GLEN GORDON: In this era of COVID-19, blind and low-vision people around the world are facing a variety of special challenges. We’ll check in with Mark Riccobono, President of the National Federation of the Blind; and Dan Spoone, President of the American Council of the Blind, to find out what these U.S.-based advocacy organizations are doing to help. That and more upcoming on FSCast 182 for April 2020.
Hello everybody, and welcome to FSCast. You’ve probably realized by now that I am neither John nor Larry Gassman. I am in fact Glen Gordon, filling in this time around. They both are absolutely fine and will be back soon. But I am taking control of the reins for this edition of FSCast.
We’re living in interesting times. Many, many of us around the world are sheltering in place. Here in Wisconsin we’ve been doing it for close to three weeks now. My wife and I realized just how odd these circumstances are when we were able to finally schedule an online grocery delivery. And when we got that appointment, it felt like we had won the lottery. I’m sure many of you have stories like this. And we’re hoping that this podcast and some of the things we discuss with our guest will be a little bit cathartic for all of us because we’re all going through these things, at one level or another. These are not normal times.
And while you’re most likely sequestered at home, feel free to drop us an email. That’s firstname.lastname@example.org, V I S P E R O dot com, or leave a message for us on the listener line. That’s area code (727) 803-8000, extension 1010.
GLEN: First up on the podcast today is Richard Tapping. He’s our Vice President of North American Sales and Marketing, joining us from his own personal place of seclusion, complete with children, dogs, and of course a computer. Richard, welcome.
RICHARD TAPPING: Thank you. Good to be here.
GLEN: So tell me what Freedom Scientific is doing to try to help all the people who are suddenly finding themselves at home and perhaps in need of our software?
RICHARD: On coming back from CSUN, we recognized that there would be an issue with students initially being forced to study at home, potentially without accommodations, and similarly for employees as the pandemic spread. It was becoming more and more obvious that we would also have to try and accommodate employees at home for the same reason. So, you know, last week the team went into overdrive mode and came up with a platform to provide free access to JAWS, ZoomText, and Fusion through the end of June 30th, which at the very minimum will take us through the end of the school year.
GLEN: And no strings attached; right? You just – you simply go to our website, and we will direct you to the right spot?
RICHARD: If you go to the Freedom Scientific home page, you’ll see a message from our CEO. There’s a link there that says “Free Home License.” If you click that, it will take you to what we call the “Student Portal,” which allows students to check whether they are eligible for a free license through their organization or institution that they’re a part of. So if they are, there’s a benefit there to the student because it means that they will get a 12-month access license as part of that program. If they are not validated, if they are not part of that program, they will be presented with another page that simply says “Register here for your free access.” And once the person registers, they’ll get access to the free license.
GLEN: And although you mentioned students, you also mentioned a minute ago that this is available to basically anybody who’s at home for whatever reason for the next few months.
RICHARD: Anybody at home is welcome to use this portal and get access to the software, exactly right.
GLEN: We should stress that this is for North America; right? This is U.S. and Canada?
RICHARD: Yeah. The platform that we have allows access within North America, in terms of getting kind of the automated download page, so to speak. We did have technicalities in order to offer this globally. And there are, you know, complications in terms of localization for the rest of the world. However, we are working with all of our distributors across the globe, and I’ve already seen posts from the likes of Sight and Sound in the U.K. I noticed our Italian partner had posted social media updates about them offering the similar programs that we’ve done in North America. And that will be everywhere. Just we have to encourage you to contact your local distribution, our local distribution partner in your territory. And if you’re not sure who that is, we do have a dealer lookup tool on the Freedom Scientific website. So that will help direct you to the right place, and then they can accommodate you with the free software.
GLEN: And this is North America, as long as it’s the U.S. or north.
RICHARD: Yes, let’s clarify that, U.S.A. and Canada. That’s right. If there are students out there that need, not just software accommodations, but some hardware, i.e., laptops, I do want to make reference to Computers for the Blind, a nonprofit 501 organization. They’re located in Texas, and they provide refurbished computers with assistive technology for persons who are blind or have low vision. So it’s really low cost. There’s a processing fee, as we understand it. You have a desktop for, like, 130 bucks, or a laptop for 185 bucks. And for that obviously they get the hardware, and it will also come with their software of choice, their assistive technology software of choice. So they can get JAWS 2020, the screen reader, or ZoomText 2020, preinstalled and activated on that hardware. It’ll also come with a JAWS training bundle.
