assistive technology

Blindness in the Workplace: Apps to access Print

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We continue the series about tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace – this time looking at apps that use artificial intelligence (AI) to convert text and images into an audio format.

There are many such apps on the market, ranging in price from free to approximately R1500. The apps usually take a photograph of the text or image to be recognized and transmit it to the cloud for conversion. The process is usually fast and fairly accurate, though this may depend from product to product. The apps I usually use are Seeing AI, developed by Microsoft and available on the Apple app store at no cost, and Voice OCR Document Reader, developed by Shalin Shah, which costs around R80 at the time of writing.

I’ve also recently been looking at an app called Voice Dream Scanner, which I like since it does the conversion on the phone itself and so doesn’t need an internet connection – an asset considering the issue of confidentiality of information. It retails for around R100 on the app store and I’ve heard great reports on how well it works.

Of course, the far more important question is how apps like these could be used in the workplace.

The answer is pretty much anywhere where an employee who is blind wants or needs to access print material or even get help reading a computer screen, if for some reason the screen reader has stopped working.

Though more and more offices are becoming paperless nowadays, apps like these can still mean an employee who is blind would be able to access print documents like meting minutes and agendas, industry magazines and books, printed reports and some handwritten notes. though I fear we’re still a long way from an app that would be able to decipher my illegible scrawl!

I’m going to be stepping away from this series on tools that make a blind employee productive in the workplace for a few weeks while I share some information on one of my other passions – travel, with a special focus on travel for persons with disabilities.

But I’m far from done on this topic – there are still a lot more tools I’d like to share with you to help raise awareness of the reality that blindness shouldn’t be a barrier to employment with all the tools that are available to us.

Be My Eyes in the Workplace

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Those of you following this series of articles about tools to help a blind person be independently productive in the workplace may be asking how we engage with paper documents and physical objects we need to operate.

The answer is quite simple – there’s an app for that! It’s called Be My Eyes, is free to download onto a mobile phone and is available on both IOS and Android phones.

Here’s how it works: I open the app on my smart phone and hit the “Call Next Available Volunteer” button. My data call gets picked up by one of the volunteers, who are able to use the phone camera so I can borrow their eyesight to identify objects, read printed material or a computer screen (or even handwriting). The volunteers can also help me find dropped objects or help me navigate around places.

Can you see how this would help someone who is blind in the workplace?

It can help me do anything from reading print material to using the coffee machine in the workplace. As a blind person, one of my greatest challenges is access to printed information. With an app like Be My Eyes that’s no longer such a problem.

With more than 2 million volunteers around the world, speaking more than 190 languages, and less than 200 000 visually impaired users so far, I’m sure you’ll realize I won’t be waiting long for my call to be picked up. The calls are free, and you can call as often as you need to.

Imagine how an app like Be My Eyes can empower someone who’s blind, not only in the home, but in the workplace as well.

You can find out more about Be My Eyes on their website: www.bemyeyes.com or on social media.

Of course, Be My Eyes is only one of the tools we ca use in the workplace to access information – next time I’ll be looking at some of the multitude of apps using artificial intelligence to help us access the information we need to be productive in a job.

An Introduction to Screen Readers: A Way to Use a Computer without Sight

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Back in the dim and distant past when I became blind, using a computer was a very different process from what it is now. Back then I had to use a special computer that barely resembled the computers my friends were using, and the amount I could do with it was limited.

Nowadays I, and many other blind people, use a standard laptop or desktop together with a software application called a screen reader. With a screen reader we’re able to accomplish almost anything that a sighted person can. Which means that we should be able to fulfil the requirements of most of the many jobs requiring the use of a computer.

Essentially, a screen reader is a programme that allows us to interact with a computer using audio. We have the option to either type or dictate to create documents, e-mails, spreadsheets or other text-based programmes. We can access menus, online content and documents created by others using the audio functionality. And there are ways we can access the content in images, graphs and diagrams.

