Saturday, May 29, 2010

Get your news how you want it from NFB Newsline

Fifteen years ago, I was still pretty newly blinded, and going to college, but this was before I was using a computer, much less understanding all the wonders of this fabulously interconnected world wide web. At that time, my options for getting news were the television and radio, or having somebody read the newspaper to me. Then, the
National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
Came along with a nifty, dial-up feature for getting news over the phone called
NFB Newsline.

The concept for NFB Newsline was simple—have the text of the latest and current issues of some newspapers available to be read by a screen reader over the phone. I believe there were initially only four newspapers available as options. The NFB sought out co-sponsors in the various states, and had people who were blind submit documentation verifying their visual disability to become enrolled into the program. Approved users wer issued an identification number and password. With that, the user could then call the nearest number they offered and, by using phone button presses as commands, have any of the newspapers read with a screen over the phone. Navigation and personal options, such as reading speed and voices, were easy to learn and manage. They presented the news like you would normally read the newspaper— first by section, then by headlines, and you enter on the story whose headline interested you. Just like a sighted person does with a newspaper. It was an ideal way to get news and I loved it.

Than along came my first computer with a screen reader, and the internet, and more news and information than I ever got over the phone on NFB Newsline. To be honest, I pretty much forgot about this fine service that had filled the news void in my life for a period.

Time moves on and along the way, I’ve kept up with different technologies, including portable digital talking book players. And, leave it to NFB Newsline to figure more ways to make news relevant. They have continued to evolve what they offer.

Today, for those who prefer to listen to news over the phone, there is still NFB Newsline. If interested in this, you can call 1-866-504-7300 for more information.

One really neat feature is that you can find the television listings for your area.

However, there is also
NFB Newsline Online,
A more robust, richer service than ever before. Users can log in and read the news online. No, I’m not running for office with the NFB, but what they have become today is a much more inclusive service, setting out to meet the changing needs of their consumers.

What’s more, users today have access to not just the small handful of newspapers they initially began with. Far from it. There are more than 300 newspapers available to read. And, if that’s not enough information for you, there are also magazines, both state and national, there, too. For me, Texas Monthly was a great find to discover.

And, if you prefer, they will also email your newspapers and magazines to you.

However, understanding that we are in a mobile society with access to these great digital book players, they have also further adapted NFB Newsline to go with you. You can download the newspapers and magazines with a quick transfer to your device. I was really impressed at how fast and well the NFB Newsline software connected and transferred my subscriptions.

From the NFB Newsline Online web site:

Would you like a newspaper with your morning cup of coffee? NFB-NEWSLINE® just added its 300th publication AND it's still growing. Five Spanish-language newspapers are now available to all subscribers. The service handles thousands of phone calls each day for individuals across the country who now access daily newspapers and magazines as never before. The toll-free centralized call-in center provides service on demand to any subscriber. This also enables those who cannot read conventional print to have access to all content offered on NFB-NEWSLINE® when traveling throughout the United States twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Every day, a subscriber can choose that day's, the previous day's, or the previous Sunday's issue of any newspaper in the service. On NFB-NEWSLINE®, the user can easily choose which newspaper, section, and article to read using a standard touch-tone telephone. The menu provided allows the user to change the speed and voice settings, spell out words, or search for a particular word or subject.

Arts and culture, science, health, national and international news are available on NFB-NEWSLINE® through magazines. Just press Option 7.

So, if you want your news, you can get it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see it. Also, you don’t have to be able to use a computer to get it, nor a digital book player, but if you do use either of these, they are additional ways to get your news with NFB Newsline.

Kudos to NFB Newsline for adapting with changing technologies.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

2010 TAER conference: Presenting and being presented to

Last week, I was in San Antonio to attend the annual conference of the
Texas Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired,
Or TAER. I was there to present with the VI professionals from the school district where I do assistive technology training with the blind and visually impaired students.

Being I didn’t arrive until Thursday evening, I missed hearing the keynote by Jonathan Mosen. Thanks to his lovely wife Julia, I was able to get a digital copy of his brilliant speech on Twitter.

