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Interview: Jim Gashel

After the September debut of the KNFB Reader app, a smartphone application that enables users to take photos of printed text and listen to immediate audio playback of recognized words, the tool was hailed as a “game-changer.” Indeed, the app represents another incredible leap forward in accessible technology, which has seen character recognition and text-to-speech tools evolve at a pace that has in many ways reshaped the landscape for people with low vision.

Jim Gashel, the national secretary of the National Federation of the Blind, has been at the forefront of these advances. His collaborative efforts with tech entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil led to the formation of KNFB, which has spent years developing and preparing the KNFB Reader mobile app for the market. Below, Craig Pearson discusses with Jim how changes in accessible text-to-speech devices have created a more inclusive and connected environment for individuals across the visual ability spectrum, as well as what’s next on the horizon for real-time mobile technology.

Craig Pearson  :::  Tell us a little bit about yourself, specifically how you got involved with the National Federation of the Blind and when you started working with Ray Kurzweil.

Jim Gashel  :::  I became a member of the National Federation of the Blind in 1965 and attended my first National Convention of the NFB in Washington, D.C. that year. It was very exciting, because we got to hear from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, some of the major politicians at the time. There were many others — in fact, at the evening banquet on the last evening of the convention, we had 100 members of Congress present, so that was phenomenal. I’m not sure you could do that today.

That’s pretty outstanding.

It was quite outstanding. We gave them each a chance to say something, but they were limited to one minute. So that was fun.

I became president of the NFB student division when it was founded two years later. I served a couple of terms while I was still an undergraduate — and for part of the time a graduate — at the University of Iowa. I started working for the NFB in January 1974 in Washington, D.C. Before that time, I had been a schoolteacher and had done some other things, and it came to pass that someone was needed to head up the Washington work of the National Federation of the Blind. I did that for another 33 and a half years, until 2007.

I met Ray Kurzweil as part of this effort. He walked in the door one day and said he had invented a reading machine. At that time, it was just wires and gizmos and circuit boards and such, and we helped get the funding together to get that product so it could be sold in a consumer market. The first model sold for about $30,000, so it was hard for individuals to buy. A few people did. Stevie Wonder was one. I think Stevie must have bought the first one we had. But then the price came down over the years, and it took various forms. By the time we got to the 1990s, it became software running on a PC. Think of it just as a single workstation that’s a means of getting reading done. There was no portable or mobile reading product up until our company, KNFB, got together and started developing the mobile reading technology. And of course, what we’re doing today is an extension of that.

It’s exciting to hear from somebody who has been involved in bringing to market many of the significant text-to-speech readers of the last several decades. What’s the most exciting thing to you about the app?

I think the most exciting thing about the app is how it changes people’s lives and expectations of what they can do. A lot of things still are only in print, and not easy to get at. Now, more things today are available on computers, so you can pay your bills and do a lot of other things with a computer that there was just no way to do several years ago. But still, the mail comes every day. And you’ve got to figure out a way to deal with the mail. Or you get a package of some kind of product in the kitchen, and you want to know: what are the cooking instructions? The reader can be used to identify things. Say you’re in a classroom and there’s a PowerPoint up on the screen, and you can’t read the PowerPoint. The reader can help you do that.

I think that just gives people a degree of independence and information that you didn’t expect to have. And so I think that’s the most exciting, and that’s what we hear in the user stories that people tell us all the time.

It allows people to act and react immediately and in the moment, to be really integrated into their environment. Fundamentally, our journal is focused on creativity and artistic expression — thinking about this historically, minority groups have often been excluded from the creative pursuits. And it seems that technology, especially today, is enabling people who are disabled, who are blind, to engage in artistic expression and to share their creative ideas in a way that maybe wasn’t possible before, in some situations. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on that and what you think this app can do in terms of enabling people to share their creative ideas.

I don’t know if I agree with the word “impossible” to do before, because many of these things have been possible. I would say that the technology makes it easier, faster, more convenient, more readily available.

More shareable, perhaps.

More shareable — to create and share ideas. History is full of examples where blind people have been enormously creative and have found ways of sharing their ideas. But the technology makes it easier, and it’s true whether you’re blind or you’re not blind.

It really is exciting, that interconnectedness, the sharing and communication that this app seems to be introducing. How do you offer tutorials for people who may not have a smartphone already? How do you take this app and put it in the hands of somebody who can use it immediately?

Interconnectedness is an important part of the training. “Jump in and experiment” is a good way to learn. But we do provide a quick start guide and a complete user manual. We’ll expand and modify those documents as we receive suggestions for doing so. The NFB maintains a reader users list that you can subscribe to, and we note that in our user documentation. So many people subscribe to the list and post questions. It’s a whole community of reader users who are out there just teaching and helping one another. With our company, we have a support line that serves somewhat the same function, but it’s really great to see other users that have no other motivation but helping each other, to get out there and just be giving advice and tutorials themselves. We also use Twitter and Facebook posts to do the same thing. So the whole sense of community is really growing around this particular app.

Where would you like to see technology move in the future?

I think in the future, we’ll be doing what we do in real time. Do a video, and as you look around — I’m thinking of products such as Google Glass, which really will be wearable — and you can hear the things that are text read to you. Or it’ll tell you there’s text available and you push a button or say, “Tell me what it is.” And it will speak the text. I’m seeing more personal interaction, computers will become more readily assistive. Almost like an extension of our humanness, so to speak.

You’re somebody who has been part of this community and influencing policy and technology for many years. Do you have any thoughts or any advice for the people within our Exceptions community, who are really still just getting off the ground?

Well, I think you need to take the long view on things. I know we want everything to work in some fantastic way on the first day that it’s available. Take the long view, and over time you won’t be disappointed. You’ll see progress, and you’ll have a chance to be part of that progress, even if it’s just by contributing what at the time may appear to be a small idea. No idea is too small to be considered, and together, in that way, we help to build the technology and the community around that technology that will make a brighter future, both for you and for others who will come along after you.

InterviewsCraig Pearson