4 Sources Of Functional Illiteracy That Technology Can’t Fix (Yet)

Most blind people are perfectly literate. We may need screen readers and/or braille dots to do it, but most of us can read as well as any sighted person. Further, much of the reading material that was once unavailable to us—magazines, newspapers, pamphlets—can be accessed online. It’s much easier to be a bookworm in 2016 than it was in, say, 1995. The world of the written word is, more often than not, accessible now. There will always be exceptions, though, and those unfortunate little exceptions can conspire to create a lot of grumbling, at least in my life. You see, no matter how accessible the world becomes, blind people will remain functionally illiterate when it comes to…

1. Signs

Signs: helpful little things, which do a lot more than indicate street names and business establishments. GPS and a healthy knowledge of the city was not helpful to me when I nearly trailed the delicate sleeve of my favourite blouse in wet paint because I couldn’t read the sign on the railing. I’ve nearly ruined a cherished skirt while trying to sit on a newly-painted bench. I’ve slid on wet floors, only finding (and knocking over) the helpful wet floor sign after the fact. (Those really do lend themselves well to being loudly and conspicuously toppled, don’t they?) I’ve tried to use elevators and toilets that were out of order. I’ve tried to walk through emergency exits when there was no emergency in sight. All the many helpful hints signs can provide are lost on me, and it is only the boundless kindness of strangers that has saved me from many an embarrassing mishap. (Thanks to the odd passers-by, I still own both blouse and skirt!)

2. Subtitles and Captions

So there I am, watching some powerful video or other, when suddenly the actors switch language. The nice video editors have thoughtfully provided subtitles, but I’m left feeling totally lost. If I’m lucky, the video comes with description, so at least the describer can read the subtitles to me, though this is quite distracting and really takes away from the flow of dialogue. Mostly, I’m unlucky, and nearby sighted people are subjected to eyelash-fluttering and relentless entreaty until they agree to read me the subtitles. It’s frustrating, and while it doesn’t come up very often—I’ve memorized the Elvish bits in LOTR, so that at least is no issue—it’s a real thorn when it does.

3. Handwriting

No matter how skilled we become at inventing and using technology that can read printed material from menus, books, and photos, I don’t know if we’ll ever progress to the point where the blind can access handwriting. Everyone’s handwriting is unique, some more readable than others, but even the neatest penmanship is essentially inaccessible to anyone who can’t see it for themselves. I’ve only a rudimentary understanding of printed letters as it is, so when someone leaves handwritten notes, or uses fancy calligraphy on a bottle of perfume, I’m left wondering. Reading about how personal and intimate handwritten letters are does not help with morale, either. Excuse me while I go shed a few tears over the fact that I’ll never receive a handwritten love letter. I’ll never even take a Buzzfeed quiz on what my handwriting says about me.
Okay, I’m done now.

4. Packaging

It’s getting easier to read labels on packaging now that we have image recognition apps. If you’re able to snap a clear photo of the object in question, it’s possible to have your smart phone rattling off the information in seconds. This assumes you, unlike me, are any good at taking good photos on the first or seventh try, of course. No matter how intelligent the technology, no matter how clear the photo, no matter how strong your desire to read the packaging, however, the fact remains that some companies just don’t make it easy for us. The print on some items is so miniscule even fully-sighted people struggle to read the finer points. Try reading an expiration date or ingredients list without a microscope. And, if you can find and read the instructions without five minutes of fiddling, come talk to me. It would take less time to read a five-page forum on how to open that stubborn bottle of toilet cleaner than it would to find the convoluted instructions printed in tiny lettering on the back. Besides, you meet cool new people while trying to open things. If that fails, you can always resort to more eyelash-fluttering, obviously.

