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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Blind Advocates and Executives

This morning I read two very interesting public posts and find that I agree with both.  The first, by Darrell Shandro called, “Thoughts on Building the Blind Community and Integration with the Sighted” which you can find at his Blind Access Journal blog (link above) and the other an email from Jonathon Mosen published on a blindness related mailing list (pasted in below).  Both, along with Dena’s post yesterday, address issues regarding the role of the blind executive and of advocates for our community.

 

Almost a year ago, when Jonathon first took his new job at FS, I received all sorts of emails asking whether I’d criticize the move.  Instead, I wrote at least two Blind Confidential posts supporting his decision to leave Humanware and join Freedom Scientific.  I continue to support his decision and, as a former VP at FS who, due to restrictive covenants in his employment agreement, could not seek a job in the assistive technology industry, I commend Humanware for not taking legal action against Jonathon on trade secret or some other tactic that might have prevented his free movement from one job to another in the blindness business.

 

I feel that having blind people at the top of AT companies that make products we blinks use is an essential component of building successful products and, as Darrell, Dena and Jonathon all point out, the influence of blind managers often makes the difference between an acceptable product and a really great one.  FS has three blind people at the VP level today, I don’t think that GW Micro, AI^2, Dolphin or any competitor other than tiny Serotek, who has a blind CEO and CTO, have any blind executives.

 

I also know the feelings of frustration and loneliness that can befall advocates for the blind community.  Jonathon has taken unbelievable shit for his career decisions from the people for whom he has always tried to make a difference.  Darrell, Ranger and Jeff Bishop have taken a lot of crap for things they have written in their blogs and I have lost friends, received hate mail, phone calls, threats and all kinds of abuse for writing what I believe in this blog.  All of us have received tremendous criticism on other blogs (I have been taken to task by people as different as Joe Clark and Peter Korn) and we’ve all heard privately from AT manufacturers about their displeasure with things we’ve said or written.

 

We continue to advocate.  We do so because if we don’t, who will?  At different times, we’ve been described as agitators, had our voracity questioned and heard criticism from people without the courage to stand up for themselves or the community for reasons of their own.

 

I don’t think I am especially courageous and, like Jonathon, have felt hurt when old friends have discarded me because they cannot accept a critic as a friend.  At the same time, I ask, if we self-proclaimed advocates don’t speak out, who will? The blindness industry spends so much time crafting its message and trying to control what consumers say about it that anything resembling real criticism is rare.  The AT companies seem to act as if we should thank them for accepting our money, paying their salaries and letting us use their products.  As Jonathon mentions, AT isn’t a religion, it’s a business.

 

I do not mean to imply that those of who elect to use our voices to advocate for our community in a manner we feel is appropriate should be above criticism.  I have made the decision to publish virtually every comment ever posted to this blog (I have censored a few strongly worded anonymous posts and, a couple of weeks ago, a ton of horribly racist and truly hateful statements about Arab people after the FS acquisition had been announced).  I will continue to do so and I will also point out that we advocate sorts often take each other to task when we disagree with statements each other has made.  Dialogue, debate and criticism is healthy if done in a manner of respect.  On this front, I must commend Doug G., CEO of GW Micro, who, unlike his competitors, actually write on the GW mailing list and post to a blog now and then when he feels strongly about an issue.  Doug provides a refreshing change to the executives who prefer hiding behind their corporate shield and either ignoring criticism or addressing it by dismissal.

 

In Darrell’s post, he suggests that two thirds of all AT executives should also be users of the products.  Referring back to the post I did the other day about the need for multiple screen readers, I’m not sure that this would be possible in a relatively complex business like FS or Humanware.  There are zero accounting programs that work properly with a screen reader, thus a CFO and/or comptroller could not also be a blind person.  Virtually none of the human resources software packages work properly with screen readers, nor do most enterprise solutions, project management tools, drawing and diagram programs, etc.  Until the tools that executives need to use are made accessible, blind people are virtually locked out of many senior management jobs.  Thus, I think that two thirds of senior management might be an ideal but I doubt sophisticated investors like those that own Freedom Scientific and Humanware would trust blinks to do the jobs that their own products cannot provide access to.

