Podcast transcript: Mosen at large episode 199, meet the Hable One, and David Andrews remembers the early days of assistive computer technology
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Jonathan: I’m Jonathan Mosen, and this is Mosen At Large, the show that’s got the blind community talking. On the program this week, get more efficient access to your Android or Apple smartphone, thanks to the Hable One, and we take a trip down memory lane as David Andrews talks about bulletin boards and much more.
Mosen At Large Podcast.
An unwelcome visitor, and no new iPhone yet
Jonathan: It’s nice to be back with you for episode 199, and it is nice to be back. We are home in New Zealand, but as you may be able to tell, just on our way home, we made our acquaintance with a dear friend named COVID-19, so Bonnie and I are both isolating right now. I’ll just back off the mic a bit, shall I? I don’t want to cause you any concern about listening to the podcast and catching anything you don’t want. The good thing is that you don’t have to hear too much more of me sounding like this, because we have quite a lot of interview material in the can.
I’ve come back to a lot of really interesting listener contributions. Some of them are on iOS 16, some of them are on new iPhones, and so we will get to those in subsequent weeks, but to be honest, I’m not up to doing that this week and I don’t really want you to have to put up with me sounding like this for too much longer. We’ll get on to recorded material in just a moment. Just to say though, it was a wonderful trip. It was an extraordinary time to be in the United Kingdom of course, and Bonnie and I will talk about that a lot more when we’re feeling hopefully a lot better than we are at the moment.
I just did want to say, I do not have my iPhone 14 Pro Max. I did set my alarm and I did my usual things, and was on the Apple store at midnight ready to place the order. This is a technique that has worked for me every year when I’ve done the Apple preorders, but my luck well and truly ran out this year. I’m not alone. If you read the tech press, you will see that there are a lot of people who had the same problem that I did, which was that when you add the device to the bag, all seemed to go well. The only trouble is when you tried to bring up that bag to check out, you couldn’t.
I was stuck with this problem for a good 30 to 45 minutes, just constantly hitting that button trying to get in so I could provide my credit card details. By the time I did, the delivery date had slipped to around about the 6th of October. That is when I’m expecting to get the iPhone 14 Pro Max and I’ll let you know how I get on with it. if you’ve already got yours, then please do share anything that you’d like to. firstname.lastname@example.org is my email address. Of course, the listener line number is 864-60Mosen. 864-606-6736. I’m going to stop, stop inflicting this version of me on you, and we’ll go back to some stuff that is in the can for the remainder of the episode.
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Jonathan: We bring you transcripts of every episode of Mosen At Large, and that’s possible thanks to sponsorship from Pneuma Solutions. One of the cool things about the internet is that it connects us with the wider world, but another cool thing about the internet is that it can create places just for us. Mosen At Large is one such place, and another one is Sero. Sero spelled S-E-R-O, is a social network designed by us, for us. Sero is available everywhere. It’s on your smartphone, your Apple TV, your Amazon Echo, and of course on a fully accessible website.
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[music] Jonathan Mosen, Mosen At Large Podcast.
The Hable One is an innovative Braille input keyboard for your smartphone,
Dennis Long: Hey, Jonathan, it’s Dennis Long. Just thought I would give you a call and let you know about a Braille keyboard with physical key called the Hable, that’s H-A-B-L-E, One, O-N-E. It is a really nice keyboard, a really well-built, durable. It allows you to control your Android or iPhone. I have an iPhone, but it does allow you to control both iPhone and Android. It allows you to type in grade one, or grade two Braille.
Now, it does use UEB Braille, but that’s not all that different from US Braille, I hope they do add the old American English Braille for those of us that didn’t grow up with the UEB. It really is a nice device, it has great battery life. You can do things like the rotor. They just had an update where they added the ability to press and hold on button such as record button so you can record voice messages and things like iMessages, Telegram. You can also use it to rewind and fast-forward. Borrow books, it works for that.
You press and hold on the button. It’s just a really well-made product. They’re really open to product suggestions as well, and improvement. For those that want to purchase one in the US, you can go to www.mysticaccess.com/buyhableone. That’s, mystic, M-Y-S-T-I-C, A-C-C-E-S-S, buy Hable One, that’s H-A-B-L-E, One, spelled out O-N-E. They also have a email list as well as. If you search groups.io for Hable One, you should be able to find it. It really is an awesome device.
Jonathan: Thanks for the message, Dennis. It so happens that we’ve got some people who can tell us all about Hable One on the show. We’re joined by co-founder of the company, Freek van Welsenis, and also Danny Noë. Welcome to you both. It’s great to have you on the podcast.
Freek van Welsenis: Thank you for having us, Jonathan. I’m very excited to be here.
Danny Noë: Thank you.
Jonathan: Freek, can I start with you and just get you to tell me a bit about the company? How did it get started?
Freek: It all started around three and a half to four years back now. I’m one of the co-founders, we have one other co-founder and his name is Ayushman. He comes from India. He lives together with his grandfather who turned visually impaired at a later age. He realized that his grandfather was not able to use his phone anymore and that isolated him and made it harder for him to be in touch with friends. That’s really when the first idea for him started, so the first idea of a device that can help you use a phone in a lot of situations. That’s the idea he started with.
He came to Eindhoven in the Netherlands where he started studying. There he launched this idea at a contest. I was also at the contest with a different idea at the time, but I thought it was really great, and together we started our journey there. Did hundreds, I think thousands of tests with people in the Netherlands who also have a visual impairment. That’s where we built multiple prototypes, and then finally brought the product to the market, and it’s where we are right now.
Jonathan: We have many blind people who find touchscreens difficult. They see the promise, they see what others are doing, but they struggle. I guess this product could really assist with that audience.
Freek: Yes. I personally think the smartphone is one of the greatest inventions of our time. I think the smartphones give so much independence. It’s not any more a phone, it’s something to do your grocery store, do your personal banking, stay in touch with all your friends. It has so many possibilities, and it’s really a shame that for a certain group, it’s not as accessible. That’s really the thing we want to change. We want to make it accessible to everyone to use it and really get all the functionality out of the phone that can help you in so many ways.
Jonathan: If you were to describe the Hable One to somebody who has not seen it or used it before, what’s the elevator pitch there? What does it do?
Freek: The Hable One is like a remote controller for your phone. It is around the size of the old iPhone 6. It’s a little thicker. It has one side with eight buttons in there. With a combination of the buttons, you can pretty much use any voiceover or talkback gesture, and you can type with it. Typing would be in Braille, but you can also decide to dictate. It connects with any phone or tablet using Bluetooth, and it pretty much take over the entire inputs of the phone. You just use the phone for the audio outputs and to use all the apps on, et cetera, but you use the Hable for the complete inputs.
What this does is it makes it a lot easier for you to use the phone. You don’t have to do any more swiping gestures, you don’t have to do any more typing. It just makes it very easy with physical buttons. Now, the unique thing about it is that you need to see it as a keyboard. You don’t actually need a desk or a stand to place it on. Instead, it’s something you can hold in the air. You hold it with the buttons facing away from you in your two hands. That means you can use it wherever you are, when you’re standing in the train, when you’re outside in the park. You can always use the table one. You can always access your phone, send messages, scroll the news, whatever you want to do.
Jonathan: The way I think of it is that if you are familiar with the Braille screen input function on your smartphone, you’re like in that screen away mode where the keys are assigned vertically like a Braille cell. I’m curious if you were interested in making sure that the smartphone was accessible to as many people as possible, and I’m a huge supporter and user of Braille, but given that the majority of blind people don’t know Braille, is that exclusionary potentially the fact that you’ve gone with a Braille option?
Freek: It’s good to step back where we started. Where we started was really aiming this for people who already knew Braille, and make it like something on the go. Whenever you’re out and you can’t really use a big keyboard, you don’t want to take it with you, you could use this device to type. That’s really what was our starting point. As we developed more and had more functionalities, we started adding things that you don’t need any Braille knowledge for. For example if you hold button two, you can actually dictate. Button three is a magic tab. To pick up the phone, hang up the phone, do music, et cetera.
When we started doing that and started to also build in more support material, so we have a starting guide that gets you going, we have a lot of audio files, we realized that more and more people that had zero Braille knowledge also started using it because it helped already with not having to do the swiping gestures. Over the last, I think, half year, that group really has developed. If you look at the Netherlands where we started there, that’s our most active market.
I think right now around 35% to 40% of our users had no preliminary Braille usage or knowledge. I think personally that that’s super exciting, because I still really believe in Braille. I think it’s such a great way to make things more accessible. This is a step up for a lot of people because it’s only typing initially. You don’t need to know how to read in Braille. That helps out for a lot of people to still make it accessible. It’s a bit of a learning curve, but it goes relatively fast.
Jonathan: It could be a way that encourages people to get into Braille. That’s a great thing.
Freek: Exactly. I’ll be honest about it, that was never our initial intention, but now as we go and we just got this feedback from our user, we make sure that now there’s enough support around it so that it works that way. Indeed we see a lot of people that’s used this as a springboard to get into Braille. They can actually now fully type in Braille. Quite a group of them also start learning to read and Braille at this point.
Jonathan: Danny, you use the product as a blind person. How did you get involved?
Danny: I’m using it. I got involved, I think, one and a half year ago when through friends I found out about these guys. I just knocked on the door and was like, “Hey, guys, I’m visually impaired. I’m trying to be, I would say, more “functional””, quotations around it of course. “I like your products. I like the idea. Can I be of any support? I would like to be of a support. Then they were like hop on board and let’s see what we can do together. That’s how it started.
Jonathan: What practical difference have you found that it’s made in terms of the way that you use your smartphone?
Danny: I have a wider functionality on my smartphone, completely non-visual on this. I have some rest vision. It’s very tiring to use it. It gave me way more functionality that I could do. I wasn’t familiar with all the swipe features, but there are a lot of features on the Hable that I didn’t even knew if there were swipe features for which I use right now. It gives me way more functionality on the phone.
