SOARING EXPECTATIONS

Lawrence Scadden

 

A few weeks before I graduated from the University of Redlands in southern California, I was up late at night typing a term paper that was due the next afternoon. Typing was not a problem for me; I had been typing since I was nine years old. Typing on a standard typewriter was the only means available to a blind person to prepare printed material for sighted people. I was an excellent typist but still needed sighted assistants to proofread my documents looking for the occasional typo and the frequently misspelled word.

 

When typing, I would monitor the position of the page in the typewriter to ensure that an appropriate margin was left at the bottom of the page. At some time well past midnight, I reached up to find that I had rolled the page completely out of the typewriter. The question was, when! Options were few.  I could awaken a disgruntled roommate and ask him to see what was the last thing typed on the page, or I could wander the dormitory halls listening for sounds that would indicate that semi-conscious help lay beyond a closed door. Or I could just give it up for the night and ask someone for help in the morning. I did give into fatigue and slept. In the morning, I obtained the answer and finished the paper in time. Still it was a frustrating experience. Blindness, like other disabilities,  frequently produces unwanted dependence on others.

 

That typewriter incident came to mind years later in 1983 while I was traveling in India as a member of a delegation invited to help develop a rehabilitation program for rural India. Nearing the end of our stay, my colleagues asked me to take the first cut at drafting our report primarily because I was judged to be the best typist in the group. While the others visited the sites of Delhi, I sat alone in a hotel room with a typewriter borrowed from the U.S. embassy. No, I didn't type off the bottom of a page, but I did type 11 pages without a functioning ribbon. It could have been more, but colleagues came in to ask how the draft was coming. When I handed it to them for review, they found it very short on content.

 

My immediate response to the discovery that my pages were blank was quick and loud as I shouted, "Where is my computer when I need it!" At home I had entered the computer age. Using a personal computer, then only an Apple II+, equipped with a speech synthesizer and specially developed word processing software, I had attained full independence in document preparation. I had the ability to proofread, check for errors, edit, format, and print without sighted assistance. What a change in a very short time! Soon other people were exchanging disks providing me independent access to their written work. Technology had changed, and my life had been changed forever!

 

In 1960, about the time I was completing my undergraduate degree, John Dupress, a blind engineer at M.I.T., opened the institution's Sensory Aids Development and Evaluation Center. In his introductory remarks, Mr. Dupress said that 100 years before, blind people had braille and canes. One-hundred years later, blind people still only had braille and canes. Nine years later in my first major professional presentation on technology and disability, I quoted that line even though it was a hyperbole in 1960 and more so in 1969. I continued by saying that blind people may have little more than braille and canes, but soon they will. We all knew that many exciting products were about to enter the marketplace, but I would never have imagined how much would change in the next 30 years.

 

The proliferation of optical character recognition systems connected to speech synthesizers has brought me the ability to read almost any printed material independently. The growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web has resulted in my ability to communicate independently in text with people all over the world just as it has for you and for millions of other sighted and blind people.

 

The ability to conduct research on line has provided me a new found independence. Although I still need to take a sighted reader with me to libraries for research, even this seems to be something that will fade into history as an unneeded dependence on others.

 

This increased independence has been threatened from time to time with the emergence of new technology and new approaches for information presentation, but we continue to enable accessibility to evolve almost as fast as the technology itself.

 

We have all witnessed similar technological advancements change the lives of people with other disabilities. I know that most of you are familiar with these technologies, but I will review some of them to show how far we have come in a relatively short time frame.

 

People who were deaf could not use the telephone for nearly 100 years after it was developed by Alexander Graham Bell, and many say that Bell had been trying to develop a instrument to help deaf and hard of hearing people. It was not until the mid 1960's when two California men, Robert Weitbrecht and James Marsters, both who were deaf, adapted two old teletypewriters so they could communicate over a telephone line. Thirty-six years later, the technological descendants of those first teletypewriters for deaf people are everywhere. Legislation mandates that all Federal agencies be equipped with teletypewriters for deaf people (TTYs) to permit people who are deaf to interact with them. Other legislation mandates that telephone companies provide remote relay services so that people who are deaf can call a central number using their TTY and have a hearing person make a second call and act as interpreter between the two individuals.

 

In the early 1970's, the first closed-captioning of television programming was introduced. Today televisions produced for sale in the United States must have a decoder chip built in so that closed-captioned telecasts can be seen without needing to have special decoder equipment. Even more recent legislation and regulations require increased use of closed-captioning of programs directed to the general public.