So this is a really important tool for folks that, you know, are students that perhaps might be studying from home, don’t have the means to go out and buy new hardware, and obviously need the hardware and the software accommodation. So Computers for the Blind in Texas is a really good resource.
GLEN: I second that one. We’ve been working with them for a couple of years now, and they’re a great organization and doing a great service.
RICHARD: Doing all the right things, exactly right.
GLEN: So most people at Freedom Scientific are working at home, but that doesn’t mean we’re not working; right?
RICHARD: That’s right. In parallel to us working on delivering this free Home Annual License, we also made some significant changes with our employee base. Our IT department helped deploy the accommodations for all nonessential workers to basically be relocated at home, which has largely been done at this point. And we got creative within our manufacturing and logistics plant. We actually split the shifts up to further reduce social interaction. So we’ve made some really, really good inroads there, too. So we are fully operational. Our customer service is operational. Shipping, manufacturing. Our tech support, very important at this point, fully operational. So we are at 100 percent operational. We just got very creative in terms of how we’re doing this.
GLEN: Well, Richard, thanks. Thanks for joining us on FSCast.
RICHARD: My pleasure.
GLEN: Joining me now is Rachel Buchanan, a voice that’s no doubt familiar to those of you who listen to FSCast. She’s our co-host on FSOpenLine. But her day job is Product Manager for User Training and Outreach. Rachel, welcome.
RACHEL BUCHANAN: Hey, Glen, how are you?
GLEN: I’m good. How are you?
RACHEL: Doing really well.
GLEN: So I have noticed that training has stepped up a little bit in this era of COVID-19.
RACHEL: Well, we buckled down last week, and we’re really looking to what we could do for our customers and users in light of the global crisis that’s going on, and have decided to offer these ongoing training sessions every Tuesday and Thursday at 3:00 p.m. Eastern. And we’re really looking to our participants to guide us and give us topics and just point us towards the areas where they really need support, the question-answers, whether it be TVIs working with students who are connecting via a Focus display and accessing remote learning, or someone who may be in the workplace and needs to master remote access.
GLEN: We should probably clarify that TVI is Teacher of the Visually Impaired, for those who aren’t.
RACHEL: Right. Yeah, absolutely. And those Teachers of the Visually Impaired are all around the United States and working hard to connect with blind and low-vision students who are at home and may or may not have access to all of the assistive technology that they do at school. So those TVIs are really on the frontline for our students who are trying to get access.
GLEN: And we’re in an interesting spot; right? Because we want to do as much training as people need and want. But on the other hand, we don’t want to do training if people aren’t interested. And so this, in the next couple of weeks, is really the time for folks to let us know what they’re interested in learning about and also indicate that they have an interest by showing up.
RACHEL: Definitely. And sending, if you have suggestions, send an email to email@example.com. We’re really responsive on that inbox, and we want to see people’s suggestions, what you’re struggling with. And we’ll help with – even if it’s not something we can hold an entire class on, we’ll try to help out with step-by-step instructions in your specific situation.
GLEN: Are you getting more questions about collaborative platforms this go-round?
RACHEL: Definitely, yes. In fact, that’s probably above and beyond getting connected with the Focus and mastering, you know, the typing practice for parents and TVIs. Another really common question we’ve had is, you know, what are the commands for Google Classroom? How do my students access Google Docs? And we’re lucky enough that some of that work’s already been done because we have G Suite training already out there and archived. And we do have some work to do left with Google Classroom.
GLEN: What about Zoom? Zoom, amazingly to me, has really taken over the imaginations of a whole bunch of people. It seems really popular now, where three years ago it was hardly used.
RACHEL: Yeah. I’ve heard it talked about quite a bit. I’ve seen it on the news. It’s been quite the buzzword lately. And we do have a training on that already available, if people visit our archives page. You can download, I think it’s about a 25-minute training with several task demos. And that will be good if you’re participating in Zoom meetings. Now, you may need a little bit extra training if you’re going to be hosting a meeting yourself and using JAWS.
GLEN: And I have just the resource for you.
RACHEL: Oh, tell us about it.
GLEN: Jonathan Mosen, who wrote a book several years ago called “Meet Me Accessibly,” how to use Zoom...