Jonathan: There are likely people who are saying Braille screen input’s built into my smartphone. What advantage do you see of using the Hable One over Braille screen input?
Danny: To start with, definitely the amount of control you have with the Hable. I don’t know how to search the screen, for example, by swipe inputs. Is that in function on the swipe input?
Jonathan: In the browser I think it may be but you’re right. Once you’re in that mode, you really have to keep rotoring in and out of Braille screen input.
Danny: You don’t have the rotor anymore because you have commands to, let’s say, input, search the screen, or next header. These are all commands that already are in the Hable, so you don’t have to click between the rotor, which makes it very quick. If you’re getting in a text field, you can type right away. There’s less things that you have to do in order to get done what you want it to have done, if that makes sense.
Jonathan: If someone has a Braille display, is there a place for them to have a Hable as well?
Danny: For me what it definitely did if– what I was used to with vision is if you’re sitting in the bus and you get a text message, then I would grab it, look at my screen and answer. The portability of the Hable that, I guess, now I can finally sit in the bus again, I feel my phone vibrate. I take my Hable One out of my pocket. Headphones, I probably already have on because of music or whatever. Then I take my Hable One, I slide it on, and then it connects right away. Then I can read my message and reply also just on the go in the bus or wherever I are.
Freek: I think maybe to add on this, a thing we hear a lot from people is that the initial reason for getting a Hable is because this typing is a little slow on the phone itself. When you’re just using the phone, it’s a little slow. A lot of people especially use it when they’re on their way. When you’re out and about and you don’t actually have a stand or desk to use your Braille display on, then it’s quite nice to be able to type in the area and in a much faster pace. Funnily, that brings more advantages. One of them is that you don’t actually have to take your phone out of your pocket.
Most of our users, they will have the Hable One in their hands, a Bluetooth earpiece in, and they don’t have to touch their phone at all. You actually can unlock the phone fully to Hable. You can do all the navigation gestures. It gives a very safe feeling because your Hable’s in two hands. You have even have a wristband for it, and your phone is completely safe in your pocket. It’s much more control and it also feels a lot safer. Another thing is it actually, once people start also doing the navigation side of things, which you’ll learn very quickly, it’s built to be especially intuitive, you’ll be very, very fast on the phone.
Another group, and that’s a really big group for the people that are now using it, is the group of people that’s turned visually impaired at a later stage in life, or people with also a motor impairment that just have a lot of trouble using swiping gestures. Can be super frustrating, energy-consuming to use those. There we see there’s a big advantage of being able to use physical buttons just for giving you more control and more easy handling of the phone.
Jonathan: Where does the name Hable come from?
Freek: The honest, honest story is that we put several names in Google translate till we thought there’s something that sounds really cool. Hable comes from the Spanish word of talking, and we really liked that. Hablar. You’re speaking, you’re getting connected. We said it in an English way, is Hable, because we afterwards Hable in there. It sounded like a cool combination to us.
Jonathan: Very cool. How does the experience differ based on the operating system that it’s connected to, because it’s obviously quite sensitive about that the experience changes markedly depending on whether you’ve connected it to an iOS or an Android device?
Freek: That’s a really good question. Initially it was one on one. Also still the main functionality is completely the same both on iOS and Android. Now, with the latest TalkBack update which is a great update, there are some things that are now different compared on both devices. You have a little different functionality on Androids compared to iOS, and that’s just a little bit different way of handling it. These are the specific functions that are different between the two types. As we speak, we’re just working on updating the last parts for the new Android functions.
We actually do all the translations inside the Hable itself. That gives us the freedom to do our own interpretations and our own way of designing, both the combinations on what they should do on the phone. That’s why we’re now doing the final updates to make sure we’re also fully compatible with the last update from from TalkBack. Then you can use all the functionalities the same ones on iOS and the TalkBack are the same on the Hable, and then only the unique ones are different. You can do all of them on the Hable.
Jonathan: That’s really interesting. For English-speaking users, for example, who may use contracted Braille, all of that contracted Braille input that you’re doing is happening on the Hable, and then the text is being sent out to the device effectively back translated. Is that right?
Freek: Exactly. That’s one of the more unique things that we have, and the reason why is really to have that freedom to operate for us. In the demo, people will hear this bit already, our way of going to a next item. Our way of a single finger swipe is different than what you’re used to. That’s something we can do because we do our own interpretations. That is because we really focus on being simple and intuitive. If you’re new to the Hable, there’s a very good chance within 10 to 15 minutes you’ll at least be able to get the full basics. That was for us really important. We want that freedom for the whole of the navigation. That’s why we did this.
Jonathan: I must say I was super impressed, because I got all the documentation, it’s a very well-documented product. Within a few minutes, I was up and running, navigating the home screen, texting with this thing and I felt, wow, this is just super intuitive. I think it’s a very sensible decision that you’ve made. It must have taken quite a lot of engineering work. Everybody knows that iOS Braille is really quirky in terms of input. Sometimes you can navigate to the middle of a word and you insert a letter, and bizarre things happen, but you’ve worked around that.
Freek: Yes. It’s true, it was quite some extra work it gave our developers a bit more of a headache from time to time, but I think it’s completely worth it. Also, exactly like you’re saying, and also our users say that they’re very happy and pleased with it. I’m very happy we did this.
Jonathan: We’ve talked about smartphones. Does it work on a PC and the Mac as well?
Freek: At this stage, It just supports typing. It doesn’t support screen reading software on the PC or Mac at this stage.
Jonathan: Is that in contracted Braille as well?
Freek: Yes. That’s contracted and normal Braille you would be able to do, just not on navigation.
Jonathan: That’s quite interesting. You could Braille into, say, a Microsoft word document, but you’d have to, once you started reviewing that text, you’d have to go back to your regular physical keyboard.
Freek: Yes, that’s true. To be honest, we’ve really focused on the phone and tablets at this stage. It’s something that’s definitely possible for us to do, we would have to build it and put it in a software, but it’s just not been the focus. We really love the smartphones and tablets. That’s where we want to perfect, and then at the later stage, we can always decide to develop this and put it in a software update to make it available to everyone.
Jonathan: For those listeners who are multilingual, what languages do you support right now?
Freek: At this stage, we are supporting English grade one and two, French grade one and two. There’s Dutch, Spanish, German, Portuguese, Italian. I think those are the languages we’re supporting now, and we’re quickly building more languages actually as we speak.
Jonathan: Are you doing fairly regular firmware updates? How do you receive those?
Freek: Right now they are around every three months. At this stage, we’re doing firmware updates via the PC. You pretty much attach the cable from the Hable One to the PC, and you update there with the Hable updates tool program which gets you the new software. This is something that might change in the future, but at this rate, I can’t really say how it will work, but it will improve soon.
Jonathan: Danny, what kind of battery life are you getting when you’re using Hable One?
Danny: I think I charge it once a month.
Freek: It should be around right. If you use it every single day, it should be around once a month. I think Danny should use it every day. [laughs] It’s a extremely long battery life.
Jonathan: It’s possible to find out the battery percentage remaining of the device?
Freek: Yes. That’s built into the Hable.
Jonathan: What about pricing? How much does this cost?
Freek: The pricing is a little bit different based on the region and that’s based on import duties, et cetera. Right now, since July, it’s available in the US, where it’s selling for $349. That’s the total price. It will be available in Australia and New Zealand very soon, so in around a month, but pricing is not yet determined. You can actually ask for the pricing on our website based on the country you’re in, but that’s around the price you should think of.
Jonathan: It will probably be relative I’m sure, with exchange rates and all those things. One thing I wondered is that I’ve grown up as a lifelong Braille reader and writer with the Perkins Brailler layout where the keys are laid out horizontally. The way that the Hable is structured is you’ve got three vertical keys on either side for dot 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and then you’ve got dot 7 and 8, like a backspace and an enter, but they do far more than that on the Hable. Have you ever had any call or have you ever considered a keyboard that will line the keys horizontally like a tabletop device?
Freek: Yes, certainly. It’s been a big decision for us to see how and which button layout we would use. Of course, Perkins is something that so much people are used to. We also think it’s a great structure, the reasoning behind us going for this vertical layout similar to real typing on phone, is that mobility reason. Because we use it like this, so in a vertical layout, you can use the Hable while in the air.
You don’t have to place it on anything. That, for us was just a very important factor, that makes it a little easier to use wherever you are, so you’re not limited to the usage of the Hable. What we learn is that because you in the end, you use the same fingers as with the Perkins, you get used to it relatively quickly. That’s what the overall opinion and the overall feedback we’re getting. It shouldn’t be a big issue for people to adapt to this.
Jonathan: I found that after I was using it for an hour or so, it became second nature. In fact, if people are used to Braille screen input in that screen away mode, then they’ll become quite familiar with it quickly. How do you think you compare, because obviously Hable is not the only Braille keyboard in the space, there are competitors out there? What do you perceive your advantages to be?
Freek: First, I’m very happy there are competitors. I think there’s also more organizations up and coming and working on similar devices, I think it’s good to have different options. I think how we compare, I think the first and the most important thing is our initial design decision of the Hable. We’re focused on making it simple and intuitive to use the phone. If you compare to products, other products might be a little bit more efficient or faster if you put a lot of time into this.
I think several Braille displays, et cetera, would just be faster when you use it on the phone because you also have to build reading line and you can be used to the Perkins type. However, if you start using a Hable, yes, as you said, Jonathan, within an hour, you can actually already do so many things, plus you have the mobility factor. You can really rely on the product. The Hable has a one-month battery life. You can use wherever you are, when you’re out and about, or when you’re inside the house.
You can use it up to 10 meters from your phone with Bluetooth. You can use it for more than a month. It’s super intuitive. It really is there to always be available to you. I think that’s also the last part, we invest a lot in a good quality product, so it should last for a very long time. We’ve worked with a company that makes really high-quality products, again for that same reason. It should last for long, it should be simple and intuitive wherever you are. That’s really the whole package, and that’s what makes the Hable unique.
