Assistive Technology

Be My Eyes – A Helping Eye for the Blind

Bme logo rgb lightSo, here we are at blog 200 – if anyone had told me back in June 2015 that I would surpass the 200 blog point I’d probably have laughed at them. I kind of thought blogging was something I’d do every now and then when I had something important to share. And maybe that’s still true. It’s just that I seem to have a fairly constant supply of important things to share with you.

Like the subject of today’s blog – an app called Be My Eyes. Here’s the description of the app taken from their website: “Be My Eyes is a global community that connects people who are blind or have low vision with sighted volunteers. On the app, volunteers assist blind and low vision users through a live video connection and work together to tackle challenges and handle a wide range of tasks. The app harnesses the power of generosity , technology, and human connection to help blind and low vision people lead more independent lives. Be My Eyes is accessible in more than 150 countries worldwide and in over 180 languages. The app is free and available for both IOS and Android.”

You may be wondering how Be My Eyes benefits the lives of those with visual impairment. Well, here’s my response to that.

Even though it doesn’t happen often, there are times when having sight would simply make my life a little easier – finding something I’ve dropped on what suddenly feels like a huge expanse of open floor space, reading a document that isn’t in an accessible format, , or an actual print document. I’ve used Be My Eyes to find out what colour an item of clothing is – yes, sometimes I buy the same item in different colours because they’re just so comfortable. Or finding out the contents of a tin, without having to open it.

I agree totally with whomever it was who said that blindness is not about ability, it’s about access to information. And sometimes having a helping hand – or a helping eye – like Be My Eyes is what we need to access that information.

Here are some of my favourite things about Be My Eyes. Not only is the added access to information great, so is the range of languages spoken by the volunteers – including many of our Southern African languages. It’s quick and easy to get connected to a volunteer –there are about 15 times the number of volunteers as registered blind users. There’s no limit to the number or duration of data calls you make, though I’d think it’s only fair to tell the volunteer if you think it may be a long or complex task.

And here’s a personal story – a few weeks ago Be My Eyes was featured quite a lot on Facebook and several of my friends shared one of their videos on my wall. Another of my friends watched the video and signed up as a volunteer, though she told me she doubted she’d ever be called on to assist someone since there were so many volunteers already. Her first call came in a day or two later…

If you’re interested in finding out more about Be My Eyes, either to sign up as a visually impaired user, or as a volunteer, simply download the app from either of the app-stores find them on almost any social media platform, or take a look at their website – www.bemyeyes.com

How Quickly We Grow Used to Things

NewImageIsn’t it funny that my first article on my last three overseas trips have been about in-flight entertainment and, more particularly, audio described movies on that in-flight entertainment – or the lack thereof.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the concept, audio description is a way that blind and visually impaired people can follow the action taking place onscreen. As the name suggests, the action is described in words along with the usual soundtrack of the movie. Sure, there are movies where the plot is driven by dialogue and we can follow more of what’s going on. But many movies – thrillers, action, horror, and cartoons, for example –are far more visual and it’s hard to follow what’s happening without help.

Admittedly I’m a fairly new convert to audio described movies but it’s amazing how quickly I’ve come to expect them to be part of the in-flight entertainment on a long distance flight. So I was distressed when I found no audio described movies on the 11 hour KLM flight from Cape Town to Amsterdam.

Maybe I’d misled myself into thinking all airlines had audio described movies on international flights simply because Emirates Airlines does. Granted, we haven’t used other airlines in a while for overseas travel. I’d love to know what other airlines also include movies that take the needs of their disabled passengers into consideration – please let me know if you’ve experienced any that do.

At least I had my trusty iPhone and book reader with me on my flight so I had plenty to keep me entertained. Still, I’d have liked to have the ability to choose whether or not to watch an accessible movie…

I Couldn’t Believe My Eyes… Umm, My Ears!

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Isn’t life unbelievable? Mere weeks after I posted a lament that I couldn’t find an accessible word search, I found one, and a whole lot more great word and trivia games – all in one place!

It happened like this: a blind friend of mine posted on Facebook that she was looking for a word game she could play on her iPhone using Voice Over (the in-build screen reader app on IOS products). Of course I replied with a suggestion to try Seven Little Words, a word builder game I’ve been enjoying for some time. Someone else mentioned something called Huboodle and I couldn’t resist downloading the app to take a look….

