Yes, Blind People Can Use Computers

Being blind in the 21st century means I get to have conversations like the following two:
1. “So, I’m interested in this job…”
“Oh, no, impossible, sorry.”
“Well…you’d need to use a computer, you see…”
2. “Hi. I’m new to this chat site and I can’t figure out what I’m doing. I’m blind, so I need some shortcut keys instead of mouse commands. Does anyone know any?”
“If ur blind then how are u using a computer? Ur obviously faking it.”
“Ur looking for attention”

I’d like to think that awareness of what blind people can and can’t do is more widespread than it’s ever been, thanks to the internet and the many blind writers and speakers out there. Despite all the awareness campaigns and advocacy groups, the idea that blindness and computers don’t mix remains stubbornly entrenched. While most people seem to understand that I must use some kind of computer—probably a “special” one—many are still under the impression that I must dictate my blog posts to a hired aide. Given how prevalent computers are in every facet of society, and how vital they are for the accomplishment of even the simplest tasks, it’s no wonder that people believe we’re on the fringes! It’s not surprising that we’d be lumped in with, say, Great Aunt Rosie who still refuses to touch a keyboard.

No matter how often we tweet, “like,” share, blog, and text, some people are still convinced we are unable to use a computer or similar electronic device independently (or at all). I suppose they assume we have assistants who manage every aspect of our online lives. Who knows what they assume goes on when we try to work? When you think about it, it’s not altogether unreasonable for these people to believe we couldn’t possibly work, because of how deeply computers have penetrated the workplace. How can we be expected to function as equal, contributing members of society if we can’t even update our Facebook statuses or pay the phone bill on our own? Even if we can use computers, how exactly do we manage it, since we can’t see the screen?

In my everyday life, computers are not only usable, but necessary. I have a smart phone and a laptop, and I use both daily. As I’ve previously discussed on this blog, computers help me through a variety of hurdles, among them reading printed documents, deciphering labels, finding my way around the city, and communicating via all the social networks. Computers are not only within my ability to use; they are also a portal to parts of the world I never could have accessed without them.
So, how do I use computers? Since I can’t see the screen at all, my smart phone and laptop are both equipped with a screen reader, which is a piece of software that runs in the background and reads the information on the screen using text-to-speech output. (For the low-vision users among us, screen magnification suffices.) It is also possible to read what’s on the screen in braille, provided you have a braille display handy. If you have an iPhone, you can demo Voiceover, the built-in screen reader; it’s lots of fun. Otherwise, there is a wealth of information online about all the different screen readers, so if you want to learn more about them, you could easily dedicate an afternoon to that research. For our purposes, all you really need to know is that, with the help of special software, computers and phones are mostly, if not totally, accessible to blind people all over the world. Assistive technology is expanding so that we can access everything from GPS trackers, to smart televisions, to bank machines. With the help of this software, I can do most of what a sighted computer user can, putting me on a more equal playing field than a blind person from the past could even imagine. While using a computer to navigate the internet, you’d never even know there was anything different about me at all.

Yes, blind people can use computers, and have done so for decades. Yes, we can (usually) perform well in workplaces using computer software, as long as that software supports our screen readers. Yes, we can send texts, write tweets, and manage online banking independently. Yes, we can develop software, write programs, and administer technical support.
Yes, we can keep up.

So, next time you meet someone who believes blindness and computers are like oil and water, do us all a favour, and pass on the good news!

In Praise Of TapTapSee

I’ve always been skeptical of image recognition apps that try to compensate for a pair of broken eyes. I remember, rather too vividly, a CNIB demonstration of a colour indicator. The thing was outrageously priced, and in any case it really didn’t work. The salesperson didn’t do a very good job of hiding her dismay when it failed, during multiple attempts, to get the colour right—or even close to right. Since then I’ve been, perhaps unfairly, disenchanted with image recognition technology.

an image recognition app called TapTapSee came on the scene and encouraged me to think differently. Sure, it had a few kinks to be worked out, and even today, it’s not always spot on. (During one memorable session, it informed me that a teabag I was photographing said “tips about relationships.”) Despite its occasional mistakes, and its apparent inability to master colour indication, its uses cannot be quantified. It recognizes labels on packaging, articles of clothing, and almost anything else you’d need help to identify. Sometimes, it’s so descriptive that it scares me a little: it once told me that my profile picture included a “woman in a black tank top smiling in a field of yellow flowers.” The detail (and accuracy) was enough to make my jaw drop. It’s worth noting, however, that the magic happens largely because of the efforts of sighted volunteers. Without their insight, the app would be just as clumsy and ineffectual as all the others. Those volunteers, in particular, are what make TapTapSee shine.

