BIRMINGHAM: A SMORGASBORD OF MEETINGS, MEALS, MUSIC,
AND SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY
PART II
by Sharon Lovering

WEDNESDAY

Wednesday was Technology Day, sponsored by Bank of America. "The clear star of the 2004 convention ... is Confetti," stated Ralph Sanders, chair of the public relations committee. Confetti was the lone guide horse at the convention. "Television coverage has gone nationwide about Confetti, and we'll remember this convention perhaps as the 'Confetti Convention.'"

Following Sanders' report, a few amendments, and the ACBES report, President Gray turned the microphone over to Mark Richert, executive director of the Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired. "AER in many ways is not much different ... [from] ACB," he said. "We are working hard ... on advocacy-related issues ... Our mission ... is to promote professional excellence in our field."

AER supports high quality through credentials and by providing continuing education opportunities; it also supports the Instructional Materials Accessibility Act. "We have stood with you, with great success, in ensuring that the United States Congress knows that blind and visually impaired people are no longer going to be satisfied to have their kids ... receive their textbooks either not at all, or 6 or 9 months into the school year," Richert added. "It's simply not acceptable anymore!"

The next speaker was Dan Frye, executive director of Association of Blind Citizens of New Zealand. He told the audience that the association began on Oct. 8, 1945, with a meeting of about 100 blind people in New Market, Auckland. The association has evolved and matured since then, undergoing many name changes in 59 years; its current name is the Association of Blind Citizens of New Zealand. "The one constant aim of the association ... has been its unwavering devotion to the cause of advocacy on behalf of the blind ... through the vehicle of collective action," Frye stated. "Peer support, public education about blindness, and all of the other functions traditionally aligned with an organization of the blind had and have their continued place in the association. But advocacy, in one form or another, has been the mainstay of our reason for existing."

He gave multiple examples of issues that both ACB and ABCNZ were working on, including guide dog access to taxis and airplanes, education, and public access. "Our consumer organizations, while different, share in common a basic spirit that should forge a lasting bond across the globe," he said. "Our different experiences and successes can and should inform one another's advocacy. ... Together we can make life better for the blind of the world."

Following Frye was Dave Kronk of Damar Travel for a brief informational sound byte about the ACB cruise. It will be held April 4-12, 2005, depart from Fort Lauderdale, and go to Belize, Costa Rica and Panama. Information about shore excursions will be accessible, Kronk said. And for each person who books this cruise with Damar, the company will donate $100 per person to ACB.

Next up was a discussion on cell phone manufacturers and service providers working together, with Mary Brooner, senior director for telecommunications strategy at Motorola, and Paula Hall, technical regulatory program manager at Nextel Communications. Brooner spoke first. Motorola's approach toward accessibility, she said, "has been, when we make a product, to provide the consumer information about the particular accessibility features that each handset model has, and we've put that onto a web site." That web site is http://commerce.motorola.com/consumer/QWhtml/accessibility/default.html. Motorola has been working with a number of product research groups on the issue of talking phones, trying to identify a text-to-speech software engine that can be placed in the handset. This requires a great deal of memory and a processor that can work with the software engine. "In the handset group that develops the phones for Nextel, we have in the last year identified both a text-to-speech engine and a handset that we believe can be a first adoption ... of text-to-speech in the Nextel handsets," she noted. The company intends to introduce it in the first quarter of 2005.

Brooner urged her listeners to share their experiences -- positive and negative -- with the company. She also requested that they share their priorities: "What are the core requirements that you really need?" Technology is going to keep on changing, she added, "and what's really important is that you try to stay educated about it and continue to share [your experiences]."

Paula Hall followed. "So many times in the industry when it comes to access issues, carriers point at vendors and vendors point back at carriers as being the problem," she said. "But we're here today to show that we're united, and that we're determined to address the access issues and do it together in a way that we can produce a useful product for everyone that would have access issues."

