Future Reflections         Convention Report 2010

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by Gary Wunder

Introduction by Gary Wunder: This is the third year we have taken time on the convention agenda to celebrate the life and work of Dr. Jacob Bolotin. He was a physician who trained as a blind man, practiced as a blind man, and gave back to the community not only through his healing but through his work with blind boys in scouting. So powerful was Dr. Bolotin's influence on his nephew, Alfred Perlman, that he and his wife Rosalind created an endowment in Dr. Bolotin's name. Its purpose is to recognize individuals and organizations whose effort furthers Dr. Bolotin's life work and the ongoing work of the National Federation of the Blind. Central to this work is the absolute conviction that, when given the opportunity, the blind can make a significant contribution to their own self-support, the betterment of their communities, and the enrichment of all whose lives are touched by their spirit and accomplishment.

Our first recipient is a man whose name is very familiar to anyone who follows the advancement of technology. His inventions have transformed the smooth sheet of paper, which once conveyed nothing to the blind, into a rich source of information that has opened the doors of the public library and created many new opportunities for employment. The possibility of reading print independently, once only a dream to blind people of my generation, is now as close as our shirt pockets. Today we honor the inventor and the spirit that has given life to the dream.

The relationship Ray Kurzweil has had with blind people through the National Federation of the Blind has spanned some thirty-five years. While he has made significant contributions in the world of musical production and speech recognition, meeting the needs of blind people has always held a special place in his heart. Ladies and gentlemen, please join me in congratulating Mr. Raymond Kurzweil on his Bolotin Award in the amount of $15,000.

Raymond Kurzweil speaks to the conventionRay Kurzweil: It is hard to find words to express my feelings, not only for this recognition, but for this deeply gratifying collaboration. It is gratifying to see your ideas used in the world and see the benefit, and it is even more gratifying when it happens through a collaboration with the people who are seeking that benefit. I do a fair amount of mentoring with young companies. There are two things I look for in their plans. One is that they recognize the law of accelerating returns, that they actually write down what the world will be like a year from now, two years from now, in terms of their underlying technology. The other important thing I look for is that they collaborate with the users for whom they create their technology.

Some teams say, "Oh yeah, we have three weeks of beta testing with a couple of users." That's not what we're talking about. We require that all of the engineers at Kurzweil Music Systems be musicians, people who care about music and understand it deeply. We developed voice-activated recording systems for Edison, and we had doctors create those systems, including blind doctors. I am very grateful to have learned this lesson. All of you taught me that, and working with you has been a fantastic experience.

Gary Wunder: Not long ago the words "Apple," "Mac," "iPod," "iPhone," and "iTunes" would have elicited a collective groan from an audience of blind people. Apple has incorporated touch-screen technology into many of its products. For years this technology has been almost completely inaccessible to the blind. But Apple has now developed this technology in a way that makes many of its products accessible. Not only has this development given us access to many popular Apple products, it has eased our long-held fear that the adoption of touch-screen technology will lead inevitably to a widespread decline in access for the blind. Apple has done what once seemed impossible. It has taken a graphical user interface dependent on heretofore inaccessible touch-screen technology and made it accessible to the blind at the same price paid by the sighted. For this work and for all of the innovations we hope will spring from it, we proudly present to Apple an award in the amount of $10,000. To accept this award, we call on Greg Jozwiak, vice president in charge of iPhone marketing.

Greg Jozwiak of Apple, Inc. Greg Jozwiak: We're very honored by this award, and we want to thank the National Federation of the Blind for acknowledging our work. We also want to thank the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind. They have been great collaborators, and their continued feedback and fantastic relationship with Apple have helped us do what we've done. At Apple we didn't think that a touch-screen had to be a barrier to the blind. Our goal was to take what was previously difficult technology for blind people to use and make it friendly. We are proud that all of our multi-touch-display products--the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the iPad--include our innovative voice technologies that make our products accessible to this community. We're also proud that iPhone 4 has now gone even further. It's the first mobile phone to support more than thirty wireless Braille displays right out of the box, no additional software required. It includes Braille tables for more than twenty-five languages. We try to design our products for as many people as possible, including those who are blind or visually impaired. It is a great honor to accept this award recognizing the work we have done. I thank you very much.

Gary Wunder: If you are a student in higher education, the computer is central to your daily work. It allows you to see the class syllabus, access handouts, read the thoughts of classmates, and submit assignments. The most commonly used software to make all of this happen online is Blackboard. For years blind students and professors faced tremendous obstacles because the product was only marginally usable with screen-reading technology.

The difficulty in getting mainstream software companies to take the needs of the blind seriously is well known. First comes their surprise that a blind person would want to use their system. Then comes a grudging acknowledgement that things could be better--but not right now. The blind will have to wait. If the product is old, too much computer code must be changed, and changing it isn't cost-effective. If the product is new, the priority must be to satisfy the majority customer base, which is sighted; after that will come work for accessibility. By the time the new product works well enough to be accepted by the sighted, it is old, and again we are told to wait.

When a company decides that no function will go into what it sells unless it can be performed with nonvisual techniques, accessibility becomes an essential part of the offering. Blackboard has made this commitment, and it is evident in the functionality that is now available to the blind. For the improvements it has made and for its ongoing commitment to accessibility, we are pleased to present to Blackboard an award in the amount of $10,000. To receive this award, I give you Lara Oerter, vice president of corporate strategy for Blackboard.

