Acceptance Remarks For American Foundation for the Blind Migel Award

March 7, 2004

Published on March 7, 2004.

I’m honored to receive this prestigious award, and I thank you for recognizing me in this way.

Sue Spungin, who just spoke, mentioned having been impressed by the exhibits on Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison at the National Inventor Hall of Fame. It’s interesting to note that both men were motivated by the idea of creating disabilities technology. Bell was trying to develop a sensory aid for the deaf, and ended up inventing the telephone. Edison’s invention of the phonograph player was intended as a “talking book” for the blind. It is often the case that what starts as an accessibility technology for the disabled ends up having paradigm-shifting mainstream applications.

I’d like to share an observation that has motivated my career in disabilities technology. It is simply this: there is an essential difference between the concepts of “disability” and “handicap.” The word disability is straightforward: it refers to the lack of an ability. All of us lack abilities. None of us is good at everything. A handicap, on the other hand, refers to a fundamental barrier in gaining equal access to opportunities in key facets of life such as education and employment. A disability such as blindness does not necessarily need to result in a handicap. This, I believe, sums up the vital goal of work in the disabilities field.

What is required to achieve this? Technology has an important role to play. Technology such as reading machines can provide needed information in a compensatory format using another sense. I’m proud to have played a role in this arena, and my 30 years of work in reading machines for the blind has been the most gratifying endeavor in my career.

When I was developing the Kurzweil Reading Machine in the 1970s, I worked closely with a talented group of blind scientists and engineers from the National Federation of the Blind, and the project benefited enormously from this unique collaboration. Other talented people have contributed their skills over the years to bring this technology to where it is today. In particular, I would like to recognize Stephen Baum, who heads up the development team at Kurzweil Educational Systems for his decades of devoted and brilliant contributions. Today, I’m working again with the NFB to develop a pocket-size reading machine, which will enable a blind person to snap a picture of a wall sign, the back of a cereal box, an LCD display, a handout at a meeting, and other examples of real-world print, and instantly convert it to synthetic speech.

To achieve full equality in society, we also need training, not all of which is technology-oriented. The fiberglass cane is low tech, but with modern mobility skills effectively eliminates a travel handicap. Perhaps the most important requirement is attitude. First, on the part of society, the understanding that blind persons can compete on terms of equality is critical. Perhaps a blind person can’t drive a taxi today, but there are no significant areas of employment that a blind person is unable to excel at. Even driving a vehicle is going to be feasible in a number of years. Of course, we’ll need some new technology for that, something I may want to get involved in myself in future years. Finally, the attitude of the blind person herself towards her own abilities is also crucial to overcome society’s ancient prejudices regarding the abilities of the blind.

We’ve come a long way in all of these dimensions, and I’m proud to have played a role in disabilities technology, along with many other dedicated people.

In a couple of decades, we will have new ways of communicating directly into our brains noninvasively using blood cell-sized robots in our bloodstream. These new methods will ultimately provide new human communication paradigms that go far beyond the visual and auditory sense. These extensions of the human nervous system will provide new opportunities for overcoming the communication disabilities associated with vision and hearing impairment.

However, we need to keep in mind that that new technologies that provide new opportunities can also present new barriers. Consider the graphic user interface, which was completely inaccessible when first introduced. Or the panoply of new mobile electronic devices that are not sufficiently accessible today. This is a salient challenge for those of us who create new technology: enable people with disabilities to share in the promise of new technology while avoiding the creation of new obstacles.

Thank you once again for this special honor.