Jonathan: That’s pretty solid. One of the comments that Dennis left, who started this interview, was that he was hoping that you might add the good old-fashioned North American Braille that predated the unified English Braille. Is that something that might happen in the future?
Freek: Yes. 100%. Our next software update will actually have this already built in. That is definitely happening very soon. Actually, I really like this. A lot of our users are actually providing us with a lot of feedback. Very often we’re able to, especially smaller things, to build those in very quickly and put them on the next update so people can work with it right away. That’s also something we are aiming to keep on doing in the coming years.
Jonathan: How can people find out more about this device? We’re about to go into a demo. We’ll demonstrate this working with an iPhone, but if people want to find out more, where can people go?
Freek: You can visit our website, which is iamhable.com. There it says all the information and also how to reach out to us directly. If you want to reach out directly, the best way to do it right now is via email, which is to firstname.lastname@example.org. Those are the best ways to reach out. We tend to respond within a single day.
Jonathan: Any final thoughts from you, Danny? It’s obviously pretty cool when you like a product so much that you go and work for the company, right?
Danny: [laughs] Yes, true. Any last thoughts? Yes. I’ve been liking it more since I’ve been working there because then I know more in-depth about what can this device bring and what’s the potential that it has. I’m excited for what Hable will offer in the future and what they will bring. Definitely.
Jonathan: That’s Danny and Freek from Hable One. Now, let’s take a look at this product. It’s very light. It weighs just 90 grams. You can easily carry it around with you. You barely know that you have it in a pocket. It’s dimensions are 100 by 46 by 48 millimeters. According to the official specs, you’ll get 50 hours of battery life from this little Hable One, and you can charge that with the USB-C port that is on the bottom of the unit when you are holding it as recommended by Hable. If you let the device discharge all the way, it’s going to take three hours to charge from zero all the way up to 100%.
Once you’ve done that, of course, you get your full 50 hours of use. On the top of the unit, you have a couple of lights that feel like they might be switches, but in fact they are not. If you try and move them or press them, nothing happens. The power on-off switch is in the middle. That slides to the right when you’re holding it with the side at the top, which is what you need to do, and the keyboard facing away from you. When you slide it to the right, the unit will vibrate. We’ll demonstrate that in a moment. That tells you that the unit is on.
On the side facing away from you is the Braille keyboard because the idea is that you can use this on the move, there’s a wrist strap you can attach to the Hable One. You can just hold it in your hands if you like. The way that your fingers naturally fall on the keyboard means that you can use this standing up. You can use it anywhere that you want. You could also lay it down on a table and use it that way if you want. There are small rubber feet on the bottom of the device that make it sturdy on a table. If you do, then Hable recommends that you flip dots 1 and 3, and 4 and 6.
I’ve done that anyway. I found it really confusing, this might just be me, until I did the flip of 1 and 3, and 4 and 6. In its natural default state on the very left, you have a large key. That is dot 7. Then you have three vertically-aligned keys. By default, dot 1 is closest to you, dot 2 is in the middle, and dot 3 is furthest away from you towards the bottom of the unit. You can flip that if you want, and I did because I just found that much easier. There’s a distinct tactile gap, and then you’ve got three more keys there, dots 4, 5, and 6, just like a Braille cell.
Then on the right, you have another larger key that is dot 8, and you can use these in various innovative ways that we’ll describe throughout this demonstration. Pairing the Hable One is just like pairing any other Bluetooth keyboard. It’s simply a matter of turning it on by default. When you turn it on for the first time, if it’s not paired with a device, then it will be put into pairing mode. I’m using an iPhone, so I just went into the iOS Bluetooth settings and I found the Hable One there. I double-tapped and it was paired.
On standard Braille devices, you tend to find that functions are executed with what are called cord commands. That is to say that you hold down the space bar and then you press your Braille dots in combination with the space bar to do various things. There is no space bar as such on the Hable One. There’s a pretty ingenious scheme that they’ve come up with where you execute commands by holding down Braille symbols.
If you just type quickly, you press and release the key, then you are Brailling into a document or doing whatever you need to do on the device itself, but if you want to give a navigation instruction or perform something relating to the operating system, you hold combinations of keys down. For example, if I want to navigate to the top of my iOS home screen, I press and hold dots 1, 2, 3. If you’re a seasoned iPhone user with a Braille device, you will know that usually dots 1, 2, 3 cord will get you to the top of the screen. There’s a lot of logic there. I’ll do that now.
Automated: [vibrates] Messages.
Jonathan: I held the keyboard up close to the microphone so that you can hear that it vibrates when you press a key combination like this. That gives you additional confirmation. If I want to go to the bottom of the screen, which is where my doc is, I would hold down dots 4, 5, and 6.
Automated: [vibrates] Doc Uber.
Jonathan: Now I’m at the bottom. Uber is in my doc because I take a lot of Ubers. To launch this app, in other words, to double-tap, I press dots 7 and 8 together. These are the big, long keys on either side of the keyboard. I’ll just tap them together.
Automated: Uber show how much you care. Send gifts to friends in your area with connect.
Jonathan: Now I’m in the Uber app. If I want to get back to my home screen, I hold down the letter H. That’s dots 1, 2, and 5. I’ll press and hold that. [device vibrates] [beep] iOS didn’t speak, that’s iOS’s problem. I am now back on the home screen. What if I want to just flick left and right? I’m doing all these things without even touching the phone. I haven’t touched the phone once since I started this demonstration. Actually, I’m going to endeavor not to touch it for the whole of this demonstration. I’ll go to a known place. I’ll press dots 1, 2, 3, and hold that down.
Automated: [vibrates] Messages.
Jonathan: Now, I’m at the top of my screen, which is messages. If I want to navigate right by item, I hold down dot 7 on the left of the keyboard, while then pressing dot 8 repeatedly. I’m holding down dot 7, and I’ll press 8.
Automated: Settings. Smart home folder. 10 Sonos. App store. Four updates available.
Jonathan: If I want to go backwards, I do the reverse. I hold down dot 8, the big key at the right end of the keyboard, and then I press dot 7 to go back.
Automated: Sonos. Smart home folder. 10. Settings. Messages.
Jonathan: Now if I go one more.
Jonathan: iOS beeps because I’m at the top of my screen. It’s very intuitive to use. I’m going to go into the messages app now. That’s what’s currently got focus. I’ll press dot 7 and 8 together.
Automated: Messages. Back button.
Jonathan: Now, I am in a message that I was previously engaging with. I’m here because I want to show you how you can press the back button from anywhere. All you have to do is hold down the Braille letter B for back.
Automated: [vibrates] Edit button.
Jonathan: Now, I’m back on the main screen of my messages app because I press the back button. I can go home again by pressing the H and holding it down. [device vibrates] [beep] Now I’m back on the home screen. I have only two pages of apps, plus there’s the today’s screen and the app library. The reason for that is because I’m a neat freak and I have all my apps sorted into folders, except for page one of my home screen. If I want to scroll right, I can press and hold dots 1, 3, and 5 like a right arrow symbol.
Automated: [vibrates] Page two of two. Blindness folder. 22 apps.
Jonathan: To go back, I can do the reverse dots 2, 4, and 6 like a left arrow symbol.
Automated: [vibrates] Home. Page one of two. Messages.
Jonathan: I can’t find a function that I cannot do with this Hable, for example, if I wanna check my notifications, I’m going to Braille the letter N and hold it down.
Automated: [vibrates] Notification center. 33 notifications. Mail grouped four minutes ago.
Jonathan: Now I’ll go home.
Automated: [vibrates] 33 notification messages.
Jonathan: Now I’m back on my home screen. We’re never far away from playing and pausing media. You do that by holding down the letter P, dots 1, 2, 3, 4. [device vibrates]
I paused it by pressing dots 1, 2, 3, 4 again, if we want to check the status bar, we can Braille dots 2, 3, and 4. That’s the letter S, and hold it down.
Automated: [vibrates] 10:35 AM. status bar item.
Jonathan: Now we’re on the status bar. I’ll go home again. In fact, I could push the B key and hold it down.
Automated: [vibrates] Messages.
Jonathan: Now I’m back on messages because I executed the back button. I’m now going to scroll through page one of my home screen, where I have apps that I use a lot. I’m going to hold down dot 7 and press dot 8 repeatedly.
Automated: Settings. Smart home folder. Sonos. App store. Aira. ASB Mobile. Voice dream reader. Find my. Life 306. Ulysses. Fantastical. Envision.
Jonathan: There’s Envision, I’m going to hold down dots 3 and 8.
Automated: [vibrates] Start reading instantly button. Start reading instantly button.
Jonathan: What that’s done is brought up the context menu for this app because that’s effectively triple-tapping the icon. Now I can navigate through these Envision shortcuts.
Automated: Scan text button. Scan barcode button.
Jonathan: To get out of here, I’ll just hold down the letter B to go back.
Automated: [vibrates] Envision.
Jonathan: Now I’m back on the Envision icon. One thing that you want to do quite a bit of I’m sure is to go into apps that you’ve used recently. We can invoke the app switcher by holding down dots 2 and 3.
Automated: [vibrates] App switcher. Messages. Active.
Jonathan: Now we’re in the app switcher.
Automated: Actions available.
Jonathan: I can press the H key-
Automated: [vibrates] Facebook. Messages.
Jonathan: -and hold it down, and we’re back on the home screen. If you want to invoke Siri, you can do that by holding down dots 1, 4, and 5. That’s the letter D. It may be for dictate possibly. [device vibrates] What is zero divided by zero?
Siri: [beeps] If nothing is divided by nothing, then there’s nothing to divide or divide it with, and the division never happened. My answer is no.
Jonathan: Now I can go back home.
Automated: [vibrates] Messages.
Jonathan: I’m still succeeding in not having touched the touchscreen at all. Since I started using Hable One. If I want to go into the control center, I hold down dots 2, 4, 5 which is the letter J. I don’t know why that’s control center apart from the fact that it might have been vacant.
