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If I Could Ask the Candidates: A Presidential Debate About Blindness and Visual Impairment

US flag with podiums in front, and the words Presidential Debate 2016

The upcoming presidential debates have me thinking about what I might ask the candidates if I were a debate moderator. It isn’t often that disability issues get front-and-center attention during a nationally televised event like a presidential debate, let alone issues specific to people who are blind or visually impaired.

But what if they did?

Would I use my opportunity to ask the candidates about their position on the payment of subminimum wages to people with disabilities? Would I ask them about the need to ensure that people with disabilities have an unequivocal and supported right to full integration into society? Or would I use my question time to urge them to promote the prompt ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities?

Maybe. While these hot topics in the disability community are getting a fair amount of attention, any number of critical issues are not. And so here are my top choices for the questions I would ask the candidates during the debates if I had the chance:

1. The Obama Administration promised the disability community that it would issue much clearer rules about how the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) applies to retailers and other businesses that operate exclusively online. The Obama Administration has not kept this promise. As president, would you commit to the issuance of federal regulations within the first six months of your presidency that would make it clear that online-only places of public accommodation cannot discriminate against people with disabilities?

2. Technology can be a tremendous liberator for people with disabilities, but it can also be a barrier to our full integration into society. What steps would your administration take to ensure that people with disabilities are able to make full use of technologies in the health care, consumer electronics, and employment contexts?

3. After more than 40 years, we still haven't done enough to ensure children with disabilities get an equal education. This challenge is particularly acute for children with sensory disabilities, such as vision or hearing loss, deafblindness, and who may have additional disabilities. Will you join the more than 100 major national, regional, and community-based organizations across America who are calling for the prompt enactment of the Cogswell-Macy Act, which would improve the quality of instruction, services, and resources for students who are visually impaired, deaf, or deafblind? What steps would your administration take to ensure that the U.S. Department of Education does right by children who are blind, visually impaired, deaf, hard of hearing, deafblind, or who may have additional disabilities?

4. As America ages, we know that the number of people experiencing age-related vision loss is expected to increase dramatically. However, state and federal governments are not investing in the kinds of services that would keep older people with vision loss from institutionalization simply because they are not provided with the support needed to live independently. Are you willing to commit, as part of the first budget you submit to Congress, to doubling funds for the Older Individuals Who Are Blind program, the only national program dedicated to meeting this need? And how might you make improvements to the program to reduce bureaucratic barriers that keep people from receiving services?

5. We spend so much money in this country on prevention of vision loss, and the American Foundation for the Blind has always been supportive of efforts to increase vision screenings. However, our nation’s fear of blindness has meant that we've focused on prevention to the detriment of assisting those who do live with vision loss to learn, work, and live independently. We need to send the message that vision loss does not have to mean the end of independence, productivity, or full participation in community life. What will you do as president to ensure funding for programs that assist those with vision loss is at least comparable to those dedicated to vision loss prevention and screening?

Surely, with three debates scheduled, and given how vision loss likely affects the lives of every family in America, debate moderators can ask at least one of these important questions. These questions, and the candidates' responses, could initiate a national debate, ultimately leading to positive changes in the lives of individuals who are blind or have vision loss.

What questions would you ask if you were a debate moderator?

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Voices Heard: Disability Policy Becomes Part of the Public Debate

Your Vote Matters - Election 2016 (superimposed over a US flag)

The growing organization and activism of the disability community is successfully getting the attention of candidates running for office. Today's disability policy speech by Hillary Clinton, as well as the media's interest in asking candidates questions about disability policy, represents a significant shift from how the issues we champion have been acknowledged in past presidential elections. In Illinois, a landmark Senate race is taking place between two candidates with physical disabilities. Where we once struggled to be recognized, we are now seeing disability policy being debated in public forums, as citizens and elected officials alike work to propose the best solutions for inclusion and accessibility.

We are becoming a political force that cannot be ignored. Your efforts have mattered. And they will continue to matter between now and election day. Next week, the American Foundation for the Blind will be launching a Research Navigator that looks at the impact people who are blind or visually impaired can have on the elections. And we will be proposing our own questions for the presidential debates. It’s not too late to get engaged.

AFB is encouraged by this important shift in attention to disability issues, which has been many years in the making. Help keep the conversation going! What questions do you hope to hear in the upcoming debates?

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Public Policy

Beyond Recognition: What Machines Don't Read

Helen Keller reading braille, October 1965

Helen Keller reading braille at her home in Westport, Connecticut. October 1965.

I am delighted that the fifth in our series of posts focusing on the Helen Keller Digitization Project is from Mara Mills New York University Associate Professor of Media, Culture and Communication. Mara’s post - on the continued importance of human transcribers - is fascinating and I encourage everyone to read it. Many thanks Mara!

