It's been more than seven months since I published an article on this blog, a record for inactivity on my part. This piece is a "random musings" kind of article, it will contain headings naming the topic and a paragraph or two about the idea as I've done in musing articles in the past.
The reason for my absence from writing the blog, attending any sort of disability related event, falling out of touch with a lot of my personal and professional contacts and doing very little activism related to blindness is entirely in the realm of my personal life and that I've been spending my time trying to help a very sick friend as best as I can as she struggles to live with an exceedingly rare form of cancer. This entire event has been hard on all involved and, when I'm not actually with my friend, I'm often feeling burned out emotionally and intellectually so writing anything of merit has been nearly impossible for me as the words simply do not come to me. I'm enjoying a break in my Florida home and found I had enough energy to write a bit this morning.
I have three articles written by other authors that will be published here as guest posts relatively soon. These have been sitting gathering dust in my articles folder for months and all I need to do is make sure the Markdown is correct and post the pieces. I found them interesting and I hope you, my loyal readers, do as well. If you're interested in writing a guest post for this blog, please send me a pitch via the contact form on this site and maybe we can work together on something cool.
I will make a more concerted effort to write more articles myself and publish them as I have in the past. I can't guarantee anything but I've a number of ideas with some big ideas behind them and a few that i'd just enjoy writing as I think they're interesting ideas that I'd enjoy exploring further. One factor that slows me down is that I do all of my own research and, on a couple of the big ideas I have for articles, I've simply not the time to do all of the googling, copying and pasting of actual data and ensuring it's all correct before publication. If any of you readers are interested in helping out as a research assistant, have good web searching skills and would enjoy helping me work on some research, please send me a note through the contact form. I don't even have a "Donate" button on this blog so this role will be unpaid but will certainly include very public acknowledgement and may be useful as a line item on your resume.
Lastly, before I go into my musings, I'd like to suggest that those of you who've followed my work on the ADA trolling situation take a look at Karl Groves' blog as he's continued covering the story after I had grown tired of just saying, "It keeps getting worse." Karl runs Tenon.io, one of the best automated web test tools out there and has been following the trolling with interest for quite some time now.
The reader should also note that this article is a bit less formal than some of my others. I do not include outlinks to various things I mention and the this is an opinion piece written mostly off the top of my head. If you find a factual error, please do point it out and I'll fix it but forgive me for the mistake as I wrote this from memory.
As I mention immediately above, I've given up on closely following the events surrounding the ADA trolling situation going on around the nation. All I can add is that it continues to get worse, people send me emails showing me yet another lawyer jumping onto this gravy train every now and then but there's nothing I can write about them other than, "here comes another one, just like the other one." As I've written before, I believe this trolling is the single greatest threat to the ADA itself going on today: a crackpot attorney like Rosales in Texas sends a threat letter to a small business, the businessperson picks up the phone and calls their chamber of commerce who, in turn, call the local congressperson who will then act to weaken ADA. In a Lainey Feingold structured negotiations approach, the businesses are treated fairly and, given the track record of success Lainey has had, it's the right way to get this enormous job done.
One possible thing we can do as blind individuals to fight this problem would be to challenge the certification of a class in these class action suits. I don't know how to do this (I ain't no attorney) but, if these corrupt lawyers are claiming to represent all of us which prevents any of us from taking legal action against the defendant in the future, we have the right to tell the court that, as members of the class they're trying to have certified, we object to the drive by lawsuit being perpetrated by lawyers like Carlson, Dinin and Rosales. Perhaps someone with a legal background can suggest ways we may be able to disrupt the trolls as I've no clue what else to recommend.
The FaceBook Scandal
My good friend and father of the free, libre open source software movement, Richard Stallman has been using the phrase, "with FaceBook, you're not a user, you're a used," for at least a decade at this point. In the past few weeks, we've heard Apple CEO Tim Cook repeating the phrase, "on FaceBook, the users are the product." It's surprising when an Apple CEO parrots the statements of one of their most notable critics but it also causes me to ask the question of Cook and the other luminaries speaking out about FaceBook recently, "What took you so long?" The privacy implications of FaceBook have been apparent for many years, a technology executive like Cook would understand immediately how risky using such a service is but remained silent until the story was attached to the Russia investigation and President Trump's campaign.
