am very grateful for you coming on the show today and having such a frank and yet fun discussion about this topic, which is quite emotive for some people, including me. I really appreciate you doing that, particularly when you’re just getting over the rona as well.
Paul: [chuckles] Thank you very much for having me on. I listen to your podcast as often as I can. One of the things that I admire is you really continue to be true to the same values that you operated with just as I’ve tried to be. God knows whether either of us has been fully successful at it, but it seems to me that what brings us together more than anything else is the fact that we both believe that blind people if given opportunities and capacity and support have the ability to become truly amazing folks. Our job is to help by what we do to create an environment where that becomes more possible.
Jonathan: Yes. I find some strange bizarre comfort when I see younger people pushing the envelope in a way that I might find a bit radical or whatever. Because it’s all part of that continuum, all part of the circle of life. When the students contacted me about their resolution, and I said to them, “Who is president of BRL these days?” They wrote back and they said, “Paul Edwards,” and I said, “Okay then. [chuckles] We’ll get them on here.” I’d love to hear from you. If you have any comments you want to contribute to the show, drop me an email written down or with an audio attachment to email@example.com. If you’d rather call in, use the listener line number in the United States, 864-606-6736.