FSCast #242

March,  2024

GLEN GORDON:  On FSCast 242, I’ll put the newly released Picture Smart AI through its paces, and you’ll hear the detailed descriptions it can generate for everything from a bar chart to a frame from a YouTube video.  Then we’ll spend some time getting to know longtime blindness advocate Anil Lewis.  He’s Executive Director of Blindness Initiatives of the National Federation of the Blind.

Picture Smart AI

GLEN:  Hello, everybody.  Glen Gordon here, particularly happy to be with you this month because I get to demonstrate the newly released Picture Smart AI.  And it has turned even this old nonvisual curmudgeon into a fan because the kinds of descriptions it generates are things that we could never have dreamed of a couple of years ago.  And because it’s integrated with JAWS, getting a description of the thing that you care about is just a couple of keystrokes away.  And I’ll show you a variety of uses that I’ve found.  I’m sure you’ll find your own uses for Picture Smart AI. 

But before I show you what’s new, I want to demonstrate what’s old and how far we’ve come.  I have a sample org chart downloaded.  It is a PDF file.  It’s open now in Adobe Reader.  Maximize the window and put Reader into full screen mode with CTRL+L so that the toolbar and menu and other residual content is gone.  I’m going to bring up the old Picture Smart, press JAWS Key+SPACE and then P for Picture Smart. 

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart. 

GLEN:  And then SHIFT+W to get all of the possible results.

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart is in progress.  Heading Level 2 caption is graphical user interface.  Diagram.

GLEN:  I’ll do a Say All with JAWS Key+DOWN ARROW.

JAWS VOICE:  Heading Level 4.  This text appears in the photo.  Company name, John Smith, chief information officer, president/CEO, VP, sustainability and public policy, chief marketing officer, chief financial officer, chief human resources officer, company size, 10,000.

GLEN:  And you get the general idea.  It’s not giving us much description of the org chart itself.  It’s just reading some of the text.  Before we can compare that to the new Picture Smart, we have to configure it as the one to use.  You do that by bringing up the JAWS menu.  Now, in my case, I have JAWS running from the system tray, so I can do that with JAWS Key+J.

JAWS VOICE:  JAWS context menu.  Option submenu.


JAWS VOICE:  Basics dot dot dot.

GLEN:  And then arrow down a couple of times.

JAWS VOICE:  Voices submenu.  Braille dot dot dot.  Early adopter program dot dot dot.

GLEN:  That’s the one we want.  I’ll press ENTER.

JAWS VOICE:  Leaving menus.  Early adopter program.  Read-only edit.  Enable and disable features that are still in development.

GLEN:  I’ll tab a couple of times.

JAWS VOICE:  MathCAT checkbox not checked.  Read-only edit.  This feature enables the use of MathCAT.  Send feedback button.  Picture Smart with generative AI checkbox not checked.

GLEN:  That’s the one we want.  I’ll press SPACEBAR. 

JAWS VOICE:  Checked. 


JAWS VOICE:  Early adopter program dialog.  You must restart JAWS to apply these changes.  OK button.  Unloading JAWS.

GLEN:  And if all you want to do is shut down and restart JAWS, we have a key combination that'll do that for you. Press JAWS Key +SPACE and then simply hit F4.

JAWS VOICE:  JAWS. Sample org chart dot PDF dash Adobe Acrobat reader

GLEN:  JAWS has restarted and I'm back in this PDF document.  Let's get a quick description of it. Press JAWS Key+SPACE P.

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart

GLEN:  And now W to run Picture Smart on the current window.

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart is in progress.

GLEN:  The short description comes from a single service currently chat GPT, but that may change. And this generally is faster than getting complete descriptions from both services. JAWS VOICE:  The image displays a sample organizational chart in a PDF document. The chart is titled company name. It includes various positions like president slash CEO, vice presidents and sales managers with names and titles like John Smith, chief information officer. There are also sections labeled executive staff, division presidents and regional vice presidents. The chart is annotated with notes about company size and direct reports. An oval highlight notes provided letter of recommendation pointing to applicant. Link more results.

GLEN:  So that's a fairly complete summary description, but notice at the bottom here, I'll repeat the last line.

JAWS VOICE:  Link more results.

GLEN:  So if you want even more, you can simply press enter on this more results. I'll do this now.

JAWS VOICE:  Picture smart is in progress.

GLEN:  This usually takes a bit longer. If you want to go directly to the complete descriptions, you can do JAWS Key+SPACE P and then a shifted letter. In this case, SHIFT+W. I’m going to let this finish. And then for future runs, I'll shorten the pauses so we can get more in.

JAWS VOICE:  Heading Level 2, Gemini.

GLEN:  And I’ll just do a Say All here.