Huboodle is a game pack designed by AppA11y Inc. , which currently includes 8 different games, though more could be added in the future. It’s a free app with some in-app purchases but these are in no way necessary for you to play any of the games. It’s available in several languages: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Malay, Simplified Chinese, and Spanish and is completely accessible using Voice Over. But don’t be misled into thinking the games are only for people who are visually impaired. There are many sighted people who also enjoy playing – the accessibility is just an added bonus.

Amongst those 8 games are two accessible word search games. I was so surprised when I saw that I almost fell off my chair. Then I almost jumped to my feet and danced with joy.

Strangely enough I’ve only played one word search so far. I’ve been enjoying some of the other games, Word Builder and Trivia Trail.

Word Builder is a game where you build as many words as you can from a selection of letters you’re given. Each level has different letter groups and a different target of words to find. You also gain extra points for finding words that aren’t on the list they give you, so it’s a great game for anyone with a fair vocabulary. I must admit I get particular pleasure every time I find those bonus words.

The other game I’m really enjoying is Trivia Trail. The goal is to work your way through 10 multichoice trivia questions within a limited amount of time. I’ve heard the time limit is 50 seconds but it feels a lot longer when I’m actually playing. The added trick is that you go back to the start of the level if you get a question wrong which takes extra time.

Sure, Huboodle also has some games of chance and I’ve dabbled with poker, blackjack and the wheel of fortune but none of them have really grabbed me. I guess I’m just not a gambler by nature. Other games I haven’t tried so far are a memory game, Simon Says, a multiplayer Ludo board game called Ludo Palooza and, of course, there are the two word search games which attracted me in the first place.

Okay, enough time writing… I’ve got some more words to build!

Getting to Grips with the Question of Employment… Or the Lack Thereof 02

In my last post I referred to a recent article from the Cape Argus newspaper. It’s relevant to this post as well – here’s a link to the article if you want to read it: https://www.pressreader.com/south-africa/cape-argus/20180502/281814284483805

The Cape Argus article says that companies should have budget specifically for reasonable accommodations for employees with disabilities. In the case of visual impairment this would tend to be technology to help us access information, like screen readers, and text or object recognition products. The perception is that these technologies are prohibitively expensive.

Here’s my thoughts on that perception…

I’m not going to argue that we don’t need these technologies – looking at how much time I spend on my laptop and smart phone with accessible software I find it hard to remember how we used to cope before. What I’m arguing is the perception – the assumption – that it’s expensive to provide these digital accommodations.

Sure, some commercial software solutions do carry a cost, but these are not the only solutions. And I think the decision of whether to pay for a commercial solution will depend on the perceived value. Certainly, in South Africa, the commercial solutions are out of reach of many individuals so, if the employer decides this is the way they want to go it would probably be at the employer’s expense.

Let’s look at some of the other options:

Over the past few years the assistive technology landscape has changed. Increasingly we’re seeing technology companies including in-built accessible software into their products – all Apple products now have in-build screen reader and magnifier software, Microsoft also has in-build accessible software, and the number of free or discretionary cost solutions are constantly growing. These options mean that more individuals are able to access assistive technology without breaking the bank.

What does that mean? Let’s say I was to consider applying for a position with a company, which I’m not right now, I could approach a job interview with all the assistive technology solutions already in place – hence no cost to the company unless they decided to use the more expensive commercial products. Using my existing software and various free apps on my iPhone I’m able to access almost any information I’m likely to need.

Are these free solutions as good? Certainly I find they enable me to do all I need to do, though at times I may need to hunt for the solution. I can’t say I’ve done an exhaustive comparison but certainly I Haven’t found anything I can’t do on my current screen reader that I could on the commercial equivalent.

And yet the perception persists that making reasonable accommodations will be expensive.

I suppose it’s logical – very few people with no lings to the disability world know what solutions are available, and you’re unlikely to be told about the free options if you ask a commercial vendor. So it’s up to us, as visually impaired people, to make other’s aware of what we can access.

I know the focus of my posts is on the issue of barriers to employment that exist for people with visual impairments, rather than all disabilities. This is the area I have direct personal experience in. However, I know the principles hold across the spectrum of other disabilities.

If you’d like more information on anything I’ve said in this post, please feel free to contact me – this is a subject very close to my heart… as is decreasing the barriers to employment so often faced by persons with disabilities.