I suppose I'm trying to say that statements from Tim Cook and others about FaceBook have all come too late to be of any actual value. If people like Cook had warned the world about the privacy issues regarding FB many years earlier, the outcomes may have been different but, with Stallman being outwardly mocked for discussing "treacherous computing" and warning the public about the risks of big data for years standing largely alone on this issue, I think history could have been different had Cook and the others joined rms years earlier. Their more than a decade of silence permitted FaceBook to get what is perhaps an insurmountable lead over those who would place their own personal privacy ahead of FaceBook's profits.
2017 In Review
Historically, I've published a end of the year article discussing the blog that year and making some predictions for the year to come and published such in December. As I've not written anything for publication in seven months, I missed December this year and received a handful of emails from readers disappointed that I didn't do one last year. Thus, I'll toss in a few bullet points about the blog last year and make a couple of predictions here.
The 2017 Numbers
- Although I published only six new articles in 2017, the overall unique hit count for the blog set an all time record with more than 50,000 different users visiting the site.
- The most popular article I published in 2017 was "NVDA: Now More Than Ever" which pulled down more than 10,000 unique hits which would have been a record for any article I had ever published in its first year online.
- The article "Testing Android Accessibility: I Give Up" which has been online for a number of years broke 55,000 total hits since it was first posted. This kind of makes me sad as it's an old article containing old information. I've not tested the accessibility of an newer Android device and assume the team over at Google has made substantial progress since this article was first published.
- Other perennial favorite articles like "Death Of Screen Reader Innovation" and "What Did I Just Agree To" also pulled down a large number of hits in 2017 and both have received more than 40,000 hits since their original publication.
- Far more people found the blog via search engines than through my promotion on Twitter and FaceBook. Twitter still brings in the most early readers of an article but the older ones are found by people searching for information about my topics.
- Last year I predicted that VFO would deprecate both Window-Eyes and MAGic. I was right when they killed Window-Eyes but MAGic seems to still be hanging on. I'm assuming MAGic still communicates directly to JAWS and that the two probably work well as a pair. I'm going to again predict they deprecate MAGic as I'm willing to bet they've been working on ZoomText and JAWS compatibility pretty hard for the past year or so.
- I'm willing to predict that the accessibility on Amazon's tablets improves greatly this year and may even be good enough to give Apple a run for its money.
- The ADA trolling situation will continue to get worse and I can see the possibility of Attorney General Jeff Sessions getting involved on the anti-accessibility side of the debate, perhaps even fling a letter of interest in some cases supporting the defendant. Sessions is opposed to ADA, IDEA and probably other laws protecting our rights and has said, that such "give special rights to a specific class" meaning in brief that requiring a school district to get a screen reader for the blind kid is somehow exceptional and should not be required.
- I predict Microsoft releases at least one more very impressive accessibility oriented app based in some kind of artificial intelligence system.
Where Does All The Money Go?
One of the research projects on which I could use some help intends to add up all of the money contributed to blindness related non-profit organizations in 2016 (the most recent year for which we've 501)c)3 filing information), how much the organization spent that year and the total sum of dollars in their endowments. I would like to present this information in a tabular format showing which organizations have the most money in the bank. From my initial look into this information, I was surprised by the huge sums of dollars that are in the endowments of some of these organizations. I ask the question, "Why is all of this financial power sitting on the sidelines invested in everything from a stock portfolio to incredibly valuable real estate and not working for the people said non-profit organizations claim to represent?" I'm not a financial idiot, I understand that a non-profit does need to have a healthy endowment to ensure its future but, based in my limited research, the dollar value of these endowments are at a point in which I believe they are excessive. My first reaction is that these organizations are more interested in growing their endowments than they are in constituent services.
Putting the size of the endowments into perspective, it would have been easy for some of these organizations or a group thereof to have acquired Freedom Scientific outright and made sure JAWS and its other products were developed with user needs placed ahead of profits. The blind community or one or more of its proxy organizations could be calling the shots on both software and hardware but, instead, the money is invested in Manhattan real estate to help grow said money in the bank.
If I can get the research done, we'll publish a list of all US based 501)c)3 non-profit organizations claiming to do something for the community of people with vision impairment (there are more than 50 with LightHouse in their names alone) and rank them based on how much of their organizational wealth they spend on actual services for blind people and how much goes to pad their endowments. From what I already know, I am pretty sure you will be surprised by just how much money was donated by well meaning contributors to these organizations that does nothing more than make the organizations themselves wealthier. It seems to be a sad state of organizational ego seeming to be more important than services for the community.