I’m glad to report that, as with so many issues, functional illiteracy for blind people is diminishing. We’re able to access so much material online now that the need to read conventionally is lessening every day. I am seldom reminded of my disability when it comes to reading material, and maybe that’s why it’s so jarring when I am. If you become accustomed to accessing something, and are suddenly and definitively unable, it stands out even more sharply for its rarity. Nothing transports me back to childhood faster than having something read to me, and that’s not the type of childhood nostalgia I welcome. My hope is that strangers will stay kind, and friends will stay patient. Just remember, while you’re rereading that piece of paper for the fifth time, I’m just as frustrated as you are.

“What’s Happening?”: on the Importance of Described Video

Described video for the visually impaired is becoming far more widespread in recent years. You’ll often hear “this program is presented with described video for the visually impaired” before The Simpsons, Law and Order, or some other popular TV show. It’s becoming commonplace for movies, too; if you buy a movie, you can often go into the menu and select the described version. It’s not ideal for sighted viewers, of course. The disembodied voice describing detailed versions of what they are already seeing drives some of them crazy, which is why I never insist that they watch the described movie with me. Some, however, think it’s the most entertaining way to watch a movie. These people are very special.

Described TV shows and movies are still regarded as a bit of a luxury (opinions vary) and it’s certainly not a life-or-death situation if someone fails to describe an episode of The Walking Dead. There are times, though, when description is not only helpful, but necessary. Take a look at this PSA about bullying. It’s not as though watching these announcements is likely to save a life, but if they are meant for the “public”, then that public needs to include visually impaired people. Excluding a sizable demographic of the world’s population doesn’t make a lot of sense, especially when there is almost always captioning present for the hearing impaired, and subtitles for those who speak different languages. Shouldn’t we be included, too?

Many of us grew up without described video, even for movies and TV shows, and we still managed to enjoy them as much as sighted people. Sure, it was somewhat restricting, especially for horror and action films, which tend to be a little short on expository dialogue. Either we watched shows that had enough dialogue to go by, or we enlisted a friend or family member who was willing to describe the most important bits to us. It’s not as though we need lavish descriptions; we’re not asking for the moon on a stick. We don’t need to know whether the protagonist is a “dazzlingly beautiful young woman with long blonde ringlets, high cheekbones, and a willowy figure”. Those details are nice (though some describers go a little overboard) but not at all necessary. Very few people need that amount of detail to get the basic gist. I had a friend in junior high who loved describing so much that we’d get together and have movie marathons. He was so dedicated that, for fast-paced movies, he’d get up, hit pause, and describe everything going on. It was lovely. I miss him.

Meaningful description isn’t an unreasonable expectation. People are often hired specifically to provide captioning for the deaf and hearing impaired, so why are people seldom hired to provide descriptions for the blind and visually impaired? There are agencies devoted to describing movies and TV shows, but they don’t usually cover public service announcements and similar videos. Really, they shouldn’t have to.
Description isn’t an extravagant demand made by angry blind people who want to be catered to. Description makes good sense. Nobody bats an eye at providing subtitles and captioning, and it’s time the industry started acknowledging other accessibility challenges as well. There may be other demographics with accessibility restrictions that I don’t even know about, and they need to speak up. If you want your ad or announcement to reach as many people as possible, you’ll need to use inclusive methods of communication. Remember that iconic Super Bowl PSA about domestic violence? It reached us because it had enough dialogue for us to fully understand what was happening. That PSA is a work of art on quite a few levels.

Hey, marketers: you’re always devising new strategies for reaching more people. Description is to your advantage. Many commercials are totally dialogue-free, to the point where I don’t know what half of them are trying to sell me. I’m saying this in a whisper, because no one really likes ads, but maybe invest in some accessibility consultants? It might help your cause.

I’ve written about when accessibility is necessary and when it’s simply helpful. I’m not expecting all my Facebook friends to start describing their cat videos (although I wouldn’t say no to that). I do, however, encourage people to think before they publish. Ask yourself whether this video is important enough to reach millions or even billions of people. Then ask yourself whether it is going to reach as many demographics as possible. If the second question is a no, then start exploring accessibility, for us, and for everyone else, too.