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25 Years After the ADA: Blind Still Missing from the Workforce

Struggles to achieve equality are never completely won.

Allegations of bias and the tragic stain of racist violence dominate headlines decades after the Civil Rights Act was signed. American women strive—still—for equal pay in the workplace. And even as LGBT Americans celebrate the U.S. Supreme Court’s affirmation of same-sex marriage, the response in some sectors of the country signals that their fight for acceptance is far from over.

The lesson, always, is that no law or court decision promising equality can deliver as intended without a sustained, collective effort to follow through on its protections.

At a moment when “equality” is very much on the minds of Americans, it’s fitting that we’ve arrived at the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

By any measure, the ADA stands as a watershed for the advancement of disabled persons into the mainstream of American life. Signed into law by President George H. W. Bush, the law expanded civil rights protections to a broad spectrum of Americans, from individuals with vision loss to injured veterans to those living with HIV.

In addition to barring discrimination in employment, the ADA for the first time required that private employers provide “reasonable accommodations” for workers with disabilities. In addition, the law established accessibility requirements for public transportation, businesses that cater to the public, and even websites. As a result, we have more braille and large-print signage and better-designed retail websites, which have given us access to the mainstream.

One of the key goals of the law was to open doors to viable employment for people with disabilities. In doing so, it would encourage greater recognition of the disabled community as a talent resource. And that evolution in perception is critical, because true equality comes when individuals who have lost sight or hearing or mobility are nonetheless viewed as equally capable – by employers, by the larger community, by disabled people themselves.

Twenty-five years later, those of us who advocated for ADA are proud of the progress that’s been made. It’s headline news when a person with vision loss becomes a CEO or rises to public office. Those are high-profile victories and they are all too rare. But perhaps even more significant are the everyday jobs being done by data processors, administrative assistants, medical technicians, service industry workers, sales professionals, and teachers. Each day, the list of jobs that are considered beyond the capabilities of visually impaired people grows exponentially shorter.

Has the ADA made a difference? Absolutely. Today there more and more employers who are setting aside bias and negative assumptions and saying “yes” to a qualified applicants. Unfortunately, these successes make the pace of progress all the more frustrating.

Sadly, the workforce participation rate among people who are blind or visually impaired is only 36 percent, just half that of the general population.

In real terms, it means that the vast majority of working-age people who are visually impaired are still missing from the workforce. Without work, they cannot be independent. Without independence, social equality remains an abstraction — a goal forever out of reach — and our employers are deprived of our talents, skills, and valuable insights.

We can do better.

For starters, employers and human resources directors need more and better information about how employees with vision loss do their jobs. Recent surveys show that employers are critically underinformed about accommodations that can help their disabled employees to adapt and succeed. Many fear the financial cost and perceived inconvenience of accommodating visually impaired workers.

The American Foundation for the Blind works nationally to bring vision loss practitioners and researchers together with employers to share the latest developments in accessible technology. Modest workplace modifications, from improved lighting to computer software that “speaks” the content displayed on the screen, are often all that is needed to ensure productive employment for a person with vision loss. In most cases, the cost to employers is not prohibitive and adaptations can be implemented with few transition pains.

Yet with each step forward, the clearer one sees the great distance our nation needs to travel in order to achieve full compliance with the law and adequately accommodate the blind and visually impaired community.

It isn’t a question of whether we can do this. The technologies are here and advancing by the day. People with vision loss are eager for greater independence and the opportunity to contribute to their communities and the economic health of their country.

We can do it, but only if we have the will. On this 25th anniversary of ADA, our government, the private sector, vision loss professionals — all of us — must recommit to implementing its protections. We must if the U.S. is to meet its sworn obligations to people with visual impairments and to all Americans with disabilities. We too are entitled to equality.

Personal Reflections
Public Policy

Helen Keller: An Important Voice

Inside page from Helen Keller's passport

Image: Inside pages from Helen Keller's passport issued December 1950, including headshot of Keller wearing a hat.

This week on Inside the Helen Keller Digitization Project, University of California, Berkeley, English professor and author of Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller Georgina Kleege, describes her excitement at the prospect of gaining access to previously unavailable materials including transcripts of Keller's performances on the Vaudeville circuit, travel itineraries from her work around the globe and audio recordings of Keller's voice, newly digitized and embedded in Kleege's blog below. Read, listen and enjoy!

