Category Archives: reflections

My thoughts about what blind people see, or don’t see. Spoiler, it’s not a short answer :)

Posted on November 7, 2018

Being totally blind since birth, I get asked periodically what I see, as if sighted people can’t begin to imagine what not seeing anything would be like if they were blind; this is, actually, in fact the case. Before I had ever been in an airplane I used to have dreams about flying in one, they were all fantastically wrong. My brain had no accurate data to base those dreams on, so it just made things up. While we’re at it, a congenitally blind person will probably not dream visually because they have no visual memories to draw on. A recent study, however, shows that it is still hypothetically possible to do so. Blind people who lost their sight as early as age 5 or 6 can dream visually over the rest of their lives, and many in this situation do; and now we’re getting back to the original question.

Damon Rose, a blind journalist with the BBC has also answered this question, but very differently from what I experience. He had sight until age 13, and went blind for a different reason than I; so beyond that fact that his primary visual cortex somewhat developed, and that his optic nerves may still have some residual connections, he also has visual memories his brain can still play with.

I was born 3 months premature and became blind in an incubator from Retinopathy of Prematurity; destroyed optic nerves, my eyes never grew beyond the size of a 2 year-old’s, my brain eventually remapped. People have respectfully said to me, “If I blindfold myself I can still see black, so is that what you see?”

Seeing blackness means you can distinguish between light and dark, which means you can perceive visually, so I thought about this for a while and came up with an analogy that I think makes sense.

Say you had a radio, and it picked up a bunch of stations. We could say those stations were different colors and the white-noise or static between the stations was black, except I can’t call it black noise, because that actually exists, and  means near absolute silence. Then one day, all of the stations disappear with no explanation, so you still turn on the radio occasionally to see if they come back, but they never do. So now you’re just figuratively hearing black. Then one day you learn those stations will never come back, so you unplug the radio and throw it away. Now you aren’t even hearing black, you’re hearing in fact nothing; as far as the radio is concerned, which actually then would equate to black noise, and that time you had been using to listen to radio stations is now free for other things.

This is basically what the  visual cortex in my brain, and those of congenitally blind people does. Once enough time goes by where there is no input from the eyes through their optic nerves, the brain begins to remap and neuroplasticity happens. When a baby, humans have many billions of neurons all waiting to develop, and totally impressionable; and since 90% of a sighted person’s sensory input is visual, that’s where many of them go. When there is no visual input they get programmed to do other things. When a totally blind person reads braille for example, the same activities go on in the primary visual cortex that happen when a sighted person reads print. Blind people are often thought to hear better than those who can see, but deaf people are also way more observant visually than sighted people who can still hear; in part the brain’s resources devoted to the lost sense redistribute and enhance those that are left. Enhance sometimes means increased, but not always , as in the case of children who lose a sense after age 2 or 3, but in those cases the brain at least is more focused on those senses that remain.

So in my case, what do I see? Absolutely nothing, which is not black; black would have been like the static on that radio, or the number zero. Consider for a moment, that zero is way more meaningful than nothing in mathematics; it is the center of the number line after all.

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How for me, bone conduction headphones by Aftershokz is one of those technologies that is not just nice to have but a huge game changer for blind people

Posted on July 17 2018
Shortly after Christmas when i. Was 5, my sister Andrea introduced me to headphones with one of those single ear plugs from the 1970s, and showed me how I could plug it into my radio and listen to it. After a few minutes of private listening I couldn’t understand at all why she or anyone else around me couldn’t hear it. That just blew my 5-year-old mind, and it hasn’t been the same since.

As I got older, headphones became more a part of my workflow. I knew there are good speakers out there, I’m just a headphone guy at ear. Part of this came from. Using screen readers on first computers and later phones, besides using headphones for privacy, I’m sure people around me appreciate not being annoyed by it. I even used headphones on the bus, at work, and even when I took classes in college. There was still one area where headphones couldn’t help me though, when traveling alone using the white cane. I began to use GPS apps on my phone, but all the headphones I knew of still blocked some of the sounds from my environment, thus I didn’t feel safe using them when walking, and when traffic was loud I couldn’t hear the GPS info on the phone. Then I learned about bone conduction.