It’s still best to label everything and keep my belongings organized. However, it’s nice to know that a clever app like TapTapSee has my back. It has only improved with time, and I can’t wait to see where image recognition technology goes from here.

United English Braille: The Good, The Bad, And The Sketchy

In today’s guest post, Gregg Chambers, a long-time braille user, dissects the new (and supposedly improved) United English Braille. He discusses the good (changes he sees as sensible and timely), the bad (changes that are a little less sensible, really) and the ethically sketchy (the whole process of changing a reading system using questionable input). He’s done a little more digging into the whole affair than I have, so without further ado, I present you with his thoughtful analysis. Take it away, Gregg!

If you’re blind or visually impaired, or if you are close to someone who is, you have probably heard of Unified English Braille. UEB, as it is more often called, is quite the controversial topic among those who read braille, mostly owing to the plethora of changes that have occurred in the last few years in order to ostensibly make reading easier and the language itself more uniform. Opinions vary widely, with many singing the praises of the new UEB while many others are outraged by what they see as unnecessary and ill-considered alterations to the code. Below, I will offer my own perspective as a blind person who reads braille, and in doing so, I hope to demonstrate something approaching a middle ground between the two extremes.

Braille is both a code and a language by definition; both codes and languages are bound to change over time as the uses to which they are put also change. UEB is no exception to this trend. Many of the recent additions to the code are concerned with symbols that are often found on the internet, better allowing a braille user to write out such things as hashtags, email addresses and website URLs. This sort of progress, in my opinion, is not only inevitable, but useful. Although it may look strange to read at first for an experienced braille user, the new computer-oriented symbols and syntax offer much more flexibility than previously present in the language. Getting used to these tweaks alone should not take a particularly long time, and in the interest of looking to the future, I would argue that said additions and modifications are perhaps the one very good thing that UEB has done while attempting to keep with the times.

Unfortunately, the changes are not limited to computer braille. Braille, as most of you who are reading this probably know, possesses symbols which can substitute for multi-letter combinations, thus shortening the number of characters a person must read while simultaneously allowing braille to take up less space on a page. Some of these short forms, or contractions, have been removed entirely, while a few others have seen rules added to the language to limit their use. However, nearly all languages and codes have elements which are less than clear, and these unclear elements do not largely inconvenience the people using them. While learning braille between the ages of four and six, I almost certainly got confused a time or three while trying to learn the finer points, but it did not take me long to learn the rules of usage enough to figure out how to read quickly and accurately. Other blind people who share a similar perspective about braille feel much the same, suggesting that these changes are the equivalent of fixing something that did not require improvement. These changes force long-time users of braille to rethink how they read and write, and guarantee that braille will take up a little more space than it used to; neither of these results, in my opinion, justifies the fact that braille is now more uniform and supposedly less bewildering to master.

Worse than the controversial changes, worse by far than the need to learn a few new symbols and adapt one’s understanding of braille, however, is the fact that this written language for the blind was modified largely without the input or guidance of those self-same people. When a programming language evolves, it is because programmers decided to update the language in order to improve functionality. This newest incarnation of braille, however, was dreamed up mostly by people who themselves do not primarily use the language. Unlike a blind person, they do not readily understand what it will mean to essentially relearn bits of a written code that some of us depend heavily upon; no one is suggesting that printed letters be changed, after all, because even if there is some confusion between certain symbols, sighted people seem to make the best of it with few problems. As stated above, much of the rationale for the changes to UEB was based on ease of learning and understanding, combined with clarity of rules. This argument is not an altogether bad one, but if such things are to be considered, the blind have had decades to change things and have not done so. This suggests, to me at least, that even if there were a few confusing fringe cases where braille was not wholly clear, blind people were capable of circumnavigating them, and did not feel the need to update the language. It further suggests that those in charge of changing UEB made two fairly serious mistakes. First, they seemed to imply that their desire for uniformity and assumptions about ease of learning automatically trump the opinions of the blind about their own language. Second, they did not, as far as my research has led me to believe, even bother to seek out the findings and opinions of their target demographic when considering these changes. For me at least, there is something intrinsically high-handed in this pair of bad choices, a suggestion that the opinions of the blind were almost without value, and thus not worth pursuing before implementing changes which would affect them. I am not thin-skinned enough to feel personally insulted by the former judgment error, but there is no doubt that it feels like a pretty big step in the wrong direction.

