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My Convention Round-Up

Editor's Note: There were over one hundred separate meetings at the NFB National Convention in New Orleans. Peg Mercer, a member of the Lower Mainland Chapter, attended the convention and wrote the following report. She combines clear and accurate reporting with honest introspection.

I wish to thank the National Federation of the Blind: Advocates for Equality for providing me funding assistance to attend the 1997 annual convention of the US National Federation of the Blind in New Orleans.

In this letter, I will first mention a few of the subject areas dealt with during the conference that I found of particular interest. I will then finish by discussing some general feelings I have as a result of attending the convention--the first NFB Convention I have attended.

The Impact of Telecommunications and Electronic Devices on Daily Lives of Blind People

It was interesting to note that while on one hand communication and information access for blind persons is greatly enhanced with the Internet, on the other hand the evolution of many high-tech devices with visual displays such as household appliances, ATM machines, and video phones, impede a blind person's facility to operate equipment and appliances used everyday stoves, radios, TV's etc. I was glad to hear the resolution passed at this year's convention on July 5, stating the Federation's commitment to work with manufacturers of household appliances and other electronic devices in order to ensure that the manufacturers take into account the needs of blind persons when designing their equipment.

It was reassuring to learn that there is a Telecommunications Act in the United States stipulating that all telecommunication equipment be accessible to blind persons. Following on the positive note, I was glad to hear that there is a Web-wide Consortium working on establishing accessible web sites for blind persons.

It was encouraging to hear about some of the future developments which will improve blind persons' access to appliances and equipment-- talking signs, thin client camera device for reading signs, and a read-out device for visual panels.

Further along the lines of future technological developments for enhancing access was an item mentioned at the Blind Secretaries meeting I attended. This is a device being developed in Lincoln, Nebraska, allowing a person to vote using a touch pad, equipped with speech and a headset.

Blind Secretaries Division Meeting:
June 29

Although I was not present during the whole meeting, I did hear a lot of the presentation by Nelson Reiser from the Colorado Centre. He mentioned that the Centre offers a comprehensive course in customer service. He pointed out that at a company called US-West, there are blind employees performing customer service work at comparable speeds to their sighted co-workers. Nelson explained that when using a computer to find information for customers over the phone, macros are used to enable quick screen navigation, such as [Alt F1] to move to the top left field of information. He said that in customer service work, oftentimes speech access is faster than Braille.

Products from Blazie Engineering

Some of the new developments of Blazie Engineering products which Deane Blazie mentioned in his July 4 presentation are:

  1. The Braille & Speak #2000 which has the time for the year 2000 fixed in the software. It also has a new calculator.

  2. The BrailleLite (the unit which has the speech output and Braille display) now has the capability to translate text files so they can be read in Grade II Braille. The BrailleLite can also be used as an output device for a PC in Windows which is running JAWS for Windows.

  3. A project is being developed to have encrypted books on disks that can be read on a BrailleLite in Grade II Braille.

  4. Blazie Engineering is working toward possibly resuming production and development of the Optacon. (I enthusiastically applauded and cheered when I heard this piece of news. I hope that they will be successful with this endeavour).

I attended a presentation on Blazie products with the Internet. The Braille'n Speak 2000 and both models of BrailleLite can be used to access the Internet. (The older Classic Braille'nSpeak could be used, but can perform very limited Internet functions.)

An external modem is used; it must be one that is not designed specifically for Windows '95. Telecommunication software used with the units can either be the Blazie products BrailleTerm or V-Term. BrailleTerm has more features than V-term, such as sending and receiving files with messages. To access the Internet with the Blazie products, one must connect to a provider who provides a UNIX shell account, which is text-based. Through this shell account, one accesses e-mail programs and web browsers on the Internet provider's host computer.

The Cost of Braille

As Geoffrey Bull stated, the actual cost of Braille production has been steadily decreasing over recent years. The most recent method for gathering data for Braille translation is data capturing. Despite the decreased cost of producing Braille, increased Braille production has not resulted because funding sources have not kept pace with inflation. It is interesting to note that for refreshable Braille displays, each cell costs about $100 (US) to manufacture.