Our presentation was simple, but robust. We discussed how I had come to the district with expertise in various assistive technologies 18 months ago, what we have done in that time with four students in particular, and how this training has been tied into other aspects of the students’ education. We highlighted this with a slide show of the students using the mix of technologies to execute a scavenger hunt.

The scavenger hunt was different for each student, with the design of an O&M lesson focused on their individuality. One student who is an aspiring singer and guitarist, was given the task of making a trip to a music store in a local strip mall, comparing prices of different items, and, finally, executing a purchase. Another young man, whose goal in life is to pursue adventure, had his outing presented in a Mission Impossible theme. He was given a clue by his VI teacher of where to go for his next clue. It was on a particular computer in the library, where he was to find a document with his name on it, and read it using his
Jump drive version of the System Access screen reader. That clue then directed him to locate an assistant principal who handed him a Victor Reader Stream, which was loaded with one audio note directing him where to go next. His later escapades involved him using his magnifier, telescope, and Braille, all culminating in a trip to a local toy store, where he also finished off the excursion with a purchase.

Our presentation was received by an overflow crowd which exceeded the seating capacity of the room. Our worst critiques were that there weren’t enough chairs, but many others were asking for us to make this presentation again at next year’s conference.

When we finished our presentation, we took questions from the audience. One of the most requested items was information about Serotek’s
Keys for K-12 program.

We happily directed the interested parties to the proper web site and I expect that there will be an uptick in requests from Texas. It is such a service to our youth that Serotek is providing and I will continue to shout this from the hilltops until I go hoarse.

Following the workshop, we went to the luncheon in the hotel’s ballroom. The food was very good, but took a second place to the activities that went on during the meal. The packed room exploded with applause each time an award was presented to a small cast of award recipients. I was very impressed with the various recipients for the student scholarship, the parents award, and educators who were recognized. These were all very noteworthy people who had accomplished much.

During the awards presentation, one moment made me take pause. One of my group was called up as a presenter and two of the others stood up behind me. Then the words flowed out, describing things I’ve achieved and I was called up to receive the
Julia L. Young award.

This award is in honor of Julia L. Young, who provided leadership in the development of the visually handicapped children's program of the Texas Commission for the Blind and gave direction and guidance to that program for many years. The award is presented to an individual who has done outstanding work with children who are visually impaired in Texas. Examples include: special education teachers, regular classroom teachers, caseworkers, therapists, volunteer workers, and other individuals providing direct services to children with visual impairments.

I am a man who is very quick witted and can speak off the cuff on most occasions, but they really surprised me on this one and left me speechless. Given the recipients of the other honors that day, I am definitely humbled and felt myself to be in rare company. Thank you for finding what I do worthy of this recognition.

But, this post is not about me. It is about the dedicated professionals in TAER and the kids they serve. Thank you for inviting me to be part of the program this year and sharing of yourselves with me. The bottom line is like I said when accepting my award, “Its all about the kids.” These children are the future and it is in our best interest to teach them the best that we can.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Review of Tom Sullivan's Adventures in Darkeness

I’m at aloss for finding the right superlative to describe last night.

It seems like “great,” “awesome,” or even “fantastic” just seem like overused modifiers in today’s digital world where everybody’s favorite web-connected device is their means of sharing thoughts with the world, and people toss those words about like so many handfuls of Tic Tacs. Those words also don’t begin to grasp the powerful, slap you in the face directness of what
Tom Sullivan
had to say during his presentation of Adventures in Darkness to the gathered group at the

University of Houston’s

Cullen Performance Center.

If you are unfamiliar with Tom Sullivan, click the link above and learn who he is.

I can tell you he is an author, actor, producer, entertainer, Olympic athlete, Harvard graduate, Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee, recipient of the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Memorial Award, and so many other accomplishments and honors. I can also tell you he is a man who happens to be blind. That last bit of information is just the punctuation mark on the previous listing of awards and acknowledgements.

The presentation was sponsored by the UH School of Optometry and the women of the Delta Gamma sorority, so Sullivan targeted his comments to future vision specialists and the sorority of his wife. However, he always made sure to include others who might be in the audience, but he tried to ensure that his words had the most impact for the future vision professionals.