RACHEL: Yes, I have that.
GLEN: He has made it available for free.
RACHEL: Excellent. That is so helpful.
GLEN: I think it’s about three hours long. It covers both using Zoom with JAWS and using it with an iPhone to both attend a meeting and to present a meeting.
RACHEL: Right, and this is a book I relied on a lot when I first started doing the webinars. It was one that I immediately knew I needed as a resource, and I read it, and it was really helpful.
GLEN: Have you contacted him to demand your money back?
RACHEL: No, I have not.
GLEN: Okay, good. He appreciates – he appreciates that.
RACHEL: I think it was an honest sale. It was long enough ago.
GLEN: That book is available at Mosen.org/zoom, and available for a free download. So it’s a great resource. I wanted to mention it on the podcast, and you provided the perfect opportunity.
RACHEL: Great. Yup.
GLEN: If people want to know when our webinars are scheduled and find out about specifics, how do they do that?
RACHEL: We’ve been posting all of that information on our blog at blog.freedomscientific.com. We’ve been blogging twice a week. So check it out and stay up to date with what we’re doing.
GLEN: Sounds great. Thanks, Rachel.
RACHEL: Thanks so much, Glen.
GLEN: With me now is Dan Spoone. He is the President of the American Council of the Blind. Dan, I realize this is a busy time, and there are lots of things you could be doing. Thanks for taking the time to join us.
DAN SPOONE: Well, thank you, Glen. Glad to be here.
GLEN: So how well do you think blind people are prepared to face COVID-19?
DAN: That’s a very interesting question. I think in some respects our community is actually better prepared to handle COVID-19 in that, you know, we as a group are people that have – we have learned to be patient. We have learned to take our time to do things. I think in some aspects we’re not maybe quite as mobile on a day-to-day basis, just as a general population. You can’t, of course, generalize from any one individual. But as a community, I think we’re fairly comfortable staying in our homes. So I think that part of it, of doing this stay-at-home, the isolation piece, from our psyche, I think we’re almost better prepared to handle that than a lot of other communities.
On the other hand, I think it does create some just, you know, inherent challenges for our population in that, you know, things like getting to the grocery store and picking up essential food items or getting to the drug store for your needed prescriptions, those items can become more tricky with our population. So I think there are some pluses and some minuses.
The other thing we’ve learned inside of the American Council of the Blind is our community is really good at getting on conference calls and Zoom calls and having conversations with each other. We’re just very skilled at that because we’re a national organization, and that’s how we do our day-to-day business today.
GLEN: That’s the good side. I think the bad side is we often touch things. Touch things extensively.
DAN: Oh, it’s true.
GLEN: Take the arms of sighted guides.
DAN: Oh, we are the, if you wanted to pick a population that would be the perfect Petri dish for germ transmission, I think it’s a group of blind people in a confined area; right? I mean, you know, we form trains to go to, you know, to venture to restrooms and all that type of thing. We touch about every surface we come in contact with. It’s really hard for us to do spatial distancing. You know, when are we six feet away from all of our colleagues? And so these really make meeting in person very much a challenge.
GLEN: And do you think people are getting it? I mean, having readers in the house, potentially, you know, following sighted guides, all that stuff.
DAN: Oh, all that kind of stuff. Most definitely. And I’m, you know, today my sister came in and helped my wife and I read a few hard pieces of mail to get through. And again, so what did we have to do? You know, we kind of stood back while she read the mail, and then she left, and we came in and got our Lysol wipes out and wiped down the counter and wiped down the doorknobs. And you feel terrible, I mean, it’s your sister. But, you know, on the other hand, you really – it’s very difficult to keep that safe distance. I know when we were at the grocery store I was holding onto her shoulder. You know, how else am I going to navigate? It’s very difficult.
GLEN: It does sort of talk about technology a little bit; right? Because if people are good with an iPhone and something like Seeing AI, it would be possible to take a picture of the mail and then send it to somebody else, if OCR wasn’t good enough, and perhaps allow them to do it at a distance.
DAN: Yeah, I really do believe that’s the case. We’re going to, you know, the more you can take advantage of technology, you know, ordering groceries through an online service, or using technology like you’re saying, to read your mail or really to use Uber Eats to get a delivery in. I mean, there’s all kinds of opportunities out there, I think.
