by Ron Brooks, Susan Glass, Donna Brown, Paul Edwards, and Deb Cook Lewis
Each year’s conference opens with a general session where the ACB celebrates the past year’s achievements, its members (both past and present) who have made significant contributions to the work of the organization, and major sponsors whose work has positively impacted the lives of ACB members and other blind people throughout America and the world. Proceedings are broadcast live via ACB Radio, and a recording of the entire proceeding will be available soon from ACB.
ACB president Kim Charlson gave her annual report to the membership. She discussed ACB’s advocacy efforts, which include work on access to audio description of television, cable and other media content; ensuring access to emerging forms of transportation such as Uber, Lyft and automated vehicles; the implementation of the Marrakesh Treaty allowing for the sharing of published content for the use of people with disabilities; and a partnership with Cisco Systems to launch a new enterprise-grade desk phone which includes built-in text-to-speech capabilities.
Charlson mentioned ACB’s efforts to improve its financial stability and to grow its revenues. One of these efforts is the establishment of an endowment fund which will cover ongoing operations. She then informed us about a brand-new program whereby the Academy for Certification of Vision Rehabilitation and Education Professionals is offering continuing education units to blindness professionals, including educators, rehabilitation specialists, technology trainers, orientation and mobility instructors and others who participate in designated ACB conference workshops.
Charlson announced that ACB’s mobile app, ACB Link, is now available for people using Android mobile devices. Additional enhancements for both the Apple and Android versions of ACB Link are also being planned, including the ability to listen to audio content offline.
Next, Anirudh Koul and Saqib Shaikh, co-creators of the Seeing AI mobile app, presented on behalf of Microsoft Corporation. This app has enabled more than 200,000 blind people across the world to identify and interpret more than 7 million items, ranging from currency to pictures, documents and food packaging. Seeing AI is a work in progress, but it represents Microsoft’s commitment to increasing accessibility and empowering people with disabilities through the use of technology. They also discussed Microsoft’s Soundscape project, which is designed to use sounds to map visual environments.
After the presentation, ACB awards committee co-chair Chip Hailey presented the James R. Olsen Distinguished Service Award to Microsoft in recognition of the contributions which Seeing AI has made to accessibility for people who are blind or visually impaired.
Charlson then returned to the podium to present life memberships to James Kracht, Miami, Fla.; Gerry Koors, Indianapolis, Ind.; Lawrence Carter, Raleigh, N.C.; Lisa Landry, Belle Rose, La.; and Eric Bridges, Arlington, Va.
Next came a short presentation recognizing ACB’s Angels. Dan Spoone updated the convention on the ACB Angels Wall. The wall was created as a place where members can honor past ACB members and/or guide dogs for their lasting contributions to ACB and the lives of its members. Dan invited everyone to visit the wall in the exhibit hall.
Attendees heard from Suman Kanuganti, president and CEO of Aira Corp. Kanuganti described how Aira uses live operators and technology to provide real-time information to blind and visually impaired subscribers, thereby assisting them to travel to and from job interviews, navigate through airports and other complex environments, do their shopping, reading and much more. He also updated us about recent product enhancements, price plan reductions, and a growing number of agreements with airports and other venues.
Kenneth Semien Sr., chair of the Durward K. McDaniel First-Timers Committee, introduced this year’s first-timers: Becky Dunkerson from Iowa and Nicholas McNeill from Florida.
Eric Bridges introduced the 2018 JPMorgan Chase Leadership Fellows. Awardees are chosen for their work on behalf of ACB and/or a state or special-interest affiliate; they receive a sponsorship from JPMorgan Chase to attend the conference. This year’s recipients are: Marie Brinas, Va.; Darian Slayton Fleming, Ore.; Debbie Rozear, Pa.; Michael Talley, Ala.; and Deb Trevino, Del.
Immediately following the introductions, credentials committee chairman Ralph Smitherman gave the first credentials report.
Bridges then made a special presentation to staff member and editor Sharon Lovering for her 25 years of service to ACB. Sharon’s contributions include not only editing of the ACB Braille and E-Forum magazines, but also production of each year’s convention newspaper, management of the ACB membership list, and a myriad of other tasks in support of ACB members across the country.
The session concluded with the affiliate roll call.