JAWS VOICE:  The image is an organizational chart of a company.  The company name is not visible.  The chart shows the hierarchy of the company with the President/CEO at the top.  The President/CEO has five direct reports:  the Chief Sustainability and Public Policy Officer, the Chief Marketing Officer, the Chief Financial Officer, the Chief Human Resources Officer, and the VP/GM Retail and Logistics.  The Chief Sustainability and Public Policy Officer has one direct report, the SVP Operations Administration.  The Chief Marketing Officer has two direct reports, the SVP Marketing and the SVP Product Innovation.  The Chief Financial Officer has one direct report, the Controller. The Chief Human Resources Officer has one direct report, the HR Generalist.

GLEN:  And I’m going to stop this here.  This goes on for a while.  But let’s see how ChatGPT did with this.  I’ll press H.

JAWS VOICE:  ChatGPT Heading Level 2.  The image you’ve provided is a flowchart representing the organizational structure of a company.  The flowchart uses a combination of green and blue rectangular shapes connected by lines to show the hierarchy and different levels of responsibility within the organization.  Here is a detailed description of the flowchart.  At the top of the chart, there is a blue rectangle that states company name.  Directly below it, two pieces of information are provided.  Company size, 10,000 in direct reports.  Five indirect reports.  18.  The title President/CEO sits below the company name in a green rectangle representing the head of the company.  To the right of the chart is a column that indicates different layers of leadership and areas, including executive staff, division presidents, data communication division executive staff, vice presidents, and regional vice presidents.

GLEN:  I’ll stop ChatGPT there, even though it has more to say on the topic.  But as you can see, you get slightly different answers from Google Gemini and OpenAI’s ChatGPT, which is precisely why we give you results from both of them.  Also to allow you to validate that one of them hasn’t completely gone off the rails with its answer, as is often the case. 

One thing that many of us find is that if you submit the same image a second time, you will get slightly different information.  Not unlike asking a person to describe the same picture with a little bit of time in between.  They’ll call attention to different things.  When I first submitted this picture, Gemini actually told me the names of not only the first level of reports, but the second level of reports, as well.  But try as I might, submitting it two or three additional times, I’ve never gotten that information again. 

And now through the magic of time lapse audio, I’m now in Explorer, focused on a file name.  I’ll do a Say Line.

JAWS VOICE:  Bar chart birthday students, 3/20/2024, 2:31 p.m.  PNG file, 88 kilobytes.

GLEN:  From this point forth, you’ll know that the JAWS key space was pressed because of the [clicking] sound.  And you’ll know that the P key was pressed because of...

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart.

GLEN:  ...being announced.  Now I’ll press SHIFT+F to do Picture Smart on this file.

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart is in progress.  Picture Smart results, Heading Level 2 Gemini.  The graph shows the number of students’ birthdays by month.  The X axis represents the month and the Y axis represents the number of students.  The unit length on the Y axis is two students.  The months with the most birthdays are June and October, with 10 students each.  The month with the least birthdays is August with one student. 

Heading Level 2, ChatGPT.  The image displays a colorful bar chart titled Birthday of Students by Month with the X axis representing month from January to December and the Y axis indicating the number of students, which ranges from zero to 10 in increments of two.  Each month has a bar corresponding to the number of students with birthdays in that month.  The bars vary in height, indicating different numbers of students for each month.  The bar for June is the tallest, showing a number significantly higher than the others, followed by bars for other months which have varying heights.  Each bar is a different color.  On the top right portion of the image, there is a note specifying one unit length equals two students to indicate the scale of the bars in relation to the number of students they represent.

GLEN:  So in this case, we got some conflicting information.  Gemini said two months had students with the maximum number of birthdays.  ChatGPT said there was only one.  It was June, and ChatGPT was indeed correct, as confirmed by cited confirmation.  There were 10 students born in June.  So I think the phrase that applies here is caveat emptor, buyer beware.  When it matters, ask a human. 

Although that bar chart originated in a file, you can do something very similar in Excel.  Prepare your data, generate the chart, and then ask Picture Smart to recognize the spreadsheet.  If the data is actually visible, it’ll talk about that,  And it’ll also describe the chart, like a pie chart in my case; tell you approximately the relative proportions; and you can get a quick idea as to whether or not the insertion that you thought you did actually worked. 

I have switched now to Amazon.com in Google Chrome.  I have gone to the page of a Black & Decker toaster oven.  And even though I have no intention of buying this item, it’s representative of the kind of thing someone might want to buy, and for which a description of the picture may give you additional information that’s not written down in text.  So I find the easiest way to get to the product itself on a particular page is to hit Q to move to the main region.

JAWS VOICE:  Main region.

GLEN:  And then 1 to move to Heading Level 1.

JAWS VOICE:  Black Plus Decker 4-Slice Crisp and Bake Air Fry Toaster Oven TO1787SS.

GLEN:  I’ll press G a few times.