Automated: [vibrates] Control center. Airplane mode. Switch button. Off. Actions available.
Jonathan: We’ll go back home by holding down H. [device vibrates] Now we’re back home.
Jonathan: I could go through every single function. As I say, I can’t find anything that I can’t do was this. You can label items, you can turn screen curtain on and off, and on and on it goes. One thing I would like to demonstrate is use of the rotor because a good number of people seem to struggle with that rotor gesture, and it really is critical to using iOS fully and effectively. To go to the next item in the rotor, in other words, to flick down, we hold down dot 7, and then we press dot 6.
Automated: Edit mode. Today.
Jonathan: I’m still holding dot 7 down and just tapping dot 6.
Automated: App library.
Jonathan: Now, if I want to go up the other way, I hold down dot 6, and I press dot 7. Super logical.
Automated: Today. Edit mode.
Jonathan: This becomes second nature so quickly. That’s how you flick through the items in the current rotor setting, but how do you actually rotate the rotor, which is the gesture that a lot of people have trouble with? Again, it’s super logical. Hold down dot 7, and now we’re going to press dots 5 and 6 together.
Automated: Characters. Words.
Jonathan: Now I’m holding down dot 7 and just tapping dots 5 and 6.
Automated: Speaking rate. 50 containers.
Jonathan: Now let’s go the other way. You guessed it, we hold down dots 5 and 6, and tap dot 7.
Automated: Speaking rate. 50%
Jonathan: We’re going back the other way.
Automated: Words. Characters.
Jonathan: That’s how you use the rotor. For example, I’m going to hold down dot 7, and then press dots 5 and 6 again,
Jonathan: Now I’m on words. I’ve kept dot 7 held down, but now I’m just going to tap dot 6.
Jonathan: There we go. That’s all there is actually there, but that’s how easy it is to work with the rotor using Hable. I’d now like to go into the Notes app. I could do this in a number of ways I could invoke spotlight search right from the keyboard, but I’m going to dictate into this. I’m going to Braille the letter D, hold that down. [device vibrates] Open Notes.
Automated: Notes. Edit button.
Jonathan: Now I’m going to hold down dot 7 and tap dot 8 to navigate through.
Automated: Folders. Heading. Search. Search iCloud button. All iCloud. Four notes. Four notes. Explosion. Work bridge. Notes. Toolbar. New note button.
Jonathan: There’s the new note button, so I’ll release dot 7. Now I’m going to press dot 7 and 8 together.
Automated: New note. Text field is editing. Word mode, insertion point at start.
Jonathan: I’m in an empty note field where I can type. The first thing I want to do is just confirm what grade of Braille I’m going to be writing in. Even though I’m in an edit field, all these holding down of things still work, so if I hold down the letter G,[device vibrates] it’s given me one vibration. That means that I’m now in grade one. That’s what we used to call it, you see, before it became uncontracted Braille. Now I’m going to hold down G again.
[device vibrates] Two vibrations means that we are in grade two or contracted Braille. Because Hable One handles all the translation onboard, it can do some really cool things. For example, if I Braille dot 6 to indicate that I’m about to capitalize a letter, [device vibrates] it vibrates to tell me that the next letter is going to be a capital. I can Braille H-E-L-L-O and a full stop, and then I’ll press dot 8, which is the space bar in this context.
Jonathan: I’ve got my keyboard echo turned off right now, but if I backspace over this by pressing dot 7–
Automated: Space. Full stop. O. L. L. E. H.
Jonathan: Now we’re back at the beginning and I’ve erased everything. I’m just going to Braille a little bit. I’m going to Braille H-E-L-L-O and a full stop-
Jonathan: -and then a capital. See, it vibrated again. I am Brailling on the Hable– Oops, I made a mistake, so I’ll press the dot 7.
Jonathan: It erased the apostrophe. The L-E, and the one is written out in full, so Hable One.
Jonathan: Now, we’ll look at reviewing this in other ways. I’m going to hold down dot 8 and press dot 7.
Automated: The 24th of August, 2022 at 10:49 AM.
Jonathan: Now I’m going to hold down dot 7 and press dot 8.
Automated: Note, text field is editing. Hello. I am Brailling on the Hable One.
Jonathan: There we go. That confirms that everything’s working correctly. Let’s have a look at some of the ways to navigate. Firstly, just to give you a quick demo, I was backspacing character by character, but if you want to backspace word by word, so you want to erase a whole lot of things at once, you can hold down dot 5 while you press dot 7. That will erase a word at a time. Because the translation is all being handled onboard, when you Braille a number sign, dots 3, 4, 5, and 6, just like Hable vibrates when you enter a capital letter, it will vibrate to tell you that the next thing you enter is going to be a number.
Now, I’m going to press dots 2, 3, and 6, and that will get me to the beginning of the document. Of course I have to press and hold that. [device vibrates] Now I should be at the beginning of the document, and I can navigate by various elements. It’s very logically laid out. If I want to navigate by character, I hold down dot 7 and press dot 4.
Automated: H. E. L. L. O.
Jonathan: I am having some difficulty navigating by word in this document, but what should be happening is holding down dot 7 and dot 5 will allow me to navigate by word and so on, so it’s logically laid out. You can also select text all from the Hable as well. When you’re done typing, you can of course go home-
Jonathan: -and you’re at the main screen. The keyboard is quite clicky. You can definitely hear in this microphone, which is very directional, that it makes quite a clicky sound, but it’s quite easy to Braille on. You do get some good travel so that you are Brailling correctly. I think over time you get a good speed. I’ve had a lifetime of typing on a Perkins, as I said in the interview. Typing in this vertical layout is something that I don’t do a lot. I don’t even use screen away mode on Braille screen input very much. My strong preference is always tabletop mode.
I know that that’s not the case for everybody. In this case, Hable One should be very intuitive. Even if it’s not intuitive for you, it is something that you can learn to use very quickly. There is a handy menu that you can go into that gives you information about the device, and you can make changes to the device on this menu. You can get a battery status indicator, which is reported to you through vibrations.
You can change the language that the device is using, and you can do the all important flipping of dots 1 and 3, and 4 and 6, which, depending on your Braille preferences, may help improve your productivity with the device. I am sure that within a week of using this day in, day out, you’d really rack up some good speed with this and it becomes very intuitive. There’s a logic, a beauty about the way these commands are structured, which really demonstrates a good capacity with user interface. This is a device well worth checking out.
Even if you do have a Braille display but you just want to have something in your pocket with you, you’re not necessarily going to carry your display with you everywhere, but you want to get something out where you can quickly and easily reply to emails, text messages with Braille input, or you might like to have something portable for your phone that acquaints you better with Braille, this is definitely a device worth checking out.
I thank the Hable team for sending this to me. I think it’s a great device. You can find out more at, iamhable.com. That’s iamH-A-B-L-E.com. If you are in the United States, then the fine people at Mystic Access are selling this device, and you can get in touch with them.
Transcripts of Mosen At Large are brought to you by Pneuma Solutions, a global leader in accessible cloud technologies, on the web at pneumassolutions.com. That’s P-N-E-U-M-Asolutions.com.
David Andrews remembers the early days of computer technology
Whether it be bulletin boards or email lists, or even computer forums, if you have been connected with other blind people on the internet, chances are you’ve heard of our next guest. I’m pretty sure that he was one of the very early guests on blind line. I thought it was long time that we got David Andrews back for a chat about all sorts of things, because we do like to focus on the cutting edge most of the time, but it’s also good to reflect on where we’ve come from as well. David Andrews joins me. David, it’s great to have you on the show. Welcome back.
David Andrews: Thank you for having me.
Jonathan: Give us a bit of a background for those who aren’t familiar with what you do. You’ve been in that gig in Minnesota for quite a long time, I think.
David: I’ve been here 27 years now, but I’ve been around for a long time. I’m 68. I have a bachelor’s degree in communications, and a master’s degree in radio and television. I got involved in the beginning of my career. I started out as a news writer at an all news radio station. Then I got involved in radio reading services, and worked in different capacities and reading services in different places. I don’t know that you want to get into that much detail. Did that for a number of years and was increasingly interested in technology, and started using modems and bulletin boards, and all that. Interestingly, people told their stories. My first modem was a 300-baud acoustic coupler modem, where it had the cups on the top and you put the handset.
Jonathan: [laughs] I remember those things.
David: You remember those?
Jonathan: Yes. [laughs]
David: This is some assistive technology trivia. I bought it from Eric Bohlman. You remember Eric Bohlman?
Jonathan: He was the Tiny Talk guy, wasn’t he?
David: Correct. He wrote Tiny Talk. I bought it then. I got a 1200 and a 2400-baud modem. Then the 9600, and then had a bunch of 14400 modems by the end for the NFBnet bulletin board.
Jonathan: We all remember that Willie Wilson was striding along at 9600-baud. I think he had a dog called Stryder, and so he would have in his signature that he was striding along at 9600-baud. Let’s not forget about Tiny Talk. I’ve often thought that that was a really undervalued piece of software because it was back in the DOS days. The thing that was quite interesting about Tiny Talk was you could configure that program, as we called it then, and then you could save it as an executable and give it to somebody.
If somebody had the need to use one particular piece of software and they weren’t very savvy with a screen reader, you could give them an executable and their speech and what was speaking on the screen would all be configured, you’d run that thing. I don’t know how much of a gamer you were in the DOS days, but one of my favorite games was a version of Monopoly by a guy called Don Phillip Gibson. I don’t think that he did this specifically for blind people. It just happened to talk because it didn’t use direct screen writes, it went through the BIOS. I would compile a version of Tiny Talk specifically for this version of Monopoly and run that every time I wanted to play the game.
David: I’ve never been a big gamer. Tiny Talk was the good program and it certainly had its uses. My online stuff, I was one of the administrators of the disabilities forum on CompuServe. That’s how I first got involved in online administration kinds of stuff. I moved to Lawrence, Kansas to work for the University of Kansas for their reading service, and I became good friends with Chuck Hollenbeck who had written a screen reader called PROVOX. Then I did sales and marketing for Chuck, and he did the programming.