My friend Hai Nguyen Ly told me about Aftershokz and their line of bone conducting headphones, and how they rested on the face using transducers to convey sound through the cheek bone thus leaving the ear completely uncovered and blocking none of a person’s natural hearing. I couldn’t afford them then, so Hai sent me an old pair he was no longer using. Like Andrea introducing me to headphones so long ago, Hai improved my life again.

The first time I used the Aftershokz psychologically I wasn’t quite sure that it really wasn’t blocking my hearing, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that they really weren’t. I could hear traffic just fine, and the GPS info from my phone was always hearable even in the loudest truck or bus roared by. Now 5 years later after buying 2 more pair of Aftershokz headphones, I still use them pretty much every day. I wear them all the time when I’m in public, they work great at meetings and conferences. Even when I’m not needing to hear traffic when cane traveling, they still let me have the ability to use my phone without interrupting anyone around me but still be able to hear what they’re saying. Yes, trying to understand both audio streams might not work as well as I’d like, but sighted people get distracted too.

Some of you reading this might be wondering, ok but why does this matter? In my last post I talked about how for most of us most of the time technology is a nice convenience, but for those with disabilities, technology can be a huge life changer; this is definitely one of them.
Especially for blind users of screen readers. Bone conduction headphones allow them to get the info they need in real time while still having full access to their environment through their primary sense. Bone conduction technology may have been initially invented for the military, but now thankfully it is now also being used to help humans also be more human.

Technology for most is a nice thing to have, but for those with disabilities, how huge of a game changer technology is in improving their lives cannot be exaggerated

Posted on July 6, 2018

As I wrote about in my last post, technology in its most basic definition is an innovation which makes some task easier, and for most of us that is most of the time, the case; but for people with disabilities, it is way more than that.
Technology helps us get places faster and safer. Technology has made communication more possible and convenient today than was ever thought to ever be possible even a short time ago. Technology is nice, cool, fun, entertaining, amazing, and many more words beyond this sentence; but for those with disabilities, technology is way more than any of those accolades, technology is life changing; sometimes in unimaginable ways. I think sometimes even in some ways that can only be realized not in blog posts or videos, but in first hand experiences.

One of my favorite podcasts is the Mac Power Users, and several episodes ago David Sparks, and Katie Floyd were talking about one of my least favorite forms of technology, the pdf file format. If pdfs have done anything good for me though it is that many more people in recent years are aware of and use optical character recognition (OCR)
During the episode David talked about how he’d OCR scanned a bunch of documents and that enabled him to find a phrase he heard and needed to refer to during a court case. OCR is great even if you’re sighted because it enables you to very quickly search documents and even automate tasks like organizing and processing them. It wasn’t that many years ago that OCR was thought of as unnecessary, slow, not worth it, and often avoided; but for blind people optical character recognition is one of the most enabling technologies to come out since the invention of braille itself.
Yes braille is awesome and crucial to the education and development of a blind person’s intellect, but only about 1% of all the books in the world are ever commercially produced in braille. Audio books, and text to speech together with OCR have made many more books available to blind readers, but nothing will replace braille for things like mathematics and program code. I know some blind geeks will flame me for this  and say they don’t need braille at all and they write program code all day; but I know from years of personal experience that no matter how good they are at hearing text to speech spell out arcane function name spellings and all types of punctuation, that using an exorbitantly expensive refreshable  braille display would significantly increase their efficiency; a whole other topic for another post another day.

Beyond all of that, OCR means that if there isn’t any e-book available for a title, a blind person can probably buy a print copy, and after scanning it in, have a copy they can read in braille or text to speech relatively quickly.