On Helen Keller’s birthday this year, archivist Helen Selsdon wrote a piece for the AFB blog about the work of three volunteers who have transcribed, text corrected, or described well over 6,000 items from the Helen Keller Archival Collection. Keller’s manuscripts are currently being digitized thanks to a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. But why do we still need human transcribers? Can’t machines read? Why not just use Optical Character Recognition (OCR)?

After a scanner turns a document into a page image, OCR software recognizes letter shapes to generate a corresponding text file. This text file is then searchable, amenable to database queries, and compatible with the text-to-speech (TTS) software used by many blind readers. But the machine recognition process is often inaccurate. Certain kinds of documents, including most historical manuscripts, trip up OCR. Examples include:

  • Faint, blurry, smeared, wrinkled, or otherwise damaged documents
  • Very small or very large text
  • Handwritten documents
  • Languages that include "special characters"
  • Mathematical or map symbols and other graphic elements
  • Nonlinear or misaligned text
  • Text on curved surfaces, such as cans and pill bottles (a particular concern for blind readers using handheld TTS devices)

Harvey Lauer, a former technology transfer specialist at the Hines VA Hospital, commented on the glitches of text-to-speech for blind readers like himself in 1994: "When you use a current OCR machine to scan a page with a complex format, the data is frequently rearranged to the point where it’s unusable. Such items as titles, captions and dollar amounts are frequently scrambled together. It makes me feel as if I am eating food that someone else has first chewed." Twenty years later, complex formatting continues to pose problems for TTS—a particular historical irony when one considers that OCR was originally developed to provide blind readers access to print.

Nor does OCR software work for all languages. ABBYY FineReader, for instance, encompasses 190 languages, but only provides dictionary support for 48. Moreover the speed and accuracy of recognition tends to be slower for Asian languages. Historian of computing Dongoh Park roots these inequalities in information technologies that were initially designed by or for English speakers, resulting in a durable script imperialism. "The English language has long served as the lingua franca of computing and computer mediated communication. Many of the core applications and standards of digital computing, including programming languages, operating systems, and applications, have been developed, documented, and serviced in English." Historical languages and manuscripts are similarly refractory to machine reading. Hannah Alpert-Abrams, a scholar who works with Mexican colonial documents, explains that OCR routinely fails with pages that contain multiple languages and obsolete or non-standard spelling or characters.

Less widely known is the fact that braille documents also thwart machine reading. Optical braille recognition technology is still very much a work in progress, made difficult by the lack of contrast on most braille pages. In the online Helen Keller Archival Collection, a braille letter from 1948 yields the following misrecognized text:

f '¦ ¦" "'.¦ '¦' si' ¦. : ' ¦ 'v'..:.; ¦ i ..¦ ' ¦ ; ". : N II


Most other items written in braille produce no output at all.

Human transcribers are thus essential for correcting OCR output ("machine-assisted transcription"), describing charts and images, and transcribing documents in formats like braille that cannot be read by machine at all. You, dear reader, are invited to volunteer as a transcriber with the Helen Keller Digitization Project, simply by making use of the text-correction interface that is built right into the site. These text files allow blind readers to access the collection, and they enable everyone to search the content online.

If you wish to volunteer as a transcriber, please email Helen Selsdon at Thank you.

Related Links

Accessible PDF
Assistive Technology
Helen Keller
Web Accessibility

Checking in from the CTIA Super Mobility Conference

Paul Schroeder, AFB Vice President, Programs and Policy

Paul Schroeder, AFB Vice President, Programs and Policy

This week in Las Vegas it's everything wireless at the CTIA Super Mobility conference. CTIA, the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, hosts the show and notably also hosts an Accessibility Outreach Initiative Forum as part of the conference. I am pleased to participate in the forum and express appreciation to CTIA for making it possible to attend. I thought I'd share some of the points from the forum on September 7.

AFB has been collecting the views of people with vision loss through a series of technology surveys and I encourage you to have a look and fill them out if you haven't already done so. Of the 131 people with vision loss who responded to the survey on mobile phones, 86% or 113 people indicate they have a smart phone and the vast majority (97 individuals) said they have an Apple phone. Well over half the respondents 61% report using a screen reader to access their phone, while 11% use text enlargement or magnification and 8% report using a braille display.

When asked how their current mobile phones (technology and service) compare to their experience from two years ago, 58 respondents (44%) reported being "much more satisfied” and 26 respondents (20%) reported being "somewhat more satisfied;” only 11 participants (8%) reported being less satisfied now than 2 years ago. Most of the respondents (about two thirds) had obtained their phone within the past two years.

We ask in the survey for individuals to describe features that are most difficult/impossible to use and the most commonly reported feature so far is web browsing cited by around 25 percent.