 

Well, I’ve ranted enough for this morning.  I have two jobs now so I’ve got to get back to work.  Jonathon’s message follows and I recommend you read Darrell’s article and Dena’s post which will immediately follow this one.

 

Jonathon’s Note (edited a bit for brevity):

 

 Hi everyone. I always try to subscribe to a few blindness lists to read

 What people are writing about. I must confess that I am a new subscriber to the

 BlindAd List, mainly because I thought, erroneously it seems, that the

 List was for the trade of blindness items. I've just been rummaging through the

 May archives, and am somewhat surprised as well as flattered that I seem to

 have taken up so much bandwidth <smile. So hopefully listers won't mind

 If I take one post to comment on a couple of points. I only found out this

 thread was going on because one list member did an extraordinary and

 radical thing. They actually got in touch with me and asked me if a rumour was

 true or not.

 

 The first one is the easiest to clear up. I most certainly am still

 Working at Freedom Scientific, and enjoying it immensely. I really don't know how

 some of these rumours get started, but there you have the plain old facts

 of the matter. Throughout the entire time I have been a Vice president at

 Freedom Scientific, I've lived at my home here in Christchurch, New

 Zealand.   The wonders of the Internet and tools like Skype mean that I'm able to do

 My job from here. I do visit Florida from time to time, usually in

 Conjunction with other events such as conferences. I'll be in Florida just before I go

 to the NFB Convention in Atlanta for example. I was living in the US, in

 Texas as some have rightly pointed out, for a year, but Julia and I

 relocated to New Zealand in July of last year a couple of months before I

 began work at FS.

 

I've been working at Freedom Scientific for 9 months now, and during that

 time, I've sat relatively silently bye while my motives and my integrity

 have been questioned and impugned all over the Internet. I've been

 fortunate, although on rare occasions I think unfortunate, to have held

 some quite high profile positions in my career. Here in New Zealand I have at

 different times been the leader of our consumer movement and the Chairman

 of our blindness agency. Internationally, my work with ACB Radio and latterly

 in the assistive technology industry have put me in contact with a lot of

 people. Through these various roles, I've come to accept that there will

 be criticism. I try and view it as people doing me a favour. I don't go out

 of my way to read it all, but when I find it, I try and see whether there is

 any merit in what people are saying, and strive to be a better person in

the  future.

 

 I do believe that we as blind people are a minority. Whether we're a

 community or not is, I accept, a point of contention. I certainly think

 there is an Internet using blind community. And as a minority, we tend to

 be quite tough on people who stand out from the crowd for whatever reason.

 Couple that with what appears to me to be a sadly increasing trait in

 Modern  life on the part of many people, blind or sighted, where we attribute

 motives to actions and it can be pretty tough out there at times.

 

 In saying what I'm about to say, I fully realize that I will never change

 some people's negative opinions of me, and I have to be relaxed about

 that.   In the end, we can't control what others think of us. All we can do is be

 at peace with our own consciences. But there will be some who are genuinely

 Interested, and I offer the following thoughts for them.

 

 Early in 2003, when I was still hosting main menu on ACB radio, I did a

 four-hour-long, comprehensive review of the PAC mate BNS. I'd been sent a

 pre-production unit, and did my best to put it through all its paces. I

 believe that archive is still on the ACB Radio web site. That review of

 course pointed out some concerns I had with it, but I was pretty positive

 about PAC Mate overall. Earlier, I had also done a review of the

 BrailleNote. Again, there were lots of things to be praised, but there

 Were some things I didn't like about it, and I pointed them out. Some of them,

 In fact, I didn't have the resources to fix when I ran the BrailleNote

 Product line. I was surprised no one, to my knowledge, went back and quoted me

 singing the PAC mate's praises when I worked for Pulse Data, later renamed

 Humanware, nor did they go back and quote the deficits I had identified in

 the BrailleNote's approach.