PROVOX was not widely used but it was a very good program. It was small. It only took 40k which could be important in DOS depending on what you were trying to do. You could run it into high memory if you needed to. Some of the other programs like IBM screen reader and JAWS took 130k, 140k, and it could be a problem cramming everything in. PROVOX was very small, agile, quick. It was all written in assembly. Chuck was the first one to devise a audio cursor that you could move around the screen not without a review mode and not disturbing what was on the screen. Everybody does that now, but we had it back in 1987.
Jonathan: You’re bringing back memories I haven’t thought about for years. I remember that the really important thing in the DOS days was having a great config.CIS file and you would have to make sure that programs that could would go into high memory to optimize those that could not.
David: All the power users. You remember QEMM-
David: -from quarter deck? God, we used to fiddle with all that stuff for days.
Jonathan: Then there was an alternative to DOS called 4DOS which seemed to automate a lot of these things.
David: I never got into 4DOS that much. I saw it but just never did it. I did that stuff for a while. Then early in 1991, before that I had gone to work for Fred Schroeder in the New Mexico Commission for the Blind that started a dial-up newspaper. We ended up being the third one in the country. There was one in Michigan and then one here in Minnesota was the second. Then we were the third. I did that for a while. Then I got hired by the NFB to run the International Braille and Technology Center. I was into bulletin boards at that time pretty heavily.
Had always wanted to start one and talk to Dr. Jernigan and people the NFB, and said, we should do this and we should have our own, what we called them, echos back then, discussion groups that went around to different boards. He said, “We’ll buy the machine if you’ll put in the time and do it,” so I did it on my own outside of work, but it was right in my office. We started NFBnet as a single line bulletin board in June of ’91. Back then if I wanted to do work on it, I had to take it down. Then later on we moved to OS2 and I could multitask and have multiple lines, and all of that. Originally, it was just one dial-up line.
Jonathan: I want to talk plenty about these bulletin boards but just before we move on to those, I’ve never been able to ask anybody what moderating inconclusive was like. I used CompuServe. I almost went bankrupt as a teenager and CompuServe but I didn’t moderate anything. What kind of tools did you have? What did moderation on CompuServe involve?
David: I don’t remember the name, Jonathan, to be honest with you. Somebody out there will remember. There was a software package that you could run that allowed you to download your forums and read them, and respond to messages.
Jonathan: That sounds like TAPCIS.
David: Yes, that was it. Do that all offline. You could administer that way and everything, and then put it back up. The only way I could get it to work reasonably well was with ASAP. You remember ASAP?
Jonathan: Yes. Lary Skutchan.
David: It was an amazing piece of software. He tried to do things automatically that you had to configure with other people. It worked pretty well with TAPCIS, so that’s how I did it. You could dial in to CompuServe the way you normally would and do it that way, but you were paying by the minute.
Jonathan: Oh boy. Once you added the executive news service in the mix, you could really clock up some–
David: If you use TAPCIS, you could do most of it offline.
Jonathan: There would be certain features then that were available even through TAPCIS that mere mortals couldn’t see that– What could you do? Could you delete people’s messages? Approve them? What was involved in moderating those?
David: My memories are pretty hazy, Jonathan, I have to tell you, because that was 1988, 1989. It’s been over 40 years. I think we could delete messages but there wasn’t a lot of that. It didn’t seem like we had a lot of trolls and some of the problems that you have today.
Jonathan: We’ll definitely come on to social discourse in its quality. Basically it was pretty low maintenance then.
David: Correct. It was pretty low maintenance to be perfectly honest.
Jonathan: The International Braille and Technology Center you were its inaugural director weren’t you?
Jonathan: What was the rational behind setting up the IBTC?
David: The rationale was that there should be a place where one of everything the blind people used in technology existed and was purchased so we could do two things. One, we could demo it to people, and we had people come through pretty much every day, thousands of people a year. We could demo, and we did reviews. There were a lot of reviews in the Braille monitor probably more than there are today. We made recommendations to people via mail and email, and phone. It was probably more phone back then because email was just really coming into being in the internet and certainly didn’t exist the way we know it. We saw ourselves as a consumer reports for blind people.
Jonathan: At the time, it did receive some criticism as being a bit of a museum or a mausoleum, that all this technology was there but it was hard for people to access. Was that unfair?
David: I don’t know. It depends on what you mean by access. Could they come and write their dissertation on it? No. Could they come and use something if they needed to? Yes. Certainly people could try things out. We actually talked pretty seriously about using some of the higher speed Braille printers and setting up a Braille production unit. A commercial Braille production facility that would print at night when there weren’t people going through and whatever, but it never happened.
You can criticize anything and throw stones at it, but I think it served its purpose, and I think it served its purpose pretty well. Sometimes we evaluate things through today’s lens. You have to remember how things were back then. There just weren’t that many people that knew about technology, not as many. There weren’t that many sources of unbiased information. I think it served its purpose. I’m biased of course.
Jonathan: Of course you are, and you should be proud of what you achieved too.
David: When I go back there and look, some of the things they do and the way things are laid out, and all of that, it was all stuff that I did. It still sticks. We must have done some things right.
Jonathan: I went to the IBTC for the first time in 1995 after the Chicago Convention, which was my first NFB convention actually. For me, it was like a pilgrimage because I’d heard about it. What impressed me was everything was plugged in. You could switch it all on and you could use this technology. If you could get there, you would actually be able to get your hands on it and have a play, and perhaps get a feel for what the technology was that you were interested in.
David: I do remember you coming and meeting you. When I first came to the IBTC and set things up before we moved to where they are now, somebody was coming in for a tour. I used to go around the whole room and literally turn everything on so it was ready. Then as the collection grew and there was more and more and more there, it was just too much. I would turn on the things that people wanted to see.
Jonathan: Now that we’ve been all around for a while, nostalgia is quite a thing. When we have conversations like this, there’s a lot of interest. What’s happened to a lot of that old technology that many people may not have even seen if they’re of a certain age. At what point does NFB retire it?
David: I don’t work there any longer and I haven’t in a long time. I know my practice was as long as something could still be purchased we would keep it on the floor. If not, then we would pull it. I’m presuming they still do that. Plus more and more stuff has moved to software, so the hardware probably isn’t as big. Over the years, we had talked about setting up a museum. I don’t know if that’s still in the cards. It never quite got off the ground, but we did talk about it seriously.
Jonathan: What I find with technology is it varies a lot. There is certain technology that’s been a key part of my life, I know that if I sat down in front of it, I would pick it up and I would use it as if I had never been away. Then there might be some technology that I used to be quite familiar with, if I sat down in front of it now I would think, “I wonder how you ever operated this thing.”
David: That’s correct. I’ve gone through so many computers and operating systems and Braille displays and note-takers and devices that a lot of it just goes away.
Jonathan: You made an oblique reference there to OS/2. I want to talk about this a little bit because I don’t-
David: I loved OS/2.
Jonathan: -think OS/2 gets enough credit for the accessible innovations that were going on there. There’ll be some people shrugging their shoulders and saying what are we talking about, so let’s talk about OS/2. Talk me through that.
David: OS/2 was an operating system developed jointly by IBM and Microsoft. It was initially intended as a replacement for Windows. It was a graphical user interface, and it was multitasking. It was really good, but for various reasons, probably some of which were political, Microsoft lost interest in it and backed out and just left it with IBM. IBM supported it for a number of years. They had a screen reader for it called Screen Reader/2. It was written Screen Reader/2. Did you ever meet Jim Thatcher?
Jonathan: I don’t think I ever met him. I may have interviewed him, but I certainly know the name is a legend in the industry.
David: Yes. He was a legend. Jim, unfortunately, has passed away. He worked for IBM and he was the brains and the glue behind– He started out with a screen reader for DOS and then Screen Reader/2, and kept that up. He was a great guy. He was a nice man, just super intelligent and a good guy. Back then in the ’90s, IBM really did things right. They tested things. They would experiment with doing things different ways and get things to work right and get the timings right and all that. They had a good set of testers. It was a great product.
I ran the bulletin board on it. IBM Screen Reader/2 had a separate hardware keypad that you used for control. It was the IBM keyboard, the clicky keyboard that you loved or hated, but if you loved it, it was a great piece of hardware that had just a great feel to it. It was a pleasure to use.
Jonathan: Yes. It’s what they now call mechanical keyboards. People pay a premium for mechanical keyboards these days.
David: Yes. We ran the bulletin board on OS/2, at least through 2000, but it wasn’t being updated and this and that and the other thing, and it got too difficult to support. I remember running into Jim Thatcher at CSUN around that time. He said, “You’re one of the few guys that still uses it.” He thought that was great, but it was a good operating system. There were some major corporations that used it. I think they used it at 3M. Curtis Chong who used to work for IDS American Express, they used it there. There’s an engineer that works for me now. He worked– I can’t remember where he worked, but a big corporation and they used. It was briefly but widely used in the corporate world probably in the ’90s.
Jonathan: What was intriguing about that was that I believe OS/2 may have been the first operating system to have a built-in screen reader, and it was graphical as well. It was breaking new ground. It was essentially giving us hope that graphical user interfaces weren’t going to be the end of the line for blind computer users. Quite a few of us did have that fear.
David: Yes. This is all true. In theory, it had the ability to run Windows programs. It probably didn’t always work as well as it might, but that was one of its goals.
Jonathan: What software were you running the bulletin boards on in those days?
David: I used a bulletin board software called Maximus.
Jonathan: Oh yes.
David: Willie Wilson was a friend, and we were competitive too, because his stuff and my stuff competed some, because we served the same market, but we also were good friends. Just a little aside, but in 1998 I went to England on a trip for my alma mater for a couple of weeks. I flew there. I had to change planes in Pittsburgh and I had a three-hour layover. Willie came out and had lunch with me while I waited. That was obviously not something he had to do. He was a good guy. I don’t think it was too much longer after that that he passed away, but I used Maximus. He used a piece of software called Opus.