GLEN: What are you hearing from people about taxis and Uber and other things which blind people, if you need to go out, you don’t necessarily have the choice of sequestering yourself in your own car and driving somewhere.
DAN: Right. Right, right. That kind of seems to be the safest place for the general population. They get in their car, you know, where they’re not with anyone else. But for us, if we’re going to take transportation, you know, the autonomous vehicle is not quite here yet. We keep our hopes up. But right now we’re going to be in the car. And if it’s an Uber or taxi, it’s somebody that we don’t know. And so you don’t know where they’ve been and who was in the vehicle before you.
And so, you know, the last time I used an Uber, which is a little over a week ago, you know, I took my Lysol wipes and wiped down the handles when I got in. And the driver, I was worried that maybe he might feel a little offended. He said, “Sir, you don’t really have to do that because I’m wiping down the vehicle every time a passenger leaves my car because I’m as worried about the passengers as the passengers are worried about me.” And so that was kind of interesting, that the drivers themselves I think are trying to take the steps, the conscientious ones, to really make sure their vehicles are safe.
GLEN: So am I correct in assuming that a lot of what ACB is doing is trying to make sure that people are connected in new and creative ways.
DAN: Most certainly, Glen. What we’ve tried to do over the past several weeks is set up different Zoom meetings, some of them broadcast live on our ACB radio streams, where we’re talking about a variety of topics, everything from how to have, you know, what are your good recipes that you’d like to share, you know, how do you deal with the census that’s coming up this year, the 2020 Census. We’re going to have a call in the future about sports, and let’s talk sports, and just bring your adult beverage and let’s have some fun and share stories about sports. We’re going to have a session on Audio Description and how to connect with streams and get the most value out of the Audio Description programming that’s available during this point in time.
So we’re just having all kinds of different things. I mean, some of them are just simply afternoon sessions where you can grab a cup of coffee and come and share your feelings; you know? So they’re just all over the place. We’re involving our committees. We’re involving our special interest affiliates. What we’ve learned is there’s just a tremendous wealth of knowledge inside of our membership that we’re able to tap into, at a time when everybody needs a little, you know, needs a little cheering up and needs a little something to fill their days.
GLEN: And are you finding that people are more likely to attend these than they might have been a month ago or two months ago, even though probably at that point there were fewer of them?
DAN: Oh, most certainly. I mean, it’s off the charts. We’re getting, you know, we’re getting 50, 100 people calling in at one point in time for these community meetings. It’s just amazing the interest level. And they’re engaged. And what else we’re finding is you kind of get the phone calls, you know, the Zoom meeting started, and then they’re sharing with each other. You know, it’s just really created this peer-to-peer support network, and they’re sharing each other’s phone numbers and email addresses and making contact with each other outside of the community meetings. So it’s just really been, I think, very uplifting. It’s just been great to see our membership come together in this way.
GLEN: You mentioned the Audio Description project. And I’m curious if you can talk a little bit more about it because I didn’t realize how actively the ACB has been behind that.
DAN: You know, we’ve now formed American Council of the Blind to nine key programs and services. And Audio Description is one of those nine key programs and services. We have a wonderful website, ACB.org/adp. And on that website you will find all kinds, there’s over a hundred pages that make up the website now. Our most popular page is we have a combined listing that lists all the audio-described content that’s available on the key, you know, the four broadcast channels, the five major cable channels that offer Audio Description, plus all of the streaming platforms, whether it be Netflix or Amazon or iTunes or Apple+, Disney+. They’re all there. And right now I think we’re about ready to top the 4,000-title level. So I think we’re at a little over 3,900 titles that we can now definitively validate that are available with Audio Description.
Here in Florida, Spectrum, which is, you know, the Charter Corporation, they actually, on their accessibility pages, they point to ACB.org/adp as the definitive source for audio-described information. So it’s pretty exciting, what we’ve been able to do.
GLEN: Yeah. And it’s a great time for people to catch up on content.
DAN: Oh, it really is, you know. There is, with time on your hands, there’s just a plethora of content that’s out there.
GLEN: It seems like there’s a little bit of a conundrum for people who are older because they’re the ones who are, as a group, less likely to go to the website and find out all the stuff that’s going on.