When I first went to work for Henter-Joyce, I was told that there was an estimated 70% rate of unemployment among people with profound to total vision impairment; twenty years have passed since that day, technology products are far more accessible than they were two decades ago but the rate of unemployment among working aged blind people remains at 70%. Ted henter and the rest of our crew honestly believed that if we could make the accessibility good, the jobs would follow; apparently we were very wrong.
I've been looking at the employment issue in our community for the past two decades and, frankly, find it to be the most perplexing collection of problems I've ever tried to comprehend. Intellectually, I started this journey sitting on Ted's knee and worked to make JAWS and the other HJ/FS products as good as possible but it turns out the technology wasn't the solution to the issue in seven out of ten cases. I then looked at education and, while there are massive problems educating blind people, I also found quite a few who worked really hard to get a degree from a top university who are, for all intents and purposes, unemployable today. We thought that bad over protective parenting could be the problem but we've found some blind people whose parents did everything the "right" way who never found their way into an employment situation and others with overbearing parents who turned out to be successful as adults.
In brief, we do not know much about why we cannot move the employment numbers at all. Worse, I think we leaders, thinkers and others in this field know a lot about the 30% who do work but we have little to no contact with most of the 70% who live on government benefits. I propose that someone with a background in a social science embark on a massive research effort to first learn as much as we can about the 70%, determine what they would need to obtain gainful employment, formulate a long term strategy and implement a strategy to reduce this deplorable level of people outside the work force. I do not understand why Braille Monitor and other publications in this space spend so little time discussing the employment problem, proposing ideas for how to tackle the problem and working towards the goal of full employment for our community. If NFB and these other organizations truly value independence, they should recognize that economic independence is often the most important part of an independent lifestyle.
The Call Center Gambit
Continuing on the theme of employment, I felt I should mention a situation where good intentions led to a very bad outcome. Years ago while I was still VP/Software Engineering at Freedom Scientific, we recognized that one part of the employment issue related to blind people is that few entry level jobs are compatible with blindness. A blind person cannot stuck shelves at Wal-Mart, they can't take orders at McDonald's, they can't dig ditches. Blind people can use computers and answer telephones and we, along with a number of others in the blindness biz, bet heavily on call centers being the entry level jobs for blind people. Two big companies (Home Shopping Network (HSN) and MCI/Worldcom) published articles showing how their blind employees outperformed their sighted colleagues in these jobs and it appeared that this was an obvious path to follow.
But, We didn't count on the outsourcing and automation of call center work. Years ago, we worked directly with huge call centers making sure blind people could use their software and do their jobs. Then, the call centers went to India and other places where people speak English reasonably well but cost profoundly less than even a blink in the US at the same time as voice recognition and automated bots were able to handle a lot of call center work with no humans involved at all. Some call centers remain in the US but most of these are either phone sex or outbound hot house scam artists. I knew a blind gal who did the phone sex thing at a center in Tampa but I've yet to meet one workin with the con artists selling bogus insurance to old people.
Equalizing The Meaning Of Oppression
When the United Nations launched its convention on human rights and dignity for people with disabilities, they did so with the statement, "People with disabilities are the single largest and most oppressed minority on Earth." I repeated this quote many times but recently have been rethinking the value of ranking one group's feelings of oppression with another. Oppression is oppression whether it's a toddler in Africa sent home to die from retinoblastoma rather than growing up with the shame of blindness or it's an young unarmed African American male shot with fifty bullets for taking a cell phone out of his pocket.
There are some unique characteristics that we as people with disabilities have as a minority that other minorities do not: we're oppressed not just by the powerful but by other minority groups as well, we intersect with the powerful as well as every other minority and, in the US, we've fewer constitutional protections than do those without disabilities. But, all minorities have their own unique characteristics and, in my opinion, we'll never move the ball forward on minority rights, let alone disability rights until we set aside the unique features of the different groups and work toward a common goal of an equitable society that welcomes all based on the content of the character.
I guess I'm trying to state that saying that one group is more or less oppressed, that one group has suffered more or needs more protection than do other minorities, all we succeed in doing is helping the powerful divide and conquer a diverse set of groups by refusing to work in coalition due to our perceived exceptionalism.
There isn't much one can conclude from an article like this. I suppose I can say that the biggest take away I have from the past couple of years is that we don't understand our own community nearly as well as we may have thought, that many of the non-profit groups representing blind people seem to place their institutional ego ahead of their constituents and that we, as a community, need to seize the day and take more control of our own futures.