So why then do so many people have difficulty in believing that a blind person could be successful in a job?

Maybe they believe that the software to allow a blind person to use a computer is expensive. And, certainly some of the screen readers do have a cost associated with them – as do many other software programmes used in business. But there are many different types of screen readers available nowadays, at a range of price points.

In fact, screen readers are in-built into several operating systems at no extra cost – IOS/Mac, Android, Microsoft are a few that spring to mind. That’s not to mention the many other applications that are out there – JAWS, Supernova, NVDA to name but a few.

And sure, each of these differ in what they offer and what they cost. But, for the purposes of this article, that’s detail and would depend on the preferences of the individual, the needs of the organisation, and the tasks required.

My point remains the same – with so many jobs being accessible to someone who is blind, why aren’t there more blind people being employed?

If you want to learn more about how I use a computer in my work life, please feel free to contact me through my website: www.loisstrachan.com and let’s chat about what I can and cannot do using a computer… I’m almost willing to bet you’d be amazed!

In my next article in this series I’m going to be talking about an app that helps the blind community to access print material and other physical objects more easily – or, maybe I should say one of the ways, since there are a few that I’ll be talking about in this series.

On Independence 03 – It’s a Poor Workman Who Blames His Tools

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Many years ago I met an elderly gentleman who had recently lost his sight. His family were trying to find ways to help him begin picking up some of the things he’d loved doing before. Yet, each time I offered him an idea of some of the tools he might be able to use, his response was
“I won’t be able to use it because I’m blind.”

There’s an old saying that it’s a poor workman who blames their tools. And with the remarkable range of tools that are available to help us access information and navigate the world in which we live, I don’t believe we, as visually impaired people, can in all honesty claim that a lack of usable tools stops us from living independent lives.

Whether I’m using my guide dog Fiji to help me navigate from one place to another, a screen reader to help me access applications on my laptop or iPhone, using image conversion apps to access written information, or using a simple coffee mug to help me measure out rice for a risotto meal, tools are an essential part of my daily life – and they’re pretty much everywhere I look.

But being able to access a tool isn’t enough on its own. Even having the knowledge of how to use the tool isn’t sufficient. Because a tool is only as good as the person who’s using it. And it’s only when we use a tool to help us accomplish a task that it increases our independence.

I know for myself that I’ll only start using a new tool if I can see the value in doing so. If a tool will help me accomplish a task faster, or more efficiently, or if it’ll help me achieve a goal. In other words if it’s adds to my life.

I currently have a few apps on my iPhone that I’ve never used. I downloaded them because they sounded interesting. But I’ve never needed to use them so I haven’t even opened them. Eventually I guess I’ll either find a use for them… or I’ll simply delete them and move on.

Tools can be an important factor in helping a blind or visually impaired person to achieve greater levels of independence, but only if we are empowered with the knowledge of how to use them effectively and if we can see the value they’ll add to our lives. I am truly grateful for all the tools I have at my disposal – with them I can do almost anything I want or need to do.

PS: Fiji asked me to assure you that she‘s far more than just a tool – she’s a companion, a source of hours of enjoyment and entertainment and a great exercise partner for me as well.

The photo shows me and my favourite tool walking down a road.

On Independence 02 – The Eternal Fight Between Pride and Productivity

LoisWhen is it okay to ask for help if you’re disabled, and when isn’t it? That’s today’s $60 million question.

A few weeks ago I needed to extract information from 50 business cards. Yes, it would have been quicker, and easier, and more effective for me to ask a sighted person to help me. Instead I chose to do it on my own. And I managed, with the help of a clever little app called Braigo, which converted the text into a form I could access. But here’s the thing: that task took me 3 full days; three full days when I had other tasks waiting for me.

Every day I face the same dilemma. Should I ask my husband/a friend/a family member/a random stranger walking down the road to help me do something. Or should I insist on proving to myself and others that I am able to do it despite being blind. Sadly, even though I know it’ll take me a lot longer to do it myself, that’s usually the choice I make.

