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Convention From a "techie's" Viewpoint

Editor's Note: Ken Westlake serves as a Member of the Board of the NFB:AE. From this report, it is easy to see that he is passionate about computers. He has also demonstrated a deep and abiding commitment to making things better for blind Canadians. Whether he is talking technicalities with a vendor of the latest computer product, or ferreting out the cheapest place for a Federationist on a tight budget to buy breakfast, Ken does what he can to help. Here's what he had to say:

I attended the NFB Convention to accomplish more than one objective. I was asked by President Gabias to attend as a member of the National Board of the NFB:AE. I was also asked to do reconnaissance to find out what amenities were in the immediate area and to help with any problems that arose while the convention was in progress. I expected to learn from the reports and comments of our American brothers and sisters of things that we could do, and pointedly avoid, in working in the Canadian community of blind individuals. I also hoped to meet with many of the Canadians whom I have known only by name. Personally, I wanted to try and find out as much as I could about the current level of technology as it relates to the blind and our society.

In regards to President Gabias' request to gather information about the area around the Hotel, I arrived late Thursday night and did some hotel reconnaissance before going to bed. I spent most of Friday checking out the surrounding area and learning of NFB points of interest that I had missed inside the hotel Thursday night.

I am proud to say that Canada had more people registered at the Convention than 35 of the American states. We ranked fifteenth in total registration.

It would be impossible to describe all of the interesting Convention Programs. Three items stand out in my mind. A doctor reported on progress in kidney and pancreas transplants for people with diabetes.

Ted Henter, Chief Executive Officer of the company which created the JAWS speech program for computers, talked about his business and his philosophy of life. Ms. Collinsworth, an actress who re-established her career after becoming blind, described how a vicious attack upon her by a stranger, was the catalyst for the development of a self- defense training program. Ironically, the publicity surrounding the attack was the springboard for her return to professional acting. She had believed that blindness doomed her career. Other items come to mind, but I am trying to keep this report short.

I took advantage of chances for meeting with other Canadians, but everyone was so busy that there were not as many opportunities as I would have liked. Before going to the Convention, I took note of pre-Convention meetings listed in the Braille Monitor. This helped me plan my activities for the day before Convention registration began.

These meetings included a demonstration of Newsline for the Blind, where I gained a good idea of how it works and how it could be put into use in Canada. Newsline permits a blind person with a touch-tone phone to gain access to newspapers read by computerized synthesized speech. Using Newsline, blind people can read the paper wherever and whenever they please. Readers can skip backwards and forwards through articles, spell unfamiliar words, and skip from one section of the newspaper to another. Blind people have never had such independent access to newspapers before. I sincerely hope we can bring Newsline to Canada soon. There have been some changes to the Newsline-based stations, including the attachment of a "serial channel" that will now allow placement of local notes in addition to the newspaper.

I also sat in on Blazie, Mynah, and Internet introduction meetings before the actual start of the Convention. They were geared to an elementary level of computer sophistication, but I still learned valuable information for evaluating the Mynah and the Blazie's Braille Lite. The Internet meeting was unexpectedly geared to the very lowest level of computer users and by the time it got over simple explanations, there was no time left for any really interesting or new items.

By comparison, the report of the Committee on Technology Evaluation on Sunday was very interesting especially for a "techie" like me. It covered everything from Compuserve and current technology to the mention of a pure science project by a company called Sensible Technologies. This involves the application of a scientific phenomenon that uses reverse pressure. There is no applied science application at the moment, but the company is looking for commercial support. One possible use could be "virtual" maps. Theoretically, these "maps" could be built to know where you are, respond to your activity or even expand the map as needed for better understanding of detail. This is just a small part of what could be possible. For those interested in the technical details, the computer programming is written in an object-oriented programming language known as C++. Also, there were reports of screen readers available, or soon to be available for Windows NT and N-Windows (opening better doors to UNIX and VMS operating systems) as well as for Windows 95.

At the NFB in Computer Science meetings, there were interesting reports. Microsoft has finally come around to recognizing the need for blind people to access Windows. They have actually formed a division to deal with the problems of blind users of Microsoft products. As an indicator, Office 97 will have the new access when it is shipped this fall. There was a demonstration of JAWS for Windows and Compuserve, and much discussion probably too boring for anyone not a "techie" to want to hear about.

This is not an exhaustive report of my activities by any means. However, I hope that it will give some idea of what I accomplished at the Convention. If anyone wishes to talk with me, I have kept as many notes as I could from a very full week. Ken Westlake (250) 868-8118.

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