Recently, I wrote an article called “Job Access With Bugs?,” in which I explore some of the generally accepted notions around access technology for PWVI. That article came as part of my ongoing attempt to record the history of the screen reader in the years following 1998, when I joined Henter-Joyce as Director of Software Engineering. These articles have been popular with our readers and I’m happy that some of our history is preserved in them even if my work tends to be loaded with opinion, conjecture and is based largely in anecdote rather than serious historical inquiry.
In these articles, I try to include a link to every proper noun when it first appears in the pieces and I try to include links to concepts that may be unfamiliar to our readers. when doing so, as I wrote in the conclusion of “Job Access,” I try to find links to objective materials, mostly Wikipedia, rather than personal blogs or marketing oriented company web sites. While writing “Job Access,” however, I realized that little of our history, the history of technology for PWVI, has been recorded in the public record.
This piece intends to encourage people to write and edit Wikipedia pages about the technology we use and have been using for a few decades now, it proposes an idea for gathering an oral history describing our use cases and how such technology has effected our lives over the years and, lastly, about a computer museum interested in curating a collection of AT hardware.
The Blazie Engineering Braille ’N Speak
Arguably, the Braille ’N Speak (BNS) from Blazie Engineering may be the single most important bit of access technology for PWVI in history. I know literally hundreds of blind people for whom the BNS was their first piece of access technology who, using this once remarkable device, were able to attend school, go to university and perform a lot of professional functions using their BNS. I also know dozens of blind software professionals who got their start programming by first learning BNS Basic. This device is certainly an important part of our history but it has no Wikipedia entry nor is there an entry for Dean Blazie, the inventor of the BNS or for Blazie Engineering, the very important AT company that built the product.
In my mind, this should be the first item corrected on Wikipedia. Someone who knows a lot more about the BNS than I do (I never owned or used one myself) should write up an article about it. It would also be important to add entries for Dean the man (again, he’s someone I’ve met a few times so someone with a greater level of familiarity with Dean should write such) and for Blazie Engineering, a very important manufacturer of braille devices as well.
Henter-Joyce, GW Micro and Window-Eyes
While JAWS and Ted Henter have token Wikipedia articles about them (something that we really must improve and something I might edit myself), companies important to our history, Henter-Joyce and GW Micro do not. Window-Eyes, for many years the second most popular screen reader and the first to embrace an API based strategy for gathering data, regrettably also have no Wikipedia entries. Doug Geoffray, the most visible member of the GW Micro team, is also without a Wikipedia entry.
I can probably write an article about Henter-Joyce as I can call Ted to get the story right, but someone other than me would need to write up articles about GW Micro, Window-Eyes, Doug Geoffray and the others there who helped invent our future.
Less Prominent Technology
I know a real lot about a few things but virtually nothing about many of the other technologies that PWVI have used over the years. My own braille skills are horrible so I’ve never actually used a braille display nor have I done much with a braille keyboard. While I had managed MAGic and WYNN (a product for users with learning disabilities), I’ve never used them myself and, beyond the theoretical side of this sort of technology, I can’t really speak to such.
It’s important that our history is preserved so, please, if you’re so inclined, make yourself a Wikipedia account and start documenting our history.
An AT Oral History
If our readers think it’s a good idea, I will set up a wiki on this site where PWVI can write up their stories about how they use access technology and how it has effected their lives. Here, in an informal way, individuals can tell the stories that I hear daily from people orally. That an individual got themselves a copy of JAWS, spent time learning it and was able to use these skills to advance their career, further their education or do something else productive with such is a major part of our history that remains unrecorded. An “accessibility stories” collection would provide a single place on the Internet where these stories could be collected and made available to others.
Personal stories are a major aspect of history and, if we launch such a wiki, we’d have a place where such stories could be found, studied and organized in a manner that doesn’t exist today. Of course, such a wiki would be useless if no one is willing to write stories for it. So, if you think this is a good idea and are willing to post at least one story about how you’ve used AT, please tell me so and, if I hear from enough people, I’ll add the functionality to this web site.
What About the Hardware?
While the BNS may be the most important piece of hardware this community has ever enjoyed using, it is certainly not the only one with great importance. At the same time, as far as my research could tell, the only museum on Earth that has a BNS in its collection is the Smithsonian where, along with JAWS for Windows 3.20, it is the only piece of access technology in the collection.
Recently, I attended the HopeX conference in New York City. There, I had the opportunity to have a meeting with a bunch of guys involved with a vintage computer museum. I’m currently in negotiations with them about their launching an access technology area in their collection. To this end, if you have old access technology hardware around that you would like to donate to the museum, please connect with me through the contact form on this site and we can make arrangements to have your old hardware shipped to their museum. I will be writing up stories about each device and will, of course, require your input to ensure the accuracy of them so people visiting the museum will have something that they can understand about why the device was important to our community when it was current.
I personally feel that it is a tragedy that our history has not been properly preserved. Our heroes, people like Ted Henter, Dean Blazie, Glenn Gordon and others are simply not remembered online the way that those who had made far less important mainstream technology are. The devices that our community used to get our education, to work in industry and elsewhere are not remembered either. Adding and improving Wikipedia entries is easy and, if you have old hardware, I seem to have found a home for it as well. I’d like having the oral history wiki as well but I’m uncertain that we’ll get enough volunteers writing up their stories to make it worthwhile.