 

I believe that the blind community desperately

 needed, and needs once again in fact, a robust media that objectively

 evaluates all blindness technology, and thoroughly investigates the

 industry. I loved doing that, and I tried to make Main menu the Consumer

 Reports of the blind community. But issues relating to ACB which I have

 written about previously meant that I was open to looking at other

 options.

 

 When I began work for Pulse Data, Never did I expect that I was taking on

 A job for life, and never did I ever claim I was. However, while working

 there, I owed it to the great team who wrote the code, did the testing and

 looked after the manufacturing, and to the Board of the company, to give

 it 110%. I look back on how much happened to the BrailleNote between July

 2003,  when it wasn't even syncing appointments or doing wireless, and August

 2006 when I left, and I can honestly put my hand on my heart and say that I

 Gave everyone, most importantly blind people, their money's worth. And I also

 believe that while working for a company, it is entitled to the most

 spirited, tenacious advocacy for its products you can give it.

 

 But you know, there were some things I was not able to achieve despite my

 best efforts. I don't intend to list them because my purpose in posting

 this message is not to attack any company. However, those of you who were on

 The BrailleNote list at that time, or who care to search the archives, will no

 the long and quite justifiable wish list from increasingly frustrated

 customers, many of whom are now using a PAC mate. I genuinely feel that I

 am able to make a greater, more positive difference as a Vice president at

 Freedom Scientific. I think it is critical that a blind person have such a

 senior role in a company as important as FS. As an advocate for blind

 people all my life, I have always believed that we, blind people ourselves, are

 the best people to determine what products we need. As a blind person looking

 after the hardware side of Freedom Scientific's blindness business,

 staying connected with our community as I try to do, I really welcome the chance

 to  have so much of an influence. There are many extraordinarily talented

 blind  people working at FS, and that's something that makes me feel very

 comfortable. I think that a company that understands the value blind

 people  bring to our own technology, and who employs so many blind people,

 deserves  our praise.

 

 Some people have said that there seems to be some sort of fundamental

 conflict or inconsistency in managing Freedom Scientific's blindness

 hardware, PAC mate in particular, given what I used to do. I respectfully

 disagree. What motivates me, is making a difference. I care very much

 about  how much I am able to personally do that helps people obtain or retain a

 job, succeed in school, and manage their lives. Programs like FSEdit,

 FSReader, FSCalc, FSCommander, StreetTalk and others are designed by

 Freedom  Scientific. They're intuitive, because they were designed to be used with

 speech and Braille. And I intend to work to make them even more so in the

 future. But on top of that there is the ability to use whatever

 application  you want that has been written for Pocket PC. with appropriate scripting,

 this can help satisfy more needs, more quickly. I realised that managing a

 platform that is 100% closed is like running against the wind. Despite

 really brilliant people, it wasn't possible to get product out with the

 speed that blind people needed.

 

 In closing, let me say this. Assistive technology is not one's religion,

 It  is not one's morality, and it is not one's political or philosophical

 system. Assistive technology in its various forms is simply tools that

 allow  us to be productive and independent. I have worked with sales people at Humanware who once worked  for  FS. Every few weeks, I read with some longing, posts on technology web

 sites  about executives who have gone from Microsoft to Apple, or Google to Sun,

 or  AOL to Yahoo, without anyone really batting an eyelid. It happens. I have

 fought all my life for blind people to have the same rights and

 obligations  as anyone else. That includes the right to move from one company to

 another.

 

 What has kept me going during some rather hurtful and uninformed comments

 about my own job change, is that the products that will be in the hands of

 blind people will make it all worthwhile. When you release something new,

 and then you eventually hear about someone using it on the job, or at

 college, and you know that that product has really made life better for

 them, that's what makes some of this rather harsh criticism tolerable.

