Kevin Carey

Black and white photograph of Kevin Carey, courtesy of Sussex Living Magazine Kevin Carey is Chair of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) which is one of the founding members of the DAISY Consortium. He is also founder and Director of the UK's leading eInclusion charity, Chair of the Ofcom Community Radio Fund Panel, a Board Member of the Social Investment Business and a regular contributor to both the Managing Information and Ability Magazine. Kevin is a novelist and published poet. As you read his 'story' you will discover that he is an extremely intelligent and intense person who has a passion for problem solving and is passionate about accessibility. The opinions presented here belong expressly to Mr. Carey.

I was born in 1951, nine weeks premature, weighing 3lb.2oz, and only survived through the use of oxygen in an incubator which blinded my right eye and left very little vision in the left. However when I was young I taught myself to read print and was a voracious consumer of television and coffee table art books until I became totally blind in 1976. I attended a residential school for blind children, but the example of integration in North America in the late 1950s led to my attendance at a standard high school from which I progressed to Cambridge University and then to Harvard.

Short-Lived Golden Age

In the late 1970s I joined Sightsavers International and worked in more than 50 developing countries over 15 years, devising national blindness prevention plans and strategies for incurably blind people who needed education, rehabilitation and employment.

Then, in the late 1970s, I met my first computer driven braille embosser and refreshable braille terminal. Once upon a time (there was a short-lived golden age between 1978 and 1992) when blindness and computing went together like – forgive the English idioms – peaches and cream and bacon and eggs. But then came the graphical user interface (GUI) at the same time as the wonderful World Wide Web emerged.

The Brave New Digital World

Kevin Carey and his wife visiting Machu Picchu, a pre-Columbian 15th-century Inca site in Peru, South America At the time this was a purely personal challenge, but for me it soon became a cause and part of a business. I left Sightsavers in 1992 to become a freelance digital information consultant and in 1996 I set up humanITy as one of the world's first digital inclusion not-for-profits to focus on those who found the new digital environment difficult, not simply because they were handicapped, bewildered or alienated, but also because nerdy designers in their early 20s were designing non-intuitive systems for their peers. It was as if the brave new digital world had robbed marketing departments of their potency. I will never forget the day that a group of seniors complained that they were supposed to guess that you had to push the "on" button to turn off the computer! Since then I have worked in deprived communities, laboratories, government departments and international forums to make access to digital information a reality for the least advantaged.

It wasn't long before I became involved in the W3C WAI (Web Accessibility Initiative) but I was never comfortable there. At one of the first meetings, in 1997, I was asked what outcome I wanted, and said: "Guidelines for moving pictures" but WCAG was to stick firmly to text and static graphics for the next 15 years. Indeed, one of the aspects of the 'blindness world' that really irked me was the institutional fixation on computing for learning and employment to the almost complete exclusion of access to television and cellular phones. Even in the DAISY sector there has been a quasi-moral, librarian-led focus on books at the expense of magazines and ephemera, as if those who go blind should read books for their own good, regardless of what they did before.

Kevin Carey in Vienna at the grave of Gustav Mahler an Austrian composer and conductor Over the years I took sheaths of accessibility guidelines and boiled them down into language which digital information designers could grasp without acquiring complex and tedious specialist knowledge, centering around granularity, device independence and multi-modality. If information observed these three attributes, I said, then everything else would be all right. But there was a parallel initiative centred on authorial responsibility for providing information in the public domain on a non-discriminatory basis at a fair price. I also worked on a simple taxonomical system allowing no more than nine live links on a web page so that it could be driven at a high level by a numeric keypad, with SMS (short message service) for the last mile.

Copyright and Media

I have been labouring in the copyright arena for almost 25 years. I think that the blindness sector has been far too precious in respecting the rights of major publishers who are big enough to stand up for themselves; publish and be damned, I say. Every time there is a new medium there is a new battle, so we need to think generically rather than fixating on new media as they emerge.

Accessibility and Broadcasting

The snail's pace of WAI pushed me into the accessibility of broadcasting. I obtained a National Endowment in Science and the Arts (NESTA) Fellowship in accessible broadcasting in 2004 and learned about UK television accessibility before working with the National Centre for Accessible Media (NCAM) in Boston, USA, and studying the Blue Book provisions for DVD. I received a Royal Television Society Engineering Award for work on an ultimately unsuccessful speech-to-text driven Electronic Programme Guide (EPG) of which I'm particularly proud because I am an arts graduate.

Convergence of Technologies

Kevin Carey with the original sculpture Perpetua The new world of text-to-speech on smart phones and television electronic programme guides has left me awestruck and grateful. I think that there is one more important set of developments in this current technology era, and that is the benefits we can reap from convergence – the same technology that enables electronic money will be behind store accessibility and peer-to-peer transactions, so that if we can crack accessibility issues at the core we will not have to lobby a whole variety of economic sectors and interest groups. But there is one area where market failure has been chronic, and that is the stubbornly high price of refreshable braille. I am therefore proud to be chairing the Transforming Braille Project under the auspices of the DAISY Consortium to find a basic, low cost braille display technology offering 75-90% of what we have now.

The Graphics Explosion

But behind all the positive developments there lies a deep problem, so deep that the VI sector is shying away from its serious discussion, and that is the graphics explosion.

Kevin Carey standing with a new sculpture in his garden Writing was originally developed because sculpture was too expensive and bulky. For hundreds of years, writing, in spite of its limitations, was economic compared with sculpture and painting. But we have experienced a revolution in the past 20 years during which the cost of digital photography has plummeted while the cost of clear prose writing is rising in the English speaking world as more people use English 'approximately' rather than accurately. Connected with that, the price of describing pictures – these billions of digital photographs – is going to rise and there is no prospect of automating that process any time soon (although we should be more aware than we are of catalogues). This is another reason why authors should take more responsibility for accessibility – if they choose pictures, they should describe them and say why they were chosen.

Love of Reading

In spite of my professional interest in technology, I am a bookish man at heart. I like braille paper under my hands. I'm glad that there is so much audio available but I like to read while listening to music. I was a classical music critic for ten years. I like to read very long books and I also write very long, philosophical novels, three of which have now been published by Sacristy Press.

Editor's Note:

Photo Credit

The black and white photograph of Kevin Carey at the top of this page was generously provided for publication in the DAISY Planet newsletter by Sussex Living magazine. Special thanks go to Tanis Banham, Director, of the magazine for her assistance.