Lara Oerter of BlackboardLara Oerter: I want to thank the team at Deque Systems and the team here at the National Federation of the Blind for working with us and pushing us on this. Anne Taylor, Clara Van Gerven, and all the others who worked with us have helped improve the educational experience for all users. Sometimes getting there is really hard, so we appreciate the collaborative spirit we have had with all of you here at NFB. Thank you very much.

Gary Wunder: Many in this room have occasionally spent time talking and thinking about what we would do if science offered us the possibility of getting or substantially improving our vision. Some have decided we'd jump at the chance. Some feel that we are fine the way we are and that to see would alter our very nature. Still others have developed a more nuanced approach that says, "I'd do it if there was little threat to my health, if the procedure was affordable, and if I wasn't sidelined too long in the trying."

For the man I'm about to introduce, the question was more than hypothetical. In 2001, after being blind for forty-three years, he underwent a rare operation that granted him sudden vision. At the time he was a successful businessman, a husband, an athlete, and a community advocate. He didn't need vision to fulfill any of those roles. What attracted him to vision was the sheer adventure of it, in the same way one might be attracted by the possibility of running faster, jumping higher, or predicting the future.

This entrepreneur has placed the power of global positioning in the hands of blind people. Using his advanced systems, blind people aren't just passengers in the back seat; we are giving directions and truly participating in the journey. For these innovations and for the work he does with the National Federation of the Blind to promote accessibility everywhere he can, we proudly present a Bolotin Award to the founder and chief executive officer of the Sendero Group, Michael May, in the amount of $5,000.

Michael May examines his Bolotin AwardMichael May: There is no greater honor than to be recognized by your peers. I thank the committee for considering my nomination and for granting me this award. It's amazing to look back at somebody who was a doctor before canes and NFB and technology. Imagine Dr. Bolotin in 1910 and 1920! Imagine Louis Braille in the 1800's and James Holman, the blind world traveler--all people who did what they did without the things we have today. We've come a long way, and we have a way to go. I am focusing on the future and what more I can bring to all of us as we strive for independence. This award is a great symbol of that independence. Thank you for recognizing me.

Gary Wunder: Far too many Website designers have not considered the needs of blind users. They have employed unlabeled graphics, buttons we can't find with screen readers, and let's not forget the captchas that place a garbled image on the screen that only a sighted person can identify!

The man we honor today is as committed as we are to making Websites accessible. He has created a university class that teaches students to write accessible pages. When the airlines offer alternative pricing by phone to the blind because their sites are inaccessible, he has students call, posing as blind people, and documents how frequently they are not given the price posted on the Web. When government agencies claim they are committed to accessibility, he is the man who does the study that reveals that 96 percent of them are not fully accessible. What's more, he publishes those results.

For his work as a champion for accessibility to the Web and his active opposition to discrimination against the blind, we proudly present to Dr. Jonathan Lazar of Towson University a Bolotin Award in the amount of $5,000.

Dr. Jonathan LazarJonathan Lazar: Thank you for this amazing honor, but really, the thanks go to all of you and the people whom I work with in Maryland. We do all this work together. My students take field trips to the International Braille and Technology Center for the Blind and the Maryland Technology Assistance Program. They meet blind individuals who come to my classes. We make all of this happen together. You take part in the research studies. You give me feedback. I run many focus groups at NFB, so I am always trying to listen. You are the ones who say, "Here's the problem. Here's what you need to work on." I thank everyone who takes part in the studies, everyone who talks with my students, everyone who helps educate me about better ways we can do this.

Speaking of the airlines, here's a reminder. If you get an inaccessible airline Website and you have to call their phone center, and they say they will charge you the extra phone center fee, remind them that it is against the law! Thank you very much.

Gary Wunder: The life's calling of our last recipient gives meaning to the work of all those we've recognized so far. Their work assumes that capable blind people want and need what they have to offer. The man we honor today helps to prepare the young people who will benefit from the inventions and the accessibility for which all of us strive. Like Dr. Bolotin, he has the distinction of serving in one of the most honorable professions known to humanity. He is a teacher, a sculptor of minds.

For years our recipient has worked beyond the hours for which he is paid to perform his teaching duties. He has generated the funds to give his blind students experiences they simply can't get in school. His charges have been able to come to these conventions and share in our work to create opportunities. He caught me off guard when, in his excitement about being a winner, he said, "The more I come to conventions, the angrier and more frustrated I get." He went on to say that his anger and frustration spring from his realization that, while he has been teaching the blind for more than thirty years, only recently has he been able to give his students the opportunity to meet and interact with successful blind people.

We are pleased to present to Mr. Al Lovati of the Indiana School for the Blind a Bolotin Award in the amount of $5,000.

Al LovatiAl Lovati: I want to thank the National Federation of the Blind for having created this structure, the organization, the programming, and having the personnel that have helped guide me and others in our work with blind youth. I want to thank Ron Brown, the Indiana affiliate, and its members for providing the local support that made each visit to an NFB event meaningful. I want to thank my students, past and present, for teaching me. You were active. You were involved. Finally, I'd like to thank the Indiana Lions; the Alliance for the Eyes BVI project; and my local club, the Washington Township Lions Club, for helping create the mechanism that has allowed the students to attend NFB conventions every year since 2004. I'm deeply honored by this award. I promise that my future actions and words will prove me worthy.

Gary Wunder: I close by thanking the Santa Barbara Foundation for its financial contribution to these awards and by thanking every member of this audience who gives to the National Federation of the Blind and who is therefore equally responsible for this program.

We have a free booklet that says far more than time allows me about the individuals and organizations we have honored today. Read it and distribute it proudly. It helps to chronicle the progress of the blind as together we create a future full of hope and promise.

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