So, please help our community preserve its history. We’re at an interesting time when we can write our own history and, in my opinion, we really should be doing so.
David Goldfield says
I am way overdue in contacting you, as I have enjoyed your many blog posts regarding not only the access technology field but your contributions to it, for which I would like to thank you. I support your idea in setting up an a.t. wiki and would be both happy and honored to contribute to it. I was particularly pleased to have read your last post, as I had the privilege of working for Blazie Engineering for seven years in the 1990’s and was a Braille ‘n Speak user since February of 1989, just around a year and a half after its launch. While I can’t take credit for its overall development, I had a small hand or at least a few tiny fingerprints in its updates over the years and it was an exciting time in my life. My time is a bit limited but, when I can, I’ll see what I can do about those Wikipedia entries. thanks for all of your service to this industry.
Chris Brannon says
I got my first BNS in 1992, but I didn’t get my first PC until late 1997.
I have plenty of BNS anecdotes,
not all of which are necessarily appropriate for so-called general audiences.
It was amazing how much you could do with them, especially when combined
with an external floppy drive and a Hayes-compatible serial modem.
I suspect that someone could probably write a fairly lengthy book based
on oral history from BNS users.
Anyway, I’m definitely willing to share the story of my BNS adventures with
anyone who wants it.
Maybe I should just go ahead and post it to my own blog.
I, too, have noticed the lack of historical info about assistive tech
on the net, and it’s sad to watch so much of this stuff slide down the
memory hole due to purely unintentional forgetfulness.
A great example is TextTalker.
The first piece of assistive tech I ever used was an Apple II
with TextTalker and the SlotBuster synthesizer. This was when I was in
grade school, back in the late 80s and erly 90s.
This stuff was truely revolutionary, and I know there are plenty of great
stories of Apple II use by the blind floating around. But again, most
of it is probably oral history, at risk of being forgotten.
Graham Pearce says
A friend referred me to this blog post. I’m a Wikipedia administrator; my user page on that site is linked from my name in this comment. I’ve added a bit of information about blindness technology to Wikipedia, but a major reason why I haven’t done much work in this area is Wikipedia’s sourcing policies. It’s not enough to know a lot about a topic to be able to write about it on Wikipedia; all statements on the site must be referenced to published reliable sources, with a strong emphasis on independent secondary sources (e.g. magazines/journals written by people not affiliated with the product under discussion, mainstream newspapers/magazines with a reputation for fact-checking). Such sources are also required to assert notability on Wikipedia. When I’ve searched for such sources for Wikipedia articles about blindness technology (admittedly not exhaustively), I’ve had great trouble finding them.
An oral history repository about blindness technology is a great idea. It could also accommodate differing perspectives. For example, as far as I know, in Australia (where I live), the BNS series of note-takers was almost unheard of; the Eureka A4 (made by Robotron) and the Keynote series of note-takers (made by PulseData, now HumanWare) were far more popular.
Another source I’ve found useful for older technology data is the Wayback Machine (web.archive.org), which cotains archived versions of websites from 1996 onwards; the older copies of some technology vendors’ websites are very interesting.
I am also strongly in favor of something like that. I do indeed fondly remember Textalker, that thing was great. Somehow I remember Slotbuster too, which perhaps is a bit odd because I never actually used it. At least not that I can recall. David, I remember hearing you on the Blazie Engineering training tapes. I had both a BNS and a TNS, and enjoyed them both. I used every Windows-based screen reader except for Hal/Supernova. I only briefly used Thunder. Now I am happily using VoiceOver on a mid-2013 Mac Book Air, and for a brief period just after I got this computer I was using Chromevox. Oh and yes I did use JAWS for DOS and Vocal-Eyes. I hope to eventually run a copy of Windows on my Mac computer, either via Bootcamp or VMWare Fusion. I’ve read good things about both, and I’m curious to try out Windows on here. Getting back to AT history though, I wonder what happened with Chauncy Rucker’s project. I hope I have his name right. That was pretty cool. Patrick Perdue and Derek Lane’s website doesn’t seem to be around anymore either. But there are some good interviews archived on http://www.eyesonsuccess.net .
Josh Miele says
This discussion is really important. I’ve noted that Berkeley Systems and outspoken do appear to have stub articles on Wikipedia, and fleshing them out has long been one of the things I wanted to work on… It’s just a matter of finding the time. Great points, Chris — thanks for leading this discussion!
Hello. I’ve started an effort related to this discussion called A T History. It’s amazing to me the amount of assistive technology history that is just being thrown away. Since many of these devices sold in the hundreds, the likelihood of surviving versions becomes very low over time. In addition to the historical implications of archiving this information, many older braille displays and embossers are still quite serviceable but often lack usable documentation or drivers. These are often available secondhand for hundreds of dollars or much less or given away for free and could be a means of access for those who would otherwise be unable to afford technology. As for sources, this may be achievable for at least some of the more mainstream items. Google News has an archive news search which does bring up a potential goldmine of information. Unfortunately, I have not found a way to access the text of the scanned newspaper pages this service includes. This would be especially useful for technology pre-computing where little to no surviving versions or documentation exist. There’s lots of potential in these areas and I look forward to digging up as much cool stuff as we can find on the history of AT.