JAWS VOICE:  One day graphic.  Product image graphic.  Report an issue with this product or seller graphic.  Black Plus Decker 4-Slice Crisp and Bake Air Fry Toaster Oven TO1787SS.

GLEN:  That sounds like the graphic I care about. 

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart. 

GLEN:  And this time I’ll do C for control.  And control is somewhat of a misnomer in this instance, but it basically is the item that you’re focused on.  And since I had just moved to the graphic, SHIFT+C is going to do a Picture Smart on that image.

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart is in progress.  Heading Level 2, Gemini.  The image shows a Silver Black Plus Decker Toaster Oven with a capacity of four slices.  It has a see-through glass door and two knobs for temperature and timer control.  The oven is sitting on a white surface. 

Heading Level 2, ChatGPT.  The image displays an appliance, specifically a toaster oven.  It appears to be a countertop model featuring a horizontal rectangular shape.  The body of the toaster oven is predominantly silver or chrome, which suggests it could be made of stainless steel or a similar metallic finish.  On the right side of the toaster oven, there are two control knobs.  These knobs are likely used to adjust the temperature and cooking settings, which may include bake, broil, toast, and perhaps a timer or a specific food setting like bagels or frozen snacks.  Above the knobs, there is a small red light indicator, possibly to show when the oven is turned on or preheated.

GLEN:  There’s a little more to what ChatGPT had to say about this picture, but you get the general idea. 

I have now switched to a YouTube video.  I would never have thought that pausing a video mid-presentation and using Picture Smart would give interesting results; but others experimented, found that it worked, and I have followed in their footsteps.  This is a YouTube channel called Girl With Dogs.  She has hundreds of thousands of subscribers.  She’s a dog groomer, and lots of people like watching her do the actual transformation on dogs.  I have a German Shepherd transformation opened.  I’ve turned off quick keys with JAWS Key+SHIFT+Z, taking advantage of last month’s Power Tip.  I’ll hit F. 

JAWS VOICE:  Press ESC to exit full screen. 

GLEN:  So that puts this video in full screen mode.  What I’m hoping is that all the residual content is gone, and when we do Picture Smart, we’ll get just the video content.  I’ve positioned on the video right before the owner of the dog who’s just been groomed comes out to see how she’s looking, and I’ll pause once the owner sounds excited to get a description of what’s going on.  I’ll hit K to play.

DOG OWNER:  Where’s the baby? 

“GIRL WITH DOG”:  Are you ready?

DOG OWNER:  I am ready.

“GIRL WITH DOG”:  Okay.  Go on.

DOG OWNER:  [Giggling]  Hi.

GLEN:  So that sounds like a pretty excited moment.  Let’s do Picture Smart on this. 

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart. 

GLEN:  And I’ll do SHIFT+W for window.

JAWS VOICE:  Picture Smart is in progress.  Heading Level 2 Gemini.  The video shows a woman in a black jacket and pink pants kneeling on the ground next to a large German shepherd dog.  The dog is black and tan and has a long, thick coat.  The woman is holding the dog’s head in her hands and talking to it in a soothing voice.  There is a small white dog with a pink bow in its hair standing nearby.  The dog appears to be a poodle or a Bichon Frisé.  There are some bushes and a small bench in the background.  Heading Level 2, ChatGPT.  The image appears to be a screen capture from a YouTube video.  In the scene, there is a person with blond hair crouching down and interacting with a small, light-colored dog that is on a leash.  To the right, there is a larger brown and black dog that also seems to be the focus of the person’s attention.

The setting is an outdoor space with a wooden gate/fence in the background, a white wall to the left, and what appears to be a garden bench.  On the bench, there’s a planter with a bushy green plant.  The ground is covered with fallen leaves, suggesting it might be autumn.  The video player’s progress bar is visible, with the video almost at its end, and there’s a text overlay probably added by the video creator that reads, “First groom in 10 years.  Most incredible transformation ever.”

GLEN:  I mean, this is just amazing stuff.  I never would have suspected that we would get this interesting a description of videos and other things, thanks to the new Picture Smart AI.  There are a couple of things I want to leave you with.  The main one is always maximize your window.  And if you can do something like put the app in full-screen mode or just do Picture Smart on the control, anything you can do to minimize the distracting information, the more right on point the Picture Smart descriptions will be.

If you want to read about some of this, Ryan Jones actually did a great blog post about this called “Picture Smart AI:  How We Got Here.”  It’s at blog.freedomscientific.com.  And that in turn links to the “New and Improved Features in JAWS” page, where you can get more detail about using the new Picture Smart AI.  If you’re thinking, “Well, yes, there’s so much more that Picture Smart could do,” I assure you, we’re thinking along those same lines and working on additional improvements.  So stay tuned in the coming months.  Picture Smart will keep getting better and better.