 

People who are hard of hearing are no longer limited to analog amplification through standard hearing aids. Using infrared or radio frequency, assistive listening devices transmit audio from some source -- whether it be a human speaker, an orchestra, or the loudspeaker of a television or stereo. The user of the assistive listening device has a receiver that demodulates the signal and presents the desired audio directly to the person eliminating all the unwanted ambient sound that would otherwise be amplified by a standard hearing aid. These systems are marvelous for group participation; they are now commonly used in schools, churches, and other public facilities.

 

Today's advancements in digital hearing aids will bring some of the benefits of both analog hearing aids and assistive listening devices to people who are hard of hearing. They will have the capability of customizing the audio presentation to the desired hearing parameters of the specific user.

 

Cochlear implants, comprised of technology surgically placed in the inner ear, are providing thousands of people who were severely deaf access to audio. Most enjoy an enriched sensory world that now may include singing birds and ocean waves. Life as a pedestrian is made safer because ambient sounds of traffic can be heard along with the audio alerting signals provided by horns and sirens. Interpersonal communication is improved even if the implant only serves to augment lip reading, but many cochlear implant recipients now are able to conduct private vocal conversations on the telephone.

 

People who cannot speak now use augmentative communication devices providing them the opportunity to converse independently with other people. We have a long way to go to give these individuals the speed of communication they want and need. Still the progress has opened a new level of freedom and quality of life that did not exist for them just a few years ago.

 

Many of these same individuals share a frustration with people who have severe motor disabilities, namely the need for independent control over equipment in their environments. Often with single switches activated by any muscle that is under voluntary control, people with disabilities can use environmental control units that can operate virtually anything in their environments.

 

Transportation systems used by people with severe motor disabilities also have evolved dramatically over the years. tremendous advances have been made in the past three decades in the use of composite materials for producing light-weight chairs and scooters. A wide variety of motors and control systems give people even with the most severe motor disabilities the ability to move about freely. Fortunately, through advocacy and public policy, more and more environments can be traversed independently by these individuals.

 

We have seen marvelous improvements in technology that have brought increased independence, productivity, and a higher quality of life to millions of people with disabilities. Many factors have contributed to these gains. One of them is the role played by small companies and their dedicated corporate officers.

 

The involvement of private industry in the field of technology for people with disabilities has contributed greatly to the value of technology developed specifically for use by people with disabilities. A key reason why these companies have succeeded in producing valuable assistive technology is the active participation of people with disabilities in company activities. The increased direct participation of people with disabilities at all levels of developing, producing, and distributing specialized technology intended for this population is a common denominator in the success of both the technology and the companies. Earlier, for far too long, people without disabilities, and without input from the potential users, were deciding what we needed. But today, I cannot point to a commercially successful product developed specifically for people with disabilities that is being used by the targeted population that did not have direct involvement of users during the design of the product, its testing, its sales and support.

 

We, the people with disabilities, have come of age both as a market and a value in the work force. Of course, we recognize that far too many people with disabilities cannot afford to purchase their own products. With 70% of the people in the United States of working age who have disabilities being unemployed, we understand why more individuals cannot purchase the technology they need to improve their independence, productivity, and quality of life. Today, however, those who can afford the desired products are buying them on their own.

 

Fortunately there are some companies that produce and distribute products for the mass market that recognize that people with disabilities represent a viable market. An extremely important corporate practice is commonly found in these corporations: namely user-centered product design.

 

Designers of interactive technology must consider the needs of product users.  "universal design" is a term commonly used today to refer to a process whereby environments and products are designed with built-in flexibility so they are usable by as many people as possible, regardless of age and ability.  I prefer the concept of "user-centered design" wherein the designer considers the specific needs and desires of the potential users during the design process.  This can only be accomplished by watching and talking with the consumer population. 

 

Donald Norman, author of The Design of Everyday Things and The Invisible Computer, discussed in the latter book the successes and failures of the eccentric inventor Thomas Edison.  Despite his success in developing the first phonograph, Edison failed in producing a commercially successful unit.  Norman says that Edison's commercial failure was due to his personal conviction that he knew best what people would need and want.  But his competitors worked with potential consumers resulting in their commercial success. Norman concludes this discussion by stating that Edison "thought he knew better than his customers; he didn't provide them with what they wanted, he provided them with what he predetermined was best for them. This was a bad idea then, it's a bad idea now."