After several questions and a brief break, Mark Ashby, narrator of "People of Vision" and "The Braille Forum," addressed the convention. He mentioned recording "The Braille Forum." "It might strike you as amusing to know that my first contact with ACB through 'The Braille Forum' wasn't as a narrator, it was as a monitor," he said. "And of course, as I sat there gazing over the latest report ... I'd dream that one day, I might make that leap onto the other side and become the voice of ACB." He considered it a compliment when PTBS asked him to record the Forum.

Following Ashby was Susan Palmer-Mazrui, director of Federal Regulatory Affairs at Cingular Wireless. "There's a tag line for Cingular that is 'What do you have to say?' and we knew from the beginning if we were going to understand what the needs of people with disabilities would be, we would need to talk to people with disabilities," she said. Cingular has a wireless access task force, a cross-disability group of consumer advocates with disabilities. "In that group we have the pleasure of having folks like Roger Petersen and Bernice Kandarian come in and yell at us ... which was a ... positive thing. They ... first [said], 'You need to listen.' And once we started to listen really well, they told us how to move forward. And that's been a critical thing in our development of access and our approach toward accessibility."

Through discussions with people, information received from AFB and others, Cingular has been able to do some good things. Palmer-Mazrui said, "The things you're looking for are not two years down the road; they should be available ... next month." In order to understand what blind people wanted, the company spoke with the blindness community, asking that very question. And the answer it got was "Everything!"

In order to give blind people what they wanted, Cingular had to find a powerful phone that would run the software needed to make it speak. The company found that power in a camera phone. And Cingular will have, in August, a Nokia 6620 phone that will have TALKS screen-reading software, she said. Not only will the phone talk, but the packaging has braille on the outside telling what it is; it has a quick reference guide in braille and large print; and it will come with a manual on CD.

Following a brief question-and-answer session, Paul Schroeder updated the convention on the Bonnie O'Day case. In February 2003, Bonnie O'Day filed a complaint with the FCC indicating that cell phones available from Verizon Wireless and Audiovox were inaccessible. "Bonnie, to her credit ... had done her work and done her homework," Schroeder said. "She had spent a couple of years already writing letters to both companies and also working informally with the Federal Communications Commission to try to resolve this matter and to try to find and have the companies make available an accessible cell phone." The case did have some very valuable outcomes, "albeit they were slower than all of us would have liked." By December 2003 she'd settled with Audiovox, and one of the outcomes was the production of a phone listed under Audiovox CDM 9950 and the Toshiba VM4050. Those phones do have basic access features, which AFB reviewed in "AccessWorld." O'Day has not yet settled with Verizon Wireless, though that settlement is expected shortly, Schroeder added.

The final speaker for the day was Mary Beth Janes, the Assistive Technology Partnership Manager with Apple Computer. Apple introduced Spoken Interface in March. "Spoken Interface is another way of accessing the computer," Janes said. "It provides through speech, audible cues, and keyboard navigation the ability to use a Macintosh computer." Listeners may have remembered that in the past, the Macintosh has not been accessible through keyboard navigation. She noted that the program was designed to start the computer and for users to be able to navigate around. Then she provided a brief demonstration.

THURSDAY

Thursday was Work Day, sponsored by Freedom Scientific. And convention attendees truly did have a lot of business to deal with.

Harold Schnellert, president of the Canadian Council of the Blind, spoke briefly. "We appreciate the warm and friendly welcome that you have extended to our group," he said. The Canadian council has just celebrated its 60th anniversary; in 2006, the group's convention will be held in Vancouver, British Columbia, "and we extend a warm welcome to all."

Cynthia Towers, convention coordinator, presented her report. "Before I go into the convention ... I want us each to send our wonderful thoughts to Jim Olsen," she said. "I talked with him yesterday. He is doing great." Towers thanked everyone for stepping up to the plate. There were 1,100 registered for convention. Online registration has increased; walk-ins are also on the rise.