They were both very similar. I just was never able to get Opus to work, so I used Maximus. There were some people in my area that used Maximus and knew about it and gave me some help, in Baltimore. Then I ended up running the mail relay hub for FidoNet for the whole Baltimore area because I felt like I had to give something back. That was fun.
Jonathan: One of my faults, I suppose, and it’s a strength as well, is that I love to play with new software, and people say to me, “You’re using this now, but I thought you loved such-and-such.” I like to tinker and try new things and so I used a lot of different bulletin board packages, but like you, I found Opus quite difficult to get going. If I remember the evolution of it, the first one was Fido. It was just simply called Fido. Then Fido went on to Opus. Maximus was like a fork of Opus. I think it was all open source and somebody developed Maximus out of that original code.
The thing about all those boards, those three, is that they had all of the echo management built in. If you went to things like Searchlight or Wildcat and some of the other ones that we were using then, you would have to get a third-party front end, I believe they called it, front-end manager to manage your FidoNet Echoes.
David: Well, I ran a front end with Maximus too. I ran BinkleyTerm.
Jonathan: Right. Mine was D’Bridge, I believe they called it.
David: Yes. In ’95 I got the job here in Minnesota. The first job I had. I’ve done different things for the agency over the years. I got a job here, and so I went into Dr. Jernigan and I gave notice and I said, “Well, we have to talk about what you want to happen with the bulletin board, because I do it now and whatever.” He said, “Well, are you still willing to do it?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Well, take it with you, we’ll pay your phone bills.”
David: That’s what we did. For years it was in my house, my apartment initially, then I moved to a house and it was in the basement. Then later on we moved to the cloud. Now it’s completely in the cloud, but for a long time, it was in my basement. I put a holder up in the ceiling and it hung down from the ceiling, the server, because it was quite big, huge IBM server.
Jonathan: [laughs] Great times. For those who weren’t around in the FidoNet days and take for granted the facts that I’m in New Zealand, you’re in the United States, I can email you and within seconds you will have my email on the other side of the world, it was not like that back then, can you talk me through the way that FidoNet Echoes and Fido Mail, for that matter, which was one-on-one correspondence, used to ultimately get, say, from me to you.
David: Yes. Basically, stuff was passed around. It could be an echo, which now we’d probably call it a forum, or an email list. They were passed around from board to board. They would be collected regionally, and then moved to another region, and on and on and on. Technically, you weren’t supposed to accept regular callers between 5:00 AM and 6:00 AM, that was the mail hour, and all these bulletin boards around the world exchanged mail and it was bicycled around from area to area to area. It wasn’t as fast obviously as today, but within a day you could get stuff around the world for free or pretty much for free.
I think some people made long-distance calls, but the mail hub at that region probably picked it up and then different bulletin boards in the area would call in to that main hub, which I ran one for a while, and pick up their mail and their echoes and sort them out and all that. It was all pretty amazing when you think that it all sprang up and people developed it. Then in, I think ’97, there was a piece of software developed for OS/2 that would allow you to telnet in. If you had internet access, you could use Telnet, which is a way to connect two computers, and you could telnet into NFBnet.org and it was like you had logged on with a modem. You could have as many sessions as you wanted within reason.
That really was a game changer, and that was the beginning of the end of the modem. Then, later on, we first went to an appliance. It ran Linux. It was from Sun Microsystems. It ran Linux and had all the software on it to do listservs and all that and support different websites. NFBnet also supported a bunch of websites for the NFB, as well as just all the lists. We were pioneering. We really were. There weren’t as many people that used this stuff and we really were pioneers.
Jonathan: I think there was that sense of awe in its true sense of the term that we could be communicating with other blind people around the place. I think that’s the thing that once we all started to talk to each other, from different countries especially, even different states in a large country like the United States was interesting, but once you get other countries into the mix and you start learning about the common struggles and some of the innovative solutions, it really made you realize that actually, the blind community is global in nature. That a lot of our struggles are very similar and we can all come together to discuss them and help solve them.
David: That’s true, and some of it’s being taken over by podcasts now.
David: Some of that communication.
Jonathan: Well, I think one of the things about podcasts that perhaps mimic the echoes in a way is the delayed response. If somebody leaves a message in response to the conversation that you and I are now having, it will appear on the podcast probably next week or the week after. The thing about the current social media and even email lists is that you can fire off a message, sometimes in anger, sometimes not very well thought through, and it’s going to be on thousands of people’s computers within 10 seconds. It’s a different kind of behavior.
David: Our greatest strength is our greatest weakness.
Jonathan: Yes, that’s right. Yes.
David: It just depends on the situation.
Jonathan: The thing about the echo mail was because we all had very, very limited bandwidth, particularly in the modem days, and hard drive space as well, you would be quite picky. I remember as a CSOP, the system operator for the bulletin boards that I ran, you’d be quite selective about which echoes you chose to carry and you would be appealed to by end users as the CSOP, “I really like this echo and I want you to carry it so that I can read it.”
David: You couldn’t carry everything because it would just take too long to download and process, and all of that.
Jonathan: One thing I’m curious about is certainly in the ’90s when we are talking about right now, NFB had a reputation for being quite a top-down organization and it very much liked to manage the message. I do remember from time to time conversations taking place about some of the anti-NFB messaging that would go on in the echoes even then. Was there a bit of tension from time to time between the ethos of the open communication that can go on on a bulletin board, you can’t predict who’s going to come in and who’s going to say what, and the culture of the NFB at that time?
David: There was certainly some discussion about it. I think there were people who did not use technology much or at all that some of these concepts were a little foreign to them. I was never told to take a certain message down or not do this, or don’t do that, or whatever. I think it might have been a little bit of a tempest in the teapot as they say.
Jonathan: The thing I remember very early in my bulletin board using days when I started getting connected to some of the blindness echoes was quite a significant campaign that Jamal Mazrui was running regarding prioritizing employment in NFB. He was ultimately expelled from NFB and was subsequently reinstated quite a bit later, but that was the first online campaign in the blindness space that I can really recall where he harnessed this very basic technology of the time to really try and make a point and get people thinking about the way he was thinking.
David: Yes. Back in 1982 or ’83 I was working for the New Jersey Library for the Blind and I started an NFB chapter there, and Jamal was in my chapter because he was a student at Princeton. Then later on he did this campaign. I know he felt strongly about it and did a campaign, and you’re right, it did use online stuff and other stuff, but ultimately, it was a voted convention. Obviously, employment is very important, maybe the most important thing we do, but you don’t just do one thing.
Jonathan: The reason why I raised that partly is because of the foresight the online activism that Jamal showed. He’s always been an incredible campaigner and advocate for what he believes in. You’ve got to respect people for that. The other thing that was interesting about that was this culture that I was talking about where the view of NFB was very clear at that time. You have the debate; you go to convention, you then have the vote, and then once the vote has taken place, if you are a member in good standing of NFB, you are obliged essentially to tow the party line. The debate is over.
There comes a point where the debate has to stop and all members of the federation are then committed to that view because the convention is the supreme governing body and it’s made its decision. These days if a resolution causes debate on social media, there’s absolutely nothing anybody would attempt to do about ongoing debate about that, but in those days, that was the feeling, that once the debate was over, it should be over.
David: Jonathan, social media is not an organization. Lots of organizations have that kind of policy. An organization can have a topic that is controversial and they debate it and they decide. If you’re going to keep bringing it up again and taking shots at the organization, that’s not doing anybody any good, people have to move on.
Jonathan: As the moderator, of that time especially, was it difficult for you? Because, obviously, you’re in the firing line, you are the one pushing the buttons there.
David: It’s been a long time, I probably forget some of the pain. It was more difficult than I think it is now. Maybe some of this stuff comes out on social media, not the least so much anymore. We occasionally have controversies or people disagree, but it seems to be more collegial than it was back there in the ’90s. Most things aren’t more collegial these days, but that was.
Jonathan: I have to tell you, without getting too sentimental on you, that I do credit the CompuServe forums and just having access to some of the literature that NFB was producing in my later teenage years, probably for literally saving my life. I was going through quite an existential crisis in those days about blindness and what would possibly become of me if the world was so unaccepting. It wasn’t really until I found some of that material through CompuServe, and then ultimately the FidoNet Echoes, that I saw a way out. It was incredibly impactful for this kid on the other side of the world.
When you look back on all of that stuff, there must be some names that stand out for you, some of the people who were using this technology very early. I think it’s true to say some of us still feel a special bond to this day because we were breaking all of that new ground.
David: That’s true. I used to practically wait by my mailbox for the Raised Dot Computing Newsletter. Then there was, all the names aren’t going to come up, but Joe Giovanelli, I think his name was; he put out a newsletter. Doug Wakefield had one.
Jonathan: NewsBits. I’ve got Doug to thank because NewsBits inspired me when I got to Main Menu. I wanted to do something as good as what Doug did with his.
David: It was more professionally done than some of the stuff at the time. Tim Cranmer and Deane Blazie and Ted Henter. I talked before about Chuck Hallenbeck. His stuff wasn’t that– Did you ever use Ralph the Reader?
Jonathan: Oh, I’ve forgotten all about Ralph the Reader. Who wrote Ralph the Reader?
David: Ralph was ours. I distributed it everywhere. That was probably my big success. It was freeware. I was working for the University of Kansas reading service then, and we had a volunteer, he’s since gone on to greater things, his name was Ralph Turner, not to speak ill of the dead, but Ralph was not a very good reader but he would plow through anything you gave him. We, half as a joke and half seriously, Chuck developed this program that would read text files and WordPerfect files and some other kinds of files, and it worked really well, so we called it Ralph the Reader.
Jonathan: There was another one too called ReadIt. David Justice wrote it and it was a good little reader. I’m just trying to remember what the name of–
David: I remember it, but I was a Ralph the Reader guy.