JAWS Power Tip

GLEN:  Time now for this month’s Power Tip, and it comes to us courtesy of Ryan Hutchings.  If I were a jazz musician, I would say I’m going to riff on his Power Tip because it only slightly resembles what he originally sent in.  But his concept is a good one, which is that, if you use a Braille display, ALT+TAB is a terrible way to switch between apps, if you want to do it from the display itself, because there’s no way to hold the ALT key down and cycle through all the available apps and do it all from the Braille display.  So his original suggestion is to use CTRL+ALT+TAB, which, when you release those keys, leaves a window open where you can arrow through apps and then press ENTER on the one that you care about.

In the interest of completeness, Windows 10 and 11 has a similar command with Windows+TAB that does approximately the same thing.  And you can get both of those open from the Braille display because, at least with the focus, there’s a complete way of simulating Windows modifier keys.  I direct you to our JAWS documentation if you want more info on that.  Go to the JAWS menu, choose Help, JAWS Help Topics, and search for Braille input commands for all of the details.  But here’s where I deviate from Ryan’s suggestion.  I think the best way of switching between apps is the JAWS tasklist.  I’ve been using it for years.  It has the added advantage of being able to type part of the name of the app you want to go to and quickly move to it. 

Now, tasklist hasn’t gotten much attention in recent years from a development standpoint, but we’ve made some significant improvements in the most recent JAWS release, and I want to show those to you.  You bring up JAWS tasklist by pressing JAWS Key+F10.

JAWS VOICE:  Window list dialog, running applications list box, star summary dash Notepad restored, one of nine.

GLEN:  So as you can hear, when tasklist opens, you’re placed on the list of apps.  You can arrow up and down.

JAWS VOICE:  Amazon.com, spend less, smile more, dash Google Chrome maximized, two of nine.

GLEN:  I know I have my FSCast folder open in Outlook, so I can just press F.

JAWS VOICE:  FSCast dash ggordon@vispero.com dash Outlook minimized, five of nine.

GLEN:  Once you’ve found the name of the app you care about, just press ENTER, and it’ll be brought back into focus.  Here’s what’s new.  If you, like I, end up having a lot of windows open at the end of the day, and you want to quickly go through and deal with them, closing most of them, you can arrow through your list and, whenever you find a window you don’t want open anymore, simply hit the DELETE key.  So I’m going to go back up to the top with HOME.

JAWS VOICE:  Star summary dash Notepad restored, one of nine.

GLEN:  I’ll press DELETE.

JAWS VOICE:  Notepad dialog, SAVE button.

GLEN:  I don’t want to save this, so I’ll tab once.

JAWS VOICE:  Don’t save button, ENTER.  Window list dialog, running applications list box.  Amazon.com, spend less, smile more, dash Google Chrome maximized, one of eight.

GLEN:  Even though I was shown a dialog asking me what to do with a Notepad file, once I dispensed with that, I got placed back in the tasklist where I could continue arrowing through apps and closing the ones I care about.  That’s the primary improvement in JAWS tasklist, but there are a couple of smaller things, as well.  One of them is it opens much faster, and navigating through the list of apps is much faster.  And secondarily, it used to be that, if you ALT-TABBED away, rather than pressing ENTER on an app you were interested in moving to, the tasklist would remain open in the background, and then the next time you pressed JAWS Key+F10, nothing would happen.  Now, as soon as you move away from the tasklist, it automatically closes.  So summoning it with JAWS Key+F10 is now far more reliable. 

We thank Ryan for his Power Tip.  I particularly thank him for allowing me to take my liberties with how I expressed it.  It does not in any way, however, diminish what he gets.  He gets a year added onto his JAWS license.  If you have a similar tip, something that you know about, really like, and think may be a lesser-known feature of one of our products, write to fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  If we use your tip, you’ll get a year added onto your JAWS, ZoomText, or Fusion license.

Interview with Anil Lewis  of the NFB

GLEN:  I am very pleased to welcome to FSCast Anil Lewis, Executive Director of Blindness Initiatives of the National Federation of the Blind.  That’s his current role, but he has been involved with the NFB and blindness advocacy for close to 30 years.  I describe him as the Energizer Bunny.  He seems to be involved with many, many things, both on the national scale, but always seems to find time to help out individuals.  That’s something that really resonates with me, and I very much admire it in Anil.  Welcome to the podcast.

ANIL LEWIS:  Oh, it’s my pleasure.  I guess the listeners can’t see how much you made me blush with that generous, gracious introduction.  Pleased to be here.

GLEN:  It’s absolutely so.  And contrast this with something I read in your bio, and it completely jumped out at me, which is that you were thought originally as being educably retarded?  How did this happen?

