For blind consumers of assistive technology and the vendors who manufacture and distribute that technology, two of the most significant events of the entire year occur on Independence Day, the Fourth of July. Those are, of course, the annual gatherings of the American Council of the Blind and the National Federation of the Blind, held this year in St. Louis, Missouri and Orlando, Florida, respectively. If you attended one or both of these events, you no doubt saw exciting new products, heard about thrilling innovations, and had the stimulating sense that your personal batteries were charged by the energy and camaraderie you encountered. If you were not able to attend, this article is our attempt to bring you a vicarious overview of what took place in those venues. We cannot replicate the feel of the crowded exhibit halls, the sound of cheers in the general sessions, or the up-close look at a new piece of hardware in a breakout session, but we will try to get some adrenaline pumping just the same.


The 57th annual American Council of the Blind Conference and Convention was held June 29 to July 6 at the Union Station Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri. This former train-station-turned-hotel has plenty of charm, and plenty of confusion and staircases. (Yes, there really were two 1st floors and one floor that was both the 2nd and 3rd! And then there was the ubiquity of staircases, in sometimes surprising locations.)

There were restaurants in and near the hotel, an outdoor pool, and a bar that ran the length of the lobby. You could, in other words, go to both general and breakout sessions, canvas the exhibit hall, and have plenty of food and drink without ever leaving the premises.

The weather was sizzling hot!

The National Federation of the Blind's 78th annual convention was held at the Rosen Shingle Creek Hotel. An Orlando, Florida, resort and conference facility, the hotel offered several restaurants and bars, a resort-style pool area, and abundant meeting and exhibit space. Distance from one event to another was such that just participating fully in the convention could serve as ample fitness training for the workout enthusiast.

And yes, like St. Louis, the weather was sizzling hot!

Where technology is concerned, there were far more similarities than differences at these two leading events. Here, then, are some of the highlights garnering the most attention.

Smart Glasses, Smart Glasses Everywhere

The concept of using smart glasses of one iteration or another has exploded in the field of assistive technology and all of it is exciting. Some products, OrCam for instance, offer greater success to the wearer with some vision. None attracted as much attention, however, as Aira, the smart glasses that enable the blind or low vision user to use a camera and Internet connection to share and discuss the environment around her with a trained agent.

Aira offered free access at both conventions, in the host hotels and the nearby airports, and offered special discounts to new subscribers. The company also announced new features in the Aira app such as messaging when you need to have a silent conversation with an Aira agent (in a meeting or classroom, for example) at times when a phone chat would be disruptive.

Smart phone apps that provide sight to blind users, such as Be My Eyes and Envision, were also present and demonstrating.

All About That Braille

There was no shortage of products for the braille lover at either convention.

For the first time in braille display history, there were two displays in both exhibit halls priced at under $500. The Orbit Reader from the American Printing House for the Blind and the Braille Me from National Braille Press, are both 20-cell displays designed primarily for reading, with limited note-taking capabilities. Some popular displays from Freedom Scientific VFO and HumanWare were deeply discounted for convention attendees. HIMS Inc. was demonstrating its new Q-Braille, a 40-cell display combining the familiar eight-dot braille keyboard with all special keys from the QWERTY keyboard. Although pre-orders were taken, the Q-Braille is still under final development, and will be featured in a future issue of AccessWorld.

The most innovative in refreshable tactile displays were the Graphiti and Canute demonstrated by the American Printing House for the Blind. Graphiti will be a tremendous asset in educational and other settings, with its capacity to display tactile images sent to it from computers or mobile devices, or drawn freehand by a blind or sighted user. The Canute, with its 9 lines of braille (360 cells in all) will also be welcome in both educational and employment settings. Both products are still under development.

Hardcopy braille was also widely available in both hotels, including the daily convention newspaper in braille at ACB and voluminous amounts of braille speeches, reports, articles, and calendars at NFB. Both, of course, also provided convention programs, restaurant menus, exhibit hall guides, and lists of area restaurants in braille.

Prime Time for Television Audio Description

As the amount of audio description increases on primary networks and streaming services, so are people with visual impairments being perceived as important target audiences. Charter Communications, in particular, was more than a little behind the curve in catching on to the requirements put in place by the 2012 Communications and Video Accessibility Act, but they are making some impressive strides toward remedying the situation. Charter's accessibility team expanded from one employee to 21 in just the past year, and some of those employees are themselves people with disabilities. Currently, customers with visual impairments can receive a Roku, which provides some accessibility, but the company was proudly exhibiting the solution that is scheduled to be rolled out in markets across the country over the next year. The new accessibility solution from Charter promises to speak onscreen information such as channel information, program schedules, and more. While the Spectrum phone app is somewhat accessible, representatives admitted that the audio description track is not being passed through on the app. Whether that will be remedied in the upcoming solution remains to be seen.

Amazon also proudly announced advances in television accessibility. To its existing products of the Fire Stick and Fire TV Stick, Amazon has added the Fire TV Cube, a completely hands-free solution to controlling your TV and accompanying components. All three have Amazon Alexa built in. Even more exciting was the new Fire TV, a collaboration with Amazon, Toshiba, and Best Buy, which promises to be a completely accessible device.

Speaking of Amazon, the company also demonstrated at both conventions the new Amazon locker. Intended as an alternative for Amazon shoppers who would rather pick up their packages than have them delivered to an empty porch, the Amazon locker features complete voice guidance accessibility. Finally, one company is offering a kiosk that provides equal access to blind customers!

Who Cares About Accessibility?

One unspoken measure of success for people with visual impairments is the prevalence of mainstream companies visible at these two major gatherings. In addition to the scores of vendors marketing specifically to consumers with visual impairments, many of the major players in the larger, mainstream tech world were present as sponsors, presenters, and exhibitors. Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple, Lyft, and Uber were among the companies playing key roles in both St. Louis and Orlando. While there is still plenty of room to grow in this area, forward motion with regard to incorporating accessibility into mainstream technology products is unmistakable.

Next year, the American Council of the Blind convention will be held in Rochester, New York, and the National Federation of the Blind will be in Las Vegas, Nevada. If you want to get your hands on some of the newest technology products, be on hand for demonstrations of new programs, and simply bask in an environment of peers who care about technology, you might try to check one of these events out for yourself. Of course, if that is not possible, we at AccessWorld will again do our best to bring you the highlights.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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Deborah Kendrick
Article Topic
Conference Coverage