The American Foundation for the Blind held its annual Leadership Conference (AFBLC) on February 28 and March 1, 2019 in Arlington VA. It drew approximately 400 attendees and featured many educational sessions and tracks including one on Aging and Vision Loss and one on Employment, along with award presentations and an exhibit hall.

AccessWorld presented seven technology sessions, moderated by AccessWorld Editor-in-Chief Lee Huffman. These sessions included topics such as website accessibility, GPS navigation, and smart home technology.

There were two very useful apps for participants to use during this conference, CrowdCompass AttendeeHub and Foresight Augmented Reality. The AttendeeHub app provided an accessible way to receive schedule changes, find session times, get information about speakers, and locate exhibiters. Foresight Augmented Reality beacons were placed in strategic locations throughout the conference hotel including meeting rooms and elevators. The beacons emit a Bluetooth signal and, using FAR's app, your phone speaks the location as you walk past a beacon.

The Keynote Session: A No Barriers Life

The session began with AFB President Kirk Addams welcoming the group. Audience members learned about the many accessibility features Amazon has implemented, including text-to-speech with the Amazon VoiceView screen reader.

Next, Erik Weihenmayer gave a dramatic and well-received talk about his many amazing adventures as a blind person, including climbing the world's highest peaks. He is the only blind person to climb Mount Everest, and in 2008 he completed climbing the tallest peak on each continent. He wrote the book Touch the Top of the World, which was also made into a movie, and The Adversity Advantage, which explains how to turn everyday struggles into everyday greatness.

Weihenmayer's most recent book is No Barriers: A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon, which he accomplished in 2014 with Lonnie Bedwell, a Navy veteran who is blind.

Weihenmayer described his experience climbing Mount Everest with a lot of humor, and he detailed the six years of planning preparing for his white-water excursion. As Weihenmayer spoke about his journey down the Colorado River, he said, "It wasn't always 'smooth sailing.'"

Weihenmayer lost his sight when he was a freshman in high school. He said, "I was afraid to go blind but way more scary than going blind was the fear that I'd lose out. The fear that I'd be sheltered, sidelined, sent to this dark place where I'd be left there and forgotten." He signed up for a rock-climbing trip for blind kids, explaining, "I was tired of building walls around myself, protecting myself. I wanted to tear down those walls." This was a fascinating and inspiring presentation that set the stage for the rest of the conference.

Technology Sessions

There were seven Technology Track sessions at AFBLC. Below, four of these are discussed in detail.

Technology for the Smart Home
  • Lyndsey Minaglia, Research Manager with the Amazon Smart Home research team
  • Sarah Herrlinger, Senior Director of Global Accessibility Policy and Initiatives at Apple
  • Kiran Kaja, Technical Program Manager with Search and assistant Accessibility at Google

All three presenters expressed their respective company's commitment to accessibility. Smart home technology is an easy way to control appliances, alarm systems, thermostats, lights, and more. This technology makes it possible for someone to control products either by voice or through an accessible corresponding app. Audio content can be played through these devices. All three presenters indicated that their smart speakers are easy to set up.

Ms. Minaglia gave a brief description of how smart appliances, alarms, and the like are set up using the Amazon Echo speaker and the digital assistant called Alexa. She said that Alexa is the brain in the home. Ms. Minaglia played a brief video showing how Alexa follows commands. Amazon has a popular microwave with built-in Alexa that takes voice commands.

The Alexa app is available for both iOS and Android. Updates for the Echo device are automatic.

Visit Amazon to read reviews of the Amazon Echo.

Ms. Herrlinger spoke about the independence and empowerment that Apple's technology offers not only for people who are blind or visually impaired, but also for people with other disabilities and seniors. She described Apple's HomePod and Home app. The Home app is available on all Apple devices. She discussed HomePod's audio quality since it contains six microphones.

When shopping for accessories in the market, customers should look for products labeled "Works with Apple HomeKit."

Updates are automatic for the HomePod, or you can choose to do them manually. For more information, you can visit Apple's HomePod or Accessibility site, or visit an Apple store near you.

Mr. Kaja pointed out that with smart home technology, a blind user can control devices that they could not previously control. Mr. Kaja, who is visually impaired, described using Google Home Speaker and Google Assistant to control his thermostat and lights.