ANIL:  Yeah.  It’s a combination of things.  So, of course, that’s back in the ‘70s when unfortunately a lot of young black youth were being mislabeled “educably mentally retarded.”  And I know that the R word is inappropriate in these times, but I use that word because I had to deal with everything associated with the word at that time.  And in a strange way, it helped make me stronger with the positive self-concept because my mom was the one who really said that, “Well, if you’re going to label my son this way, then you have to provide these services.”

And interestingly enough, when I was in the third grade, taking the Iowa test of basic skills, I tested on the seventh-grade level in some of the subject areas, so they had to change my label to gifted, which I claim both and none.  And I think, realistically, the gifted label really disabled me more because it took me from an environment where at least I had some social engagement to just being dropped into that group of students who’ve been living with that particular identity for so long was extremely awkward.  So I just focused on my academics, and I continued to perform academically well.  And I was also playing the cello at that time, and that was therapeutic for me.

It wasn’t until I got into the 10th grade and really started realizing that this was going to be debilitating; right?  If I wasn’t able to really interact with people, then I was going to be at a disadvantage.  So I jumped in the deep end and joined the drama club, and that’s when I learned that you can adopt different personas for different occasions.  So I’m still very much an introvert, but most of the people who know me peripherally, they see me within the NFB, they see me at the National Convention, et cetera, they would label me as an extrovert.  But that’s because I adopt that particular role in those spaces.

And that’s come from not only characters through my drama club experience, but also through watching people in my space.  I love observing people.  And if I see something that someone does or hear something that someone says that I like, I store it in my database, and at different times I will bring it out.  So I’m kind of a culmination of a lot of people that I’ve interacted with over these almost 60 years.

GLEN:  What was your family life like growing up?

ANIL:  My dad passed when I was six years old, so my mom had to raise all four of us on her own.  And I’d say a lot of things that she taught me, she really didn’t have a choice because being a single mother with a high school diploma, she was primarily a domestic for most of our earlier years, and then she eventually ended up working at the post office.  So a lot of these jobs, of course, required her to work pretty long hours.  So she really had to teach us to be independent very early, self-sustaining, responsible, and accountable.  So a lot of those things she had to do.  So in an interesting way, our situation, socioeconomically, et cetera, made us more responsible at a much earlier age.  We were latchkey kids.  I don’t know if you know that term.  We used to wear the keys around our necks.

GLEN:  Yeah.

ANIL:  Because we had to let ourselves in after school.  And if you weren’t there when my mom called, oh my, look out.

GLEN:  Although you were born with RP, it didn’t affect you early on.

ANIL:  No.

GLEN:  Did you anticipate that it would?

ANIL:  No.  I lived a lot of my early years afraid of going blind because unfortunately my brother, who did lose his sight very early on, and my sister who started becoming affected by RP in her high school years, the services being provided weren’t adequate for them to really grow.  And I never had any real positive role models of blind people living the lives they want.  So when I became 25, I thought I had it, you know, I crossed over, that I was going to be one of the lucky ones that didn’t get affected.

But unfortunately for me, my brother and sister’s vision declined very gradually over a number of years.  I went into work on Friday just fine, had a pretty interesting weekend, went back to work on Monday, and my vision had decreased significantly enough that I could no longer read my computer screen.  Of course, I didn’t know anything about ZoomText at that particular time.  So large print probably would have helped me at those times, but I just could not read the print.

GLEN:  Where were you in your life at that point?

ANIL:  Oh, I had all my ducks in a row.  I was working on my college degree in computer information systems.  I was working at a local savings and loan on a VP track, working in an automobile sales leasing department, and also out there enjoying.  I tell people, you know, I had my Mustang convertible.  It was just everything I wanted.  I was right on the right path.

GLEN:  And how did you both adapt to blindness initially, and how did other people respond to your blindness or your losing vision?

ANIL:  Yeah, that’s a two-part podcast right there.  I’m still adjusting, if I’m honest, and I think that I hopefully always have that attitude.  But in the beginning, it was very difficult, say, in the category of my perception of myself, right, because I hadn’t seen any real positive role models on blindness.  I didn’t really think that I could continue on the path I was traveling.  So that was the first thing I was thinking, well, now I’m going to have to go work at the industries for the blind, like my brother and my sister.  My self-worth was devalued, not necessarily internally, but I used to be the person that everyone would come to for help and advice and financial assistance.

And when everybody found out I was blind, no one thought I could offer any help or any advice.  I was good with them not asking for any financial assistance.  That was a plus.  But it really was defining that so much of my self-perception was as a white knight, I’ll go ahead and say, but just being able to be there and being a value and utility for others.  And that was gone.  And my self-worth was diminished because of that.  And then luckily for me, I did find some successful blind people who at least encouraged me to continue going to school, and Georgia State University Disability Student Services really helped me get my audio books and all that kind of stuff.

