I’ve been asked more than once to explain
how I use technology to make my life easier. Well, it’s not exactly a simple
answer, but I’ll do my best.

Back in 2009, a few months after I lost my
vision, I was going a little bit nuts. I’d spent just over a solid month
looking down – quite literally, as part of the healing process involved
post-surgery required it. On top of that, I’d had an eye patch on my “good”
eye, which effectively made me fully blind. I was home alone for around eight
hours a day, in near silence. I sometimes found the CBC on TV, but one can only
listen to “Coronation Street” repeats for so long.
Eventually, I was allowed to remove the eye
patch, but to not much avail. My eye was so light sensitive, I couldn’t even
look outside on a cloudy day at first. Eventually, my eye grew accustomed to
the light – you know in “The Matrix” when Neo is picked up out of his little
goopy prison pod, and he asks Morpheus “why do my eyes hurt?” Morpheus replies
“Because you’ve never used them before.” It was pretty much like that, but with
less goop and fewer flying squid robots.
In time I was able to squint for longer
periods of time, but I still couldn’t see a dam thing with any clarity. Imagine
my, well, anger. The stress and the anxiety. This is something I couldn’t
explain even to those closest to me. It’s my nature to not want to bother
anyone, to not be a nuisance, to not ask for help. It’s a weird mix of pride,
arrogance, and, well, not wanting to be a bother. It truly is unfortunate that
only now am I able to wrap my head around what I was feeling back then – I
needlessly burnt a lot of bridges then, and I had no idea I was doing that.
But I digress. My point is, I was
depressed, but tech saved me from getting worse. As I became less light sensitive
I grew more determined to have more mental stimulation. So I dug out my (by
then, quite dusty) MacBook. I booted it up and cranked down the brightness.
Tears of strain poured down my cheeks as I struggled to read the tiny text on
the screen. It was painful, but I’d made contact with the internet for the
first time in about five months. I figured, though, “there must be an easier
way to do this.” I began digging through the System Preferences pane and a
little blue icon caught my eye. “Universal Access? What’s this all about?”
Freedom is what it was all about. Suddenly
my then-three-year-old MacBook was talking to me. Reading Facebook statuses and
blog posts. I could shut my eyes and type out emails. I could invert the
colours; white-on-black text, rather than the normal, is far easier to read.
Think night mode in iBooks or other e-reader software. But the biggest help –
which I still use – is simply the zoom feature. I can sit at a reasonable
distance and actually read text, look at pictures, whatever I want. I hold
Control and wiggle my mouse’s scroll wheel. Looks awful to others (I’m told),
but it’s a godsend.
And it’s built in. Right there. I’m writing
this on the same old 2006 MacBook, chipped plastic casing, wonky fan and all.
While I’m not a fan of the “Apple Tax” (wherein Apple stuff costs more simply
because of the logo), this computer owes me nothing. It saved my life, in some
Here’s the thing, though: why aren’t
accessibility features available on all platforms, out of the box? I’m not
going to sit here and gush about Apple – I’ve had plenty of little niggling
issues since I “switched” from Windows XP to OSX. But really, riddle me this:
why is it that my mom, who is totally blind, must pay upwards of $800* for the
screen reader software she uses? I’m aware Microsoft is taking steps in
becoming more accessible out of the box, but the software cost seems designed
to capitalize on people with disabilities.
That said, there are programs available to
help people out. In Ontario, for example, we have ADP (Assistive Devices
Program). ADP’s purpose is to provide financial assistance for people with
disabilities, and act as a venue in which those people can get their hands on
these assistive products. Fair enough, I say. I’m affiliated with them, and I’m
glad the service is there.
Here’s my issue, though: 90% of the
products don’t need to exist – at least not in the form they do. Take, for
example, a thing called the Victor Stream. It’s a great product for what it
does. It’s essentially an MP3 player that can also play a proprietary file
format (DAISY files). It’s designed as an audiobook reader for the blind. Fair
play to them. It speaks, it’s got big, easy buttons, and it’s pretty sturdy.
But we’re heading into 2013, and the best product on offer for the blind is
something reminiscent of 
Creative’s NOMAD Jukebox from 2000 crossed with an old Nokia. I understand simplicity is the name of the game
here, and Humanware does a great job of that. But the product costs $250 and is
reliant on SD cards for storage.
Yes, it works, and yes, it’s simple. But
that’s one product doing one thing.
Blind people need to get around, right? GPS
is everywhere. There are GPS units for the blind, which is fantastic. They’ll
speak to you, they’re based on walking directions, and they give you a bit more
help than, say, a Garmin or TomTom would in certain situations. Humanware, in
fact, makes a Talking GPS, called the Trekker Breeze. Like the Victor Stream it
has a nice small and simple form factor. Pop in some headphones and you’re set.
I’ve had a go with one of these, briefly, and I was fairly impressed. Here’s
the rub, though: it’s $700.
Then, let’s say someone’s totally blind and
wants to read his or her mail. They’ve got book readers available. Some come in
the form of flatbed scanners. Others can be more cumbersome; great big things
that look not unlike overhead projectors. Slim and sleek, they’re not. But they
do the job. They sit there on your desk, you plonk a book down into the
chassis, and with its magic eye it scans the page and starts to read the text.
The tech is amazing. But amazing comes at a cost, and now we’re talking $300
and up. Way up.
This needs to change.
The funding from ADP is a help, so a lot of
this isn’t out of pocket for the user. But let’s say we want the Victor Stream,
the GPS, and a flatbed reader. Let’s throw in the JAWS software, too, since
very few of the other products are useful without it. You’re looking at north
of $2000, at least. ADP will cover a portion of that, but there are many
factors that go into how much you receive from them. And, oh, you wish to
upgrade when the updated model comes around? Cool. You don’t get more funding