The Made for Google badge on a product indicates the product will work with Google Assistant. Updates for the Google Assistant device are automatic, and Google Home is available for iOS and Android.

For more information, visit Google's Accessibility or Assistant pages.

Making Products, Services, and Culture Accessible at Amazon: Insights and Lessons Learned

  • Peter Korn, Director, Device Accessibility
  • Blake Burgess, Senior Product Manager, Retail Accessibility
  • JoAnna Hunt, Senior Product Manager, Kindle Accessibility
  • Megan Mauney, Principle Product Manager, Internal Accessibility

Amazon has taken many steps to make its products, videos, and website more accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. It has also worked to address the needs of people with other disabilities. Every Amazon employee receives accessibility training. In addition, employees receive job-specific accessibility training.

Amazon has sought input from people with disabilities for its website and technology. Amazon has an accessibility advisory council made up of experts and industry leaders.

Blake Burgess explained that in 2017 at the CSUN conference, Amazon interviewed people who are blind or visually impaired about their retail experience on the Amazon website. Amazon did additional research after the interviews. The company was able to improve their Prime Now experience and their grocery delivery experience. In 2018, Amazon interviewed three additional groups: consumers over 75, people on the autism spectrum, and people who have mobility impairments. Mr. Burgess said, "Between the two studies, Amazon received over 200 pieces of feedback and has already addressed more than half of them."

During product development, people with disabilities come into the lab to check for accessibility. In addition, continuing education about accessibility is provided to employees. Amazon also created an Accessibility Customer Experience Lab. Employees are taught about assistive technology and bring their knowledge back to their team. Last year, this lab became more available since it now can be accessed online.

Global Accessibility Day at Amazon used to be a one-day informational celebration but now it is a month-long event. This year, there were over 40 events in 13 countries. Amazon partnered with other companies and community members to educate the global Amazon community about accessibility.

Jo Anna Hunt explained that at Amazon's Kindle team, "We work to extend Blake's training programs into our design studios, with our engineers, get them working on things and having great successes. We also get our leadership team to buy in with setting goals for the team."

Amazon has a tool called Pipeline that scans for accessibility whenever something goes onto its website. If it does not pass accessibility standards, it cannot be used.

Amazon is a portal for a great deal of content including Prime Videos and Kindle eBooks. A lot of that content is developed by third parties such as studios and authors. The Kindle team provides accessibility documentation to these content developers. It has tools to show them how their product will look and whether any accessibility changes need to be made. Any Kindle book has an attribute on its details page indicating whether the book is screen-reader supported. The user can also search for a book and check the box for screen reader support.

In 2018, Amazon required all images, including those from third-party vendors, to include descriptive alt text. Amazon staff evaluates the alt text to ensure accessibility and adequate description.

Megan Mauney showed a video featuring Amazon employees who have disabilities, including an engineer who is blind. Ms. Mauney spoke about Amazon's practice of hiring individuals who have disabilities: "One of the things we're all really passionate about is making sure employees get the resources they need, not just the accessible tech, not just the no-barriers life, but true resources from a community."

Peter Korn said, "I highly, highly, highly encourage everyone buying an Amazon product, to review it. State your accessibility use and review the product. We read those; they have an impact."

Mr. Korn gave some Amazon accessibility email addresses:

Out and About with Technology: Apps for Getting Around

  • Ed Scott, American Printing House for the Blind
  • Amos Miller, Microsoft
  • Henri Fontana, Google
  • Bill Boules, Director of Rehabilitation and Reintegration, Vision Center of Excellence

Additional participants were Judy Dixon and Doug Wakefield.

Amos Miller described Soundscape from Microsoft. When a user wears headphones, Soundscape provides 3D sound to inform the user where something is located. He said, "Soundscape is designed as a background experience. It aims to enrich your awareness of your surroundings and to help you build a mental map as easily and as effortlessly as possible. The trick that we try to use with Soundscape is 3D audio augmented reality, so you can hear where everything is around you." Mr. Miller said that Soundscape is meant to run in the background so you can ignore it when you wish. He added that Soundscape will provide information and enrich your awareness, but it's up to you to decide what to do with this information.