And unfortunately, this was back in 1989 when I went blind.  It took me 10 years to find the National Federation of the Blind.  And I wish that I would have found the NFB in a real way before then because everybody just before the Federation just was making me feel spectacular with the mediocre skill set.  You know, I was learning braille, and my braille instructor at the traditional center got me at 33 words per minute and made me feel like that was awesome because adults who learn braille, that’s where they peak out, which is not true.  My O&M instructor was teaching me how to travel rotely using whatever functional vision I had, didn’t really teach me any non-visual skills of travel.  So I had roots from home to the center and to the school, and that was it.  Anyplace else I would be dependent on someone else helping me.

But, you know, and I found the NFB and I learned the structure of discovery, and I take a lot of pride in being able to decide, well, I want to go anywhere in the world now independently and not have to worry about it.  And also the braille.  When I sat down at my first braille class at the Louisiana Center for the Blind, the teacher there, Jerry Whittle, he says, “How fast can you read?” And I said, “Well, hey, 33 words per minute, maybe a little more.”  Feeling very proud of myself.  And he looked at me, he says, “Well, before you leave, you’re going to be reading at 120 words per minute.”  And I was like, “Wow, that’s not going to be possible.”

And although I didn’t make the 120 while I was there, I’m very comfortable at 120 or more now.  And I really thank the members of the Federation, the philosophy of the Federation to really get me through and over that hump.  But let me say this, though, because I’m very careful about making sure that people who aren’t able to really make that sacrifice, because it required me to commit to a six-month residential program, took me away from my son at the time and other responsibilities, but it was well worth it.

For those individuals who can’t, I still encourage them to take advantage of whatever services are available and continue to really push their instructors to push them.  So if someone tells you 33 words per minute is the best you can do, you tell them you can do better.  And if they can’t help motivate and support you to do better, then find someone else to teach you.  If your O&M instructor is limiting you to just doing road travel and doesn’t want you to take some safe risks and expanding your ability to travel independently, then find another O&M instructor.  But really take ownership of really pushing yourself to acquire that skill set.

GLEN:  When you first went to an NFB conference, did you initially emotionally and mentally accept that you had not been pushing yourself and that it was possible to achieve much more if you did?  Or did it take a while?

ANIL:  Well, my first NFB convention was in Chicago in 1995, and it was transformative.  But it was also at that different point; right?  Because as I stated, society at that particular point had convinced me that I was the best thing that ever happened to blindness, even though I had that mediocre skill set that I talked to you about.  So I went into this convention thinking I was going to help these blind people.

GLEN:  Okay.  Okay then.

ANIL:  It was an awakening when I went around and I saw people traveling and doing jobs.  And I was like, wow.  It was so humbling.  But then it was also so encouraging and inspiring knowing that group of individuals because just the power of the opening session, thousands of blind people taking over a hotel, and the ceremony was a bagpipe troop walking through the convention attendees.  Man, it was like a revival, speaking from my Southern Baptist roots.  It was amazing.

GLEN:  You got into a whole bunch of positions where by all rights you weren’t qualified to do it, but yet you did it.

ANIL:  That’s telling the truth, yes.

GLEN:  And yet you succeeded.  How did you deal with that?

ANIL:  I’ll be honest and say up until the point where I went blind, I had no desire to be an advocate or to help anyone else but myself.  Again, I was pursuing a VP track, and all of my goals were around acquiring wealth, and things, and status.  And when I lost my sight and realized that there were so many people that were responsible for allowing me to regain myself, it would have been irresponsible for me not to pay it forward.  So that was really my motivation.  And then also the fact that I realized that with the proper training and different attitude that I could still continue on the path that I wanted.

And I started sharing that first of all with my brother and my sister.  Unfortunately, my brother had been kind of immersed in that low expectation environment so long, we weren’t able to really flip him into a space.  But my sister, we caught her at the right time.  She moved away from the industries and now she’s a supervisor working for the federal government in the DSA.  So I saw how just simple knowledge around things could shift the future for people.  So really that’s when I started.  So as I started teaching at the center who gave me the services, I started interacting with other blind people who were similarly going through the same thing that I had gone through and did not have that paradigm shift that I had.

So that’s really where it started.  It really wasn’t something that I could have learned.  It was something I experienced, and then I decided to share it with others.  And then once you see the impact that you’re making, then it becomes natural, and you acquire a knowledge around things by trial and error.  So I started doing job placement.  And my first attempt at helping blind people find jobs was errored because I tried to find a job and put the blind person in it.  And I realized that the biggest thing you can do to help a blind person find a job is to help a blind person find a job.

So working with them to skills acquisition and work with them with the skills to find their own job so that if they find a job, that’s great.  If they want a new job, they can still do it.  So I acquired that skill set through trial and error.  I ended up going to work at Randstad staffing, staffing their disability employment initiative as a result of what I had learned.  And luckily for me, I found some other individuals with other disabilities, and I got immersed into the independent living environment.  So I got a lot of cross-disability experience.