Jonathan: Fair enough. People had their preferences. See, the thing is there were a lot of mom-and-pop companies playing in the screen reader space. The other thing about Tinytalk, which we were talking about earlier, was that it was shareware. I believe it was the first screen reader that called itself shareware. You could get–
David: That’s true. Back then, DOS was simpler. Basically, you had so many places on a screen and you had to interrogate each one and see what was there and then put it together and read it. A guy could go out to his garage and write a screen reader with a little skill and a little persistence, where Windows is just substantially more complicated and you need a team. One guy can’t do it anymore, can’t write the–
When Chuck and I started, or he started before me and he wrote it and supported it and all that, one guy could do– That was his second job. He had a day job. He was a psychology professor. He’s an interesting story. Back in the ’60s, he taught himself how to program and there were no tools around. There were no tools that spoke or produced Braille or whatever.
He had to write himself an assembler to compile programs with no feedback. He just typed it into the computer and used human readers and eventually got it to work. Then he would produce. Back then there was a way that people would use the period on a impact printer to punch dots in paper and produce Braille. That’s how we got programming listings and did a text-to-speech and then eventually a screen reader. It’s amazing what he did all by himself.
Jonathan: There were a number of people who did this where they wrote screen readers part-time. Another one that comes to mind is Steve Smith who wrote Flipper. He had a company called Omicron. Was it Omicron?
David: I think that is right.
Jonathan: Like the omni. Anyway, it’s very close to the COVID variant. [laughs]
David: Debbie Norling and one other person had one. There were a bunch of them. One of my projects at the IBTC was to review all those programs.
Jonathan: Oh boy.
David: It was all put together in a book and APH was supposed to publish it and then they didn’t and whatever, but that’s another story. I had used them all in the day.
Jonathan: Pulse Data, which develops the KeyNote here in New Zealand, I was a KeyNote guy– originally that company was called Wormald International Sensory Aids– they eventually went to DOS as well. They did a version of KeyNote for DOS.
David: They had that pad with the lines across it.
Jonathan: Oh yes, they had the Master Touch.
David: Master Touch.
Jonathan: Before they developed Master Touch, they did a deal with Steve, the Flipper guy. The thing is, if you wanted to get your Flipper unlocked, if you got a new computer or something like that, you would have to call Steve before he left for work. The best time was about seven o’clock California time, which was the middle of the night for me. I remember when I’d got a new computer, I’d have to wait till 4:00 AM and call this guy and hope that he would pick up before he went to work.
David: It was definitely different times, but we’ve come a long way. Now I think people take this for granted and have no clue what we had to go through, which is fine. They shouldn’t have to.
Jonathan: You did have to be much more geeky to make this stuff work, right? There were no software speech synthesizers. You had to deal with things like serial ports and interrupts. It was far, [crosstalk] far more complex.
David: Then they had the cards with the little jumpers you had to move, count pins.
Jonathan: In a way, a lot of that information still stands us in good stead, doesn’t it? People of that era can go to a command line and work some quick magic.
David: If you understood that stuff, you’re going to understand stuff today better. Most of the people who are really good with technology are self-taught because they’ve been able to figure these things out, whatever these things was at the time.
Jonathan: What do you think makes that happen? There are some people who just naturally take to this. I thought I was very fortunate at the time, maybe not so much now. I was the one that at school they used to come to whenever the Apple II computer that was running Braille edit and later BEX within Echo. If it was playing up, they’d pull me out of class and get me to fix it. I have no idea why that is, why some people just take to this stuff and others don’t.
David: I don’t know either for sure, because over the years at times I’ve supervised people who did training and I haven’t done as much myself, but some, and I think it’s just the way people’s minds work. Some people are able to understand, at least at some level, what computers do, and for other people, they just don’t get it. Then, I think people get these blocks and go, “I can’t understand that.” I think people sometimes sell themselves short.
Lots of people say they have trouble with math. People used to tell women they couldn’t do math. You get this thing in your head before you even start that I can’t do that. Some people take to it, and for some people, it’s just memorizing a set of steps. That’s the training that most often fails for people because they teach you how you do this and then you do that then you do this. Well, if something’s a little different, then this or that doesn’t work, and then you don’t know what to do.
Jonathan: Yes. You see people who are getting there with their little recorders or note-taking devices, writing detailed step-by-step instructions. I think that’s the challenge for those involved in training, it’s giving someone a fish versus teaching them how to fish.
David: You need to do some of that though. There are some basic things you have to remember. You have to know how to shut up Speech. You have to know how to read the current line. There are some basics that you need to memorize, but in terms of using more complex programs, the best users can figure those things out themselves.
Jonathan: What was your first Windows screen reader?
David: Probably Arctic Vision.
Jonathan: You bypass the Window Bridge?
David: I’ve used it. It had too many commands. It was too complex. I had long conversations with David Costution, but it was just too complex. There were some other people from Canada who had a screen reader.
David: The programmer, it was a father and his son. The son was the developer, and the father did the marketing. He had this French Canadian accent. He was a nut, but he was fun too. I used to have these long conversations with him, but I don’t remember a lot about the program. It must have not overwhelmed me.
Jonathan: I remember having a chat to David when Slimware window Bridge came out and I would go onto the bulletin boards and download that thing. Oh my goodness, it must have taken a while because it would be an international download. I remember saying to him, “Do you really think we will ever get to a point where Windows will be viable for a blind person to actually use on the job and in the real world, rather than just a curiosity?” He said, “Absolutely.” He felt that they were onto it, but for me, it wasn’t until JAWS came out that Windows felt like–
David: People at Microsoft told me that, privately they said Window Bridge– They said basically it hacked its way into the system. They said it was really ugly, and it really made your system unstable, and it was a miracle it worked at all. It was the first one. It was the first step and you’ve got to walk before you run and you’ve got to see what works and what doesn’t work. Back then we had a lot of different approaches. Now, most everything is done through an API, so you get what you get.
Jonathan: That’s exactly right. The reason why that hackery was going on was because in those days Microsoft didn’t offer an official way in.
David: There was nothing else, and you had to do the offscreen model and all that. You were talking about downloading something that was big. When we were talking about OS/2, I was going to tell you when OS/2 first came out; I had to load it from floppy disk and it was like 40 floppies. You had to sit there and feed these things in one at a time. Then, later on, it came out on CD-ROM. I think it was like seven CD-ROMs. It was like you died and went to heaven.
Jonathan: Man, I thought that my floppy disks with JAWS was pretty bad. I think that got up to six or seven floppy discs. The worst thing with that was, of course, it would prompt you through. It would say insert Disk 1 and then insert Disk 2, and on you’d go. Then you’d think, “Yes, I’m nearly done. I’ve nearly got this computer set up and talking.” It would say something like insert Disk 6 and then you’d get the error that that particular disk instead had become corrupted. [laughs]
David: The other worst thing, Jonathan, is you had that stack of 40 discs and you knock it over and they’re all out of order and they’re not labeled. Then you’re putting them in and it’s saying wrong disc. You put the next one in. That happened to me once. I was having to do it overnight. For some reason I had to get it done. There was nobody else around. Anyway, I had forgotten about that.
Jonathan: What about text-to-speech devices or speech synthesizers as we would call them then, did you have a personal favorite speech synthesizer in those earlier days?
David: I liked the SSI-263 based things. Arctic Vision and Accent and the other ones. I loved the Audapter. A lot of people didn’t like it, but it had really good serial response. If you messed with the speech a little bit, you could get it to sound really good, but most people just didn’t know how to do it, so they thought it sounded terrible, which in its default settings, it did.
I showed Noranian what to do. He couldn’t hear it. Different people hear things different ways and different things are important to them and he just didn’t get what I was saying, but I liked the SSI-263. Now I use Eloquence probably mostly, but I remember Eric Bowman coming to the IBTC and showing me the first software speech I ever saw on the sound blaster and it was amazing.
Jonathan: Yes. When JAWS came out with Eloquence built into JAWS, that was such a revolution. I think it’s hard to overstate.
David: Yes. It really was.
Jonathan: The one I liked, it was also an acquired taste, was the Accent from AECOM Corporation.
David: Yes. I didn’t like the Accent as well as some of the others, but I didn’t hate it.
Jonathan: What I liked, I had that little card that you would pop in. I think the Accent might have been SA, which was the external. I can’t remember, probably Accent PC was the internal. Man, that thing was responsive. It was so snappy.
David: Yes. It was responsive. That’s why I liked the Audapter. It was also very responsive. Now, do you remember the Votrax?
Jonathan: That would bleep when you put certain naughty words into it.
David: If you typed the F word into it, it said fudge.
David: If you typed the word in it for excrement, it would say sugar.
Jonathan: [laughs] How coined.
David: The irony of that is that device was from a company called Federal Screw Works.
Jonathan: [laughs] Really?
Jonathan: It was extraordinary that thing. The Speaqualizer. Do you remember the Speaqualizer?
David: Oh yes. The Speaqualizer was something that most people wouldn’t use day-to-day, but it might be the only thing that worked. For people who don’t know what the Speaqualizer was, it was created, invented, by Tim Cranmer, who was a very bright man. There was a hardware card that went inside the computer and there was a external keypad kind of thing that you used for reviewing the screen. You got access to the computer from the minute it was turned on, so you could get access to the BIOS. It was a way to get access when nothing else would work, but it was cumbersome to use for the modern interactive applications.
Jonathan: It was, but it’s telling that here we are in 2022 and we still can’t access the BIOS independently.
David: We had pretty serious talks about creating something for the graphical user interface. We talked to Blazie. We talked about putting up money. There were some pretty serious talks that went on, but it would’ve been pretty difficult to do at the time, so never happened.
Jonathan: There was a lot going on. Those newsletters that you talk about, I would be so excited to get them. There was the anticipation of waiting to see if they had come in the mail today, of course, because–
David: I think I have some in my basement, some old RDCs and some Bits.
