President's Message: The Blind Divide

by Mitch Pomerantz

Back in the 1990s when the Internet was first taking off as a communications and entertainment medium, former Vice President Al Gore talked about the increasing importance of the "information superhighway" and the digital divide as a serious issue facing this nation.  He was referring to the fact that as the web became an integral part of people's lives, those who lacked access would be left behind relative to those who had the technological means to achieve such access.  At that time I believe Gore was focusing specifically upon those in the lower socioeconomic stratum of society, typically minorities and the poor.  While he likely wouldn't admit it, the former vice president probably didn't have people who are blind or visually impaired in mind when he talked about the digital divide between the "haves" and "have-nots."

This divide was brought to mind recently thanks to a pair of seemingly unrelated matters.  The first concerned the working group I serve on representing ACB under the auspices of the U.S. Access Board to establish best practices for making prescription drug label information fully accessible.  (By the time you read this, I will have returned from the first meeting of this working group, taking place in Washington, D.C. Jan. 10-11.)  Without going into detail, I received an e-mail from an individual who will be demonstrating a software-based product at that meeting which would permit a blind user to obtain all necessary label information.  The company he represents hopes to be marketing this product in the near future.

The second matter concerned a proposal brought forward by the board of publications to publish as many as six issues of the "ACB Braille Forum" in an online format exclusively.  The rationale for this initiative is to address the rising cost of braille production and the imminent demise in the production of audio cassettes.

In both instances the question which must be asked is: What do we do about those among us who cannot access the Internet; do not have computers, portable notetakers, smartphones, and the like?  In the name of progress, does society in general and the organized blind in particular, turn our collective backs on our non-techie brethren?  A few years ago, Dr. Ronald Milliman, a retired marketing professor and active ACB member, conducted a survey of members which indicated that a sizable majority have access to and use computers.  While I don't recall the specifics, the survey findings surprised many of us who believed that the percentage would be far lower than the results indicated.  Nonetheless, I still contend that the vast majority of people who are blind or visually impaired do not use computers and hence, are on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Perhaps a more basic question than the one posed above is: Who exactly comprises the generic group we call "the blind?"  Although I can't reasonably argue with Milliman's findings relative to computer use by ACB members, I still maintain my previous contention that most blind and visually impaired people are on the wrong side of that divide.  Let's consider some facts.

First, given the statistics, somewhere around 2 to 3 percent of the overall blind and visually impaired population in the United States belongs to one of the major consumer advocacy organizations: ACB, NFB or BVA (Blinded Veterans of America).  I am assuming here that those of us who are members of one of these organizations may be more likely to use a computer because we are more aware of the value provided by having access to the Internet, as well as having more of an opportunity for exposure to access technology.  This leaves well over 95 percent of our population who, while generally understanding that they would benefit from the use of a computer, have had little if any such exposure.  Therefore, these individuals are less likely to have acquired the technology necessary to cross that divide.  One caveat is the recognition that blind and visually impaired people under the age of 30 certainly do understand the value of technology and have made efforts to acquire it.  The issue is whether such people have the resources to do so given cuts in the rehabilitation budgets of nearly every state in the union.

Second (and this is only an educated estimate), something like 70 percent of the blind/visually impaired population is over the age of 60.  Certainly a significant number of folks in this age group (myself included) are computer users but again, we have been exposed to access technology and its benefits.  Overall, members of the "baby boom" and "greatest generations" who have experienced vision loss in recent years are not computer savvy, especially those in their 70s and beyond.  This situation will obviously change as 30, 40 and 50-somethings (a group that is far more likely to embrace technology) age and begin losing their vision.

Hence, for at least another decade or so, how do we address the information needs of those who are not on Gore's information superhighway?  ACB must remain mindful of who comprises the overall blind and visually impaired population in this country.  In the case of access to prescription drug label information, we will advocate for both high-tech solutions -- Talking Rx bottles, ScripTalk and other technologies -- to facilitate accessing vital information, as well as low-tech solutions -- braille, large print, etc.  In the case of assuring access to our publication for those lacking computer access, we will work closely with the International Association of Audio Information Services (IAAIS) to bring "The ACB Braille Forum" to those individuals.  If we truly represent all blind and visually impaired people as we say we do, then ACB must advocate for everyone, regardless of which side of the blind divide they find themselves.  To do less would be putting the lie to our mission.