PS Please share this article with anyone you know who might need to read it – let’s work together to increase the inclusion of those who are visually impaired into society and the workplace!

You Can’t Judge a Book by Its Reader

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“I can’t imagine any visually impaired person would prefer reading books using a computer voice rather than a human voice!”

I’m probably misquoting the words but that was the sense of a comment I heard on one of the assistive technology podcasts I regularly listen to. My immediate response was to disagree vehemently… and then I paused and thought about it for a bit.

You see, I actually do prefer reading using a computerized voice. And I seriously doubt I’m the only blind person who does so. So I hopped onto Facebook and asked the question, tagging all the visually impaired people I’m connected with on that platform.
It wasn’t just curiosity that drove me, though anyone who knows me will agree that I have a finely developed sense of curiosity. I also wanted to find out to help me reach more blind and visually impaired people with my own books.

It turns out that most of the people I asked preferred human voice books in the form of audio books or services like Audible.com. When chatting to a friend about this startling (to us both) fact he offered a few reasons why this might be so, but his rationale was fairly complicated and this is only meant to be an article, not a thesis!

When I first lost my sight I used to listen to audio books and found that my opinion of the book often depended on the quality of the reader and, in some cases, how well I felt the reader’s voice fitted the genre of the book. Of course, that was back in the days when my only source of books was the library service, Tape Aids for the Blind where the readers were all volunteers so the quality varied quite a bit. Thankfully there was only one instance that the reader was so bad that he totally killed the book for me! But I truly began to feel like I was juding the books, not by their covers but by their readers.

Then someone introduced me to reading on computer using a screen reader and my life was transformed. I loved the ability to scan any book I wanted and read it. I loved the ability to change the rate and pitch of the voice – if you try that with a human voice it often lands up sounding like Minnie Mouse on helium which really isn’t pleasant. But most of all I loved that I was free to interpret the words in whatever way I chose to rather than having my impressions of the book determined by the reader– to me that was the closest I’d found to reading as I’d done when I still had sight.

Ultimately I don’t think there’s a right and wrong way to read when you’re visually impaired. The important thing is that we have the ability to read in whatever format we each prefer, whether it’s using human voice, computer voice, or braille.

But my investigations got me thinking that I really ought to do an audio version of my book, A Different Way of Seeing… Anyone interested in reading for me?

Proposed New Accessibility Emoji

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I love using emoji – sometimes they so exactly capture what you’re trying to convey, where you’d need a whole bunch of words.

So I was intrigued when I listened to a recent episode of the Assistive Technology Update podcast and heard an article about some new emoji that are being considered – including emoji of guide and service dogs, people in wheelchairs, people with white mobility canes, hearing aids and prosthetic limbs.

I was interested to note that it is Apple who have put these new emoji forward for consideration – well done, Apple!

Here’s a link to the article about the new emoji from the Assistive Technology Update podcast show-notes. Why not take a look and tell me what you think.

http://bit.ly/2IQaIoq

A Mash-up of Accessibility

2018 02 12 16 44 21At first I was thrilled when my bank, First National Bank, released an iPhone app. For years I had been using telephone banking but increasingly it wasn’t serving my needs. The thought of being able to use technology to do all my banking appealed to me. So I downloaded the FNB app and started to play…

At first I was fairly happy with the usability of the app, especially since the in-built screen reader on my iPhone allowed me to access most of the information I needed to complete any transactions. Then FNB updated the app and it all went a little crazy.

Now the app is a mash-up of accessibility and inaccessibility – I know which button I need to tap to log in (though I had to get sighted help so I could label it rather than simply having a screen full of things simply invitingly labeled as “button”), I can sort of get to the point where I’m ready to make a payment to a beneficiary… though I can’t access which account I’m paying from, and I can’t see the details of the transaction I’m about to make on the screen with the equally inviting button that encourages me to confirm the payment- hey, is it too much to ask that you show me the details you want me to confirm?

Two months ago I tweeted FNB to engage with them about the problems I’m having accessing the app. Their support guy was very quick to reply and assure me it would be investigated… and I’ve heard nothing since.

Which is why I’m writing this article in a fit of extreme frustration – I’ve banked with FNB since I was seven years old… but maybe it’s time for a change!