DAN: It is true. And we’ve also put together, we have a new Membership Services Coordinator, Cindy Van Winkle, that has just been onboard here for nine months now. And she’s gotten a group of volunteers from across our organization that she calls her “posse.” And they are taking time to actually reach out and call members, especially members we haven’t heard from in a little while, just to check in with them and see how they’re doing. And she’s put together things, like she has Hump Day Happy Hour every Wednesday, where people can call in and talk about their – all our ACB affiliate presidents can call in and talk about, you know, what their issues are.
You know, American Council of the Blind is kind of a three-tiered organization. So we have the National Board of Directors and leadership staff. And then we have a series of about 68 state, geographical state and special interest affiliates across the country. And then we have about 250 local chapters that work inside of those affiliates. So what we’re finding is for most of even our local chapters right now, they’re not planning on having face-to-face meetings here for the next month or two. So they’re reaching out through their phone trees and calling their members.
My wife Leslie, she reached out and called half of our chapter list just last Wednesday. And what was very interesting there, she said to me that, “Dan, normally I would get through that half of the list in about 45 minutes.” It took her two and a half hours because people just wanted to talk. They wanted to share their feelings. And they were so appreciative that she had reached out and just, not scheduling a meeting or anything else, just reached out to see how they were feeling.
GLEN: That’s great. What have you been hearing about students who are trying to study at home using remote techniques that they may not have needed to experience before?
DAN: Well, you know, as always it’s a little bit of a challenge. You know, everybody’s trying to get it right for the general population. And maybe at times they don’t forget about the accessibility features that make it inclusive for all of their students. So that’s something that parents have to advocate for. One thing that’s very interesting to us, we have several of our members that are blind parents with sighted children. And they’re going through the challenges of just receiving the materials that they’re now supposed to use to teach their kids, and it’s not coming to them in an accessible format. So how do they then learn what they need to learn to help teach their children? And so it’s kind of a double-whammy. You know, it can be the student, a blind student that’s having an accessibility issue, or it could be a blind parent who needs the material in accessible format in order to teach their child. So we’re working on both of those areas.
GLEN: So I would not have thought about that in terms of parents. And I might have thought about it, but I wouldn’t have thought it would be a whole lot different based on whether or not this was online or in person because I think in both cases the parents either could or couldn’t get the material. But maybe it is that the online material is not necessarily the same as what would have been handed out as handouts. Is that partially it?
DAN: Right. That’s partially it. Or it’s now a lot of these school systems are now scrambling to put an online application together that they’re sending the materials out in; so the teacher posts it and puts it out on a website that now the parents can go download the materials. But guess what? That website’s not accessible. So we’re running into that kind of an issue over and over again.
GLEN: Where in previous generations there would be a handout, conceivably, that they could take home and scan, if worst comes to worst.
DAN: That’s right. That’s right. And so then you follow back up, that maybe the only alternative that they have, to snail mail the materials. But then, you know, they haven’t got around to doing that yet. So is their child missing out on a few days of curriculum while they’re waiting to get the materials? So it’s always interesting to see, you know, changes tend to bring about opportunities for advocacy for our community because a lot of times it’s just not totally thought through.
GLEN: Yeah. And there’s a lot going on. There are a lot of balls in the air.
DAN: Yeah, there really are. In fact, one of the advocacy issues we’ve been really working very hard with, I don’t know if you saw this, but Senator Alexander actually proposed an amendment to the bill that may be passing the Senate soon, it’s hard to know. But in that legislation there was an actual adjustment to the legislation to not require IDEA, I D E A, the Individuals with Disability Education Act, to require – you could get a waiver and not have to follow those guidelines for a period of time due to the coronavirus. So again, if we’re not careful, leaving our blind and visually impaired students behind the rest of the population.
GLEN: I appreciate your efforts on behalf of this, and all the other things that ACB does. Dan, I really want to thank you for being with us on FSCast this time.
DAN: Well, thank you, Glen. I enjoyed it. And Vispero, keep up the great work. We appreciate it. Thank you.
GLEN: All right. Thanks a lot.
GLEN: This podcast is turning out to be focused primarily on the United States. It just sort of turned out that way. We reached out to the presidents of the American Council of the Blind and National Federation of the Blind. They were available to talk to us, and so we jumped at the opportunity. If you’re listening to us in another country, and you’d like help promoting what your blindness organizations are doing, we’re happy to do that, either on our blog – that’s the place where we can make the quickest changes – or perhaps on a future FSCast. Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to help you out.
