DEDICATED TO IMPROVING THE LIVES OF BLIND AND VISUALLY IMPAIRED PEOPLE

NFB Convention Coverage

RDPFS interns Nikhil Vohra and Ahmat Djouma are attending this week’s National Federation of the Blind (NFB) virtual National Convention. Here they share some of the highlights:

Accessibility at the workplace was an important topic of discussion. One company in particular, Target, took the opportunity to discuss its accessibility initiatives not only for its customers but also for workers and prospective employees. Their panel reviewed recent improvements to Target’s proprietary software used by the company. Target has expressed commitment to building accessibility into the code of its software from the start—ensuring access to all. Opportunities currently include positions related to accessibility and customer service. For information on available positions, here is the website link. The company affirmed that it has a dedicated accessibility team to assist personnel with disabilities whether they require digital or physical assistance in any of the company’s many stores nationwide. Of course, one of the topics discussed was working remotely. A number of current employees expressed appreciation for the remote accommodation, as it eliminated the struggles associated with commuting.  More remote positions going forward offer a welcome opportunity for job seekers unable to travel to find accommodating employment. In fact, Target is looking to continue hybrid in-person and remote operation in the future. The company is committed to the principles of diversity and inclusion for all of its employees and is happy to hear feedback or answer questions related to accessibility from current, former, or prospective employees. Issues, inquiries, and suggestions can be conveyed to Target through its Contact Us page by selecting the “Accessibility” option in the drop-down menu.

Also from the Convention: Audio Description from Amazon Prime

During the past few years, online retail giant Amazon has released a number of its own flagship products, such as Alexa and Fire TV, as well as a large streaming platform for movies and TV shows: Amazon Prime Video. One of the accessibility-related topics discussed was Amazon Prime’s commitment to and role in providing audio description for film and TV. Prime’s journey with audio description began by acquiring the official, available AD tracks on the content it hosted. The panel explained, however, that this only provided description for a fraction of the thousands of movies and TV shows offered on Prime, as many never had AD tracks recorded. Amazon took two major steps to remedy this problem. First, all Amazon-original content would be created with audio description. Second, a more efficient way than the traditional process would be developed to create AD tracks for content that lacked description. By employing the Amazon text-to-speech engine Polly, along with a sound-mixing algorithm to integrate the speech into the audio tracks of existing movies, an AD script writer could develop the description anywhere in the world remotely and then plug it into the text-to-speech software to have the algorithm create an AD track. This breakthrough, despite some issues as well as remaining room for improvement, has vastly expanded the range of content containing audio description for audiences who are blind or visually impaired. In fact, the American Council of the Blind (ACB) recognizes Amazon Prime’s vast quantity of AD-supported content on its website. Prime has undoubtedly become a significant leader in bringing audio description to mainstream content, and we look forward to the expansion of its AD offerings. Amazon Prime is available, generally for a fee. Visit the Amazon Prime website for more information or to sign up and get access to its streaming services.

The Future of Voting: Another timely topic discussed at the convention covered issues related to voting. Across the United States, each local jurisdiction handles elections differently, posing challenges to ensuring accessibility nationwide. Representatives of several state legislatures attended, describing voting systems in their areas. For example, some states, such as West Virginia and Nevada, allow voters to cast their ballots electronically and in person. Colorado and Hawaii have both passed laws allowing people with disabilities to cast their ballots electronically. Even so, the information we found online generally didn’t indicate that people with disabilities can vote electronically; rather it seems to be geared more toward individuals serving in the military. Several panelists agreed that technology is the future for voting. More information on electronic voting, from Wikipedia, including benefits and concerns, can be found here.

A virtual field trip: The Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, based in Dorchester County, MD, partnered with NFB to offer a virtual audio tour of the Underground Railroad Museum. The tour featured a narration and description of a walk through the museum’s exhibits, including a short documentary on Harriet Tubman’s life as a slave who liberated herself and went on to liberate countless others from the bondage of slavery. Tubman later served alongside the Unionists in the Civil War, even acting as a spy. She delivered lectures later in her life and finally settled on a small farm in Auburn, NY, after a truly extraordinary life of fighting for freedom and justice. A recording of the virtual tour will soon be uploaded to the NFB of Maryland site. Visit the homepage of the Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center to learn more about the Underground Railroad and about how you can visit the museum in person.

ACB Convention: July 16 – 23

Nikhil and Ahmat will attend and cover the annual convention of the American Council of the Blind. Future issues of the Bulletin will include highlights from that event as well.