UEB appears to be here to stay, whether we like it or not. My suggestion to anyone reading is to try and look at the facts, each on its own, before coming to any strong conclusions or making rash or inflammatory statements. If you are a long-time braille user who is upset that you essentially have to relearn bits of the language you rely upon, your feelings are understandable, but your anger may be counterintuitive. I am one of these users myself, and while I have some genuine problems with a few of the decisions made regarding UEB, I also have to recognize two fundamental facts. First, everything changes, and some of these changes are for the better. Second, being unused to something is no reason to call something bad or worthless if you are asked to learn it. I also urge anyone with serious issues about UEB to remember that each of the positive or negative points one can find should be taken separately as often as possible. For instance, the way UEB’s changes were implemented may upset you greatly because it did not incorporate blind people, but that does not mean UEB is automatically bad across the board because of the way it was modified. Likewise, you may be annoyed with the adaptations to certain oft-used contractions, but you should not then grow angry that a few symbols have changed in order to vastly improve braille’s ability to cope with the internet. If one takes each point as separately as possible, one usually comes to a firmer stance in the end, and can more easily discuss their feelings with others.

Do you have any thoughts about UEB? Leave them in the comments; I’d love to hear them!

In Praise Of L’Occitane

I tore excitedly into a parcel sent by a friend in the UK, knowing there would be plenty of luxury inside. Sure enough, nestled among the high-end chocolate was a bottle of lavender-scented body milk. I didn’t notice anything special about the bottle, besides its impressively authentic scent, until my friend went over the contents of the box with me.
“The brailled stuff is L’Occitane. It’s very, very high-end. Don’t share it with anyone.” (In fact, I did share it, though I sent some of it to a friend in hospital to make her stay a little more bearable, so it was a good cause.)
Confused, I reexamined the bottle. Sure enough, there was braille inscribed right on the bottle itself: it read, “body milk” … and I fell even more in love with this French cosmetics company.
It’s such a simple gesture, labeling a product in braille, but it carried considerable weight with me. Here was this bath and body company, known for its posh products and sophisticated scents, bothering to braille almost every single product so we could shop with more ease and accessibility. Here was a company with, as far as I’m aware, no specific affiliations with the blind community, making a concerted effort to enhance our ability to shop independently. I had to know the story behind this, so I did some digging.
The story goes that L’Occitane founder Olivier Baussan noticed a blind woman browsing the perfume section of his store, taking in all the different scents with obvious concentration. He realized, then, that he had to make a change. From then on, more and more L’Occitane products with braille labels began to appear on shelves around the world. Even glass perfume bottles, which are difficult to inscribe with braille, came in brailled boxes. Their shower gel bottles look exactly alike, but I no longer have to pop them all open to tell them apart. My L’Occitane collection is well-organized anyway, but each time I take down a bottle of hand cream or some roll-on perfume, I know exactly what I’m holding before it even reaches my nose.
As I said, it sounds like an excessively simple courtesy to be grateful for, but for whatever reason, L’Occitane’s commitment to accessibility makes me incredibly happy each time I think about it.
So, thank you, L’Occitane, both for your excellent products and your efforts to make my life just a little bit easier. It hasn’t gone unnoticed.

What Does Blindness Look Like, Anyway?

