Saturday, April 20, 2013

Receiving the 2013 Migel Medal

Earlier today, I attended the American Foundation for the Blind’s (AFB) National Leadership Conference in Chicago where I received the 2013 Migel Medal. The Migel Medal, often called the highest honor in the blindness field, is awarded annually to one or two individuals whose careers exemplify exceptional accomplishments in the field. It was named for the first board chair of AFB, M.C. Migel, whose experiences with blindness caused during World War I, led to him helping start the Foundation.  Helen Keller, who worked for AFB for many years, was on the original award board for its first twenty years, starting in 1937.

The other recipient this year was Kay Ferrell, Professor of Special Education at the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, who won the Medal for her tremendous work with and on behalf of children and youth who are blind and visually impaired. I’m honored to join Kay in receiving this prestigious award and deeply grateful to AFB for its recognition.


Here are my remarks to the Leadership Conference on receiving the Migel Medal from Carl Augusto and Paul Schroeder of AFB:
It’s a great honor to address the leadership of this field, and receive the Migel Medal in recognition of our shared commitment to service to the community of people who are blind or visually impaired.
This is the field where I found my life’s calling, applying technology to meet critical needs of society, where the market is likely to fail. From my college dorm room, where I thought that pattern recognition could do more than target missiles, to my first successful high tech company where we built technology that could read just about any font without training, to Benetech’s founding with the Arkenstone reading machine for the blind.
I remember the day I told my wife, Virginia, that I’d do this “nonprofit thing” for just one year and then go back to regular for-profit high tech companies. That was over 24 years ago!
I also remember thinking how nice people were when I shifted out of regular high tech business into the field of assistive technology, how people threw great parties at these small and intimate conferences, and how appreciative people were of what our technology could do for their independence.
I especially want to acknowledge two people who helped make this award possible. First, one of last year’s Migel Award winners, George Kerscher. He started Computerized Books for the Blind the year before we started Benetech, and became one of our earliest partners. Even back then, we included information about his service in the box of each Arkenstone Reader because we knew people would rather not have to scan a book before reading it! And when the idea of a peer-to-peer ebook library came to me, it was George who I went to with the idea. After talking me out of calling it Bookster, he explained how the DAISY format would be ideal for our new Bookshare project, that he had made sure that it would work well for ebooks like the ones we were hoping to provide. We were following in his footsteps, on a path he helped create!
And second, Donna McNear, the itinerant teacher of the visually impaired from Minnesota, who kept telling me that I had to go to Washington and talk to the Department of Education. “Washington? Isn’t that where good ideas go to die?” I said! But, by eventually following Donna’s advice and talking to the Office of Special Education Programs in DC, we discovered the funding and the way forward for Bookshare to begin to realize its potential.
Thank you, George and Donna, for helping us make real our dreams of service!
However, in the immortal words of Revolutionary War naval captain John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to fight!” The book famine may be receding here in the United States with Bookshare and the increasing advent of universally designed and accessible ebooks, but globally we have only scratched the surface of the need. The World Blind Union is working right now, with support from our community, to get a global treaty to help the blind, with a hopeful date of this June for that treaty to be concluded. That treaty should replicate the successful copyright exception here in the U.S. that made Bookshare possible, by putting the power to make accessible books into the hands of blind people in far more countries of the world. With Betsy Beaumon leading the Bookshare team, I feel confident that we will go from the quarter million people with print disabilities that we serve today to millions around the globe.
The support and inspiration I found here in the vision field made today’s Benetech possible: our nonprofit organization that now works in other fields as well, fields like human rights, the environment and volunteerism. From capturing the stories of human rights violations in Guatemala, Burma, Syria and Uganda, to helping a biologist plan a better restoration of a wetlands, or matching up an open source geek with the social good project of his or her dreams, Benetech’s team is using technology to make the world a better place. While we remain committed to serving people with disabilities, our work with Arkenstone and Bookshare has created a model that is being replicated by Benetech and many others in new fields. Together, we all hope to have a world where technology fully serves all of humanity, not just the richest or most able 5%.
Thank you again for this honor!


I’m fired up by the opportunities ahead and looking forward to continuing working with our remarkable partners in the education, technology, publishing, student, parent and volunteer communities as we advance towards the day when accessibility of the written word is no longer a challenge for people with disabilities. We hope you’ll join us on this journey.


Donna McNear said...

Very nice remarks as always and great delivery...and thanks for your appreciation of a conversation so long ago

Bronwen said...

Congratulations on your well deserved honor Jim. I had the pleasure of hearing you speak at the AER Conference in Seattle last year - totally inspiring! The world needs more like you out there!

(Melbourne, Australia)

Amy Harris said...

Congratulations on this honor and recognition. So pleased to see all the good work that comes from Benetech!