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Technology and Independence?

Editor's Note: Mitch Pomerantz is the President of the American Council of the Blind.

Recently, I was thinking about all of the tasks I perform as ACB president and how many of those tasks are done via computer and email. The catalyst for such thoughts was the failure of the primary ACB server and the resulting crash of our website. I then began musing over how ACB presidents prior to Paul Edwards handled their duties, particularly those which could be considered time-sensitive in nature: reviewing contracts, approving press releases, commenting quickly on governmental policy documents, to mention only three. Of course, we've conducted business on the telephone for as long as ACB has existed, but where printed material is involved, the phone is not a great option.

Next came the discussion on both Leadership and ACB-L of the announcement of the iBill, the low-cost electronic currency identifier. Would such a device help make blind and visually impaired people more independent? Does it further increase our dependence on technology? And would introduction of this device jeopardize ACB's efforts to get the Department of the Treasury to implement a non-technological solution to inaccessible currency? As a result, I've been engaging in an internal debate over whether the proliferation of such devices promotes or inhibits our independence.

Before going further, let me offer my disclaimer. Yes, I use a computer, but by no means do I consider myself a techie. Those who know me at all call me a dinosaur, a moniker which I grudgingly accept. My perspective is that I want the computer (or whatever the technology being utilized) to work when needed; I could care less how it functions. I don't want to be like those early operators of automobiles who not only had to know how to drive their horseless carriage, but also how to repair it when it broke down, something which occurred frequently. I neither have the time nor the inclination for that.

Having provided the foregoing as background, I'd like to explore whether the growing use of technology by blind and visually impaired people enhances our independence, or whether we are substituting one form of dependence for another. Clearly, widespread use of access technology has lessened--but certainly not totally eliminated--our need for sighted assistance to accomplish some tasks. Devices such as talking calculators, global positioning systems (GPS's) and microwaves allow us to do many more everyday tasks with minimal or no help from family members, friends, co-workers or strangers.

In the late 1970s, my employer purchased one of TSI's Speech-Plus talking calculators, which I used regularly to do the budget work that was a part of my job at the time. That device made it possible for me to perform what was an "essential function" of the job. Incidentally, several of my co-workers liked to borrow that calculator to do their own work as it meant they didn't need to keep glancing from the screen to the paper upon which they were writing. They simply listened and jotted figures.

Over the intervening decades, I've used a VersaBraille to draft reports and maintain records, and the omnipresent computer for reviewing and editing the work of my staff and communicating with employees in other departments. I am absolutely certain that I wouldn't have had the nearly 34-year career I recently concluded without access technology.

My reservations concerning our increasing dependence upon technology don't relate only to blind and visually impaired people, but to society as a whole. I can recall a number of occasions during the past several years at my former office when the city server went down and all our computers with it. What did I and my co-workers do during those two or three hours of non-connectivity? Absolutely nothing! We've all heard someone almost panic when discovering that their cell phone or PDA (personal digital assistant) wasn't with them. These days everyone must be connected at all times!

For blind and visually impaired people, more and more of us are going into serious debt in order to buy the latest and greatest access gadget. We feel compelled to keep up with the proverbial Joneses--in this instance, our friends who are snapping up accessible iPods, talking GPS units and cell phones that allow us to listen to music and browse the web, exactly like our sighted peers.

I question whether this rush to own ever-cooler technology is helping to make us truly independent. Can we do simple math without a calculator or spell a word correctly without spell-check? Can we get from point A to point B without relying upon something telling us where we are every block? Must we carry yet one more electronic gadget to identify our money? Have we traded one form of dependence for another? Personally, I believe that's just what we've done. And by the way, my misgivings apply to the broader society, not only to our relatively small community.

What I'm advocating here is that no matter how many talking devices we choose to buy, we must maintain those skills which technology is making easier for us to perform. Keep up your braille, O&M, math and spelling and old-fashioned daily living skills. Don't become too dependent on technology; after all, power fails, batteries die, and devices stop working. Remain or become as self-reliant as possible. Let's distinguish between necessity and convenience.

Reprinted from the Braille Forum, Volume XLVIII, No. 6, December 2009.