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September 22, 2011

Advocates for the Blind Use Law to Increase Access to Technology

By Rabiah Alicia Burks
_ News Service

The use of digital technology to convey information and process routine transactions is becoming more and more widespread.  Two men have dedicated their lives to making sure the blind or visually impaired are not left behind.

Together, Dr. Marc Maurer, president of the National Federation of the Blind, and Daniel Goldstein, a partner at Brown, Goldstein & Levy, LLP, have used the law to force changes in technology to accommodate those who are blind.

Maurer and Goldstein were honored with the _ 2011 Paul G. Hearne Award for Disability Rights for their commitment to access to justice for people with disabilities. The award was presented last month at the ABA Annual Meeting in Toronto.

“Technology should be leveling the playing field, especially digital technology,” said Maurer. “Any information that is digital can be presented orally or tactilely as well as visually.”

Issues with Access

There are two points of view about blindness or disability in general, Maurer said. One of them is that blindness is one characteristic among many and the person who has this characteristic is a normal human being. The other point of view is that the disability is the primary characteristic and everything else flows from it.

“Some people look upon a disability as a great tragedy that colors the rest of a human being’s life entirely,” Maurer said. “A blind person, for example, would be regarded as blind and then a person, rather than a person who carries a characteristic of blindness.”

If you think that a human being had or would ordinarily possess talent as a sighted person, then simply lacking eyesight doesn’t change that, Maurer said.  The talent just has to be accessed in a different way.

“We don’t think blindness is an enormous tragedy or a primarily handicapping condition that will make a person incapable of doing anything,” Maurer said. “There are lots of people who start there.”

Maurer and Goldstein have had to use courts to help people gain access to things that are prohibiting individuals who are blind from harnessing their talent. “There are still a lot of people who do not think disability rights are a real civil rights issue,” Goldstein said.

By not considering accessibility issues, developers are actually shutting the blind out of opportunities to take advantage of the technological changes that have become essential to society, Goldstein said.

The NFB tracks the development of new technologies.  When the federation finds products that are not accessible to the blind, it writes to encourage the developer to modify the products so that they are accessible.

The NFB also invites CEOs, their counsel and development teams to speak with NFB staff to learn about some of the things that have been done to provide access to people.

Many times the company will work with the federation and it is very simple to do; sometimes businesses need further persuasion, Maurer said.

“Many of them start with the proposition that making something accessible to a small population will be expensive and won’t generate revenue,” Maurer said. “Sometimes that’s true. But more often, if you find a way to give access to more people, you have a better product that is more usable by more people and is a better product for everybody.”

Accessibility and the Law

“The law has a tradition,” Maurer said. “Those who have knowledge of the law and have capacity with it can help people who are unable to help themselves.”

Maurer was inspired by this tradition and has been using the law to advocate for accessibility for more than 30 years.  “I look at this population that has so much talent,” Maurer said. “With the help of those in the law, who know how to use this magnificent mechanism for changing society for the better, we can do things that couldn’t be done without it.”

When it comes to technology, many federal laws regarding accessibility do not directly apply to developers. Instead, Goldstein and Maurer developed a strategy where they sue the customers who are in breach of federal disability laws.

“The technology developers will quickly realize that it’s a lousy business plan that get’s their customers sued for buying their technology,” Goldstein said.

Both Goldstein and Maurer expressed appreciation and were honored with receiving the Paul G. Hearne Award. Further, “I would like the _ to help spread the message of hope,” said Maurer.

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