The smartphone is also something that along with the internet and OCR is a close second to braille in how huge of a life changer inventions can be for the improvements of the lives of blind people.
When the iPhone was first announced in 2007 I was seriously frustrated thinking that a touch screen would never be accessible, and also knowing that touch screens were the future. No one outside of Apple saw VoiceOver coming to the iPhone in June 2009 but that along with Talkback on Android some time later may be the largest improvement to the blind world by technology in the last 20 years.
Yes I can call people on my iPhone, or text them; I can also play games or listen to music, but that is only the beginning. There are GPS apps that not only tell me how to get to places, but also tell me landmarks and street names as I travel, almost like a sighted person looking around and telling me in my ear what they see passing by; , a true form of augmented reality and it’s not even visual. Some blind people use their phones to read small documents or food labels on the fly, and if it can’t read the text maybe a barcode scan instead.
There are still talking devices made specifically for the blind, like for example, scales for weighing, thermometers for body temperature, cooking, or outside. There are talking glucose monitors and other things not mentioned here. These devices are often significantly more expensive than their mainstream counterparts, and before smartphones they were the only options blind people had. Some still feel more comfortable with them than trying to pair a smartphone to a more modern device, but that’s just another way technology is improving our world. A talking smartphone, plus an accessible app, plus a mainstream bluetooth device; means an often very accessible and usable device that has more features than the blind-specific devices also out there, and they’re also devices many people have, sighted and blind. If I buy a bluetooth scale and don’t understand how to add my weight to the health app, I can ask anyone who has the scale, not only the few blind people I might know who bought the blind-specific one.

Yes there are other disabilities that being blind, like people in wheelchairs, or people with cognitive disabilities, and those are just as important to realize, and they have been just as impacted by technology, just take a moment to remember what Stephen Hawking could do. Helen Keller if still alive today would probably be amazed at what more she could have done.

Please think about instead of just how cool your app is or what fun it can be, but more of how can You improve someone’s life even or more especially if they perceive information and interact differently with interfaces than You do. If you are a  developer or designer reading this post, please take a moment and step outside the box that is your subset of reality, and not only imagine how you could make the world, including the lives of those who think differently better, , but then actually do it.

Some reflections on how technology has progressed as I flew home from North Carolina to Wisconsin last Friday

Posted on June 25 2018

Just a reflection on how technology has advanced over a time period I can remember.I can remember in high school wishing I could type some of my homework on my  30 minute  bus rides each way, and although until 11th grade I had a very nice electronic typewriter, it wasn’t portable.   Then when I went to California in 11th grade there was no way to even think about taking my Apple IIe computer along.Now, as I type this post I’m at  35000 feet traveling between  490-520 miles per hour currently over Kentucky, (I love running GPS on my phone)   flying home to Madison WI from Charlotte NC. Yes I flew to California, my first time in an airplane,  back in high school, but back then when on a trip I pretty much lost contact with family and friends “gone for a week talk to you when I get back” I’d have to say. Thankfully I can now say that time is over.The basic definition of technology is to make doing some task easier, but I’d say think deeper, think more  human. Technology are innovations to make our lives better beyond just doing tasks; technology when used properly can let us be more human. In this case technology let me communicate with family and friends while I was working in Dayton Ohio this week. It also lets me put down thoughts on an airplane. Ye we still have pen and paper, but my handwriting is so bad I can’t even read it; oh wait, I can’t read anyone’s handwriting   for other reasons, some people can actually read mine, although they cringe and complain about it.I’m not saying technology is amaZing, because that implies it can’t be understood, but I do think we shouldn’t take technology as much for granted, yes that includes me too some times. Beyond using it, and enjoying its benefits, I think more regularly appreciating how it has and will continue to transform who we are and what we can do. RecogniZing this mind set more may also help us shape how and what we do with technology available to us. If we consider our human side more while geeking out with our technical side, just imagine how you, I, or together we can make the world better. No this post won’t end any wars, but maybe thinking more like this we could avoid a few more  fights, or discuss and debate more  and argue less. Maybe with all this technology at my fingertips I could understand someone different than me a little more.; and don’t forget friendships, try to reconnect a few of those that have faded too.  GPS update, the plane is  now over the south western corner of OHio.No I can’t post this to the blog from this airplane, no wifi on this flight,  and some might find that frustrating; despite the fact that if they could tell the pilgrims from 1620, or even Immigrants from only 150 years ago that you could get from London to New York in about 6 hours they would have never believed it.  but I’m totally happy with how far things have progressed as much as they have, posting it when I get home, or maybe not even until tomorrow is just fine by me.