Land Line

At home we have a POTS line. POTS stands for plain old telephone system. A POTS line when used for voice, as opposed to fax, is now commonly referred to as a land line. We have an analog telephone that gets all it’s power from the telephone system to which it is attached. The theory is that in an emergency, with all power out, we will still be able to make a telephone call with this line, such as calls to emergency medical services, or to the fire department. We also have what is known as an answering machine attached to the same line. The phone rings and if no one picks up on the fourth ring, the answering machine turns on and plays back the outgoing message. The tone sounds, and then you can leave a message of up to thirty seconds on the answering machine. I’m spelling all this out for those of you unfamiliar with concepts like POTS, land lines, answering machines, and analog phones. I know about these old timey things because as a child, my family participated in a party line phone system, but I’ve also worked in IT troubleshooting digital phone systems as a small part of my work so I am very much aware that the phone company we use has lots of services that would, for instance, eliminate the need for an answering machine. I hate the phone company we use and so engage in as few services as possible. I’m just here quietly tending my resentment garden. Move on, nothing to see.

Under Siege

We have had this phone number since 1996 when we moved into this house. We have given it out to a lot of people and services. Since we acquired cell phones we vastly prefer to receive calls on those numbers, and have spent years attempting to direct everyone to call us on our office phones or cell phones. There are some services that unerringly call the land line when we’re at work, office lines when we’re at home, and cell phones when we can’t pick up. But though they will descend to their own particular ring of hell, they are not what has us under siege. Do you know about the National Do Not Call Registry? Wonderful concept. You go to that web site and enter the phone numbers you want placed on the do not call list. Companies that comply, delete your phone number from their lists and robo dialing computers. You know that saying that goes “if phone numbers are outlawed, only criminals will have phone numbers?” No? Well, now criminals have our phone number, and I’m talking real out-and-out criminals. If there are real businesses that do not adhere to the do not call concept, they are not the thugs that are calling us. These scammers use blatant lies and cunning trickery in an attempt to defraud us. I am very afraid for people without the cognitive skills needed to deal with these scam artists. About eighteen months ago the calls started to increase in number. Now we get about six and more a day. We’re under siege.

Hog Wrassling

First I can tell you what does not work. Politely and otherwise asking how they got the number. Explaining patiently and otherwise that the number is on the do not call list. Remonstrating with the caller and asking them to please make sure to remove us from their list. Asking for a supervisor. Asking the name and location of the company calling. Asking for a dial back number in the case of those seeking identification information. The list of attempts I’ve made to quell the number of calls has only increased the number of calls. Never wrassle with a hog because you both get dirty and the hog likes it. Just the fact that a live person picked up is enough for these scammers to verify that this is a good number, a number worth keeping, and a number worth trading and selling. Chris Blasko is my hero.


Because there are a few services and people who still call the number, I held off a long time, but I finally tried a solution about two weeks ago. Now when you call our home number you hear an official sounding “this number is no longer in service” outgoing message. Complete with the official tones telling the robodialing computers to forget the number, the new outgoing message is now getting a different result than we have been getting. Previously we were getting messages that sounded like boiler rooms with lots of people in them with scammers repeating our names (Joseph? Joseph? pick up please Joseph!), and other very weird stuff on our answering machine. Now we’re getting a bit of dead air and then, as if by magic, a dial tone starts. I think this solution is working. Legitimate callers should still be able to leave a message for us but it’s doubtful that they will do so. In any event, we won’t be picking up. This will only work if we do it 100%. Hopefully, eventually, the robocalls will die out. Hopefully.

The Message File

I did some searching for the exact message that the phone company in my area code uses to warn callers that a number is no longer in service but I didn’t find one. I usually only get small blocks of time to do any given task. I did this in the car while waiting for my daughter’s aide to take her out of the car to report to work so it may not be perfect. Here’s a copy of the finished file after some trimming in QuickTime:

“We’re sorry your call CAN NOT BE COMPLETED” (.wav file, 2.5 MB)

Again, I only had a limited amount of time to edit it so I chopped off a useless intro and copied it a second time in case the computer didn’t catch the tones up front. I sampled about a dozen different files and it’s interesting to note that there are regional differences in the style and delivery of the message. However, they all use the three tone warning at the beginning of the message, and it’s that three tone warning that tells the computer to automatically remove the number. Or maybe they have their computers set to try again in case the situation is temporary. I can’t guess all the permutations so I’m just going with the idea that the computer receives the tones, and the computer deletes the number. With a human caller they most likely won’t remove the number. Doing nothing is in their best interest. Since numbers represent assets, they probably don’t want to be the one to delete an asset. I’ve determined, however, that nearly all these calls are initiated by computers.