Recently, I asked my students to survey their friends to find out what they knew about Helen Keller. The majority of them had heard the name, and most knew that she was deaf-blind, or at least that she was blind. Many were familiar with some version of The Miracle Worker, and so knew the story of how she came to learn language from her teacher, Anne Sullivan. But few seem to know much about Keller's life as an adult, her career as a writer, lecturer, performer, and fundraiser for the AFB. And sadly, my students' survey revealed a good deal of misinformation; for example, several respondents thought that Helen Keller invented braille.

This is why I am so excited that the Helen Keller Archive is being digitized. It will give everyone easy access to materials that will convey the diverse range of activities and accomplishments over the course of her long life. In addition to her published writing and her vast private correspondence, the archive includes a wealth of other information that may surprise people today. For example, few people today remember that Keller performed in Vaudeville for a couple of seasons. The archive includes scripts of these performances where Keller and Sullivan described Keller's education and demonstrated how she communicated using the manual alphabet. The archive also includes some itineraries of some of Keller's national and international trips. These convey a sense of Keller's worldwide celebrity as well as her boundless energy. Many of her trips took her around the world, and she was in such demand that she frequently made multiple appearances in a single day.

The items that I am most excited to access from the archive are the audio recordings of Keller's voice. For example, there is a recording of Helen Keller reciting the Twenty-Third Psalm. Although finger-spelling was Keller's primary mode of communication, she did learn to speak orally. She felt it was an important way to reach a wider audience. She regretted that she did not receive speech training earlier in her life because she knew that her speech was not readily comprehensible. Audio recordings reveal that while Keller's enunciation is not always clear, she made the most of nonverbal elements—intonation and pitch—to make herself understandable. In my book Blind Rage, I recall hearing Helen Keller on the radio when I was a child. At the time, her atypical voice seemed at odds with what I knew about Keller from school, and I found it uncanny, even disturbing. Now, having researched Keller's life and written a book about her, I have a different understanding of her speech. As a blind person, people's voices are fundamental to my feelings about them. So it will be great to have this digital connection to someone I never met personally, but nevertheless played a big role in my life.

Helen Keller
Readers Want to Know

Helen Keller and Talking Books: A 'Priceless Boon'

Helen Keller and Robert Irwin: Helen is touching a phonograph and smiling

Image: Helen Keller with Robert Irwin, feeling the vibrations from the speaker of a Talking Book playback machine in the library of the American Foundation for the Blind, no date.

Welcome back to Inside the Helen Keller Digitization Project. Did you know that the American Foundation for the Blind was instrumental in creating the first Talking Book audio recordings? Mara Mills, Assistant Professor of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University has written this fascinating piece on the history of Talking Books and Helen Keller’s central role in the project. Enjoy!

In 1930, Helen Keller stood before a Congressional committee to support the Pratt-Smoot Act, which established the Library of Congress program for circulating Braille materials. The director of the American Foundation for the Blind, Robert Irwin, was already concocting a plan to publish a new form of aural literature—Talking Books—as an adjunct to braille. He remarked in his memoir, "I have always dreamed of books on phonograph records ever since my first hearing of a squeaky Edison cylinder." By 1932, he had launched a Talking Book research program at the AFB, which resulted in the development of a gramophone record with closely-spaced microgrooves that could play eighteen minutes per side—about the maximum length of time a narrator could continuously read aloud without error. By comparison, commercial audiobooks and musical LPs would not become available to mainstream audiences until after World War II.

Keller was initially skeptical about Talking Books, believing the cost of the machines and records to be prohibitive. The AFB sold record players for $30-40, and few individuals or charities could afford them. When Irwin asked her to raise funds for the program in 1933, she replied via telegram, "Talking books a luxury the blind can go without for the present. With ten million people out of work am unwilling to solicit money for phonographs." By 1934, however, after the Pratt-Smoot law had been amended to fund Talking Books, Keller began soliciting radio stars like Will Rogers to promote the new technology. More importantly, she met with President Roosevelt in 1935 to lobby for Talking Book manufacture to become a WPA (work relief) project, employing blind workers. WPA support eventually resulted in the production and free loan of over 20,000 machines to blind people in the U.S.

Talking Books were recorded at the AFB and the American Printing House in Kentucky, and distributed via the Library of Congress. In 1938, the AFB produced a Talking Book titled The Story of the American Foundation for the Blind, which described the recording process. "More than a mechanical development," the narrator explained, Talking Books were at once "the most recent form in which an author’s words are reproduced," and reminiscent of "the days of the Middle Ages" when monks treated each of their illuminated texts as an individual work of art. In those early years of the program, before synthetic speech and convenient tools for speed-listening, many Talking Books included incidental music, sound effects, or dramatic ensemble narration.