Words, Glorious Words

I’ve always loved word games. Back when I was still sighted one of the best things about working part-time at a local book shop was that I had first access to any new word search magazines that appeared on the shelves. Since losing my sight I’ve occasionally found myself thinking back to those word searches with nostalgia – heavens, on occasion , I’ve even caught myself wondering whether it might be possible for me to create an accessible word search of my own.

I’m sure you can imagine my delight when I found a podcast reviewing an accessible iPhone word puzzle called Clever Clues -so what if it wasn’t a word search, at least it was an accessible game involving words. Of course I downloaded it at once and started playing…

7 little wordsI happened to mention the game to a few friends who, to my absolute delight, introduced me to a second accessible IOS game, Seven Little Words – again, not a word search, but another word puzzle. So I downloaded it as well…

What it so great is that neither of these games have been specifically designed for the blind community. Their structure and the way they were designed and created makes it possible for both visually impaired and sighted word-puzzle lovers to play them with the same ease. So now I’m back to spending a little of my free time indulging that love of word games, playing both Clever Clues and Seven Little Words on a regular basis.

If you’re like me and enjoy games that get you thinking, stimulate your vocabulary, and provide hours of entertainment why not give these games a try?

If you decide to give them a go and can’t figure out how to play… drop me a line and I’ll be happy to offer a few suggestions, though I can’t promise you won’t have to decode my instructions first – after all, I do love word games!

Okay, Sometimes I’m Slow on the Uptake

For years several of my visually impaired friends have been encouraging me to try movies with audio description – an additional soundtrack describing what’s happening on screen. On the various flights between Cape Town and Greece I finally capitulated… and was totally blown away by how much more fun audio descriptions make the experience of watching a movie!

I am sure that many of my visually impaired friends are rolling their eyes at how long it’s taken me to understand this fact. And sure, sometimes I am a little slow on the uptake, but a large part of the reason I’ve only now tried audio described movies is that I’ve never been much of a movie watcher – I can usually be found with my head in a book… or is that my ears in a book since I now listen to books?

For my initial foray into audio described movies I decided to try Pirates of the Caribbean a movie I had already “seen”, meaning I had listened to it and tried to work out what was happening from the sound effects and the words being spoken. I felt this was the most objective way of measuring how much additional information I gained through the audio description process. I also felt it would give me a chance to become used to the audio description track without having to focus too much on the plot.

If I’m honest, it felt like I was watching a totally different movie! I couldn’t believe how much information I’d missed out on the previous time. And it gave me an opportunity to just sit back and relax, rather than having to concentrate on every word, every sound to hehlp me figure out the storyline.

Having proven to myself that audio described movies were a good way to go, I ventured out into watching movies I’d never seen before, starting with another oldie – Toy Story) and then trying out a current blockbuster, Wonder Woman. In each case I had a few issues with the movies, but they were related to the content and storylines, not to the audio descriptions or my understanding of the story.

It looks like I’m (eventually) a convert to the concept of audio described movies – I just wish the Emirates in-flight entertainment system had also been accessible so I could have found the movies without sighted help.

What Do You Mean It’s a Two Hour Interview???

Cds b6e41c7b 3b79 4649 9ca8 9331b6dd54d5I’ll happily accept almost any opportunity to share my story and talk about my books, but I’ll admit I was somewhat daunted by the thought of being the only guest on a two-hour radio interview. Fellow speaker and friend, presenter Cindy Pivacic assured me the time would pass before I knew it, and she ought to know – she’s been presenting the Entrep-A-Who Show on Hashtag Radio for several months.

Regardless of my anxiety, Fiji and I arrived at the Hashtag Radio studios at the appointed time and were ushered into the studio. And Cindy was absolutely right – the two hours flew by and all too soon we were done.

We covered a broad range of subjects in the interview – my speaking, my writing with special reference to my latest book, “A Different Way of Seeing”, the technology I use to help me accomplish everyday tasks and a little about the realities of living without sight. I even got to demonstrate (umm, audiostrate?) The voice over app that I use to access my iPhone. We also spoke about the difference Fiji has made in my life… all while she lay blissfully slumbering at my feet.

The photo shows Cindy, myself and Fiji standing beside the Hashtag Radio sign.

Listen to Hashtag Radio here: www.hashtagradio.co.za

I’d definitely recommend tuning in to one of Cindy’s Entrep-A-Who Shows each Wednesday from 12:00 – 14:00 – she always has fascinating guests!

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