Inventing equality for blind people

George Kerscher has a sweeping vision, even though he's blind: He wants to make all printed information "accessible." Web sites, academic papers, books, magazines and other publications -- everything in print should be readily available in audio, he says, so that the millions with impaired eyesight can "read" by using their ears.

For 21 years, Kerscher has been a global leader in carrying out this vision. From his base in Missoula, Mont., he's invented technologies and computer programs and encouraged advancements in policies that involve dozens of countries.

Kerscher was born in Chicago with a timebomb ticking in his genes: retinitis pigmentosa, a condition that causes the retinas to deteriorate slowly. By the 1980s, when he was a high school teacher in Montana, his eyes were so bad he could only read two pages of print per hour. He began experimenting with computers to enhance text, and then went on to study computer science at the University of Montana. At that time, few books were available in audio and the format of the books on tape was primitive. Kerscher persuaded publishers to send him computer files that contained the texts of some books, and he wrote his own software that converted those texts to audio.

When his computer read the books aloud in 1988, he says, "I was amazed, totally shocked! These were (some of) the first electronic books!"

He got a National Science Foundation grant to develop his e-book technology, then a job working on it for a top textbook company, Recordings for the Blind & Dyslexic. He's worked with organizations such as the Association on Higher Education Access and Disability, the Web Accessibility Initiative and the United Nations. He's also a longtime top staffer for the DAISY Consortium, a global nonprofit that helps computer programmers make standardized e-books.

The DAISY reader, which is about the size of a deck of cards, enunciates text, footnotes, headings and even math problems in DAISY-formatted books in an easily understandable way. It even responds to verbal commands; say, "Page 88," for example, and it zips to that page.

Kerscher travels around the world constantly, spreading the word and working to help devise international accessibility standards. His first guide dog, Nesbit, became the first dog to travel more than 1 million air miles.

Kerscher, who turns 59 this month, is now seeking funding for the Missoula Demonstration Project. With the help of other local experts, it would make many local Web sites and reading materials in schools and nursing homes accessible. "We're in the Information Age," Kerscher says, "and access to information is a fundamental human right."

--by Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

Rural empowerment

The plateau south of Wheatland, Wyo., where Gregor Goertz and his family raise beef and organic winter wheat is blustery country. Winds averaging 27 mph comb the fields where 56-year-old Goertz once worked alongside his parents, and roar past cliffsides where Indians drove bison to their deaths. A few years ago, those winds started attracting energy developers. "It got to the point where three a week were calling us," Goertz says.

Intrigued but unsure how to get the best deal from companies that want to develop their land, Goertz and some neighbors tapped their local U.S. Department of Agriculture Resource Conservation and Development coordinator, Grant Stumbough. With his help, they lobbied other landowners on the plateau, brought in experts, and in 2007 formed the Slater Wind Energy Association, which encompasses about 30,000 private acres and nearly 50 landowners.

The idea is relatively simple: Owners pool their land and evaluate its wind resources, put together a marketing package and present a unified voice in bargaining with companies for a fair price. Because all the members experience construction and visual impacts, everyone gets a share in the proceeds, even those who don't end up with turbines on their land. Companies know there is community support and avoid having to negotiate separately with many landowners -- though they may end up paying more.

It's a model that could avert some of the animosity around wind farms. And proponents think it can revitalize rural communities and keep farmers and ranchers on their land despite rising costs.

Slater was the first of 11 associations (two more are in the works) to organize in southeastern Wyoming. One has signed with a developer and three others, including Slater, are close to making deals. Since last spring, 16 have sprung up in northeastern New Mexico. In Colorado, older landowner cooperatives that had trouble developing wind on their own are now signing with companies that take on the risks of projects in return for ultimately owning them. The idea is also catching on in Utah, Montana, Nebraska and South Dakota.

The main obstacles are lack of transmission lines and financing problems amid the economic crisis. Landowners also face a steep learning curve. Stumbough scrambles to keep up with the demand for seminars and webinars. The Colorado-based Rocky Mountain Farmers Union is working with Windustry, a Minnesota-based nonprofit, to provide technical and legal support to fledgling associations. It's a key innovation for establishing fairness as Westerners tap their wind, says Windustry's Lisa Daniels: "Otherwise it might end up being just another form of exploitation, like what's happened with oil and gas leases."

--by Sarah Gilman, HCN associate editor