Click here to listen to a description of the Talking Books program from 1938

Transcript of narration (Digitized with the support of NSF Award #135429):

Woman's voice: I can see that a great deal of work has gone into this new medium for bringing books to the blind.

Man's voice (maybe that of Alexander Scourby): Yes. And the Talking Book is something more than a mechanical development. As the most recent form in which an author’s words are reproduced, it boasts what even the majority of modern ink-print books lack, the individuality of a work of art. We like to think that it harks back to the days of the Middle Ages when monks expended on each volume to be engrossed and illuminated that special care and artistry which it required. Today, in our studios when plans are made to read a book onto the discs the Talking Book department fuses its efforts to send it out as a fresh and stimulating adventure in recording. The best professional readers are employed with a view to each reader’s suitability to the book about to be recorded; the volumes are studied to ascertain if they require special treatment, such as the translating of foreign phrases and the spelling of unfamiliar names, and in some cases incidental music and appropriate sound effects are added to enhance the atmosphere. This is done particularly in the recording of dramatic works acted by complete casts of players so that listening to them one’s armchair becomes a seat in a Broadway theater.

In the case of novels, Irwin invited authors to give oral introductions to their own books, which were then usually narrated by trained transcribers. He felt "the blind listener could gain some hint of the author’s personality through the tones, inflections and even from vocal mannerisms." Often these introductions provided information about the author’s life or writing practice. As a preface to the Talking Book version of Buddenbrooks, Thomas Mann told his blind readers, "An epic is for the ear more than for the eye. In early times it was said and sung, it was listened to—and, as a matter of fact, this book too was listened to before it was looked at, when the young author read it aloud as he wrote it, to relatives and friends." Reviewing the Talking Book program in 1944, journalist Fraser Bond commented, "It isn’t often that blind people have the edge on their seeing neighbors. Here is one instance in which they undoubtedly have. Many seeing book-lovers have often wondered how the author of a certain volume would read his own passages. The blind men and women of America do not need to wonder; they know. For them many famous writing folk read their own books aloud."

Keller, however, remained ambivalent about Talking Books. She could not hear them, and her dedication to Braille was such that she famously read until her fingers bled. In her Journal, 1936-1937, she recalled visiting the Talking Book studio of the American Braille Press in Paris and making a recording of her own:

"A film was made, showing a talking book and a record of what we said. First Mr. Cromwell and Mr. Raverat spoke into the record of the priceless boon those books are to blind persons who have not the sensitive touch required to learn braille, then I said my word of greeting, and Polly repeated for me the paragraph I had written this morning. Afterwards we listened to the record, and I noted how smoothly it ran until a discordant vibration arrested my attention. On inquiry I found it was my own voice, which did not surprise me—my fingers are never pleased with it when it is recorded."

Despite her ambivalence, Keller helped usher the audiobook medium into being. Her commitment to diverse modes of communication—the manual alphabet, lipreading, braille reading, talking gloves, tactile vibrations, and more—remains instructive today. New technologies proliferate, but they are often inaccessible, and support the same old forms of communication.

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Arts and Leisure
Helen Keller

Helen Keller in Paris: Tourism, Nostalgia and Memory

Helen Keller and Polly Thomson in Paris, 1952. Keller is holding baguettes.

Image: Helen Keller holds baguettes and stands next to Polly Thomson, 1952

This week’s blog for Inside the Helen Keller Digitization Project is a wonderful piece by David Serlin, associate professor of communication and science studies at the University of California, San Diego. Enjoy!

One of my favorite objects in the Helen Keller Archives is this photograph of Keller and her secretary and companion Polly Thomson, taken in Paris in 1952. I discovered it, about five years ago, among a treasure trove of tiny snapshots of Keller and Thomson on holiday, probably taken by filmmaker Nancy Hamilton while she was collecting background material for her 1956 Oscar-winning Best Documentary Helen Keller in Her Story. As with most holiday snapshots, these photographs were never intended for publication or even perhaps for posterity. Yet the image, its undeniable charm notwithstanding, also reveals the extent of Keller's engagement with the ordinary world that often gets overlooked in more formal historical accounts of her extraordinary life.