I also want to mention that I had extended conversations with our two guests, and we’re playing portions of those two interviews. So don’t take what you’re hearing either Dan Spoone or Mark Riccobono saying as all that they have to say on these topics. Your best option is to go to ACB.org or NFB.org, where you can find out all the things that these two advocacy organizations are doing to help.
GLEN: And speaking of the President of the National Federation of the Blind, Mark Riccobono is on the line with me now. I realize it’s a busy time for everybody and very much appreciate you taking the time to join us.
MARK RICCOBONO: It’s my pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
GLEN: So am I correct in assuming that NFB is well ensconced with everyone working at home, and it is far from business as usual?
MARK: Yeah, I’d say far from business as usual because the National Federation of the Blind Jernigan Institute, which is our beautiful headquarters building in South Baltimore, is, well, unoccupied, at least right now. And we’ve of course done things via teleconference and using other means for a long time. But right now there’s really no choice in that. So we’ve been spinning up a lot of things very quickly, and it’s been quite interesting to also then provide training to folks who haven’t used some of the distance learning technology.
GLEN: Got it. So we’re recording this on Wednesday afternoon, the 25th of March. And this is right after the Democrats and Republicans seem to have come to an agreement on essentially a COVID-19 bailout bill. I’m curious. Are there things in the bill that concern you? Or things that have been left out of the bill that are troubling?
MARK: Well, that’s a good question. I have not gotten a full analysis from our team yet about that. And, you know, the negotiations in Congress moved at a very strong pace. But there are things we’re concerned about, whether they’re fully addressed in the bill or not, first and foremost protecting blind people who are in small businesses, especially blind people who are part of the Randolph Sheppard program. You know, they pretty much have lost all of their business because of the shutdown of government buildings and that sort of thing.
So when we talk about small business and small business recovery, we have been advocating to really protect and make that group whole. But it extends beyond that. There are unique training programs for blind people that have been similarly impacted. Also we have been encouraging Congress to waive the normal waiting period for Social Security Disability Income and Medicaid, recognizing that there are going to be people that are going to be adversely impacted employment-wise. Numbers are small as they are, blind people that we have employed. But there are blind people that are going to lose their jobs.
MARK: And we don’t want them to have to wait, you know, to get on disability income. And then of course, you know, there might be people who, for whatever reason, are going blind in this time period, and they’re going to be adversely impacted.
GLEN: I had heard that there was some discussion about allowing the Department of Education to relax some of the IDEA, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Have you heard more about that lately?
MARK: Yes. So that was a proposal that came up in Congress last week. The National Federation of the Blind came out pretty strongly against that, obviously. The idea was that there should be a waiver to really allow schools to get out of their obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act because of the urgent and fast-paced nature of what’s happening. Obviously, our organization, we’re always against that. Their proposal as it was offered didn’t go anywhere. And I think we played a big part in that, working with other disability organizations.
I had heard, and again I haven’t seen the analysis of the final bill, that the final bill may ask the Secretary of the United States Department of Education to produce a report about what waivers might be necessary. Well, the Secretary of Education already has authority to issue and ask for waivers from the Congress for various situations. So that doesn’t really create anything new. And Congress would still have to take action. So we feel pretty good that we were able to push back on that. But obviously, in this situation, one of the things that we’re doing just generally, not just at the federal level, but working with the state and local programs, is to make sure that blind people are not adversely impacted or being exempted from the programs that are happening.
A good example is, you know, there’s all these drive-up testing centers, and our affiliates have been talking with state officials about, okay, if you’re a person that doesn’t drive, and you need to be tested, how are you going to get equal access to this? You know, you’re not going to call up a ridesharing program and say, by the way, I’m going to get tested for COVID‑19. They’ll know that by where you’re going. So we need other ways to have equal access. And, you know, various local authorities have been figuring out innovative ways to do that with the help of the National Federation of the Blind.
GLEN: So, I mean, it’s a time of crisis. I’m sure officials are overwhelmed. They’re getting pushed from a variety of different angles. How are you able to make sure that the voices of the blind are actively heard, and that people pay attention?