And again, the knowledge was through those lived experiences of all those people that I interacted with.  And I was able to share that in developing that program with Randstad.  But I think the advocacy skill set I acquired was really when I started working at the Georgia Client Assistance Program, still run by Charles Martin and Joseph Jones.  And those gentlemen had a profound impact.  They taught me the value of relationship building as the primary form of advocacy, leaving the hammer, you know, as the last option because you can’t come back from doing that.  And they helped me understand how to read and understand policy.  And then the difference between what the statute says and what the entities are really able to do.  So that I think was very formative for me.

And I simultaneously started working, volunteering my time within the Federation, which added specific learning around blindness that is – there’s no other way to learn it.  And we’re finally moving to a place where we’re sharing that more with more professional spaces.  But working with the NFB as a chapter president not only taught me the advocacy skills, but it taught me a degree of organization, accountability, building grassroots coalitions, really going into the room, not only as just a participant, but actually being at the head of the table, running those meetings, actively making decisions.

So it was that dual combination of the consummate attorneys that I work with at the office of Martin and Jones and my Federation activity through my mentoring with Dr. Maurer and all the other leaders in the organization, Mark Riccobono at the time.  It’s a masterclass; right?  It’s not something that you could go and apply for and pull down a transcript.  It’s real-time learning in real-time environments with actual consequences that, if you’re smart, you learn from, but also tremendous successes that continue to empower you to continue to do this good work.

GLEN:  I think one of the ways that you got increased visibility at NFB is just how good a job you did of publicizing and getting interest and excitement around the Blind Driver Challenge.  How did you know how to do that?

ANIL:  One of the biggest benefits of the Federation is we pick a destination, and we start moving.  Sure, we’d like to try to acquire people with the talent to do it, but we also recognize that a lot of blind people have innate, untapped talent that, if we tap into it, we can change the world.  So Dr. Maurer just, he stepped out on faith.  He says, “We’re going to make you the Director of Strategic Communications.”  And again, I didn’t have any experience in communications.  My experience was technology, and I had done a lot around grassroots organizing at that particular point.  But I’ll tell you that John Paré, because it fell under his direction, and Mark Riccobono, who was really leading a lot of the effort, and Dr. Maurer, I mean, what we don’t know, we learn.

And through that whole Blind Driver Challenge experience, I probably acquired at least a bachelor’s degree and probably some grad school credit in doing communications.  That was one of the largest communications, public awareness communications efforts that we as an organization have had.  So we actually had President Riccobono drive the car on the Daytona International Speedway in 2011.  And at that particular point, that initiative was moving on.  So I stayed onboard.  I became the Assistant Director of Advocacy and Policy, working with John Paré on legislative efforts.  And the Fair Labor Standards Act, Section 14(c) of the FLSA allows employers to pay people with disabilities less than the minimum wage.  So we wanted to go in and eliminate that particular provision.

And I think we made some substantial progress.  We haven’t eliminated it yet, but we continue to build on that work.  One of the things I offer here, Glen, that’s important, though, and I think people should realize it, is we got to a point where our advocacy efforts really got to a place where I honestly believe that if we wanted to just have Congress pass legislation to eliminate blind people from that provision, we could have done it.  But I remember going into Dr. Maurer’s office with John Paré, and we were faced with that decision.  Is that the way that we want to execute our strategy?  Do we want to?  And we said no.  I mean, if it’s wrong for blind people, it’s wrong for everybody.  And we continue to do our efforts by building a cross-disability coalition and continuing to make sure that if we are going to do it, we’re going to do it for every person with every disability.

GLEN:  That story causes me to think of inclusivity.  And historically, the NFB and other disability rights organizations have not been all that diverse in terms of leadership.  Did you notice that actively as you were coming to life in the organization?

ANIL:  I, as a black man in this space, really was oblivious to the lack of diversity because I was still too busy in the quagmire of coping with my own existence.  But then, you know, there were moments in my active participation that it was obvious that I was the only representative in so many spaces of a black person or even a person that’s non-white.  Because the educational system has proven to be deficient, exponentially more so for minorities, employment opportunities significantly underwhelming for individuals who are minorities, it’s difficult for us to really play a proactive role in the movement in a leadership way because it requires a lot of personal sacrifice of time and energy.

And when you’re spending that time and energy just to get equal access to education and equal access to employment, there’s very little left over for that other peripheral work.  And that’s why a lot of work that I do is trying to support individuals that have that similar lived experience and try to help them navigate through those essential components of life, the basic fundamental components that are necessary for a person to exist so that they do have time, energy, and ability to help with the movement.  Diversity doesn’t happen organically.  And I think a lot of people will acknowledge it, but then they won’t be intentional about trying to address it.