So, today I’m asking myself why I do it?

Perhaps it’s a question of pride, of not wanting to feel like I’m always asking for help. Perhaps it’s my inherent stubbornness that refuses to acknowledge that my blindness means that some tasks are harder for me, or will take me longer. And yes, there is an immense sense of satisfaction of doing the things I can. But when faced with a mountain of items on my To Do List and a molehill of time in which to do them, even I have to admit that my insistence on doing things for myself isn’t always the most productive use of my time and energy.

Many of the blindness training centres around the world stress the need for independence in all aspects of life. And I understand why they do so –they want us to learn the crucial skill of figuring out how to do things on our own rather than taking the easy way out and asking our support system. Being forced to be independent teaches us that we can do far More than we believed possible. But I’ll admit that I sometimes wonder if the focus on doing things for ourselves might make us feel we’re failing if we reach out for assistance.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to stop doing things for myself. Nor am I going to stop learning new skills and techniques to make me more independent. Or constantly testing out new devices and apps to help me do so.

But maybe I should recognize that asking for help isn’t always taboo. That sometimes getting a sighted person to help me with a task will make me more productive and allow me to cross a few more items off my ever-growing To Do List. And that efficiency may be more important than pride and stubbornness.

Because, let’s face it, even sighted people have to ask for help sometimes, don’t they?

The photo show me working at my computer with a pile of business cards. Thanks to Craig Strachan for the photo.

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

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!

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

Explaining the Realities of Blindness to Architects

Cds 2017 04 18 20 49 34“So, how would you navigate your way round a large public space in a shopping centre? What technology would help you do that?”

Those were two of the questions I was asked when Fiji and I spoke at an architectural company who specialize ? in designing shopping centres, school and university campuses and large apartment buildings. It was one of those sessions where I really got to test my own knowledge and skills in trying to offer the architects suggestions on how to make their designs more friendly to blind and visually impaired people, both those of us who work with a guide dog and those who prefer using a white mobility cane.

More importantly, it got me thinking about how much I’ve learned over the past two years – if someone had started asking me things like that when I first sat down to write A Different Way of Seeing, or when I first started working with Fiji I probably would have been lost for words… or at least lost for ideas to put into words. Yet, when I was standing in front of the team of architects I found myself not only able to answer the questions but to offer a few thoughts on emerging technologies that may really help architects to design large public spaces that are accessible to those of us without sight.

Of course, I had the added advantage that Fiji was being her usual beautiful and talented self, so I could probably have got away with it even if I hadn’t been able to answer the questions posed by the architects… but I could, so her being beautiful and talented was merely an added bonus!

I really enjoy doing this kind of work, and Fiji loves doing any kind of work, so it was a wonderfully stimulating day for us both.

My Second Cape Talk Interview – This Time In-Studio

Ten days ago I posted the audio recording of my first interview with Cape Talk 567 Radio during the week leading up to World Sight Day on 12 October 2017.

Here’s the second interview, this time with Pippa Hudson on her daily lifestyle show.

There were a few things that made this a memorable interview for me – first that Pippa invited Fiji and I into the studio which was a lot more fun than sitting on a phone and, second that the interview seemed to develop a life of its own – it seemed to flow seamlessly from one topic to the next.

And it appears I wasn’t the only one who felt it went well – from what I’ve been told, not only did Cape Talk replay the interview the following day, but it was also picked up by their sister station in Johannesburg, 702.

And, if that wasn’t enough, this was the interview that led to a journalist from YOU Magazine picking up on my story and contacting me to ask for an interview for their online magazine – but more on that in a future post!

I won’t be posting an article on 2 January – everyone needs a few days off to see in the new year – but look out for my next post on Friday, 5 January 2018.

Thank you for all your support over 2017 and I look forward to sharing more of my experiences and observations with you in 2018.

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