MARK: Well, yeah. Well, that’s a good – it’s a good question. Well, I think it really speaks to the fact that we have a strong network and brand that we’ve built over the last 80 years that people know. Public officials already know the National Federation of the Blind and that our leaders are elected by blind people to represent blind people.
The second part, besides the brand, is the network. You know, we have this dynamic network of affiliates in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico that come together in this national organization. And so we have people on the ground in the right places, and we support them with this national network.
So our advocacy team, you know, they’re monitoring what’s happening in Congress. They’re talking to folks. Government officials know to call on us. But at the same time, we’re being proactive. A couple days ago we put out a news brief calling on governors and other public officials to put their executive orders out in accessible form because apparently some of the governors got the idea that it was really important that people see the governor’s signature on a document. So they were putting out these emergency orders, and it was, you know, it was just a picture of the order so that you could see the governor’s signature. And then some of them, apparently trying to be somewhat progressive, were going in later and doing OCR on those scanned documents. And you’re thinking, folks, you created this electronically. You already have the text. And who cares about the signature? We just want to know what the requirements are. What are we supposed to do?
So it’s a combination of already having a network that has people and a communications system in the right place where we communicate and we coordinate the work. But it’s also being proactive about pushing on some of the things even before the government figures out they’re doing it wrong. And that comes from blind people coming together and saying, hey, you know, this is an issue, and then we have the mechanism to do something about it.
GLEN: So lots of people are sheltering at home. That means lots of kids are going to school online. That’s great that we have the technology to do that. But how well advanced are school districts in terms of making sure that this online activity is actually accessible?
MARK: Yeah, well, you know, no surprise, they’re not. And this has been one of the areas of, in one sense, emergency action. But in another sense, we’ve already been doing this work, advancing resources and pushing information into the Congress to try to get a bill passed. But we recognized early on that a lot of school districts, a lot of universities are going to online-only for the rest of the semester, and that we needed to make sure that we were pushing out resources on how to make sure that the platforms are accessible, helping professors know that they have a role to play in posting accessible content. And then really helping blind students network which platforms are accessible; how do you get access to them; and, if they’re not accessible, how do you file complaints? Because there’s a fairly short timeline here. And when you’re a blind student that’s maybe looking at graduating this May, and this is your last set of courses, you hate to have that be delayed just because the online platform that a university’s using is not accessible.
So we have a lot of activity going on in that regard, students working with students to share, you know, what works, what doesn’t, doing outreach to universities. We had a Twitter chat the other day to allow people to share what they knew, again, just creating community and coordinating resources. And so that’s really the power of the network that we’ve built in the National Federation of the Blind. And I think we’ve also seen in this process, you know, some universities and schools taking that on by mentioning accessibility early on, which is nice to see. Not that everybody’s getting it right. There are some that just really aren’t getting it right. They weren’t getting it right before.
I’m hopeful, though, that this tsunami of online learning and engagement is really going to, maybe more than anything else we’ve done, allow us to get the tipping point on accessibility being a requirement in online environments and as important as security, and that the two go hand in hand, and that they should just flatly be requirements before anybody uses one of these systems.
GLEN: Absolutely. It does feel that there may be a little bit of a sea change after all of this in terms of online education, but also virtual working, people working from home, where folks are being forced to try it as companies, and they may be finding that it’s working out better than expected.
MARK: Yeah, I think that’s going to be interesting. I think it is going to have an impact on society. But I think it’s also going to be useful the other way. I think maybe the side benefit of people being cooped up is that it will help to emphasize the real value in people getting together in person. I mean, I love online tools. I use a lot of them. But, you know, when you can sit across from someone and have a conversation that’s not influenced by a screen or a glitch in your technology, it’s different. It’s just different.
And I think one of the things we’re going to find is that people will really understand the value of that side of the equation, as well. And we need both sides; right? We need the tools and the remote technologies because it does empower a lot of things, whether it’s work at home for any variety of circumstances or, you know, connecting people who are isolated. But we also need those in-person experiences. And if we can harness the power of both of those, that’s really the world that I think we want to live in. Accessible technologies that allow us to do the things we want to do remotely, but then that also give us the opportunities to get together in person.
GLEN: Well, I’m really glad you mentioned that. As a Luddite who refuses to do Facebook, and actually wants to talk to people on the phone or see them in person, I appreciate your push to a center.