The convention first heard from several sponsors: General Motors, Amazon, Google, and HumanWare. The General Motors spokesman laid out three of the company’s goals for the immediate future. With respect to GM cars, he stated that the goals were 0 accidents, 0 emissions, and 0 human drivers. GM is committed to producing and promoting driverless cars. He said that we will need to change legislation and automobile regulations that were adopted with the assumption that human beings, not computers, would control the cars.
The Amazon representative demonstrated the Amazon Locker, which operates similarly to a braille and talking ATM. The purpose of Amazon Locker is to provide communities with centralized locations where people can retrieve their Amazon packages. A blind person retrieving a package enters a 6-digit code into the talking locker. The locker opens, the person retrieves her package, and manually closes the locker door. Lockers ensure that customers receive packages safely, and that blind customers know exactly when a package has been delivered to them.
This morning’s angel presentation was for Teddie-Joy Remhild of California. Teddie-Joy was a political activist and a writer, and the convention heard a reading of her poem “Solitary Sojourn,” which appeared in the April 2005 issue of the Forum.
We next heard from blind master card mechanic and magician Richard Turner, who presented a combined magic show and inspirational speech based in part on his autobiographical film “Dealt,” which was shown on Sunday evening.
Karen Keninger, director of the National Library Service, summarized the Orbit Reader pilot program, as well as the possibility of digital book delivery using a mobile cartridge. Regarding NLS’ integration of commercial audio books into its library, Keninger stated that commercial audio book use enables NLS to release new titles to blind readers on the same day that sighted readers receive them. Only 10 to 15 percent of NLS subscribers currently use BARD, she added.
Jose Maria Viera, the World Blind Union’s new executive director, was the next speaker. He reminded us that the WBU was founded in 1944, with the aim of creating a better international scenario for all blind and visually impaired people worldwide. The World Health Organization estimated that in 2011, there were approximately 1 billion people with disabilities living worldwide. Viera said that almost 250 million disabled people are blind and visually impaired, which is one-quarter of the world’s disability population. If we were a shared nationality, we would be the third biggest nation in the world, second only to China and India. The WBU advocates on behalf of human rights, education, employment, independence, access to information, community inclusion, and more. He thanked ACB for setting a high standard for all blind people.
The morning’s final presentation was called Celebrating 50 Years of Achievement and Advocacy: Randolph-Sheppard Vendors of America. Speakers were Dan Sippl, RSVA president, and Ardis Bazyn, RSVA second vice president.
Monday’s theme was education and advocacy. Ron Brooks presented the Vernon Henley Media Award to Comcast and NBCUniversal in recognition of their excellent audio description of the 2018 Olympics and Paralympics.
Denise Colley, chair of the ACB scholarship committee, introduced the 2018 scholarship winners. They are:
- James Boehm, Tenn.: Clinical Mental Health Counseling
- Miranda Borka, Va.: Social Work
- Ruben Flores Hernandez, Ore.: Mathematics
- Eric Harvey, Calif.: Near Eastern and Judaic Studies
- Joshua King, Iowa: Business Analytics/Supply Chain Management
- Emeline Lakrout, Tex.: Marketing
- Carlos Medrano, Tenn.: Computer Science
- Leonard Moore, N.C.: Adult Education
- Dexter Rowell, Mass.: Law
- Kyle Rufo, Pa.: Undecided (sciences)
- Edward Shaham, Conn.: Supply Chain Management
- Sasha Somuah, Conn.: Business Administration
- Angelina Stillman, Pa.: Legal Studies
- Matthew Turner, Idaho: Economics and Technology
- Leeahnn Victorio, Ore.: Art
- Sarah Wiles, Mass.: Law
- Thomas Woodyard, Ga.: Public and International Affairs and Anthropology
Allen Casey introduced the winners of CCLVI’s Fred Scheigert scholarships. They are:
- Madison Allen, N.C.: Nuclear Engineering
- Samantha Mayberry, Ind.: Acting
- Maureen Hayden, Tex.: Marine Biology
Leslie Thatcher, director of the College Success Program at the Perkins School for the Blind, talked about Perkins’ nine-month residential program where blind and visually impaired students learn the skills they need to help them overcome barriers that interfere with completing college. These include advocacy, technology, independent living, executive functioning, organization, and travel. Students also take college classes and do job shadowing.
