My Address to the 2023 Convention of the National Federation of the Blind
Here is the transcript and the audio of my presentation to the 2023 National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind.
Together Living Blindfully
Address delivered to the National Convention of the National Federation of the Blind, 6 July 2023
Thank you Mr President for the introduction and for the invitation to speak today, and good morning to my friends in the Federation.
I am delighted to be at another NFB convention. When I attend one, I always feel replenished, ready to make more positive change and prouder than ever to be blind.
Among the many things I’ve done in my life, I have a background in radio. After all these years of hosting shows about blindness current events, technology, providing entertainment to our community and raising money for an important cause or two, I still believe in the power of the Internet to do good, to be a vehicle for sharing knowledge, to have a place that’s uniquely ours where we’re not trying to explain blindness to sighted people, we’re exclusively, unashamedly, talking about the things that matter to us.
My current podcast, Living Blindfully, brings blind people together from, at last count, 113 countries. Living Blindfully discusses a wide range of topics including policy, philosophy, employment, parenting and more. We also talk a lot about technology, because it can assist with equal participation in society. It’s technology I’d like to focus on today.
I do so mindful of the enormous responsibility this organisation bears. The companies that develop the major operating systems and much of the hardware we use are based here in the United States. So blind people everywhere are counting on you to be articulate, focussed and resolute, advocating in a way that honours your proud traditions. Any success you have in bringing about more accessible technology has a direct positive benefit to many millions of blind people beyond your borders.
In an age where technology plays a critical role in all aspects of society, the Federation has been relentless in its advocacy for accessible technology as part of its pursuit of security, equality and opportunity. To assess the effectiveness of that advocacy, we need only reflect on how much more information we have access to in 2023 versus, say, 1983. Computerisation in general, and the Internet in particular, mean it is easier for everyone to work, shop, bank, travel, communicate, be informed, and entertained. The increasing digitisation of society was inevitable because of technological change. But the social change required for the blind to be included was not. Accessibility didn’t magically appear out of the goodness of people’s hearts. It happened because people in this room, alongside many pioneers in advocacy and technology who are no longer with us, and who we remember with appreciation and respect, put in the effort and made it happen.
Achieving the degree of accessibility we enjoy today required the use of a range of advocacy tools, including building strong relationships, being thought leaders, and, when it was absolutely necessary, legislative and legal action. It was true then, and it is still true today, that even some blind people decry the advocacy necessary to win those battles using terms like militant, radical, whining, and entitled.
In January, I became a grandfather for the first time. My little granddaughter, Florence, is adorable. One of the many cool things about being a granddad is that I’m reading kids’ books again. (Just wait until Christmas when I hit the toy stores!) So the story of the little red hen has been on my mind lately. For those who don’t know it, spoiler alert, the short version is that the little red hen tried to get help to plant the seeds, harvest the wheat, and bake the bread, but the other farm animals couldn’t be bothered. Oh but when the bread was ready, they happily volunteered to eat it. Isn’t it ironic that those who malign us as militant, who denigrate the doers, who ridicule us as radical, who attack the advocates, who berate the bakers of the bread, are publishing that criticism using the very tools that wouldn’t have been accessible were it not for the advocates they’re criticising. To those critics, I say the proof of the baked bread is in the eating, and you can eat it even if you didn’t bake it. To my friends in the Federation, you are the ones who make a difference, so wear the badge with honour, and take pride in being little NFB hens.
We have baked a lot of bread, but the work is far from done. If the bread does not continue to be baked, we will starve.