The 2005 convention will be held in Las Vegas, Nev., and Towers informed the audience that the hotel would be the Riviera, at the northern end of the strip. Room rates are $77 for singles and doubles, $87 for triple, $97 for quad, per night, plus 9 percent tax. Dates are July 2-9; however, the room rate will be in effect from June 24 through July 13. ACB will be in the Monte Carlo and the Monaco towers, which are closest to the convention complex. (For further details, see Towers' article in this issue, and watch for more in future issues.) There are six restaurants and a food court. The airport is only three and a half miles from the hotel; shuttles range from $4.50 to $5 one way, and taxis are about $14. For hotel reservations, call 1-800-634-6753 and tell them you're with the American Council of the Blind.

Carol Ewing, president of the Nevada Council of the Blind, said that her chapter was excited to be hosting the 2005 convention. "We want you to come early and ... stay late," she said.

Following Towers' report, Glen Gordon of Freedom Scientific addressed the convention. "It's great to be here with a group who does not judge a presentation by the number of transparencies you have on the overhead," he quipped. "And that's a good thing, because I have none!" He took his listeners back to the mid-1980s, when he received his first Braille 'n Speak. "Before having a Braille 'n Speak, I had little paper cards with braille everywhere around my house. And suddenly, I got a Braille 'n Speak and I realized that I could organize my life on a notetaker. And I didn't have to worry about braille cards, I could use braille electronically. And that was really exciting." As time passed on, Windows became accessible; it broadened Gordon's world.

A few years ago, several people began to say, "Why can't we mix the best of both worlds? Why can't we mix specialized technology with off-the- shelf software and hardware for a PDA ...? And that's how the idea for the PAC Mate was really born." Freedom Scientific worked with Microsoft's Pocket PC to incorporate it into a PDA for blind people. The PAC Mate also uses JAWS for Windows. Gordon then gave a demonstration of the PAC Mate.

Jonathan Mosen spoke next. "Last night we were presenting at the BrailleNote Users Group ... and we were working with the audio-visual guys to make sure that the wireless Internet was working ... we got everything moving, and then I went back to the podium to start my presentation there, and I couldn't find my new BrailleNote PK anywhere," he said. "And I was panicking ... and I thought, 'What have I done with this thing? Where is the BrailleNote PK? Where is it?' and then I realized, 'Oh goodness, it's in my pocket.' It's so light that you barely know that it's there."

Mosen addressed some of the philosophical issues surrounding what Pulse Data is doing. "As the blindness product manager with Pulse Data International, I believe that the same rules apply to technology as they do to braille itself," he said. "Broadly speaking, there are two ways you can use Windows CE, which is a mobile operating system from Microsoft. You can write your own software for it, or you can get Microsoft's graphical user interface known as Pocket PC and throw a screen reader over the top. We've chosen the first option for a number of very important reasons. The first is the cost of technology like this. It concerns me greatly that the cost of refreshable braille technology coupled with the relatively small number of units that we produce puts this technology out of the hands of many people whose lives would be transformed by it." A sighted person pays $200 or $300 for a Pocket PC, he noted, in contrast with $2,000 for a blindness- specific Windows CE device that doesn't include a braille display.

Pulse Data will be releasing a software developers' kit for the BrailleNote line of products, he stated. "That basically means that those with the skills will be able to write software for the BrailleNote which will run on Windows CE." The company also plans to begin dialogue with the blindness community about how they want this to work, so that it gives blind people the tools they need, he added.

Mosen urged his listeners to consider their technology purchases carefully. "When you choose your technology, think ... about the ends, those ends being communicating and processing information with the greatest efficiency possible. Because if we're not as efficient as our sighted counterparts, we're not going to get the jobs."

Mike Gibson, blindness product specialist from Pulse Data, spoke next. He thanked ACB for awarding him a scholarship some 15 years ago. "I'm the newest kid on the block, so to speak, here at Pulse Data, and I want to tell you what an exciting time it is to be on the Pulse Data team," he said. "When I came on board about four and a half months ago and Jonathan started floating the idea of a product that was smaller and lighter than the BrailleNote, I was a little taken aback. I thought to myself, 'How can you have something smaller and more portable? I'm very happy with what I've got.'" He reviewed some of the newer devices and their prices with the audience. He told his listeners that they were entitled to a 5 percent discount because of their membership in ACB.

