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Shift Happens!

I recently attended the Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute conference, put on by the American Foundation for the Blind, in San Francisco. At the opening session a panel of speakers lead by Jim Fruchterman (whose company originally developed the technology behind Freedom Scientifics’ Jaws screen reader) discussed the next generation of technology, and what that means for the vision loss field. The panel featured representatives from AT&T, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and IBM discussing where technology will be taking us in the coming years and how (or if) access for users who are blind is even being considered in the process.

At one point the moderator took an audience poll using clapping instead of hand raising so all the visually impaired people in the room could gauge the response as well. He asked “How many blind people do we have in the audience?” About a third (if not more) of the people clapped. “How many people who can see?” The other two thirds clapped. “How many people who can see use a blackberry?” The room broke out in applause. “How many blind people use a blackberry?” One guy clapped. “How many people use social networking sites like Facebook?” Again lots of applause from the audience. “How many blind folks on Facebook?” The same guy clapped again. “How many people who can see on Second life?” 10 or so people clapped. “How many blind people on Second life?” No one clapped. “How many iPhone/iPod users who can see?” Lots of applause. “Blind users?” None. You start to get the picture.

All the cool new stuff that has quickly been integrated into the lives of people who can see over the past 5 or so years is almost totally inaccessible to all the people in the blind community. So, much of the discussion after that focused on what companies are doing to remedy that problem. IBM and Microsoft espouse standards for software that is low-or-no vision friendly, but note that it is a bit of a delicate dance to coordinate the launch of their software so that it will be compatible with the latest versions of software being produced by the numerous third party companies who create accessibility software. AT&T pointed out that while they do sell cell phones that are considered highly accessible to those with disabilities, they don’t actually manufacture the phones they sell, so it is difficult for them to integrate accessibility features along with the new technology being offered with their phones, such as GPS.

It was great to see a collaborative effort between competitors such as AT&T, Microsoft, Yahoo!, and IBM discussing the shift in technology that needs to be made to allow all people equal access to the latest and greatest innovations in technology. Yahoo!, perhaps the most forward thinking of all the panelists championed making web pages so that everyone could use them – not just people who are blind, but everyone – and isn’t that the goal after all?

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