 

When a product,  whether it be a computer or microwave oven, is designed so that it can be used by a person who has a disability, you can guarantee that it will be easier and more convenient for everyone else to use.

 

            Many of us engaged in promoting the design of products that will be useful to all consumers refer to "electronic curb cuts" when we talk about building in product features that help everyone. Steve Jacobs of the NCR Corporation wrote,

 

            "Unusual things happen when products are designed to be accessible by people with disabilities. It wasn't long after sidewalks were redesigned to accommodate wheelchair users that the benefits of curb cuts began to be realized by everyone.  People pushing strollers, riding on skateboards, using roller-blades, riding bicycles and pushing shopping carts soon began to enjoy the benefits of curb cuts! These facts are a prime example of why sidewalks with curb cuts are simply better sidewalks. This same phenomenon occurs when developing telecommunications and computing products and services with accessibility in mind."

 

            Television manufacturers opposed building in the closed-captioning circuitry mandated by legislation in the early 1990's, but now they will tell you that This feature installed for deaf people wound up benefiting Tens of millions more consumers than originally intended.  Televisions with this circuitry are simply better than those without because captioning allow viewers to:

Watch programs in silence while someone is sleeping;

View programs in noisy environments like sports bars;

Watch favorite programs while talking on the telephone without appearing rude;

Understand foreign programming through the use of native language captions, and

Retrieve video content by searching for words or phrases contained in the captions stored in the multimedia databases to be included in the emerging digital libraries.

 

            Steve Jacobs of NCR also chronicled innovations, originally developed specifically to assist people with disabilities, that eventually resulted in benefiting everyone. Here are a few from his list:

 

1808: The first typewriter was built by Pellegrino Turri. He built it for his blind friend Countess Carolina Fantoni da Fivizzono wanting to help her write legibly.

 

1876: A patent for the telephone was issued to Alexander Graham Bell, one of the many devices he developed in support of his work with deaf people.

 

1934: The "Readphone," an invention which reproduced literature and music on long-playing discs was invented. It was first used by the American Foundation for the Blind and the Library of Congress to provide literature to blind people as talking books. Only later did the invention spark the recording of long-playing records for the general public.

 

1936: Since its earliest days, Bell Labs had been concerned with the properties and analysis of human speech to help people who were deaf learn to speak intelligibly. In 1936, H.W. Dudley, a Bell Labs scientist, introduced an artificial talking machine, the world's first electronic speech synthesizer.

 

1948: Bell Labs had active research aimed at improving hearing aids.  In the quest of developing more reliable, powerful, flexible, smaller, cheaper, cooler-running and less power-consuming hearing aids, Bell Labs scientists John Bardeen, William Shockley and Walter Brattain, invented the transistor earning them the 1956 Nobel Prize for physics. Sony was not convinced that a hearing aid was the best use for the transistor and acquired a license for the technology for $25,000.  Sony soon introduced the transistor radio.

 

1972: Vinton Cerf, generally considered to be the father of the Internet,  developed the host level protocols for the ARPANET. ARPANET was the first large-scale packet network. Cerf, hard of hearing since birth, married a woman who was deaf.  He communicated with his wife via text messaging.  According to Cerf, "I have spent, as you can imagine, a fair chunk of my time   trying to persuade people with hearing impairments to make use of electronic mail because I found it so powerful myself."  Had it not been for this experience Cerf may not have used text-messaging to the extent that he did and may not have integrated e-mail as part of the functionality of ARPANET, the precursor to Internet.

 

When products cannot be made usable by everyone "out-of-the-box," features must be included that permit attaching peripherals that provide enhanced usability for others.  For example, computer architecture and operating systems must have the electronic hooks to permit installation of specialized screen reading software for blind people and magnification software for partially sighted people; and external ports or connectors must be provided so that alternative keyboard emulators like speech recognition and eye-tracking technology can be attached. 

 

My career has given me the opportunity to travel around the world. The activity that continues to provide me with the highest level of personal satisfaction is the frequent opportunities to act as a role model and a mentor to young people who have disabilities. When speaking to groups of these young people, I try to let them know that they can achieve virtually any goal if they maintain high expectations for themselves, pursue education and training and have the assistance from appropriate technology. The importance of high expectations for oneself is illustrated well by examining the lives of others. Here are some true examples of people who held high expectations for themselves in the face of negative comments from others:

 

Albert Einstein did not speak until he was four years old and could not read until age nine. He was described by his schoolmaster as "Mentally slow, unsociable and adrift in his foolish dreams."