If you want to discuss this, catch me on Twitter at @blacktelephone

For Fun And For Free

I am writing this on behalf of Accessible Twitter and Dennis Lembree.

In The Beginning

I was consulting at Cornell University in 1991 when I saw the first Web pages on a NeXT computer. The first pages were rather accessible but there wasn’t any assistive technology on the NeXT computer at that time. JAWS for DOS was originally released in 1989 by Ted Henter but as far as I know it never existed for NeXT.

Though Tim Berners-Lee is supposed to have said that he never intended for pictures to be displayed on the Web, in 1992 he apparently went out of his way to load this first Web picture.

Uploading that picture brought on the beginning of inaccessible Web design. People merrily went about “designing” pages filled with pictures with no alternative text. Pages with black backgrounds, yellow slanty text, and the tiled rings of Saturn. It was mostly academics, scientists, military people who had accounts. The Web grew out of their sensibilities.

A very common sensibility on the early Internet that carried over to the early Web was that it was for fun and for free. The people who regularly used the Internet back then might not have described their modality as for fun and for free but they sure lived it. I remember incendiary flame wars over the very mention of a commercial product in a Usenet newsgroup discussion. Contrast that with Blackboard claiming they own a patent to deliver courses over the Web. Sheesh.

Tim Berners-Lee himself did not patent the Web. While CERN was certainly a very serious enterprise, you could easily say that he gave the world the Web for fun and for free. Think about that for a second or two. This enormous economic development engine that is the Web was given to us for fun and for free. Wow!

Big AOL Bang

Now I come to the Big AOL Bang. When all those AOL pukes were set loose on the raw wild Internet in 1995 they destroyed it. They went right to GeoCities, also vintage 1995, and made pages that look like this.

Sorry Ms. Hagen. I do really love your music though. I even have your vinyl! Vinyl? Well, records used to be relea… Records? Well records were…

Alright, so that page isn’t on GeoCities… but it should be. And what’s up with 1995 anyway? OMG!

From the beginning of the Web I was called on to “make a Web page” for places I worked, or lived, or friends, or politicians, or artists. I made Web pages. I tried to make plain pages with logical navigation. I was admonished. The client wanted black backgrounds with yellow slanty text, animated gif sparkle ponies, and a picture of their cat. And that was for a course syllabus. Of course.

Section 508 Saves The Day

In the USA in August 1998, Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act was signed into law tasking the General Services Administration with providing technical assistance concerning the requirements of the law. Accessibility was now mandated by law, and it was good. And order was imposed on the Web. NOT!

As recently as this past week, on July 29th, 2009, the NFB – National Federation of the Blind – gave the online retailer some recognition. “The NFB’s Gold Level Certification is awarded in recognition of commitment and innovation to help ensure equal Web access to the visually impaired individuals.” The ironic thing is that I read the press release on a page without a skipnav or headings, with endless navigation and inline CSS; in short a rather inaccessible page.

Let’s review: 508 goes into effect 10 years ago. 10 years later, the NFB finds it necessary to note that an online retailer is doing something about accessibility. Boy oh boy.

I haven’t done extensive accessibility testing of, but here’s the first text (hidden) at the top of the mainpage: “If you are visually impaired and are having difficulty navigating this site, please call our Customer Support line.” Hmmm… I’m confused, if I can’t see the invisible text I should raise my hand? Of course!

What they are doing of course is putting that text there for those with screen readers, a vital but small portion of those with disabilities. They’re trying, but probably doesn’t get the whole picture.

They should read this article titled Don’t Just Tick Boxes.

Accessible Twitter

Now, after a lengthy digression in which I partly laid out the history of the inaccessible Web, added in the Big AOL Bang, took a potshot at Nina Hagen, and poked in the eye (Doh!) I come to Dennis Lembree and his remarkable construction of Accessible Twitter.