First, let me toss out the only statistic I recall Sullivan mentioning. I want to put it here, because its significant. Granted, I don't know the source of his information, but am trusting it to be accurate.

The divorce rate among married couples in the United States

The divorce rate of married couples in the United States when they are parents of a blind child

Whoa! I told you it was significant.

Sullivan built his presentation around a few scenes from his most recent book, Adventures in Darkness: Memoirs of an 11 year old blind boy. If you were smart like me, and bought the commercial audio version of this book on CD, you already have an idea what this presentation was about, because Sullivan read the book on that version. And, then you also know how he did the voices of his dad, “Porky,” as well as Helen Keller, who he met at the Perkins School for the Blind, and his childhood tormentor, Eddie Mullins, when he taunted the fenced-in 11 year old by calling him “Blindy, Blindy.” He brought these same voices with him last night to give a lively emphasis to his presentation.

In last night’s audio smorgasbord, not only did the audience get to feel the emotional ride of Sullivan’s lifetime, it was also augmented by additional audio and video. The introduction from the Dean of the School of Optometry was followed by a video of Sullivan engaging in some of his favorite past times including him playing golf. Sullivan took the stage during that point and began playing the baby grand piano, serenading the audience with one of his inspirational original tunes. As he finished that song, he delved into his first story about the Perkins school. He played a few more songs through the presentation, scattering them about as he spoke.

His first story was about the last of eleven times he was kicked out of the Perkins school. It involved an escapade when he and his two best friends climbed out of their rooms, shimmying down a rope made of tied bedsheets, to go make off with one of the boats the school had. They made good on their escape, managing to go boating for more than seven hours until they were in Boston Harbor. Unbeknownst to those three lads, this was the busiest shipping port on the East Coast at that time. He gave a very gripping account of how they were nearly capsized by a passing freighter and their final safe boarding by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Through it all, Sullivan instilled a message of courage and daring, with an added soundtrack of sound effects to accompany his narrative. I personally loved it when he described how he played baseball by himself, and he added in the audio of a big league ballpark. Later, as he told the story about the boxing match his dad arranged between he and Eddie Mullins, the audio accompaniment had the sounds of punches hitting as he told the story. These were also emphasized by a bright light flashing in perfect time with each loud and distinctive punch.

His words drove home some basic messages. There were two that I took away. Don’t build fences to keep blind people safe, a point of discussion we just had at work earlier that day. Sullivan highlighted this when telling about his next-door neighbor inviting him to his yard with three simple words, “Want to play?” Also, dream big and don’t place false limitations on yourself. That last thought is a personal credo of mine, so I did a personal, internal “Whoop” when that was really hammered home.

I first heard of Tom Sullivan in the 1980s when I watched the movie If You Could See What I Hear, based on his autobiography of the same name. Little did I know at that time that I’d later share that same punctuation mark of being a man who happened to be blind in identifying my life.

I loved the movie, and there were a few memorable moments I’ll never forget. One is the scene mostpeople recall when you mention Sullivan. It’s the scene where, although he’s blind, he’s driving a car with some drunken friends in it, and he tells the police officer who pulls him over, that he had to drive, because “I was the only one who was sober.”

The other memborable scene in the film was given a brief showing during last night’s presentation. It is near the end of the film where Sullivan is home alone, watching the children. When he gets distracted by a phone call from Johnny Carson, who is calling to invite Sullivan to appear on The Tonight Show, and the girl slips out unnoticed, then falls in the pool. While Sullivan told this story to us, the screen onstage behind him showed the actor Mark Singer diving into the pool and searching for his daughter. He drove the point home to the audience about how scary and futile it felt searching for her, and the importance of listening for the faintest of sounds.

As last night’s presentation drew to a close, there were flashes of that same daughter on the video screen, now grown and skiing with Sullivan. Of course, the man skis! What did you think; blind people don’t ski?