The convention next heard a panel discussion on new collaborative strategic directions by Russell Shaffer, chairman of the American Foundation for the Blind’s board, and Craig Meador, president and CEO of the American Printing House for the Blind. AFB is focused on policy and developing partnerships. To better carry out their mission, APH will provide more services for blind adults as well as for children, and will now run the CareerConnect, VisionAware, Braille Bug and Vision Services and training materials websites formerly managed by AFB. Conventioneers applauded upon learning that all of the document collections on Helen Keller’s life are fully digitized and available for viewing on the AFB website.
Convention-goers got to meet Annie Barth from the 350th episode of NCIS, played by Marilee Talkington, an actress with low vision. The episode, “Sight Unseen,” aired on April 17. Marilee’s presentation was lively and encouraging. She shared how her many challenges turned into opportunities. Marilee’s parting words were: “We are powerful beyond measure. Own your fabulousness and uniqueness.”
From fabulous to fabric softener, attendees next heard from Samuel DuPlessis, design leader at FirstBuild, and his son Jack, a sophomore at DuPont Manual High School, both of Louisville, Ky. The father and son invented the Talking Laundry Module for GE washers and dryers; Jack shared the process for constructing the device. FirstBuild is a subsidiary of GE; for more information, visit www.firstbuild.com.
The final presenter was Jonathan Smith, executive director of the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs. ACB has worked closely with this advocacy organization for several years on access issues, including: improving accessibility of SAM.gov; ensuring that D.C.-area taxi drivers and ride-share services accept passengers with service animals; and securing settlements with hospitals to make touch screens accessible to blind and visually impaired patients along with making all documents available in accessible formats. They received the ACB President’s Award for their partnership with ACB.
Tuesday began with a presentation the convention looks forward to every year. Laura Giannarelli is a narrator who works directly for the National Library Service in Washington, D.C., and has been there since 1979. She not only narrates books but trains narrators throughout the country. Both her parents were Italian-American and, growing up, her relatives and a high-school teacher gave her the tools that made her a good narrator. She says that you have to love to read if you are to be a good narrator, because the work of narrating is both demanding and difficult. You have to love it if you are going to stick with it. Giannarelli also said that creating talking books was like translating the printed word into speech so that the essence of the print book could best be made all it can be for a listener.
The next major presentation came from Eric Bridges, executive director of ACB. He thanked the volunteers and staff who made this convention such a success. He also thanked Kelly Gasque and Larry Turnbull for their work on the website, which launched during convention. It is now more visually appealing and easier to search. Over the past year ACB has been mentioned in lots of mainstream publications because of the advocacy we are undertaking. A major area involved the work with Cisco Systems on the development of an accessible business phone. Eric mentioned the recruitment of a blind actress to play a part on NCIS. He noted that the Hollywood folks listened, and ACB was acknowledged as a consultant. ACB was also credited with a major role for the creation of three new emoji that picture blind people. Convention sponsorship dollars are up 18 percent this year. Eric indicated that the companies who are here want input from blind people on how to be more inclusive, which is far more important than just the dollars. ACB continues to work on its strategic plan; we have a new logo; we have created a legacy endowment fund that will assure ACB’s viability into the future; and there are many other efforts that members will hear about as time goes on. He urged people to email him with issues at [email protected].
Tony Stephens, ACB’s director of advocacy and governmental affairs, provided an update on taxes and offered more information about the ABLE program. He celebrated the fact that the blindness exemption was retained. He urged people to look at the impact of the new higher standard deduction. There are volunteers to help you with tax preparation; call 1-800-906-9887. Tony then talked a little about the ABLE account, which allows for putting money aside for blindness-related expenses; to learn more, visit www.ablenrc.org. He also suggested that people contact their Congressman about the ABLE Age Adjustment Act, which would allow people older than 26 at the time of their blindness to be included.
And then it was time for awards! The BOP presented the Ned E. Freeman Excellence in Writing Award to Richard Rueda for his article about a trip to Italy called “In the Palm of Nature” (see the April 2017 issue). Chip Hailey and Judy Jackson presented the affiliate growth awards, which went to Mississippi and Delaware. The Robert S. Bray Award went to the American Printing House for the Blind for the creation of Indoor Explorer, a part of Nearby Explorer, that allows blind people to navigate indoors independently.