We also ask about apps, and while so far only 64 people have provided responses, they said that compared with apps used 2 years ago, 20% report being "much more satisfied;” 33% report "somewhat more satisfied”; only 8% of respondents are less satisfied with the apps they use today. By the way, 16 people (25%) reported Facebook as one of their favorite apps.

Check out the full set of surveys where we are also asking about accessibility for computers, television, home phones, and office phones.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently posted a tentative report of findings about the accessibility of communications Technologies for the 2016 Biennial Report required by the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act (CVAA). Among other findings, it notes that people with disabilities are benefiting from accessibility built into operating systems such as Apple's iOS, and Google's Android. However, for individuals looking for an accessible cell phone to just do basic things like make calls and maybe send a text message, the FCC reports that "little, if any, progress has been made since the 2014 CVAA Biennial Report with respect to the number of non-smartphone devices used for telecommunications that are accessible to individuals who are blind or visually impaired.” Unfortunately, the FCC also notes that its "tentative finding is further supported by the percentage of requests for assistance filed by consumers that allege that wireless phones made available to low-income individuals with disabilities by providers that participate in the Commission's Lifeline program either lack certain accessibility features, or are not accessible at all.”

And, I'll also mention the mixed situation with regard to web browsing on Android devices. Google has made incremental improvements to the browsing experience on Android, and the stock configuration of the Chrome browser and the TalkBack screen reader provides a technically accessible web browsing experience. However, significant usability barriers remain including sluggishness, particularly for devices with less capable hardware. And, gesture recognition problems are not fully resolved.

I'll be sending in notes and tweets from the conference so connect up with AFB and you can follow me on Twitter at @PWSAFB.

Assistive Technology
Public Policy
Web Accessibility

A Director’s Experience: Creating Employment Opportunities for Individuals Who Are Blind

This blog post is by guest blogger Ben Caro, a film editor, screenwriter, and director on a mission to change the perception of blindness in our society. Ben is directing Cathedrals, a short film starring an actor who is visually impaired. Read about his passion project and mission to advocate for employment opportunities for individuals with vision loss.

Banner with the word Cathedrals and the face of a man

Cathedrals by Ben Caro

I had to look in strange places for the right actor to play the lead role in my passion film, an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story "Cathedral." We called "dining in the dark" restaurants and e-mailed agencies that only represent the disabled. Usually, hundreds of actors flock to a project in droves. However, this project was different: I was looking for an actor who is blind.

I called Greg Shane, the creative director at Theater By the Blind, an organization that empowers individuals who are visually impaired through performance. I asked him if any of his stage actors were interested in auditioning for the film. He had one question for me: "Will you pay them?"

He told me most of his actors were living below the poverty line and could really use the money. I was astounded by this, and when I got off the phone, I did the research myself. It's not conclusive, but some data suggests that about 70 percent of people who are blind or visually impaired are unemployed and almost a third live in poverty.

Obviously, it's not because people who are blind are unqualified. Greg said he was part of a braille institute program that used theater to help train people with visual impairment to get jobs. "It was incredibly difficult. People would discount these individuals before they even walked into the interview." Many people are still bewildered by the thought of a blind person using a computer. I started to realize that it’s not that the blind are unqualified to work; it’s that most workplaces are unqualified to hire.

Actors who are blind have it hard in other ways. Greg told me, "I worked with an actor who was up for a lead role for a feature film and she was totally blind, and the producer decided that they wanted to go with a sighted character because they thought it was more commercial."

It's rare that people who are blind play themselves. Abigail Breslin was blind in The Miracle Worker, Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman, and Val Kilmer in At First Sight. Obviously, films need stars, but by not hiring qualified individuals with disabilities, we keep opportunities from the people who really need it, the people the films purport to honor. Because actors are usually applauded for their performances, the practice even has its own name: "cripping up."

However, for someone who is blind, or in the process of becoming blind, it's important to see the visually impaired at work. Dreams, such as performing on stage or in film, are achievable, even without sight. Also, those who aren't exposed to individuals with low vision can become sympathetic toward their needs. This has occurred with Modern Family, where the show's portrayal of a gay couple coincided with America's shifting positivity toward marriage equality.

Rick Boggs with his hand on his horse

Rick Boggs with his horse

With my film Cathedrals, I want to help. We’ve cast Rick Boggs, blind since age 5, to play the lead role. We're also pushing for opportunities in the workforce. By partnering with the Hearts for Sight Foundation, an organization that increases employment through educating employers, I'm hoping to not only make a good film but to make some good too. I'm really excited!

For more information or to help with Ben's project, visit his website.

More on Employment in the Entertainment Industry

About Jobs in Pop Culture, Art & Entertainment and Artisans Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

The Impact of the Popular Media on Public Perception of People with Disabilities

Arts and Leisure
Cultural Diversity
Personal Reflections