In conclusion, let me share my heartfelt recommendation to see Tom Sullivan if you ever get the chance. If you see he’s speaking somewhere near you, it will be worth your trip to go see him. Also, if you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining speaker with a message, there is information for arranging bookings on his web page linked above.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Inclusion: 2010 Consumer Electronics Show featuring off the shelf accessibility

I’m a little geeky and get excited each year when the annual Consumer Electronics Show , or CES, starts. However, I’m more excited by two announcements from this year’s CES, currently going on in Las Vegas. Usually, we see technology for people with disabilities launched at annual conferences for that specific market, but this year, two companies are using the CES to announce and demonstrate their products. This fact makes the point that the needs of today’s consumers with disabilities are getting more of an intentional focus. After the paragraphs sharing about these two innovations, I will share why these announcements are so landmark.
(The links are courtesy of

The first product I will share is the
Ocean Blue
set top cable box which features fully accessible menus and on-screen information for the blind. This information of video programming has been available to sattelite and cable users for many years, and developed into some monstrous remotes, most of whose functions were lost on those who could not see the screen. Not any more, though. (The above link has a Flash video which will launch upon opening, which will give you a full working demonstration of their product.)

In the past, have cable providers thought their customers who are blind didn’t need the same information that their sighted customers had full access to? It doesn’t have to be that way any longer. Ocean Blue collaborated with the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People to develop this fine, workable solution that means access for all without people who are blind having to find some other solution to find access to the otherwise freely disseminated on-screen information. And, for the cable companies, they can offer more actual information to their customers, as well.

And, the second product I’ll offer up is the
Blio e-reader.
(This CNET web interview features both text and a Flash video you can launch, which will let you hear or see a demo of the Blio actually in use.)

The Blio is the latest innovation from Ray Kurzweil, a name very familiar in the various disability circles as he is associated with many reading innovations over the past 35 years. Now, Kurzweil is taking the knowledge base he’s accumulated over the years and integrating this into one of the latest technology trends, e-books.

There was quite a buzz at the CES about the many different e-book readers from the various book sellers and tech companies. What sets the Blio apart, though, is that it does what all those others can’t—it makes e-books accessible to all readers, including the blind. And, to top it off, the Blio does for sighted readers what the others also do not—gives them full color presentation and web-integrated abilities.
There are a few facets that set Blio apart from the other e-readers.

First, the Blio is not another hardware device like the other book sellers are hawking, which will almost always be exclusively tied to that one bookseller’s service. Instead, the Blio is computer software. Initially, Blio can be installed on Windows-based computers, as well as the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, and Kurzweil is wanting to make it available on other operating systems.

Secondly, Blio also comes with more than a million books available for free when you install it.

And, finally, is a feature the other e-readers can’t match, the price. The Blio is free.

Now, let me tell you why these two products mentioned above are big announcements for assistive technology, specifically, but, more importantly, in regards to off the shelf accessibility. Why is this off the shelf experience important, one might ask. It is important because nobody should have to pay an additional cost to use the products that he purchased for the same price as everybody else. It would be like selling a bicycle to people, then saying, you have to pay an additional cost to make the wheels unlock and let them roll for you. That bicycle analogy is the way it has been for people with disabilities in the past when they have had to purchase additional software or hardware just to use the off the shelf computer, which they purchased for the same price paid by everybody else. However, because this population has a disability and has an additional need not addressed by the computer, this segment of the population had to pay what basically amounts to a disability tax to purchase the access devices.

Only recently, have companies begun to embrace the idea of off the shelf accessibility. One of the first products I found this way was the Olympus DS 30, DS 40, and DS 50 models of its digital recorders and music players. These voice recorders came out of the box with talking menus already installed, which were activated on startup. The user could turn these off if he didn’t want them. And, one of the biggest leaps into accessibility was the one that Apple made last year when they included Voice Over, their built-in, fully functioning screen reader, in many products from their line of Mac computers, the iPhone, and various models of their, now ubiquitous, iPods.

Now, with the launch of Ocean Blue’s set top box and the Blio, you might hear a loud rumble taking place in thepopulation of people with disabilities. That rumble is chanting, “Hurrah! The digital revolution is here!”