Kelly Gasque discussed the new ACB website. An organized process was used to create new elements for ACB’s web site and to make sure it met the needs of blind, low vision, and sighted users. A group of testers from all three groups reviewed every page of the new site, and changes were made based on the feedback received. Kelly said that this new website is ACB’s first true professional representation of who we are to the rest of the world. ACB’s social media pages have also grown over the last year, with 15 percent more users on Facebook and 22 percent more users on Twitter. National office staffers have begun using Facebook Live to take followers to where the action is.
The convention first heard from HIMS Inc. and Aira. Earle Harrison, regional sales manager, shared information about HIMS’ latest braille products: Taptilo, a product and game designed to help readers just learning braille; Help Tech Braille, a display that matches its scrolling speed to the reader’s speed; the Braille Sense Polaris, the Polaris Mini, and the Q Braille.
Paul Schroeder, VP of Public Policy and Strategy, spoke on behalf of Aira. Using iPhones and Aira glasses, users connect with a volunteer who helps them navigate their environment. This process assists with navigating an airport terminal, locating an item in a convenience store, or scheduling a Lyft ride. Schroeder suggested that all students encourage their college campuses to add Aira as an access element. He noted that Aira will provide free minutes to blind explorers who are searching for employment during October.
Attendees heard next from Claire Stanley, ACB’s advocacy and outreach specialist, who updated everyone on the status of air travel for guide dog handlers. Claire stated that although our dogs’ access is protected in public places by the ADA, once aboard aircraft, we answer to the Air Carrier Access Act. In response to a number of incidents in which members of the general public tried to pass off untrained animals as service and emotional support animals, several airlines began creating new policies that required those with service animals to provide medical documentation and other proof of the animal’s legitimate status at least 48 hours before a flight. This has proven to be a hardship for guide dog handlers who are trying to check in at airport gate kiosks, or who need to travel on short notice. In January of 2018, Eric Bridges and Tony Stephens began working with airlines and other disability rights groups to craft policies that address the issue of fake service animals without imposing any hardship on blind and visually impaired travelers.
Tony Stephens updated attendees on ACB’s legislative activities in Washington. He shared information about autonomous vehicle legislation currently making its way through the Senate and the House. He commended collaboration between ACB, the NFB, the American Library Association and several publishers, which resulted in the unanimous approval of the Marrakesh Treaty by the United States Senate on June 28th. Tony reviewed other legislation designed to protect our civil rights of reading, housing, employment, and health care. He reminded us that we as a community are responsible for making NLS services, rehab services, accessible currency, and all that we care about, part of the national conversation.
Sajja Koirala, graduate research assistant at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, informed us about the UniDescription Project. This app allows blind and visually impaired park visitors to download audio-described park brochures for several national parks. In California, ACB members have tested the app at both Yosemite National Park and Muir Woods National Monument, and provided feedback to the app’s creators, allowing them to fine-tune it.
Joel Snyder, director of ACB’s Audio Description Project, spoke next. He said that people from 20 states and 5 countries attended this summer’s ADP conference for audio describers. He also announced this year’s audio description award winners. (To learn who they are, see the article elsewhere in this issue.)
Dan Spoone summarized ACB’s fund-raising programs and their importance. These programs include “The ACB Braille Forum” raffle, the Monthly Monetary Support (MMS) Program, the ACB convention auction, the mini mall, the Holiday Auction, the walk, the Angel Tribute Program, and Giving Tuesday. Spoone said that MMS is bringing in $100,000 per year. This year’s auction raised $15,000, and the walk raised nearly $84,000.
Thursday focused on convention business. Attendees voted on constitutional and bylaws amendments. An amendment to the bylaws regarding the status of junior members passed. A constitutional amendment to allow greater flexibility of representation on the ACB board of directors from a state was defeated.
Then it was time for elections. Jeff Thom, Pat Sheehan, and Katie Frederick were re-elected to the board of directors; new board members are James Kracht of Florida and Michael Talley of Alabama. Deb Cook Lewis and Paul Edwards were re-elected to the board of publications; Penny Reeder of Maryland is the newest BOP member.
Between elections and roll calls, Mark Richert, resolutions chair, led the convention through resolutions on a variety of topics. These will be summarized in a future issue.
Janet Dickelman, convention chair, thanked the related committees and talked about the successes and challenges of this year’s convention. Next year’s conference will be held from July 5-12 in Rochester, N.Y.