Jonathan: I have one, but I’d like to get those digitized. I think that would be such an important repository to have, but you would get them on cassette. You would get them on floppy disk. It was all very exciting. Some of the names of those times are still legends to me. I remember when I started doing Blind Line actually getting to talk to some of these people, or going to a convention, particularly all the way from here in New Zealand, and meeting some of these people in the United States. It was like meeting a rockstar. It was a big deal. They were big names then.
These days, of course, we have much fewer players. Perhaps I’m showing my age, but it just feels like we had a really great round of excitement with the iPhone in 2009. That was just a game-changer. A lot of third-party app developers. Perhaps filling that gap now, smaller entities doing some pretty exciting things, but it’s got very corporate now, hasn’t it?
David: Yes. Apple has done some amazing things with the iPhone, but you have no clue who did it. It’s all teams. They’re more closed-mouthed than some, but you don’t know. Freedom Scientific has Glen Gordon, who’s pretty identifiable. There are a couple of other people around, but as you say, not many identifiable individuals anymore. There’s the guy that wrote that application for the iPhone that reads everything.
Jonathan: Voice Dream. Winston Chen.
David: Yes. Exactly. There’s him and there’s some other people like that who have done applications, but in terms of the bigger stuff, the screen readers and all that, it’s all teams now.
Jonathan: Yes. This is the thing, in those days, everybody was working to a common end, I think. If you really wanted to, you would be able to track down the person who was working on it. Perhaps it’s just scale. It’s not feasible now for everybody to be bothering the developers of these things or nothing will ever get done, but it was a really special time to know that you could directly seek to influence an outcome. Larry, in particular, Larry Skutchan, was legendary for this. You’d call him up.
David: Yes. Larry was very approachable. He tried doing a Windows screen reader but just didn’t really have the resources. Then he wanted to use the outSPOKEN engine, and they wanted some outrageous amount of money that he just couldn’t pay. I am not going to remember the name of the product, but early on Blazie had a Windows screen reader, and it was written by a guy in Korea. It was one guy. For one guy working alone, it was amazing piece of work, but it just wasn’t competitive. It didn’t have enough features. It didn’t work well enough. One guy just can’t do it anymore.
Jonathan: I remember those legendary dueling Windows sessions. They would set up some, what I think were pretty reasonable tasks, and just increasingly, JAWS was hitting it out of the park. Window-Eyes hung in there for a very long time though.
David: Yes. Window-Eyes certainly had its following. If Microsoft at the time had bought Window-Eyes and just incorporated that into Narrator, they would’ve been a couple of years ahead, but a couple of those people work for Microsoft now.
David: I think Doug Geoffray. I don’t know if Dan Weirich.
Jonathan: I could certainly tell you some stories about what I think were failed acquisition opportunities, but I’m probably still under some degree of NDA. [laughs] The industry could have been quite different. Let’s have a chat about the evolution of the NFBnet. We’ve talked a bit about this. You mentioned that it’s now in the cloud, so what is NFBnet today exactly? What does it consist of?
David: Two main things. One is that we support listservs or mailing lists or whatever you want to call them. For public lists, they’re probably 299 or 300. I did a couple last weekend. A list could be from a state affiliate. It could be from a chapter. It could be from a division of the NFB. We have a master list that we use for announcements of things that are of interest to people. That’s one of our most valuable resources.
They’re just a whole bunch of lists, but mostly states and chapters and things like that. Guide dogs and musicians and performing artists and teachers and computer science and trainers. All those things, they all have lists. They use it for communication, for announcements, for supporting each other, just a variety of things. Some of our lists are announce-only, and some are more open. It’s just what the people who want the list do.
There are almost 300 public lists and then there are at least 100 other private lists. I haven’t counted them lately. Those are lists that are hidden. You can’t see that from the website or anything. You’re put on the list. Some chapters and affiliates keep their list private. That’s their choice, but mostly they’re used for different projects and boards and things that have communication and need to keep it private. The lists are what we do primarily. That’s the main thing NFBnet does.
The software we use, we use a package called cPanel. It has the ability to have websites all share the same IP address. We have websites. For a long time, we were the place where most state affiliates went and established their website because it was free to them. All they had to do was register their DNS and we would give them that information. They had to develop their software. We have WordPress on the system and Drupal. They could do it that way, or they could write just bare code, which initially was what everybody did.
There are probably 40-something websites on the server right now. Now, NFB has started a project where they’re moving all the state affiliate websites to a central Drupal installation. There’ll be one installation and then it will support all these different state affiliate websites. The NFB of Minnesota, or the NFB of Iowa, whatever. They’ve started migrating sites to this new Drupal system and duplicating what they have now. It’s a couple-of-year project because there are so many sites, but we’ll still support websites for divisions, which we do, guide dogs and whatever. Some chapters have websites and we do those as well.
Those are the two things that NFBnet does. We used to have a bunch of other files on the system, but they became outdated and it was just too much to upkeep them. The primary thing is the list. I think it’s the glue that holds us together and allows for that immediate communication. Email works for blind people. We obviously use social media and use it in some ways as much as anybody else, but I think email still works pretty well for us.
Jonathan: Yes. It’s ubiquitous, and you can choose how you consume. It’s there.
David: It’s just easy. It comes in and you do it.
Jonathan: How much moderating do you–
David: I read lots of email messages.
Jonathan: I was going to say, how much moderating do you do now?
David: I look at everything. I probably get 1,000 email messages a day. My personal internet provider is Comcast. Comcast they will filter spam for you but they don’t show it to you. If they decide something is spam and it isn’t, you’ve got no way to correct it or change it or override it. You can turn their spam filtering off and do it yourself, which is what I do. I’ve got to get rid of all the spam. My email program gets rid of a lot of it, but I go through everything. Every message that comes into one of our lists, which probably is several hundred a day, at least, I look at, just to make sure there are no problems. That people aren’t misbehaving or they don’t need technical help and crying out or whatever. That’s what I do.
Jonathan: It seems to me like people are not as civil, as polite, just do not seem to be able to observe common courtesy as much as used to be the case. Is that what you experience on these lists?
David: Sometimes, yes. We talked about this back in the ’90s when there seemed to be more controversy. I don’t notice as many problems a day. The thing, I guess that gets under my skin, I probably shouldn’t say this but I’m going to anyway, is that sometimes people ask me to do things. To unsubscribe them or whatever and they treat me like their servant. Some people are really polite and appreciative. It’s not everybody. It’s not even the majority of people, but there is a minority out there that expects you to do things for them.
Jonathan: That’s more of an issue for you than the quality of the discourses or whatever?
David: Yes. Occasionally I would have to step in if things get too far off topic and whatever. I think over the years I have a pretty good reputation for being fair and even-minded. Sometimes, moderating a thread, stopping it or whatever, creates more problems than it solves. The act of moderation generates its own set of problems. I’ve learned to not jump at the first message because people will go, “Oh, you should let them talk,” whatever, so I try to take a breath and really step in only when I feel like I have to.
Jonathan: I know it’s a hard question to answer but can you give me a threshold point? When do you intervene and how do you intervene? What does that consist of?
David: There’s no part answer, Jonathan. It depends on the people involved. It depends on how long it’s been going on. It depends on how many messages. To a certain extent, it depends on what the topic is. Each one is done on its own merits. Some of these threads can get pretty complicated and occasionally I’ll miss something or it won’t quite register with me and somebody else will say, “Hey, Dave, you may want to look at such-and-such and so and so,” but there’s no automatic answer. Generally, you try to do stuff privately, send somebody email, but if they’re criticizing you publicly, then they’re going to get it back publicly.
Jonathan: The thing is just spiral. If you let it go people feel free to jump in and it turns into a major flame war, doesn’t it? It is such a delicate balance to strike.
David: It can. Knock on wood, we haven’t had a flame war in a while. They just don’t seem to be as common anymore. I think maybe they’ve moved to Facebook or something; I don’t know. I just don’t see them as often. One will start today now that I’ve said it.
Jonathan: I just looked at the clock and I see how long we’ve been talking and I cannot believe how fast this time has flown by. I did want to just get your comments in general on how you’re feeling about the state of blind people’s access to technology today. We have both seen an incredible amount of change. Are you generally optimistic about the way things are now?
David: I generally am. I have a day job and I have spent at least half my time on accessibility issues, things tend to be two steps forward one step back. You can never take anything for granted. Our software environments are incredibly complex in terms of the way things work and interact and what’s going on behind the scenes that you’re not even necessarily aware of. One side of it is it’s amazing that things work as well as they do, but the other side is when they don’t work, if it’s your livelihood, it’s disastrous.
I think that in the long run, we’ll be all right, but some of the struggles you’ve had with technology and going back and forth with people, we hear about it on the podcast, it’s hard to get things resolved. Where do you go? Who do you contact? Most of these big technology companies save money by not having humans. They try to automate everything they can and automate responses, so it’s hard to know where to go and what to do.
For over a year now, DoorDash, its iOS version, doesn’t work well for blind people. It’s a disaster, and it just gets worse and worse and worse. I’ve filed complaints and I know other people have. When you finally talk to somebody, they don’t really understand and they go, “Well, we’ll have you talk to the accessibility people.” All they want to do is give you a credit. It’s like, “No, I just want to order my damn food.”
David: Then you say, “Well, can I talk to a supervisor?” They escalated me to a supervisor once, and he basically called me a liar. It’s impossible to know where to go with some of this stuff.
Jonathan: It’s the promise versus the reality, isn’t it? There’s so much potential of this stuff and you find that you’re just having to fight like hell for the same access that everybody else takes for granted.
David: Yes. You and I are pretty experienced users and we’re going to get it to work for us one way or the other, but most people aren’t.
Jonathan: As we wrap this up, just thank you so much for the contribution that you’ve made because the hours that you have volunteered, you have done some great stuff in your paid gigs as well, but you have volunteered thousands and thousands of hours to facilitate communication among the blind community. That is just incredible. Thank you for that. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed talking with you today. It’s been great.
David: Thank you. I enjoyed talking to you as well.
Jonathan: I’d love to hear from you, so 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.
Voice over: Mosen at Large Podcast.
[01:49:42] [END OF AUDIO]