 That,  and the love of my family and support of my true friends, not to mention

 some fantastic colleagues at FS, has been what's kept me going.

 

 And now I will quietly crawl back into obscurity again. Thanks for reading

Cheers,

 Jonathan

 

Afterward

 

I’m happy to see our friend Gabe back posting his support for Apple in spite of its crappy view of blind computer users.  Sure, one can use iTunes on a Macintosh but find me a single blink who got a job or could attend a university based upon her ability to download pop songs?

 

If the text of Jonathon’s post appears strangely formatted, it is because I copied it from a plain text email and didn’t feel like spending the time to clean it up anymore than I could do very quickly.

 

-- End

6 Comments:

Anonymous Dick Springs said...

Chris Hofstader is correct when he solutes Humanware for not pursuing Jonathan Mosen for most probably taking trade secrets with him when he left, thereby allowing him to go from one executive position in an adaptive technology corporation to another in less than one week. This seems to be the practice of most companies other than Freedom Scientific based on Jonathan's own comments about executives in other sectors of the technology industry.

I hope that this is the last adaptive technology job Jonathan Mosen intends to hold for at least two years should he decide to leave Freedom Scientific for another opportunity and that he can find other means of gainful employment during that time should he decide to make another career move before he retires. From personal experience, and as Chris Hofstader can attest, Freedom Scientific is not so charitable with there former "associates."

10:58 AM  
Blogger TheBlindTech said...

Jonathan is still an idiot in my opinion. and I'm going to make sure FS slaps him down for emailing like a fool on blindness lists to save his image. what a panzie.

he's the dumb ass that said we didn't need an SDK for the BrailleNote because the blind community didn't know how to write its own apps. screw him.

and if ITunes wasn't a big deal than why was dina bitching aboiut it than huh chris?

and by the way when will blind people use richtext or html emails like the rest of the world and stop using that plain text crap.

and we wonder why we're so far behind?

11:17 AM  
Blogger Joe said...

Why don’t you ask a more intellectually honest question, like “Can you find me a single blink who got a job or could attend a university while using a Version 1.0 screen reader?”

Like, say, Jaws 1.0 or Window-Eyes 1.0? Because as I keep pointing out and you keep ignoring, VoiceOver is a 1.0 product. Compare apples to apples, please.

12:49 PM  
Blogger Darrell said...

If our assistive technology companies would seriously work on accessibility of accounting and project management applications, then blind people *would* be able to hold those positions. In the meantime, I think blind senior managers in these companies could probably work around this (hopefully temporary) limitation by relying on their sighted assistants. I hate to have to say that, but at least they wouldn't be held back over some ridiculous technology issue. Only half the problem of a lack of access to certain types of apps like accounting and finance is due to the lack of caring on the part of the mainstream developers, the other half of that responsibility falls to the AT companies in our field who, frankly, just haven't done enough in that area yet.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Mike Calvo said...

Separate but equal is a myth

Separation by definition means that the separated parties will develop in response to different factors and sooner or later inequality will result. That is why Serotek has always focused its mission on accessibility anywhere. Our goal, within our sphere of influence, is to remove all barriers and eliminate accessibility or lack thereof as a reason for separation and discrimination. We believe accessibility is a right, not a privilege.

Jonathan Mosen of Freedom Scientific has said that adaptive technology is a business, not a religion, and we agree. In fact that very perspective has pushed us towards solutions that are increasingly mainstream. The reason is that when a company focuses on solutions only for the blind community, its direction is shaped by the economic forces that govern that community. That means that government funding has a disproportionate role in sale and distribution of its products. It means that the overall market does not have the volume potential that governs the consumer or business technology markets. It takes AT out of the price/performance curves that shape the market for all manner of digital toys and tools. Instead, the people who might benefit most from digital technology are stranded and forced to seek out subsidies to pay the exorbitant prices that AT producers have to charge. And these same AT producers, because their markets are so limited, do not have access to the capital mainstream technology companies can tap and thus tend to lag the industry in applying advances in technology or in bringing innovative, cost/performance improving changes to their product offering.