I believe that there are others involved in creating and maintaining and upgrading and generally futzing with Accessible Twitter. Dennis is to be lauded, as is anyone else who is contributing including:

Dennis has poured what looks to be his every waking moment into Accessible Twitter. And it is truly accessible. I can even navigate with the keyboard. I get an audio cue when I’ve reached milestones in my character count. It is semantic, and there are proper headings.

Oh, about that audio cue. Erm… do NOT leave your speakers turned up most of the way when using Accessible Twitter. Makes me jump every time I hear “30 characters” loudly proclaimed. You’ll want to wear headphones if anyone else is trying to sleep.

Dennis Lembree is a pioneer, a magician, a dedicated soul who is the heart of the real Internet, the Internet I have come to love so much. The Internet that helped me for free when my daughter was born with severe disabilities in 1992. The Internet that freely helped me heal a RAID array on Christmas Eve 1997 so our thesis students could resume their work. The Internet of thoughtful individuals giving their time for fun and for free so that others may benefit, thoughtful individuals like Tim Berners-Lee. That’s who Dennis is. And that’s why he deserves our support, because he’s giving it away, for fun and for free, expressing love one Tweet at a time.

You might also want to read Accessible Twitter: how it should have been done to start with.


Siobhan, the Soundbeam, and Disablism

Blogging Against Disablism Day, May 1st 2009Today is Blogging Against Disablism Day brought to you by Diary of a Goldfish.

“We that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak…” Romans 15:1 – motto of Clipped Wings, a national organization open to all former, retired, and current United and Capital Airlines flight attendants.

In 2003, my family had the privilege of attending the family reception sponsored by Clipped Wings at theSpecial Olympics World Games in Dublin, Ireland. At that reception an award was given to Eunice Shriver and we heard a wonderful musical presentation that fully integrated musicians of all abilities. The orchestra was using traditional instruments alongside a Soundbeam 2 MIDI performance controller activated by switches and beams. When we saw the Soundbeam equipment being used by  musicians of all abilities we knew that our daughter Siobhan, a student with disabilities, could participate in mainstream instrumental music.

On YouTube there are some video resources to help you understand the Soundbeam. Though they focus more on music therapy than on mainstream music class and performance, you should get a clear picture of what the Soundbeam is and what it can do: Welcome to Soundbeam Part 1 and Welcome to Soundbeam Part 2. On YouTube you can also see Siobhan.

Since 2003, we have been unsuccessful in getting our schools to include our daughter in music. We even got our school to purchase the Soundbeam equipment, but it sits there, year after year. No one seems to have the imagination to understand what it is we saw in June 2003.

It is still our hope that Siobhan be included in mainstream music classes and performances. There is a music goal in her Individual Education Program (IEP) calling for the use of the Soundbeam. We have a four page timeline listing our begging, pleading, cajoling, demanding, asking, suggesting, interposing, meeting and otherwise chipping away at the goal month after month, year after year. For 6 years.

We’ve invited music teachers to each of the yearly IEP meetings. We had one music teacher actually sneer when we asked him to implement Siobhan’s music goal. This is Disablism at its finest. Because Siobhan doesn’t make verbal speech, because she has poor balance, because she lacks fine motor skills, she must not be able to participate. Have you ever heard a beginner violin orchestra performance? Sounds just like cats. Siobhan could have actually helped at those performances.

Disablism has been very much a part of our lives since Siobhan was born in 1992 but you know the strange thing? Out in the world people generally take Siobhan at face value. They take her order in restaurants though she uses assistive technology to “talk.” She’s known at the Saturday farmers’ market we go to each week. One farmer keeps the good grapes for her because he knows she likes them so much. The strange thing is: we usually only encounter out-and-out Disablism when interacting with school people. Now why is that?

Enable full keyboard tabbing on Firefox for the Mac

I was very frustrated that Firefox for the Mac didn’t seem to work properly when I wanted to use the tab key to move through a web page. It was frustrating when filling in forms. The tab worked to move from one text field to another but would just skip over select lists. It was also annoying because it never seemed work when I wanted to test keyboard access to tab through link content and do a basic check for accessibility. I finally found the solution. There is a setting in both Firefox Preferences AND Apple System Preferences that need to work together. Continue reading “Enable full keyboard tabbing on Firefox for the Mac”