The Freedom To Read

On February 26, Canadians will begin celebrating Freedom to Read Week, which reminds us of the danger of censorship and the importance of intellectual liberty for everyone. It’s a time to reflect on the harm done by banning books and restricting access to controversial ideas. I’m a big fan of this occasion, because I routinely seek out viewpoints that make me uncomfortable. Forcing myself to ask hard questions can be unpleasant, but frequent soul-searching helps me keep my mind open and my opinions balanced.
As dear as this cause is to my heart, I’ve found that the phrase “freedom to read” means something different to me—something deeply personal and specific to my disability. You see, much of my childhood and young adulthood was made less fulfilling because I did not have total freedom to read. Braille books were difficult to come by, especially rare ones, and audio books used to be prohibitively expensive. Later, when a mix of talking books and access to the internet helped me nourish the hungry bookworm that has always lived inside me, I realized just how difficult it had been to live in a world where I missed out on so much while my peers dealt with no such limitations. Imagine waltzing into a library or bookstore and just…reading, whatever you want, whenever you want! This is a privilege most able people will never have to think twice about; it’s automatic and taken for granted by the majority of people. For me, though, it was a novel concept.
I couldn’t experience the pleasure of binge-reading; my supply of literature was far too inconsistent for that. I often curbed my urge to read everything in sight, knowing that if I didn’t ration my reading material, I’d regret it later. By the time I was in ninth grade, I’d literally read every book the nearest resource centre had to offer, which I found devastating. The CNIB library finally saved me, but until then I felt intense deprivation.
Reading, more than any other activity, gives me indescribable joy. Books are my refuge, sort of like a friend who will never desert me. Reading is how I relax. It’s how I learn. It’s how I entertain myself and expand my horizons. It’s an invaluable educational tool, because I get much less out of videos and am quite introverted. It’s my chief source of comfort and solace. Whenever life gets a little too complicated, I retreat to my books, though I read almost as much when times are good. I feel giddy at the mere thought of finding someone new to talk books with. In short, I cannot imagine a life without reading.
There are other times when my freedom to read is compromised. I can’t usually read signs, billboards, posters and other visual materials. Taking photos of objects using specialized software is one of the only ways to identify labels and read instructions (though instructions are commonly posted online now, which helps an immeasurable amount). If my portable scanner isn’t handy, I sometimes need documents in hard copy to be read aloud to me. I can’t normally read paperwork I’m supposed to fill out, meaning strangers are privy to sensitive information and must spend time they don’t have assisting me. I can’t use most debit machines independently. The list goes on.
In this, as in so many other situations, the internet has contributed to a more positive reading experience. I can binge-read to my heart’s content. I can be very selective about what I choose to read. I have access to almost all reading material in existence, whether it’s rare or common. For the most part, things are next door to perfect.
I want everyone to know how vital it is that people with disabilities be allowed to read as freely as they please. They have the right to be exposed to new ideas and a variety of stories, just like able people. The hardest part about being a very young child was my inability to read. Waiting around for a grownup to take the time was excruciating, and even now, when I have to be read to, I feel like a child. I don’t want future blind people to be treated like children. I never want them to be compelled to read books they don’t enjoy because there are no other options. I am passionate about literacy, and the right of every person around the world to benefit from it. (This is why I become incandescent with rage whenever people suggest that braille has lost its relevance.) Literacy was my ticket to an equal education, and it is the bread and butter of my career. Navigating an educational system that believed I was “lucky to go to school at all” could only be accomplished by proving I was a good student, for which reading was key.
If we can all have the freedom to read, I think the world will be a much better place.