The Blind in the World

It was encouraging to hear of other centres and educational facilities in the world that provide rehabilitation and have a philosophy similar to the NFB of ensuring that needs of the blind are met in society--stating that the blind need to help themselves. Speakers from three international organizations made presentations--Italy's Italian Blind Union, New Zealand's Royal Federation of the Blind, and Germany's German Federation of the Blind.

Living by the Numbers - Susan Spungin

Susan Spungin is one of the top administrators at the American Foundation for the Blind, a large agency headquartered in New York City. She said that there is a discrepancy in defining blindness populations. When people have other disabilities as well as blindness, the blindness is not counted. The population figure of blind persons is therefore falsely deflated and it is truly hindering social security and funding programs for the blind overall. Those people whose blindness is not being accounted for due to the presence of other more profound disabilities could be denied very necessary services to help them develop skills to deal with their blindness.

The Blind Executive/Owner

Carla McQuillan's presentation of her work at the Montessori School was very encouraging in terms of the feasibility of a blind person successfully establishing and administering a child care centre and school. It was very heart warming to hear that the NFB provided solid support to Carla in the form of a loan in order for her to start the school. (Her request to Oregon State for a loan had been refused because state loan officials believed that due to her blindness she could not succeed in establishing this school)

Food for Thought

Visual impairment did not stand in the way of Ms. Mattioli in her quest to train and work as a clinical dietitian. It was enlightening to hear that because she did not feel that blindness was an issue against her application for training, she thus omitted mention of her blindness on the application form.

The scope of her work as a clinical dietitian at the 250-bed hospital in Baltimore is extensive. She is responsible for 60 to 75 patients. She gathers information about patients who are at nutrition risk; implements dietetic strategies; teaches nutrition, and performs other various tasks. It was encouraging to hear how she maintained a positive attitude during the course of her training, and continues to foster a confident manner which allows her to remain comfortable with the range of her job and to gain pleasure from her work.

Overall Comments on Attending the NFB Annual Convention

I thoroughly enjoyed the convention and found it to be a very worthwhile experience. Two primary elements struck me as particularly valuable.

First, it was terrific to operate in an environment where I was not a minority. I, like all the other blind attendees at the convention, was one of many--an overwhelming majority! Although we want to feel that we can always function in a peer-to-peer manner with blind and sighted persons alike, there is always a degree of separation when sharing the space with a group as a minority component. At the convention it was very refreshing therefore, to always be part of either a large or small group where we share a common identity. During the course of finding our way, either one by one or in clusters to various spots, I found it pleasurable and positive to offer or receive assistance to or from another fellow blind person.

The second element I experienced during the convention and since then is that it's "okay to be blind". I admit that due to frustrations I have experienced because of some limitations from blindness, I have felt from time to time that blindness is somewhat of a curse . I have not always had an accepting attitude. This is true when I have made a mistake in orientation, for example, when I get caught up in believing that the mistake would happen only to someone who cannot see the surroundings to keep on the right track. Another instance where unacceptance of blindness also rises in me is when I'm working in the Windows environment on the computer and the speech access becomes unstable.

Since the convention however, I am finding it somewhat easier to accept blindness more calmly, keeping in mind that I'm not the only one out there who must live with it everyday. So far, I have noticed this change of feeling mainly when traveling, shopping, or doing other day-to-day chores. I believe that if I focus on this attitude of positive acceptance, realized from the convention, when interacting with the speech access in Windows, it should become easier for me to deal with the situation more objectively. In other words, consistently exercising this positive attitude toward blindness should enable me to separate the actuality of the task at hand with all its glitches from the presence of my blindness. This total acceptance in more extreme situations of frustration may take some time to fully achieve. The length of time I take to reach ultimate acceptance of blindness is not the crucial matter I am bringing forward here. What is most vital in my discussion is that since the convention, where I was exposed to a strong positive spirit amongst the people there, I feel that blindness is easier to accept on the whole. In turn, the impact of obstacles resulting from blindness can be reduced.

In conclusion, I would like to say that the National Federation's convention was a wonderful experience. I know that with our recent Canadian convention, and on an ongoing basis during the years, that our NFB:AE can project and spread the same spirit of acceptance of blindness to anyone who comes in contact with the organization.

I look forward to attending future conventions in the United States, and I was very glad to be an active participant in our first NFB:AE Convention in Canada.

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