The capacity and adaptability of human beings is such that sight or lack thereof makes little real difference in the potential contribution a person can make to an organization in most functional roles. There are blind people who can match any sighted person in sales, accounting, product design, information technology, promotion, production, supervisory or executive management. There are highly capable blind janitors and CEOs; blind lawyers and accountants; investors and inventors; teachers and technicians.

But a great many of those jobs are several times more difficult for a blind person to get and accomplish than a sighted person because the information that is essential to accomplish the job is not as accessible to the blind person. And that, we believe, is just plain wrong. That inability to access information is a barrier separating accomplished individuals from competing for jobs that they are otherwise qualified. Unfortunately, because our industry has developed and marketed adaptive technology to the “blind” community, it does a poor job of making it easy for businesses to make their information world accessible. Using conventional technology, the cost of making all corporate information accessible in a large corporation or government organization could easily be tens of millions of dollars. And for what? To give one person a chance to compete for one job? The economics as you can see push us to separation. And that keeps the blind community in its box.

At Serotek, our goal is to make that barrier go away. We don’t think it should cost very much to make the world accessible. We think the accessibility should be built in, available for those who need it to tap into it. Accessibility should be a simple “plug-in” that can be added to any application or database. It shouldn’t require an enormous investment in dollars by the organization making the information accessible and it shouldn’t require an enormous investment in training to the individual who wants to use the tool.

Five years ago when Serotek came on the scene, this kind of thinking was fantasy. Now it is well within the realm of possibility. We aren’t there yet, but we can see the day on the horizon when there won’t be an adaptive technology industry. The accessibility tools will always be built in.

This kind of thinking requires that we see the blind community as part of the mainstream. It means that blind kids grow up side by side with sighted kids doing the same things. It means that asking whether or not someone is sighted is as taboo as asking their color, sex, or religion. It is not relevant information for most employment or other human activities.

For Serotek that means we do think mainstream. We try to make our accessibility tools work for anyone. Our RIM and RAM products, for example, do not discriminate between blind and sighted trainers and technicians. The tools work equally well for either.

As information access becomes increasingly mobile and ubiquitous, the need for hands free and eyes free access increases. Our System Access tool can browse the Internet or access an application for a sighted person unable to look at a screen just as well as it can for a blind person.

The Adaptive Technology industry is, we believe, on the cusp of a transition. We see the economics of accessibility changing as it becomes increasingly an important mainstream functionality. As that happens, the technology gap between the tools used by the mainstream community and those available to the blind, will go away and with the disappearance of that gap, the cost/performance factor for accessibility tools will catch-up to the mainstream. Think about it. That will change the entire culture of this industry and the change may not be much to the liking of those who have shaped their business around the traditional economics of AT. Some sacred cows of accessibility, such as Braille, may struggle to find a place in a world where anything stored or transmitted digitally is accessible. Now before I get tuns of email saying I don’t want to see Braille live, I just want to say that I believe that Braille is an important part of a blind person’s life however creating Braille from accessible content is what we should shoot for. I will reserve any other comments I have about Braille for another time.

Serotek is, as far as we know, the only significant AT company where the CEO, CTO, and the majority of employees are blind. Yet our focus is very much on making accessibility a tool for bringing together, not separating the blind community from the mainstream. Accessibility anywhere and everywhere we believe benefits all.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Aaron said...

I think that it sounds great in theory; a blind person will do well at the head of companies that will assist them. It seems like a bit of a catch-22 if the technology that we have isn't advanced enough for them to develop better with this situation. No one knows better what life is like being blind than someone who is blind, but it's still a world of sighted people. I optimistically hope that good will come of the things you talk about. You are a fantastic writer, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts.

3:47 PM  

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