I was at church a few weeks ago, and a women’s group I’m involved in was doing a bible study led by a woman who happens to be blind. We watched a video series featuring a blind person, and someone made the comment ‘You know, she doesn’t look blind!’ Of course I turned and said ‘What exactly does blind look like? Why doesn’t she look blind?’ While I had a smile in my voice, I silenced the whole table because no one wanted to answer. Their silence was answer enough.

This quote, contributed by one of my blind readers, perfectly illustrates the awkwardness that ensues when sighted people casually observe that someone doesn’t “look blind.” Many mean this quite literally, of course. Canes, guide dogs, and prosthetic eyes are dead giveaways, and they are fairly well-known symbols of blindness. So, when some people say this, they might simply mean that someone’s eyes look to be in working order, and they don’t have a mobility aid in sight. Unfortunately, there are many other sighted people whose comments are more complicated. Upon closer examination, the implications are somewhat troubling. It is rare that these people have given much substantial thought to what blindness is supposed to look like, and are reluctant to analyze their own perceptions when they are challenged.
So, what does blindness look like, really?
Maybe it looks like an anonymous person waving a cane around, or marching along with a dog. Maybe it looks like someone shambling in an ungainly manner like something out of The Walking Dead, arms outstretched, searching carefully for obstacles. Maybe it looks like someone who has half-closed eyes, or milky white eyes, or no eyes at all. This last, at least, makes a kind of sense.
For me, though, blindness looks like a normal person doing ordinary things. For me, blindness looks like anyone you might meet on the street, the only difference being a mobility aid and, in some cases, prosthetic eyes or dark glasses. For me, blindness looks normal—or as normal as any part of the human experience can be. Yes, blindness sets us apart; there’s no denying that. Still, people’s perceptions and the reality look quite different.
Whenever someone tells me that I don’t look blind, it’s meant as a compliment: they mean that I’m competent, graceful, and normal-looking. They mean that my eyes are pleasing to look at and seem natural enough, even though they move about constantly, never really focusing on anything in particular. They mean that I’m far removed from the graceless, clumsy mess they often picture blind people to be, and it surprises and delights them.
While I was trying on wedding dresses, my bridal consultant was apparently blown away by how quickly and easily I could move around in an unfamiliar environment. I don’t consider this of note, really, but she certainly did, and more than once she said things like “I don’t believe your blind!” and “You must be faking it!” For her, ease of movement and grace were not associated with blindness, and in her own strange way, she was trying to praise me.
The thing is, this compliment is backhanded, even when it isn’t meant to be. It is predicated on the assumption that a blind person will be pleased to be singled out from the rest, and happy to be recognized for their ability to participate fully in the wider world. We are expected, it seems, to look down upon other blind people—those people who look conspicuously blind—and be grateful that we’re not among them.
I’m not proud to be blind, per se; pride seems a little absurd to me. Blindness is, at its base, a hardware failure. That said, I’m not ashamed of it, either. I don’t see it as a stigma I am railing against at all times. My life’s mission is not to seem as sighted as possible or to stand out because of sheer normality. My life’s mission is to go out there and be a decent human being; to write and edit for a living; to play a little music in my spare time; and to love, laugh, and enjoy my time here with abandon. Blindness isn’t something that should define me overall, even if it is a significant part of my makeup.
So, what does blindness look like? Well, I think it looks … human.

In Praise of Voice Dream Reader

I’m a voracious bookworm, and I do mean voracious. I devour books as though they are my lifeblood, and if I go too long without a good book, I wilt like a neglected little flower, languishing in my own personal desert. When I discovered Voice Dream Reader, my reading experience improved dramatically. Instead of reading EBooks through apps like Kindle and iBooks, both of which work but are clunky and inefficient for power readers, I could load them into a highly-accessible app that boasts outstanding features and always delivers robust performance. I could listen to audio books without resorting to the dreaded iTunes. I could navigate EBooks with an ease I’d never yet encountered outside of a PC application, and I could choose from a wide variety of text-to-speech voices to read to me as I tackled my leaning tower of dishes.

While the app is very useful for blind readers, it’s also designed to accommodate low-vision readers who require high contrast and enlarged font. It’s even tailored for those with dyslexia, brand new readers who need to trace each word with a finger to stay on track, and dedicated speed readers who want to use the “pack-man” method developed by Harvard and MIT. In short, it really does have something for everyone.