Dear Web Developers: You’re Out Of Excuses

It’s been one of those days—a day that makes me want to shut down my computer and hide under a quilt to cry. It’s barely noon, and I’m already utterly fed up. If I had chocolate, I’d be binge-eating it; if I had wine, I’d be guzzling it.
Fellow disabled people will understand the kind of day I’m having: it’s the kind during which almost every single task I try to accomplish online is blocked by accessibility issues.
I encounter accessibility roadblocks all the time, though they usually have workarounds. I’m so used to them that I hardly give them much thought, and don’t waste much of my limited emotional energy on being annoyed with them. They’re a fact of life and, while I do report bugs and encourage web developers to improve, I’ve worked to embrace a positive, patient attitude when it comes to navigating the internet. Most days, I’m just grateful that I can access the internet at all. Sure, I get snarky, but generally I would rather help than condemn.
On days like these, though, I’m less philosophical. Smothering my frustration when I ran into yet another inaccessible capcha became increasingly difficult, and when I tried to report the issue using the site’s contact form, I discovered that the “submit” button wasn’t accessible either. At that point, I realized I had no chill. None. I searched for it, willing it to return, but I’m thoroughly, disproportionately discomposed.
I get it: accessibility isn’t always intuitive, and many developers are self-taught. They learn as they go along, and mistakes like these are almost inevitable. While I’m not a developer myself—I’m proud when I manage to use html correctly—I can imagine that accessibility might not be covered well in school, either. During a course on web design and online information architecture, my class received one short lesson on accessibility—just enough to explain what accessibility actually is and why it’s important, but not enough to provide insight into how it can be accomplished. There was little mention of accessibility tests, plugins, consultants, or basic handbooks. Few practical solutions were discussed. In other words, the lesson focused on awareness only, without providing a solution to the issue it raised. How useful is that? Well, it’s not useful at all.
So, yes, I understand that inclusive web design may not come naturally to a budding developer. It also might be challenging for a veteran because web accessibility has evolved considerably. As people with various disabilities speak out about what they need, accessibility becomes more comprehensive and, therefore, more complicated. I don’t pretend to know all there is to know. I’m not even close to that point yet.
Still, as in so many areas of life, ignorance is not a justifiable defence. It’s 2016, and accessibility guidelines are one click away. I’ve just performed a basic Google search, “web accessibility,” and the entire page of results is filled with helpful articles ranging from the most basic to the most advanced. Surely even beginners can take at least a few steps to ensure their websites are as inclusive as possible!
I’ve concluded that my frustration is fuelled by years of feeling like a burden when I asked developers to fix some problem or other. I was often treated like an unreasonable user who was asking for the moon, and I became accustomed to that. With notable exceptions like Apple and Buffer, my requests for improvements have often been ignored or dismissed. Several companies have lost my business entirely because I literally could not use their services anymore.
I’m growing weary of explaining that accessibility is not a privilege, but a right. I’m sick of reiterating that, no, accessibility is not about doing us a “favour.” I’m desperately tired of insisting that while ease of use isn’t mandatory, accessibility certainly is.
Developers need to add accessibility to their core values. They need to stop lumping accessibility into a category alongside perks, special features, and enhancements. They need to stop reducing it to a public relations stunt, designed only to generate glowing publicity. They need to consider it standard, not extra. Making your site accessible should be framed as the least that can be done to provide a satisfactory user experience. Companies like Apple, which include accessibility as a matter of course as often as possible, shouldn’t be as notable and praiseworthy as they are. What they are doing should not only be common, but normal. Expected. Fundamental.
So, developers, please listen: you are running out of excuses. You can’t claim ignorance; there is too much information out there for you to do that. You can’t hide behind pleas that you don’t have the time or the skill; accessibility plugins abound, and the simplest steps you can take are ones so easy to implement that even I, not tech-savvy by anyone’s standards, can figure them out. You can no longer classify accessibility as optional. Unless we’re talking about visually-based games, for example, there is no sufficient reason to leave a button unlabeled or an image undescribed. By failing to take these essential measures, you’re effectively shirking your responsibility to your users.
For now, we have workarounds. We have specialized software to help us circumvent accessibility challenges. We have extensive experience, accessibility consultants, and countless developers who are already on the right track. All is not bleak. Much of the internet is mostly, if not totally, accessible, and it’s getting better all the time. But …
I’m done making excuses for you. I refuse to apologize when I can’t access features of a website. I can’t in good conscience allow you to view my access issues as an inconvenience. I’m no longer going to defend your ignorance, your unwillingness to take the time, or your belief that I’m asking too much. Developers, I’m not asking a lot. I’m merely asking that I and fellow disabled users be able to access your website. That’s it. I just want to create an account, browse your services, and maybe even give you my money and share your content. I’m happy to help. I’ll cheerfully act as a beta tester. I don’t mind reporting bugs and offering suggestions on how to make your site better. I understand the difference between “inaccessible” and “imperfect.” When it comes to helping you make your site more inclusive, my time is yours.
Until you recognize that it’s time for change, however, I will no longer give you a pass. If you have the resources to make your website eye-catching and flashy and exciting, you definitely have the ability to make sure it’s usable, too. Karl Groves puts it more eloquently than I ever could: accessibility problems are “quality problems,” and nothing less.

Accessibility: What It Is And What It Isn’t

I’d be hard pressed to overstate the importance of accessible technology. The world leans so heavily on it that excluding any group from its use borders on injustice and is, at best, an unwise move. Accessibility makes good business sense. It widens audiences. It generates glowing publicity. It raises awareness. In short, it’s a win-win for basically everyone.

Unfortunately, it appears that some people with disabilities, and blind people in particular—the population I know best—have lost perspective. Accessibility is, at its core, a goal that demands that products be designed with as many people in mind as possible. Ideally, a blind person playing with, say, a new feature of Facebook should be capable of accessing it. Put another way, accessibility simply means that every button is labeled, every graphic is described, at least in simple terms, every link is clickable, and every menu is navigable via means other than the mouse. This does not even begin to scratch the surface of accessibility for all populations, but it’s a fairly comprehensive list of the things blind people hope for and expect from technology. The cost of inaccessible software alone can be devastating. It’s a real slog to mess with vital services that are inaccessible, like government websites and debit machines.

All this being said, accessibility is not inherently synonymous with ease of use. Obviously it is in everyone’s best interest that products be easy to use; user-friendly products make good sense, after all, in a world so driven by productivity. However, an app or website does not need to be a dream to use in order to be accessible. An app might be a little difficult to figure out at first, because it has an unfamiliar interface or a button whose function is not immediately and glaringly obvious. Maybe the documentation is low-quality and support lacking.

Even so, this does not mean the app or website is universally impossible to access. There are many programs I use often that other blind people consider partially or totally inaccessible, not because they are, but because it takes a little fiddling to get them to work. Unfamiliar interfaces are not inaccessible by default. User-unfriendly apps are not inaccessible by default. The world certainly owes all disabled populations a reasonably accessible environment, but it does not owe them a perfect, effortless experience. We fight so many legitimate battles over accessibility, so we cannot waste energy screaming over features that are merely tricky or troublesome, not inaccessible outright. I don’t believe that we ought to shut up and be grateful, but it is worth taking a few steps back, and remembering what accessibility is (and what it isn’t).

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.”
“Why?”
“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.”
“…What?”
“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.

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.

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.