I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’d like people to know about my life as a blind person – things that I wish were more commonly known that would foster greater inclusion of the visually impaired community into society and the workplace. Because they would help people to understand my world a little better.
I thought it might be useful to share some of the things I wish people knew about blindness in general, and my blindness in particular. This is the first of a series of articles in which I’m going to do just that.
The first thing I’d like you to know is that we are not all the same.
I understand how tempting it is to assume that all blind people are the same – that we all use the same techniques, can do the same things, and have the same preferences. But it is just not true. We are all different. While we may have blindness in common, we are individual people with individual strengths, skills, likes and dislikes. And we may use different techniques to accomplish a task. I have blind friends who can do things that I cannot. And visa versa.
Let me give you a few examples.
I am a guide dog user. I love having the ability of navigating the world around me with my beautiful Fiji walking beside me. Many of my visually impaired friends prefer to use a white cane. Both are effective ways of getting around. Neither is better than the other. They are simply different.
I am not a braille user. I know how to read braille, but prefer accessing information on my computer using a screen reader, which is an audio programme that reads what is on the screen. That’s just my preference. Yet I know of many blind and visually impaired people who prefer using braille to access information. They have a braille display for their computer, read books in braille, and use a braille keyboard on their smart phone. Others may use a combination of audio and braille. It depends on each person’s preference.
A few months ago, my husband and I went to our local Mugg & Bean. I was presented with a braille menu. Which would probably have taken me a month to read – while I know the alphabet, my braille reading skills are almost non-existent. At the same time, I think it is commendable that the Mugg & Bean chain have braille menus for those who need them. Because many visually impaired customers will appreciate them.
I feel I ought to repeat the point of this article – to show that each individual blind or visually impaired person is unique. Some of my visually impaired friends will probably disagree with some of the articles I write in this series. And some will agree. Because we are not all the same.
So, while I would love for you to join me for this whole series of articles, please don’t fall into the assumption that what is true for me is also true for any other blind person you encounter. Chances are that they will feel much as I do – but it’s always better to take a little time to ask them about their own experiences and preferences.
Any idea what I’m going to write about next? Why not join me next week and find out…
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.
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.
“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.
At 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!
Anyone who’s read my book, “A Different Way of Seeing” will know that I have something of a love-hate relationship with technology. I love the freedom that technology gives me to do the things that I want, but I’m frequently frustrated when the tech “doesn’t work”! And yes, I’m even willing to admit that in many instances “not working” is caused by my lack of knowledge, lack of skill or simple user error.
As it turns out, today I’m testing my new technology breaking point to the outer limit – I’ve just bought a brand new laptop with Windows 10… which means I’m going to have to learn not only a new operating system but also a new screen reader since the (very old) one I’ve been using will just roll over and expire if I try to use it on the new system.
As you can imagine I’m just a teensy little bit stressed right now.
- Will I overcome the challenge of having two significant learning curves taking place at the same time?
- Will I become so stressed out and unpleasant that my friends and family avoid seeing me till I’m through this phase?
- Will even my beloved guide dog Fiji pack her bags and beg to go on an extended doggy vacation till I figure Windows 10 and NVD Reader out?
- Or will I totally lose it and wind up gibbering in a corner with the new laptop grinning evilly down at me?
At this stage I don’t have an answer to those questions… but I seriously hope none of them will become a reality.
I’ll let you know what happens… At least, I will if I’m able to do so
Wish me luck… till we “speak” again!
A few days ago I was chatting to Christopher Venter, a fellow blind Capetonian and blogger, about the technology he uses and his reasons for selecting the equipment he does. Chris believes that dedicated screen reader applications like JAS are being made redundant by products like the iPad and iPhone with their in-built voiceover functionality.
My instinctive response was to question this. After all, I’ve been using JAWS on a Windows-based computer for almost 20 years.
And then I started thinking about the ever increasing amount of time I find myself spending on my iPhone (and not on my laptop): listening to podcasts, communicating with people on Facebook, FB messenger, WhatsApp, and even (finally) accessing websites on my iPhone… so maybe it’s not such an unbelievable idea.
That got me thinking.
And then, as if that wasn’t enough, the universe decided to reinforce the message.
That afternoon I listened to one of my regular podcasts, Accessibility technology Update, in which RJ cooper, one of the first people in the world to design computer solutions to enable those with special needs to accomplish tasks, repeated Chris’s message almost verbatim.
So, now I’m wondering about what this will mean for me and the way I accomplish tasks – maybe not tomorrow, but certainly sometime in the near future. My head is spinning with all the possible implications.
Only one thing is certain: the universe is insisting I get the message that change is going to happen.
To read Chris’s fascinating blog: https://blindscooterguy.wordpress.com
To listen to the Accessibility Technology Update podcast: https://itunes.apple.com/za/podcast/assistive-technology-update/id442159129?mt=2&i=369472010
I admit that I am not the most technologically aware blind person. I may not use all the technology that is available to me (I’ve still not found my way to Twitter), but I manage to do most of the things I need to using technology… with a bit of help from my husband, Craig.
When I was on training at the SA Guide Dog Association in cape Town earlier this year one of the other trainees, Johandre J Den Haan, introduced me to the wonderful world of podcasts… and boy, were my eyes opened to a whole new spectrum of what is available to me!
Since then, using the in-built podcast player on my iPhone, I have subscribed to a number of different podcasts… and below are just the first that I have started listening to on a regular basis:
Accessible Technology Update: a weekly podcast dealing with technology designed to help those with a range of special needs.
The Moth: a storytelling podcast with some incredible human interest stories about human beings and their real life experiences – the first one I listened to was the story of the first man to row across the English Channel in a bathtub… I kid you not!
No Such Thing as a Fish: a weekly podcast presented by 4 researchers from the BBC panel game, QI, sharing their favourite facts from the preceding week… usually with hilarious results.
There is so much information out there nowadays, and so many different ways to engage with that information, that keeping ourselves informed, entertained, and enriched is simply a matter of choice, even for those of us who cannot always access information through the written medium.
Yay, technology! And thanks, Johandre!