When a new update was released, carrying with it some substantial changes, I discovered that some unhappy user, apparently opposed to change, had given the app a one-star review. Everyone is entitled to dislike an app, but many disgruntled users give unjustifiably low ratings based on personal preferences, sparing little thought to the impact these reviews have on the developer. App developers need to contend with the massive hit the app’s standing will take from even a single one-star review. This customer may have had his reasons, and I don’t think it was immoral of him to give the app such an abysmal rating, but I have joined the ranks of those grateful users who have rallied around the developer, reiterating that we love the app and appreciate the hard work that goes into its development. I hope this post will serve as encouragement, reassurance, and well-deserved praise. Voice Dream Reader is my favourite app by far, and I do not anticipate that anything else will top it for a long time to come.

Life Ain’t Easy (For a Disabled Person’s Sibling)

If you’ve been fortunate enough to grow up with siblings, you know how much they matter. Whether we are plotting their imminent deaths or singing their praises, they’re always present in our lives and, if you’re lucky like me, poised to pick up the pieces when life shatters us.
People overlook the fact that, while having a disability makes for a tough life, being a disabled person’s sibling comes with its own challenges. Inspired by my own sister, I give you just a few of the many reasons we should all thank our siblings

They often take the back seat: Parents and families tend to lavish a lot of attention on us, whether we appreciate it or not. It’s usually because we need more assistance and support. My parents didn’t have to fight for my sighted sister’s right to an equal education. Still, siblings are so often shunted to the side, even when they could use a little support of their own. The admirable bit is that they rarely complain. It’s just the way it is, and they understand that.

They are irrevocably connected to us: Anyone who knew me back home immediately connected me with my disability, at least initially, and my sister couldn’t escape the association, either. Being the older sibling helped her establish her own identity outside of mine, but she was often asked whether she was “Meagan’s sister,” and quizzed about what it was like to have a blind person in the family. The situation is even worse for siblings of those with more severe disabilities, who rarely evade the harsh light of other people’s scrutiny. We mustn’t forget that they’re people, too, with individual roles beyond “sibling of disabled person.”

They become secondary parents: Blind people can sometimes avoid this, because we tend to be reasonably independent souls. Even so, siblings often take on part of our care, especially when are parents aren’t around. My sister drove me to countless engagements, helped me coordinate outfits, and ensured that I was getting along okay, just generally. She was asked to shoulder more responsibility than any sibling should, and she usually did so without complaint.

They are asked to work harder: while some families are more egalitarian than others, it often happened that my sister ended up with the bulk of the “difficult” chores. While I did the dishes, she went out and picked rocks, or mowed the lawn, or changed the oil on a vehicle. My family’s subtle aversion to tasking me with anything too hard prevented me from learning some concrete skills, and it also meant my sister often got the shaft where household responsibility was concerned. Mostly, she dealt with that dynamic gracefully, only occasionally giving into a (justified) rant or two.

They become fierce defenders: My sister is a nonconfrontational person, but mess with me and you’d better hope you’re not within glaring distance. As we strolled through the mall, being gawked at by strangers, my sister dispensed cheery waves and bright, toothy smiles with relentless determination. She’s shamed more than a few people into looking away guiltily, and she can’t bear to watch me being mistreated. I learned not to tell her about any bullying that went on in my life, lest it enrage her. I don’t need protecting, but it’s still comforting to know that someone will be angry on my behalf when I’ve been treated unfairly.

They grow up too fast: siblings of disabled people learn about sacrifice, hardship, injustice, and inequality very early on. My sister was presented with living proof that life is not often fair; that people sometimes get rare and incurable genetic diseases; and that the world is not kind to anyone with a disability. My sister also had to learn self-sacrifice early and often, sometimes missing out on something she wanted because I needed something else more. She had to settle for less time and attention. She even had to forego certain visual experiences because I’d be left out. These are things she’s forgiven me for, and they are things I still feel guilty about.

If this sounds like your sibling, send them a text, give them a call, or link them to this article. Seriously. Do it. Right now. I’ll wait.