Tuesday, April 29, 2008
Helping Vocational Rehab Organizations
Meet The Coming Surge in Demand
There has always been a strong link between age and blindness. Numerous diseases and conditions we associate with aging that result in impairment or loss of vision. This year, the first of the baby boomers reach retirement age and what follows will likely be a rapidly increasing demand for rehabilitation services for the blind. This should not come as a surprise to anyone in the blind services field. This NCSAB conference is a direct recognition of the impending increase in demand.
If state agencies were limited to the tools of the past, the impending boom in demand would be a crisis. Traditional, one-size-fits-all screen readers are hugely expensive and notoriously difficult to train. While baby boomers have some computer literacy, they are still mostly neophytes when it comes to dealing with the technical awareness required by most screen readers. If they are newly blind and just beginning to learn the basics of independent living, the screen readers can be overwhelming. Yet, if they are to achieve independence and full communion with their families, they need to have access to the computer and the Internet. Digital access is fundamental to living independently and to attaining and enjoying a quality of life that compares to their lives before they lost their vision.
If state agencies could count on an enormous increase in funding, commensurate with the growth in demand, it might be possible to assemble reduced-functionality training programs using conventional screen readers. Increases in funding, however, are generally wishful thinking. Reality will likely be an increased workload and little in the way of additional resources.
Strange as it may seem, with its initial business plan in 2000, Serotek started out to address precisely this issue. The plan recognized both the challenge and the opportunity in the “graying of America.” Its fundamental strategy was to treat blind and low vision Americans and others throughout the world as customers rather than welfare recipients.
This was not a popular position because conventional wisdom in the investment community said that blind folks don’t have any money. If you want to sell them products, you have to get the government to pay. Over time, our original vision has proven true, but it hasn’t been easy.
We took this position for a number of reasons:
Conventional screen readers had a vast amount of capability but were packaged with a “one-size-fits-all” mentality. People come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and needs, and for most people, particularly elderly blind people, conventional screen readers are far too complex and difficult to master.
The complexity of conventional screen readers exists in part because they are built on a legacy of past investment. No one wants to reinvent the wheel. It’s easier, faster and cheaper to pretty up the old one. Best of all, by dressing up the existing model, it will still fit with all the old hardware and software. Unfortunately, it also means that the most current screen reading technology is still a generation or so behind the state of the art in mainstream software. Thus in addition to paying a huge price for accessibility, blind folks are forced to run on the previous generation’s operating system. Companies that make their software accessible are similarly hindered by having their corporate technology held back in order to remain compatible with current conventional accessibility tools.
There is a whole host of neat toys – digital candy if you will – that make life more fun. These PDAs, MP3 players, games and such are totally forgotten by the conventional accessibility industry. We like these toys and we know other blind people would like them too. This is particularly true of the newly-blind baby boomers who have been huge consumers of such digital lifestyle products.
In effect, there is an accessibility barrier that keeps the blind and low vision community at a disadvantage in the workplace and from enjoying the lifestyle advantages of the digital age.
There is another problem with the conventional screen reader technology. It is difficult to teach and depends on the network of vocational rehabilitation organizations to train people in its use. The training process is long and expensive both in dollars and in trainer time. Bringing a newly-blind, non-computer user to competence is no easy matter using any of the major conventional screen readers. Despite the dependent relationship between adaptive technology vendors and vocational rehabilitation personnel, the vendors have done precious little to make training easier and more consistently successful.
We took on this barrier from two perspectives. First, we created System Access to Go and made it available free of charge to anyone who wishes to use it. We did this in cooperation with The AIR Foundation, which promotes accessibility as a fundamental human right. For those who aren’t aware of the da Vinci-award-winning System Access, it is highly intuitive and easy to learn. Although we do not position it or market it as a vocational rehab tool, it handles most of the major off-the-shelf business applications like Microsoft Office and delivers a host of special capabilities. One such capability allows a user to access a home computer from the road and run it just as if he or she were sitting at the keyboard. System Access to Go, which just won the 2008 AFB Access Award, is a web-based version of System Access that can be used anytime a person is connected to the Internet, at no charge.