Joel Snyder, director of described media at the National Captioning Institute, discussed audio description. He began description in 1980 with the Sunday comics in the Washington, D.C. area. "Audio description is a kind of literary art form," he said. "It's a type of poetry ... it provides a verbal version of the visual. The visual is made verbal and aural and oral using words that are succinct, vivid, imaginative to convey that visual image that is not fully accessible to a segment of the population and not fully realized by the rest of us ..." On DVDs, description provides access to movies.

"Description can also develop more sophisticated language skills for all kids," Snyder stated. "Think about it. Teachers who use description and the DVDs that include a descriptive track add an important verbal dimension so that the picture book ... with a picture of a ball, and the text, 'See the ball,' would be elaborated upon. ... Description invites comparisons, introduces the child to new vocabulary, even metaphor or simile." NCI Described Media is the group providing description to "Sesame Street," he noted. "Access to culture is everyone's right, and there is simply no good reason why a person with a disability must be culturally disadvantaged."

He reminded his listeners that Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) have reintroduced the Video Description Restoration Act, which would mandate description. "If you would like to have more description on TV, let your representatives know!" he said. On Saturday night, July 17, ABC will air the Disney remake of "The Miracle Worker." He urged the audience to let ABC know they enjoyed the description by writing to the Audience Relations Department, [email protected]

The remainder of the session was consumed by resolutions and amendments.

FRIDAY

The session began with amendments and resolutions. Following these, the convention heard from a panel on Medicare Discount Drug Cards featuring Phil Strong from ACB and Tara Shaver-Jarmon, director of the Alabama SHIP/Medi$mart program. "I'll begin with two events that occurred beginning on December 8," Strong said. "On that day, there was a piece of government resolution introduced known as the Medicare Improvement and Modernization Program, which in it included the Medicare drug discount card and transition program. What this will do for people who are on Medicare is give them the opportunity ... to choose a drug discount card by which they would be able to receive discounts on their prescription drugs, as well for those who did qualify or do qualify, if they're within a certain income bracket, they would be able to receive a bonus amount of $600 this year and again next year to apply to other prescription drugs. There are many problems with the program." Among them: it's confusing; there are many choices of approved drug discount cards; figuring out whether those cards work in certain areas, whether it covers their medications and so forth. Each state does have a state health insurance counseling program (SHIP) which can help people choose the appropriate program for them and help them apply for it.

Shaver-Jarmon addressed the SHIP program. "This program has been a result of the Medicare Modernization Act," she said. "What ... we're seeing now is a bridge between no coverage ... and having coverage in 2006, when the actual drug benefit is set to come into play." The discount card offers a discount of 10 to 25 percent off the retail price of prescription drugs. "There are about 40 discount cards available just in Alabama, and ... around 70 or so nationwide," she noted. These cards are provided by sponsors through contracts with Medicare; they're done in a variety of ways, by working with the pharmaceutical companies and by working with the local pharmacies. The $600 transitional assistance is like a bonus, she added, for people who meet certain income criteria. For assistance in choosing, visit www.medicare.gov or call 1-800-Medicare.

ACB treasurer Ardis Bazyn presented her report. At the end of 2003, total revenue was $1,227,093, including $140,000 from board reserves; total expenditures were $1,229,423, which left a net of -$2,330. This year, ACB is looking better; budget is above expected levels by $38,000. She thanked affiliates for their donations and requested that chapters "keep them coming!"

The remainder of the session consisted of amendments, resolutions and elections. (For election results, see the article "Election Results: New Faces in the Crowd," in the November 2004 issue.)

SATURDAY

The Saturday session consisted of elections, resolutions and amendments.

CAPTIONS

Paula Hall and Mary Brooner pause for a picture after discussing cell phone accessibility.

Jonathan Mosen talks about the BrailleNote PK. He is standing on stage behind a lectern, with the American flag on the left.

Joel Snyder addresses the topic of audio description for television. He stands behind the lectern on stage, with the ACB banner just visible behind him.


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