 

Thomas Edison's teachers advised his parents to keep him home from school, saying that he was, "Too stupid to learn anything."

 

            Charles Darwin, in his autobiography, wrote, "I was considered by all my masters and my father a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect."

 

            Beethoven had a rather awkward playing style and preferred to work at his own compositions rather than to play the classical artists of his day. Disapproving of his technique, Beethoven's teacher called him hopeless as a composer.

 

            As we all know, Socrates was written off as "An immoral corrupter of youth."

 

            Luisa Mae Alcott's family thought she was hardly educable and encouraged her to find work as a seamstress or house servant.

 

An expert once said of the great football coach, Vince Lombardi, "He possesses minimal football knowledge and lacks motivation."

 

            Richard Hooker's humorous war novel Mash was rejected by 21 publishers before it became a best seller, a movie, and long-running TV series.

 

The father of the sculptor Rodin said, "I have an idiot for a son." Described as the worst pupil in his school, Rodin failed three times to secure admittance to a school of art.

 

            Walt Disney was fired by a newspaper editor who complained that he was "lacking in creative ideas."

 

When F.W. Woolworth first sought work at a drygoods store, his employers said he did not have the intelligence to wait on customers.

 

            After Fred Astaire's first screen test, the memo from the testing director said, "Can't act! Slightly bald. Can dance a little."

 

            All of these individuals had in common the ability to disregard the low expectations held by others regarding their futures.  Rather, they maintained their goals and persisted in achieving their dreams. 

 

            People with disabilities confront the low expectations daily.  This accounts for the alarming fact that over 70% of people with disabilities in the U.S. of working age are unemployed. Continually encountering barriers to personal progress is more than discouraging; it can be dispiriting.

 

            I know from firsthand experience.  I spent 18 months unemployed after receiving my Master's degree, and I needed employment if I was to go on for my doctorate.  I know the pain that wracks the bodies and minds of unemployed workers, and I know the anguish that is felt by people with disabilities struggling to prove their worth by demonstrating their abilities.

 

It is not surprising that the low expectations of others often becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  It is very difficult for a person to hold onto their dreams in face of so many physical and psychological barriers. 

 

It is understandable; it is unfortunate, but it is unnecessary.

 

In my case, the lengthy period of unemployment was depressing, but beneath the external anger and bitterness, I did maintain my dreams, not much more than fantasies; but I didn't give up.  When I was finally invited to join the staff of the Smith-Kettlewell Institute, those fantasies were rapidly transformed into realities.

 

People with disabilities must be given the opportunity to experience success -- probably a small success at first, then another, and another.  A sequence of even small successes builds self-confidence and the respect and expectations of others.

 

So what is the formula for achieving these successes?  Tools, training, and opportunities to perform.

 

Personal expectations must always be high if people are to succeed in life.  This may be especially true for people with disabilities considering how often we face negative attitudes of others.  But we need the tools, the technology that allow us to perform at high levels.

 

Technology is used by everyone to improve performance -- increase speed, improve precision, reduce the amount of energy needed for a task -- in essence, increasing their abilities, or reducing their limitations. People with disabilities use technology in the same way, namely to increase our abilities, reducing our limitations.

 

My life experiences with technology are paralleled by the experiences of hundreds of thousands of other people with various disabilities. They too have experienced the empowerment provided by appropriate technology in every aspect of their lives -- education, employment, activities of daily living, and recreation. Our concern must be for the millions of people with disabilities who have not had the same opportunity to obtain and use the technology they need. We need to dedicate ourselves to designing not only the technology but also the public policies that will reduce the gulf between existing disabilities and the abilities empowered by technology.

 

I close most of my sessions with young people by telling them to,

 

"Come fly with me; let your expectations soar! With the motivation, training, and appropriate tools, your sky is the limit."

 

Then I tell their parents, teachers, and counselors to, "Come fly with them; let your expectations for them soar! Give them encouragement, the opportunities and the tools that will let them achieve their goals."

 

To you, I say,  "Come fly with us!" Let us develop the technology and the policies that will let the people around the world with disabilities become empowered through technology!