Soundscape is available in the app store. The product website is here.

Ed Scott explained that although APH's Nearby Explorer does support turn-by-turn directions, the real focus is on your surroundings. He said, "What we want people to do with Nearby Explorer is to understand what's around them and what situation they're in." Nearby Explorer allows the user to set navigation points, so they can easily find them in the future. Scott added: "Nearby Explorer has a really interesting feature, the Virtual Explorer capability. You can do a search for any place in the world. You can tell Nearby Explorer to assume you're at that location. You can then point your device and see what's around."

Mr. Scott explained how the developers of Nearby Explorer are working to get more venues and buildings mapped. He said, "The technology is not great. We can't do the navigation that we do outside." He added that the closest you can get with indoor navigation is three to five meters. Most of the APH mapped locations are in Louisville, Kentucky.

Nearby Explorer is in the iOS app store and the Google Play store for Android. There is a possible plan in the works to make Nearby Explorer free.

Henri Fontana presented information about the free Google Maps app and how it works for people who are blind. "It has two thirds of the market for map navigation," he said. "It's hugely successful and popular. Therefore, Google takes the responsibility to make it accessible very seriously."

Google Maps provides more than location and directions. It gives additional information about what is around you, such as stores and points of interest.

Bill Boules reminded session attendees, "When we talk about technology with O and M [orientation and mobility], we're not talking about replacing skills. We're talking about partnering technology with skills." He added that technology is never going to replace cane or guide dog skills.

The Accessible Toolbox: Multi-Modal Accessible Navigation App Accessibility and More

  • Mike May, Director, Workforce Innovation Center, Envision Inc
  • Greg Stilson, Director of Product, Aira

The presenters discussed early navigation programs and the bulky hardware needed to run them.

Mike May explained, "Sendero Maps came out in the 2000s and has gotten better and really became more available when Windows would accommodate smaller laptop footprints, and we had Windows 10 running. It allowed us to have Sendero Maps on those devices."

There are now many navigation programs from which to choose. There are mainstream apps such as Google Maps and apps designed for people who are blind including Blind Square, Soundscape, and Seeing Eye GPS. Apps designed for the blind provide more information.

May said, "My baby, the Seeing Eye GPS, we wanted to have a certain level of coaching. I felt as a blind person when I make a turn I want to make sure that I turned in the right place. So we tried to build these things into the app." For example, after making a turn the app says when the next turn is going to take place. May added that what differentiates GPS apps is their user interface.

Regarding indoor navigation, Greg Stilson said, "At this point, many companies are looking for that holy grail of indoor solutions. The mainstream interest in this is massive because of the marketing opportunities that are there. It's not just beacons, there are also a number of solutions being tested."

Stilson played a video of a man leaving a hotel and going through an airport using Aira. Aira has trained agents who can see your location and assist you using your phone's camera or a pair of Aira smart glasses.

After the video, Stilson explained, "When I make a call to Aira, they instantly have access to my profile, which I fill out at first. That has things like: am I a cane or a guide dog user, how long have I had vision loss, do I prefer things given to me in a clock-face direction or right and left. They can customize the experience to me.

Stilson spoke about going to your location with the GPS of your choice, but then using Aira to help you find the correct door to go inside. He added that Aira is partnering with businesses including Walgreens and 40 different airports.

You can learn more about Aira here.

General Sessions

The conference had two general sessions on March 1. The first session focused on non-profit agencies and how they can network with other agencies to achieve their goals.

The second session was a panel discussion moderated by George Abbott, AFB Chief Knowledge Advancement Officer. Companies represented included Walmart and JPMorgan Chase. Panelists discussed how their companies foster inclusion, accommodations, and career advancement.


The 2019 AFB Leadership Conference in Arlington, Virginia, offered many concurrent sessions on a wide array of topics relating to blindness and visual impairment. There were three informative general sessions. In the exhibit hall, companies showed their latest assistive technology, while other exhibitors had information about their organizations. Next year the AFBLC will once again be held at the Crystal Gateway Marriott in Arlington.

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

Janet Ingber
Article Topic
Conference Coverage