And I think President Riccobono, by really supporting our Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, by really working to try to broaden our outreach to entities that can help us find potential candidates to come to work at the National Center from diverse communities, creating and encouraging our members to really engage in our recruitment efforts and the participation on our various groups and committees and divisions, being very intentional about it is making a difference.  So we’ve had some pretty interesting testimonies from individuals who previously felt not welcome to the organization, that now have come to us and say, “Wow, this federation, this is – I feel comfortable here.”

The counterpoint to that is, of course, individuals who, if we’re going to be honest about it, preferred that lack of presence, now aren’t comfortable with it.  So as an organization we’re going through some growing pains.  Hopefully we can continue to maintain the existing membership as we do grow a diverse group of participating members because, realistically, as a change agent, you know, if we’re going to really change the lives of blind people in a big way, we can’t afford to not have every blind person that’s willing and able to help us with this movement.

GLEN:  You did end up going to grad school and getting a master’s in public administration.  Did you find that useful?

ANIL:  Yes, because some of the dotting the I’s and crossing the T’s, understanding some of the budget stuff more specifically, because I learned around budgeting in 1990s based on the specific work and categorization that the Federation uses, but learning more about the different options of accounting and the different ways that you can categorize things.  The leadership stuff, it wasn’t useless.  There were some pieces there that talked about some leadership theories and some principles that were helpful.  I just know that my lived experience helped augment that learning.

So yes, grad school was worth it.  And I’m also playing with the idea of pursuing a PhD even at this late space in my life, because I think that really going back and immersing myself into the learning of actual doing research, because I think that’s what’s really lost right now.  We have years within the National Federation of the Blind of producing some significant life-changing programs, everything from braille and STEM and computers and robotics, et cetera.  But we have not done our due diligence, and we’re shifting this now, of recording those instances in a way that validate in the professional community.  So we’re focusing on doing more research, doing more surveys of our participants because we know that we have a formula that works.  We have to present it in a way that the mainstream professionals value.

So they like the peer-reviewed publications, so we’re going to be doing more of that.  They want the analytical data, so we’re going to be providing them with more of that because we know that we have the answer.  We just have to put it in a package that those individuals who are responsible for our education systems and our rehabilitation systems and employers hiring blind people can really see that it has validity.  Because even to this day, I think that so many people see NFB as this cute little club, and that’s somewhat insulting; but even more so, it’s very frustrating because we know we have value to add, and we just need to work to make sure that we get respected in those communities.

GLEN:  Is there anything else that you would like to talk about before we wrap things up?

ANIL:  Yeah, we are an organization that’s set on setting high expectations for individuals, and a lot of people think that we don’t have tolerance for individuals who don’t want to be the biggest and best, whatever.  But no, what we want to do is make sure that blind people live their lives in a way that’s not restricted by the stereotypes and the misconceptions that society has.  So we want to make sure that, if you’re making decisions in your life, that you’re making them because you are making them, not because society says you can’t, not because some system’s inaccessible for you to do so.  So when we say live the life you want, that’s exactly what we want to do.

One of the biggest examples I give people is we do a lot of work with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics for students because we recognize that the careers in that field are phenomenal, and they pay well.  Many of our blind students were not getting that instruction in school to be competitively employed in those spaces.  So we create programs, and we share them with the school systems.  And now it’s like everybody’s offering grants to do it.  NSF is doing it.  We were the first ones in this space.  But what I love is when we bring a group of blind students to our National Center, and we give them a week-long immersion in a variety of different skills that they need in order to be successful in STEM.

And this is going to sound weird, but at the end of the program, I love when I hear students say, “No, I don’t want to pursue STEM.”  And the reason that I love that is because they’re making that decision based on the knowledge that they could, and they realize that it’s not a field that they’re interested in.  Because so many blind people have said they’re disinterested in something because the information for them to learn to do it, to be able to do it, is inaccessible.  But these are kids who know they can do it, and they’re making an informed decision.  You know what?  I’d rather be a writer.

GLEN:  Yeah.

ANIL:  And that just brings me joy.

GLEN:  Wow.  Thank you very much, Anil.  This was great.  I appreciate the opportunity to spend some time with you and to ask you a whole bunch of questions.

ANIL:  It was my pleasure, and I really do appreciate what you do.  I’m glad that you’re still in the game.  You’re definitely one of my favorite people, whether you realize it or not.  So my pleasure being here.

GLEN:  Thank you very much.

Signing Off on FSCast 242

GLEN:  And that pretty much does it for FSCast 242.  If you’d like to get in touch, my mailbox is always open.  Write to fscast@vispero.com, fscast@vispero.com.  I’m Glen Gordon.  Thanks for joining me.


Transcript by elaine@edigitaltranscription.com





edigitaltranscription.com  •  03/25/2024  •  edigitaltranscription.com