Our second program is called Remote Incident Manager (RIM) and it is a tool designed specifically for trainers and technicians. Using RIM, a vocational rehab trainer, working from her home or office, can conduct one-on-one training of a blind or low vision person with a computer and access to the Internet wherever they might be. The trainer can be on the trainee’s desktop sharing the same application and providing direct instruction, using voice over Internet protocol. He or she can help adjust and install new software on the trainee’s system and help the trainee work through applications in real time. The trainer can teach any application including conventional screen readers. The whole interactive process is fully accessible.
Serotek is basically changing the economics of blindness. The SAToGo accessibility tool meets one hundred percent of most people’s needs for accessibility – at least in their everyday lives. It’s available anywhere, costs nothing, and it is relatively easy to learn and use. The software includes a screen reader, braille access and text magnification. This is the perfect tool for newly blind baby boomers and for many others. Many of the people who use SAToGo may choose to purchase System Access Mobile and have an accessibility tool permanently installed on their home system and on their portable systems. Many would also enjoy the benefits of being part of the online community, System Access Mobile Network. Priced as a service, this costs the user less than $25 per month for everything. That’s well within most budgets. And for those who require state assistance for this payment, it is still far less expensive than any other accessibility solution.
Remote Incident Manager (RIM) is priced at $1,000 per seat. This software pays for itself many times over by saving commute time for clients in rural areas. It also allows vocational rehab trainers to reach and successfully train more people in a larger geographical area at less total cost. RIM eliminates the burden of travel – always one of the biggest barriers for the newly blind.
Combining the two products, System Access (including SAToGo) and RIM, makes it possible for a vocational rehab center to take on the added burden of newly-blind seniors and to provide them with the tools for independent living and a high quality of life. Equally important, the tools allow the vocational rehab center to spend less of its precious resources providing products to their clientele and to focus resources on delivering service.
The coming boom in demand for vocational rehab services is inevitable as baby boomers age. Serotek gives vocational rehab providers the tools to meet this surge and to continue delivering the high quality services that give newly blind seniors a path to independent living.
For more information on how Serotek’s award-winning products and services can enhance the way you interact with your consumers, please contact:
(612) 246-4818 Ext. 104
Toll free: (866) 202-0520 Ext. 104
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Internet Explorer and New SA Mobile Network Browser
Fixed a bug which caused System Access to hang the browser when tabbing through some pages, such as the results page on Froogle.
SA Mobile Media Library
You can now play WMA files in your media library and transfer them to a ZEN Stone.
Victor Reader Stream Support
When you connect to the Victor Reader Stream, the SA Mobile Network browser will now offer to download the latest Stream software update if your Stream isn't running the latest software.
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
There were three recipients of the 2008 Accessibility Award. In addition to Serotek, the award was given to Code Factory and to Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian.
At the same event, Anita Aaron, Executive Director of the San Francisco Lighthouse for the Blind received the 2008 Gallagher Award.
My good friend Eduardo Sanchez Palazon, CEO of Code Factory, came from Spain to receive the accessibility award for making cell phones, smart phones, and PDAs accessible with Mobile Speak and Mobile Magnifier. I truthfully could not do my job without these powerful tools that let me tap into our network from my smart phone and run Serotek from wherever I am. In December, Code Factory signed an agreement with AT&T to make accessible cell phones available to the blind community at a discount. Eduardo is unique because he sees us blind folks as customers – not the agencies, not the government, but just us blind folks. And he treats us like customers, not like welfare recipients looking for a handout. Eduardo not only serves our communication needs, but he gives our self-esteem a huge shot in the arm and for that alone the man deserves all the awards and kudos that are heaped upon him.
Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian are lawyers who have been making the case for accessibility for several years. Lainey and her co counsel developed a process, called “Structured Negotiation” which replaces costly and contentious litigation with formal, structured negotiation as a means of solving accessibility issues. Her success rate is awe-inspiring. Thanks to Lainey you and I can access ATM’s and point of sale terminals at thousands of banks and stores nationwide. She has agreements with 7-11, American Express, Bank of America, Bank One, Citibank, Radio Shack, Safeway, Wal-Mart, Trader Joe’s, Wells Fargo and many other banks and retail operations. In our litigious, contentious society it is a breath of fresh air to see a different approach – reasonable people working together to solve an issue – and actually succeed.
Anita Aaron, who received the 2008 Gallagher Award, is legendary in San Francisco where she has been Executive Director of the Lighthouse for the Blind for seventeen years. She also serves on the San Francisco Commission on Aging and Adult Services, is on the Board of Directors of the Curry Senior Center and a member of the Blind Services Advisory Committee of the State Department of Rehabilitation. California’s and specifically San Francisco’s leadership in accessibility issues is largely due to Anita’s firm hand.
The award recipients weren’t the only giants at the affair. Our host, Carl Augusto, the President and CEO of the AFB certainly has left his imprint on our lives, extending the AFB’s scope to influence corporate America to make accessible products and acting as unifying force, bringing service organizations of and for the blind together in a collaborative way to further the common objective of accessibility and independent living. Under Carl’s tutelage the AFB is promoting accessibility for seniors who are losing their vision from age-related conditions.
The room was filled with many business and community leaders, serving on the AFB’s Board of Directors, many of them blind. They come from all walks of life: banks, universities, major corporations, law firms; and a wide variety of government and NGOs serving the needs of the blind. I am sure, however, that Mike May, our emcee was the only blind individual in the room who had both set world records as a blind downhill skier and worked for the CIA. Warm and charming, Mike was entertaining and inspirational. I have his book, “Crashing Through,” written with Robert Kurson on my list of “must reads.” Blind from the age of three, Mike is one of a small group of individuals who had some vision restored with stem cell transplant surgery less than a decade ago. Most of us can imagine his emotional and intellectual struggle whether or not to go through with this life-altering and very “iffy” surgery.
I am grateful to the AFB for honoring our Serotek team by making us part of this affair. They did everything right. It was at the same time elegant and casual; people dressed to the nines, but warm and friendly. The food and company was superb. There was no competition among the industry people. Rather there was a universal appreciation for what each had brought to benefit our community. Maybe it was the never empty wine glass, but by the end of the evening I was thinking that it is a great misperception when people complain that our blind youth have no heroes – no one to look up to and see what is possible. This room was filled with heroes – everyday heroes making a difference in peoples’ lives, not in any way restricted by the fact that they are blind or have low vision. Every one of us has an opportunity to be that kind of hero. We only need to follow our passion and believe that we can.
Saturday, April 5, 2008
This update introduces two features related to the accessible digital lifestyle: access to the Songza.com music search engine and Internet jukebox, and improved access to Major League Baseball's audio and video streams.
You can now use Songza with System Access, in either Internet Explorer or our own browser, to search for songs, listen to the songs you find, create playlists, and more. You can control Songza's music player with the same hot keys as in the Napster Web-based player; for a listing of the special hot keys in either of these Web-based players, press Modifier+F1. We're excited about the access we've been able to provide to this cutting-edge Web 2.0 application, and we hope you enjoy it. If you have any questions, problems, or suggestions, please share them on the Serotek Users Forum.
Major League Baseball Multimedia
This update fixes a few problems which rendered Major League Baseball's subscription-based audio and video streams inaccessible with SA. Again, if you still have problems, please let us know.
Internet Explorer and New SA Mobile Network Browser
Fixed a bug which sometimes caused SA to lock up Internet Explorer when using Windows Update.
SA no longer interrupts continuous reading of a Web page to announce changes on the page. This is especially important for news articles which have frequently updating advertisements.
Added check boxes to our browser display preferences section which let you indicate that our browser should always use your preferred colors, font, and/or font size, even when visiting a site that provides its own settings. These have the same effect in our browser as the accessibility options in Internet Explorer.
Fixed a bug which prevented SA from speaking the new horizontal position after pressing Tab.