In the photograph, Keller and Thomson are standing outside a bakery, while Keller poses with an armful of fresh baguettes. Keller has a particular expression on her face — a kind of inquisitive, contemplative engagement with the texture of the bread — while clutching the loaves close to her chest. Meanwhile, Thomson has her right hand on Keller's left arm, possibly to help guide Keller toward the nearby doorway. Keller is wearing a simple cotton dress and hat and her trademark pearl necklace. Similarly, Thomson is dressed to the nines, in a hat, pearls, and polka dot sundress with stripes along the bottom hem, with a wicker shopping basket crooked in her left arm.

The photograph documents the daily joy that Keller experienced as she made her way through the world, as mediated through her own senses as well as through the articulate hand of a companion like Thomson. But it also captures a rekindling of memories, since the pair had made a brief visit to Paris in January 1937 while en route to Japan. In her diary entries from 1937, Keller waxes rhapsodically about smelling wine and tobacco and perfume and feeling the fabrics of elegant dresses in boutiques along the Champs-Élysées. Similarly, the 1952 photo is part of an ensemble of images of Keller doing things that tourists in Paris have been seemingly doing forever: sitting in a café drinking coffee or wine, browsing in the book stalls along the Seine, visiting sites like the Eiffel Tower or Sacré-Cœur. In the window of the bakery, onto which one can see the word biscottes carved into the door frame, one can also see the slight reflection of the ubiquitous green-blue signs that not only indicate the street name but also the arrondissement, or neighborhood, in which the two are having their encounter.

Yet the Paris revealed in this photograph was a completely different Paris than the one Keller and Thomson had visited in 1937, when the City of Light was also a center of radical political unrest and cultural experimentation just before the outbreak of global war in 1939 and the Nazi occupation of France in 1940. In this sense, images like this one provide evidence not only of Keller’s personal journey but also the kind of objects that would have been associated with cosmopolitan Americans traveling abroad in the 1950s. The image of Keller buying baguettes in a typical Parisian mis-en-scene was snapped during the height of a particular kind of romance with Parisian street culture made famous by photographers like Robert Doisneau that circulated in newspapers and magazines after the war. A parked bicycle leaning jauntily on the sidewalk, a flower box visible from a second-story window, the inviting space of a market basket ready to be filled to the brim: all exist at the potent intersection of tourism, nostalgia, memory, and, in certain ways, a kind of suspension of reality in the fifteen years since Keller and Thomson made their last visit.

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Social Life and Recreation
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Getting Around
Helen Keller

Inside the Helen Keller Digitization Project - "I Never Knew That!"

Helen Keller surrounded by school children. Australia 1948

We are delighted to present the first of the many blog posts that will appear over the next two years as part of the Helen Keller Digitization Project. We are kicking off with a post by Kim E. Nielsen, professor of Disability Studies at the University of Toledo, and Helen Keller expert. Enjoy!

Every year my spring is marked by phone calls, emails, letters and Skype conversations about Helen Keller initiated by nervous middle- and high-school students. These participants in National History Day, an annual program in which over half a million students conduct historical research on topics of interest to them, chose Helen Keller. Over and over again, hundreds of young people choose Helen Keller.

When I ask them why they chose Helen Keller the students, nearly always wary of the Historical Expert their teacher required them to contact, explode with excitement. "I never knew..." their enthusiasms always begin. They begin their projects assuming that Helen Keller would be vaguely interesting (or an easy topic), but once they start learning about her life and activism they can't stop. They seek models of disabled people different from either the eternally cheerful overcomers or pathetic victims they see too often in popular culture. They seek models of disabled people who resisted ableism and lived full lives. They seek models of activism, passion, and a commitment to justice. And in their searches they find that Helen Keller was far more complicated, far more interesting, and far more human than they ever anticipated.

What follows "I never knew..." varies from student to student, depending on their own passions. Some are attracted to Keller’s feminism, her love of dogs, her fierce internationalism, her religious faith, her disgust at economic inequalities, and even her appreciation of food and scotch. What does not vary, however, is the belief of young students that Helen Keller matters—to them as individuals, to those who identify as disabled and those who don’t, and to the world as a whole.

This year, what followed "I never knew..." nearly always included a reference to this summer’s 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Though Keller died long before the 1990 passage of the ADA, students realize that Helen Keller, along with so many others, helped to lay the groundwork for this pivotal and important civil rights legislation. The nervous middle- and high-school students I speak with know that their lives and their futures have been made better by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

The Helen Keller Archival Collection at the American Foundation for the Blind is a great place to start learning what one never knew.

Image: Helen Keller surrounded by school children in Melbourne, Australia, 1948

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Helen Keller