for five years. Which is fine, I mean, it is free money, so you can’t complain
too much. I’m just saying that if you want the latest-and-greatest, you’re in
for a bit of a shock when the bill comes around.
Pat your pocket. Or look next to you on
your desk, there. What’s likely there? Your phone. Odds are you’ve got an iOS,
Android, or BlackBerry with you. Everyone has one. And they’re powerful, eh? If
you sit back in think what this little thing of aluminum, glass, and copper
bits can do, compared to what you had five years ago, it’s damn impressive.
So, nearly everyone has a phone, right?
Right. Now, let’s look at what I can do with my phone.
I’ve got an iPhone 4. I use it for
everything. I’ll describe it with a handy list.
With the level of vision I have, the screen
width (when vertical) is perfect for me to browse web sites. I’ve got the font
size increased a bit so it makes things easier. I can invert the colours, just
like the MacBook. I can highlight a block of text and a little context list
pops up, with an option to “Speak.” So the damn thing will read to me.
My vision is extremely short. I have to
hold a novel around an inch away from my face. Not really an ideal method of
reading things. So, I use the camera. Even though the 4’s camera is nowadays
kind of weak, it does the job. For example, at a restaurant I’ll take a picture
of a menu. I’ve got an app that will act like a scanner, which clears a picture
of colour and little bits of detritus. What I’m left with is a lovely
black-and-white zoomable menu. I can hold the phone at arm’s length and, at my
leisure, browse the menu. I look like I’m messing around on my phone at the
table, which may look rude at a glance, but it’s better than looking all
secretive, hiding behind a menu like a bad spy.
With a three-fingered double-tap and swipe
I can zoom in on anything. Web sites, photos, games…anything. It’s amazing the
freedom a simple zoom can give you; being able to hold your phone away from you
like a sighted person is…well, it’s nice.
I use the GPS, though I lament a native
Google Maps app. When I had a full Google Maps app I’d use it pretty well the
way everyone else uses them. What I found myself using a lot, however, was
Street View. A map can only show you so much, so I’d get to the approximate
area of my destination, then I’d switch to Street View. I’d see with clarity
what I was looking for, then I’d switch to my camera. I’d compare what I was
seeing in Street View and what I was seeing through the camera, and that’s how
I’d find my destination. Reason being, I can’t see the signs or address all the
And back to the camera. When I was
traveling I’d use it for everything
. From
photographing departure boards at train stations to taking pictures of meat in
deli counters, I’d capture everything. I did this so I could move out of
people’s way and look at what I’m trying to find, be it a 10:44 train to Lyon,
or if I’m looking at garlic sausage or plain.
These are a few of the ways I’ve had to
adapt using technology, some of them aren’t even intended by the developer.
I know people who are entirely blind who use smartphones. One uses an iPhone 4s, which, well, let that
sink in. Here’s a lady who can see nothing at all, using a piece of technology
with four buttons (only one of which has constant use within the OS). A blind
person versus an entirely glass input? Doesn’t sound like it’d work, but it
does. She drags her finger across the screen, and as she hovers over an app
(laid out in a simple grid pattern), the phone will chime and tell her what she’s
touching. “*Ding* Safari. *Ding* Notes. *Ding* Pages.” She wants to open Pages.
She double-taps anywhere on the screen, and it opens. Siri takes notes for her,
makes appointments, searches Google, etc. She’s even used an app for
photographers, which senses light levels for shooting pictures. What she does
is opens the app, and if it reacts, she knows a light’s been left on. Adapting
existing technology for her own uses. Apple’s developed their software with
accessibility in mind, and other companies are doing the same. I mean, you can
use a Braille keyboard with a phone, if you want. The option’s there.
So with the rise of the smartphone, why are
people with disabilities stuck with the products available through companies
like Humanware and Freedom Scientific? Maybe “stuck” is too harsh a word, but
what these companies have going for them is their software. Incredible work and
care has gone into making a quality product, no one can deny that. But the age
of proprietary devices is over. I don’t want to lug around a scanner, a
handheld GPS, an MP3 player, a camera, and anything else I might need.
Let’s develop the Humanware software for
the iPhone, or BlackBerry, or Android. Let’s get their GPS on there. Think JAWS
is better than VoiceOver? It might be! But let’s get it onto the commercially
available products and let the user have a choice.
Here’s a few ideas:
I understand that the GPS used by the
talking GPS units may be more precise, since they’re generally for walkers.
Maybe, if it’s necessary, make a dongle or a case for the phone with in-built
refined GPS.
Let’s use the cameras for book
reading. It wouldn’t be a replacement for a home-based page-turning unit, but
if you’re out and about, a phone camera would do in a pinch. If a phone can
recognize a face, surely it can tell a blind person what’s on a menu.
All phones have music players. Why I’d
need a separate device to listen to Game of Thrones is beyond me. Develop an
app that can play the DAISY format files on your mobile.
Sighted users can pick their OS, hardware,
and everything, but blind users are fairly limited in their options. We’re
generally bound to certain companies with their proprietary hardware and
software, which is further limited (often to particular operating systems).
I’m not saying the companies should give
away their products for free. Nor am I saying they should stop making hardware
in all cases. But we’re an increasingly mobile society, and integration is
extremely important. Clearly I’m passionate about the subject, and I could go
on. I likely will. But for now we need change, and it has to happen soon.
I guess you might say that no matter which
mobile platform you prefer, we need one device that does it all, one product to
combine them. One phone to replace them all, with the software that defines
That just happened.
*While ADP covers some or all of the cost
for her, this is not so in every case.

The courtesy call

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