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Great Events Shape The Future

In late October, 1999, I flew to Baltimore, Maryland to attend two important meetings. Both were held at the NFB National Centre for the Blind. The first meeting was the fourth International Conference on Technology for the Blind. Participants included consumers, developers of adaptive technology for the blind and other interested observers. Over two days, we listened to some very inspiring speakers, including Dr. Raymond Kurzweil, Dr. Mark Maurer, Richard Ring, Curtis Chong, Judith Dixon and others. A company representative from the firm that has developed the technology to provide audible feedback in banking machines, and a representative of the American Publishers Association were also present. Topics for discussion and presentation included: digital and electronic books, audible banking machines, and non-visual access to everything from on-line services to appliances and so on.

Dr. Kurzweil's address was so futuristic as to lose us all after the first five minutes because his ideas were so innovative and far out. He believes that soon, the human brain will be outmatched by mini computers that we will all carry around in our clothes and on our bodies. Blindness will become less of a disability according to Dr. Kurzweil, and we will all have very small hand-held reading machines that will read books, street signs, etc. What a world that would be.

Dr. Kurzweil also demonstrated for us some software that he is developing that will do instantaneous translation between different languages using voice recognition. Dr. Kurzweil's keynote address certainly gave us all much food for thought.

Judith Dixon from the American National Library Service introduced Web Braille. Web Braille consists of electronic files containing the ASCII codes that represent Braille when sent to a Braille embosser. These files are available for download from the Library of Congress web site. Unfortunately, at this time, only Americans have access to the 2800 Braille books on-line because the copyright laws in the United States are still quite restrictive.

Canadian companies were well-represented at the conference. For example, blind Canadians have access to more audible banking machines than they do in the United States, and a Newfoundland company has been working on a portable electronic book reader. The overall theme of the rights of blind persons to have non-visual access to technology was always at the forefront of the discussion. I am positive that this topic will be a hot one in this new century.

The second meeting I attended was convened by the International Council On English Braille. The purpose of the meeting of delegates from seven English-speaking countries was to assess and review the evaluation of and the progress in the development of the Unified Braille Code. There was a lot of fascinating debate about whether or not to keep certain contractions in literary Braille as well as a final decision to abandon lower numbers in mathematics. Much work still needs to be done on chemical notation, and representation for the international phonetic alphabet along with decisions regarding sequencing, which is putting words like "for" and "the" together, and the elimination of some double letter contractions and the "to", "into" and "by" signs. Short form words are also being reviewed.

Another topic under discussion was the implementation of the capital sign in the United Kingdom. This has been done, but not without a lot of negative publicity and media attention. This just proves that blind people, like any others, resist change. It is hoped that the work on the Unified Braille Code will be completed by the year 2003.

I feel privileged that I was able to participate in meetings that will influence our future as blind persons. I believe that it is absolutely vital for blind consumers to be involved in situations that affect them closely, not only to raise awareness of common issues, but to influence various decision-makers. Although we all may not agree that changes to Braille are necessary, they may increase access to Braille for more blind people, and non-visual access to technology will continue to be of vital importance.

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