MARK: Yeah, people are one way or the other. And, I mean, I think that’s the silver lining of the current situation, right, is you do see people reaching out to people, not just via text, but picking up the phone and calling people and seeing how they are because they need that actual voice on the other end, not just 140 characters or whatever.
GLEN: One of the things that I have noticed is that blind people are forever creative and resourceful. I’m curious if anything comes to mind for you in terms of what NFB members have done in light of COVID-19 to really help others and move things forward.
MARK: Yes, I mean, we have, you know, our organization of course is built on local chapters, and local chapters are used to getting together. And all sorts of interesting things have been happening with our chapters doing virtual events, either via telephone or Zoom or some other platform, both to continue to provide programming, but also to, you know, again, make that social connection. A number of our affiliates have been collecting the resources that are out there, both the same resources that are really there to help everybody, but then also some of the unique blindness resources that are out there. And we’ve put some of these together. We have made our NFB-NEWSLINE system free everywhere. We had five states plus Puerto Rico did not have access to the NFB-NEWSLINE system. We opened it up so that all blind people can have equal access to the COVID-19 breaking news.
GLEN: One of the things that I was very impressed with, and it turns out there’s an intersection. He’s been a developer on JAWS for the last couple of years. He’s also an NFB member. Tyler Littlefield decided that there was a need for accessible COVID-19 information because most of the other information available has been in graphical and other visual forms. He spent his weekend developing a website that really aggregates a bunch of the information, both nationally and internationally. It’s CVstats.net.
MARK: Yeah, yeah. It is a great site. I a couple days ago sent an email to him myself, thanking him for creating that resource. And, you know, folks have been figuring out interesting ways to make graphs of the curve, you know, the whole flattening the curve concept, to create tactile graphics and other ways so that blind people could really be part of the conversation. Well, what does this mean? What does it look like? What are we trying to do? And, you know, the best of those things that are being done are being generated by blind people who want to share their ideas about what equal access looks like.
GLEN: We should probably mention NFB.org as a place that folks can go to get information; right? That is sort of the starting point?
MARK: Yes, NFB.org is our website. There are many, many branches there. But that’s where you could find any of the information about the National Federation of the Blind, the programs we have.
GLEN: Is there a place that people can go to get COVID-specific information on your site?
MARK: Yes. We have pulled together all of our COVID-19 related resources and even some of the ones that aren’t ours, just ones we like, ones that are accessible, like Tyler’s little tool that was mentioned earlier. You can go to NFB, as in National Federation of the Blind, NFB.org/covid19, C O V I D 1 9, and you can find all the information, including you can go to a link where you can get to our state affiliates. And many of our state affiliates have pulled together state-specific resources around COVID and accessibility. So I’d encourage you to take a look at that. It’s changing, well, probably every hour at this point. And if you find great resources that you think would be helpful to blind people, send us an email at email@example.com, and we’ll try to put them up there.
GLEN: Mark Riccobono, I jumped in as the host of FSCast this month. One of the reasons was because I wanted to talk to you. And you definitely did not disappoint. So thanks very much for joining us.
MARK: Well, thank you very much, and keep up the great work.
GLEN: Before we go, I want to talk a little bit about accessible statistical software. If you heard our replay of FSOpenLine from February, you heard the topic of accessible statistics come up. And my answer turns out to have been completely inadequate because I failed to mention software available through SAS. After the podcast I heard from Ed Summers, who’s the Director of Accessibility there. He’ll be on FSCast in the next month or so to talk more about what they have to offer. But they’ve done something specific related to COVID‑19.
For the past few years they’ve been offering a free Chrome extension called the Accessible Graphics Accelerator. And the purpose of it is to allow those of us who can’t see graphs and charts to hear them. So you can take tabular data, and you’ll actually be able to hear a sonified version of that data. They’ve used the Graphics Accelerator to take COVID-19 data and come up with something they’ve called “COVID-19 by the Numbers.”
So if you want to experiment with this, the best thing to do is to go to your favorite search engine, search for SAS Disability Support Center, and from there you’ll be able to see all things accessible at SAS, and in particular find out about COVID-19 by the Numbers. To keep up with all things Freedom Scientific, we have our Facebook page, our Twitter feed, and of course our blog: blog.freedomscientific.com.
GLEN: That’s going to pretty much do it for this month’s edition of FSCast. I’m Glen Gordon. We’ll see you next month.