I wish today to suggest some of the bread we must bake next. The provision of assistive technology by mainstream companies has created new advocacy challenges just as important as the battles we have won. I don’t begrudge for a moment the accolades these companies receive for their accessibility initiatives. I applaud the fact that we can now walk up to most computers and smartphones and have immediate access to them. We have life-changing tools, some of them blindness-specific, in the palm of our hand for a fraction of what they used to cost. That is staggering progress. But there’s a little secret that tends not to be covered in the media. While impressive innovation continues at pace, the quality and reliability of some of the tools we use remains a serious concern, as resolutions at several NFB conventions have recorded. I’ve worked in the technology industry, and I know that software cannot be bug free. But today, we are enduring show stopping bugs unique to the blind that significantly degrade our ability to use some of these devices. In my own advocacy efforts, I have found it useful to apply a concept of equivalency. In other words, what would be an equivalent bug for the sighted, and would it be such a show stopper that the sighted would demand a speedy resolution? I’ll give you a few examples. I am not going to call out any company by name, but if these examples are affecting you, you’ll know the companies to which I’m referring.
If your screen reader suddenly and regularly stops speaking, that would be the same as a sighted person’s screen flickering and then completely blanking out at random intervals. Do you think the sighted would patiently wait for months until their screen worked properly again? The media would be all over it and would be calling it screengate.
If you’re typing on your smartphone using Braille Screen Input and you’re regularly experiencing unexpected behaviour that slows you down or results in you typing gibberish, then that would be the equivalent of the virtual keyboard being next to useless for a sighted person, causing them to understandably protest loudly about them not being able to do their job, communicate, input data and close the deal.
If you are blind and wear hearing aids, and your screen reader is quiet to the point of being unusable when on a phone call, this would be the same as a sighted person having their screen so dim every time they make a call that they can’t see it well enough to use it.
If you, in good faith, install the beta of an operating system only to find that your screen reader doesn’t work at all on it, that would be equivalent to a sighted person installing a beta, understanding that there may be defects, but finding with horror that their screen was blank, making their device completely useless. And imagine what would happen to the reputation of that company if it was later revealed that the team responsible released that software knowing full well that this is what it would do.
If you scrimp and save to buy a popular Braille display, only to find you can’t connect your smartphone to it via Bluetooth because a protocol about which there was an industry-wide consensus, and that the company promised to support, hasn’t been implemented, this is the equivalent of a sighted person buying one of the leading printers on the market today, only to find that the operating system developer hasn’t kept their promise to support it.
I could fill the remainder of my time with examples. If bugs like these were happening to sighted people, it would be headline news. Stock prices would plummet. Senior leaders would be fired to give the public the accountability they craved.
The eaters who are not the bakers will say that we must be realistic and patient. We shouldn’t expect prompt resolution to blindness-specific show stopping issues. They say assistive technology isn’t the core business of these mainstream companies so things are bound to be a bit rough around the edges. We must be grateful, and thankful, or they might take it all away. We are a tiny fraction of their customers, so we must wait our turn. Well the bakers know, because they baked it, that there is no legislation covering consumer rights, civil rights, accessibility, or government procurement that says it’s OK for companies to provide an inferior product to blind people. But I’ve found plenty of law that gives this sort of behaviour a name. They call it discrimination. The National Federation of the Blind has always been clear. Discrimination will not stand.
A poorer standard of product for the blind is not merely a legal issue, it is a moral one. It is also a financial one. These large, successful companies undoubtedly have the means to resource accessibility properly. But when they prepare their annual budgets, they are allocating resources in a way that short changes you and me.
I’d like to address these manufacturers directly. You have made a remarkable difference to our lives. Working with us, you have helped to ensure that there has never been a better time in history to be blind. Thank you for all you have done and all you continue to do. But we are not charity cases. Were you not doing what you are doing, you would lose the business of many entities who would no longer be permitted to buy your products. So the relationship is a reciprocal one.
Our money is as good as anyone else’s. We express our thanks like any other customer, by helping to return a profit to your shareholders when we buy what you’re selling. When we do this, we create a contract that you will provide us with a product that is fit for purpose. We then integrate your technology into our lives and we come to rely on it. These products should not have such egregious accessibility defects that a blind person requires two degrees in order to operate them. One in computer science so we can work around all the bugs, and the other in zen meditation.
