Taking an unfamiliar bus across town, Mickey became totally lost when the driver accidentally let him off at the wrong stop. Since Mickey is blind, he was unable to read the street signs or use a map to orient himself. Although he eventually made it to the hospital, Darlene had already been sent to the operating room by the time he arrived.
Mickey is sure that if the same thing happened today, he would make it to the hospital without getting lost, thanks to two new products from Arkenstone, a non-profit organization located in Sunnyvale California. Atlas Speak is talking map software that runs on a PC. Like a regular map, the user may determine where they are going, the name of the next street or highway, and landmarks along the way.
The second product, Strider, takes Atlas Speak the next logical step. By placing the software in a laptop computer conveniently carried on the user’s back and combining it with Global Positioning System technology, the visually impaired person is able to orient themselves geographically and follow planned routes, particularly in unfamiliar areas. The Global Positioning System uses seven global satellites which beam information to earth 7 days a week, 24 hours per day, allowing an individual to know where they are within 10 meters of their destination.
For their efforts, Arkenstone was one of five recipients this year of the American Foundation for the Blind Access Awards, presented each year to individuals, organizations, and corporations who through their innovative and ongoing efforts have guaranteed equality of access and opportunity to people who are blind or visually impaired. Since their inception in 1991 Access Awards have been presented to such well known companies as MacDonalds for their braille menus and braille drinking cups and Nike for creating a poster only in Braille which read, “This poster is for those whose inspirations are felt and not merely seen.” But you don’t need a big corporate name to win an Access Award. Two graduate nursing students won one year for developing a breast cancer detection program for women who are blind.
Although Jim Fruchterman, founder and president of Arkenstone, views the personal computer as the “Swiss Army knife for people with disabilities,” the software that runs the computer can easily turn a PC into a worthless hunk of metal if people with visual disabilities aren’t considered when the software is being designed. That was the problem a coalition of 5 people recognized and brought to the attention of one of the giants of the computer software industry, Microsoft.
Led by Judy Brewer, director of the Massachusetts Assistive Technology Program (MATP), MATP worked with other disability advocates to address the “user unfriendliness” for blind computer users of Microsoft’s Window 95 operating system. The agencies worked together to convince Microsoft that the Commonwealth of Massachusetts would be reluctant to purchase software which was inaccessible for some users.
Massachusetts wasn’t the only state to get involved. Missouri imposed a temporary embargo on Windows 95 and other states considered similar actions. After more than a year of negotiations and talks, Microsoft agreed in January of 1995 to address the problem and make their software more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired.
Southwest Airlines also received an Access Award for creating and installing a reservations computer program called VIPRES that will allow visually impaired people to work as reservation sales agents. The process began about a year ago when a Little Rock Arkansas woman, Belinda Turner, applied for a position as a reservations sales agent with Southwest. When the manager determined that Turner was qualified for the position, she authorized a search for assistive technology to accommodate Belinda’s visual impairment.
They turned to Lions World Services for the Blind for assistance and over the next year, Ken Robson of LWSB, a computer programming instructor, worked with his Southwest counterpart, Jo Bailey, to develop VIPRES. It was a challenge but they succeeded. “It had never been done before,” says Robson. “None of us were sure it could be done. We ran into some technical hurdles along the way that were tough because it was new. The endeavor was a creative act for everyone involved.”
Belinda Turner is now a Southwest Airlines Reservation Agent and although the program is still in its testing phase, the program opens the door for other airlines as well. Pat Franklin, Manager of Customer Service at Southwest says, “Surely at some point the new program will start a light at the end of the tunnel that will encourage a pool of candidates who are blind.”
Two other Access Award recipients used far simpler yet equally innovative technology to win their award. Writer, Sonja Wiley, and music star, Stevie Wonder, jointly created the first children’s book offered to the general public in a format that combines print and braille.
“The main obstacles was that no one wanted to publish the book in Braille,” says Wiley, who has been a translator for Stevie Wonder for almost ten years. “They said it was too expensive and no one else had done it. We wanted it to be mainstream marketed on the book shelves with all the other books so you didn’t have to go to a specialty store to get it. No one wanted to touch it, even with Stevie Wonder involved.” Finally, after a two year search, Western Publisher agreed to take a chance.
The book, Little Stevie Wonder in Places Under the Sun, is intended to foster braille literacy among blind children while promoting knowledge of braille among the general public. As a “touch and play” storybook for children 3 and older, it combines words, music and sounds to tell the story of Little Stevie Wonder’s trip across the ocean where Little Stevie comes to understand that “we all share the same sun.”
The Braille translation that appears on each page makes the story accessible to all children, while the complete Braille alphabet allow sighted children to learn about Braille. Narrative Television Network (NTN) was the fifth recipient of the 1996 Access Awards for their innovative and ongoing efforts to open the world of television to the country’s 13 million blind and visually impaired individuals. They accomplish this task by unobtrusively adding the voice of a narrator between the existing dialogue, making the show both accessible to the visually impaired, and enjoyable for fully sighted people as well.
NTN has grown to include over 1200 broadcast and cable affiliates and reaches over 25 million homes in the United States and 11 foreign countries. NTN president, Jim Stovall, himself visually impaired, hosts the network’s talk show, “NTN Showcase.” Besides the Access Awards, NTN has also been honored by the American Council of the Blind’s Robert S. Bray Award for outstanding development in communication as well as winning an Emmy Award in 1990 for its technology.
The American Foundation for the Blind is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year. For three-quarters of a century their mission has been to “enable people who are blind or visually impaired to achieve equality of access and opportunity that will ensure freedom of choice in their lives. The Access Awards is their way of thanking others who have become their partners in that dream. People like Mickey Quenzer and Belinda Turner are thankful for the partnership as well.
by W. Bradford Swift