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.