For those of us fortunate enough to have found work, our jobs were usually hard won. We got them knowing full well the fundamental truth upon which the National Federation of the Blind was founded, that the problem of blindness is not the lack of eyesight, the problem is what people think blindness means. If we, competent blind people on the job, cannot do our jobs as well as we’re capable of because of serious defects in your products you decline to fix in a timely manner, you are perpetuating myths about blindness by making us appear foolish in front of our employers. You are jeopardising the security of our livelihoods. If there is bias in your defect assessment processes causing our mission critical bugs to languish because they only affect a small number of people, you are preventing our equality by implying through your inaction that we are second class customers. If your products are not dependable, you tantalise us with the promise of opportunity, but it is a promise that is not fully kept. This must stop.
I want to propose the following four point plan to ensure these products become as dependable for us as they are for everyone else.
First, in consultation with the organised blind movement, all mainstream technology companies offering assistive technology should agree on, and publish, a framework that seeks to define a line where an accessibility bug is so critical that it requires extraordinary remedial action beyond the usual software release cycle. As a working title, let’s call this the defect equity framework, or DEF for short.
Second, with the DEF in place, mainstream technology companies should collaborate with the organised blind movement to resolve the under-resourcing that is contributing to this situation. This must include hiring more blind people. We use it, we are the best people to test it and fix it.
I want to take a moment to express my profound admiration and gratitude for all the blind people working in any capacity on the technology we use every day. They can’t ever completely switch off, because when it’s time to stop thinking about work for the day, they are still blind. Sometimes, they’ll be fighting battles on the inside we can never know about. It can be tough work, but it’s vital work. So let’s be kind to our own who are doing this work. We need them there, and we need many more of us there.
Third, each company should establish a public database for accessibility defects, so the blind can check what bugs have already been submitted and what priority they have been accorded. We must have input into that prioritisation. Right now, too many of us feel despondent and frustrated about volunteering our time and expertise to these companies, filing detailed bug report after detailed bug report, only to be ignored and fobbed off with a canned response and no progress updates.
And fourth, every Global Accessibility Awareness Day, mainstream technology companies must do more than just publish marketing hype about new initiatives. They must provide a transparent, independently audited report that demonstrates progress as measured against the defect equity framework.
Second class status is something we stopped accepting long ago. This proposal is a constructive, specific, better way. Let the blind and the technology industry work together and get this done. But if they will not work with us, we should not continue to accept the status quo. As Dr Jernigan repeatedly put it, we know how to join together on the barricades.
Inadequate quality control is not the only advocacy challenge we face. Sometimes, a mainstream company can kill our productivity with kindness. It’s often said that activity should not be confused with achievement. I would also submit that accessibility should not be confused with useability. If we’re not consulted, well-intentioned sighted people may cause an app or operating system to be so verbose, and frankly, so patronising, that it slows us down and adds no value whatsoever. Blind people must be involved in all aspects of the user experience.
Finally, as we’ve always done, we must be vigilant about talented people who, out of a genuine desire to make a difference, use their talent to create something they assume blind people need. As Dr Tembroek so brilliantly put it, my road to hell is paved with your good intentions. This behaviour is a high tech form of colonisation. It is also the high tech equivalent of that person on the street who genuinely wants to be helpful, but without permission, or knowledge of our destination, grabs us and assumes that we need help and that they know where we are going. Knowing the needs of the market you seek to serve is business 101.
The ideas I’ve shared with you today are a mere snapshot of the important discussions we’ve had on Living Blindfully. I hope you’ll be a part of this vibrant, stimulating global conversation, as well as continuing to do the work so many of us around the world rely on you to do at the chapter, affiliate, national and international levels through the National Federation of the Blind. Let us all continue to bake the bread of progress, never forgetting for a moment that we are worthy, together, living blindfully.