Technically disabled

  • Photograph of refreshable Braille display.

Photograph: Refreshable Braille displays are often used by the visually impaired to access computers. Photo licensed by Creative Commons.

Today, I would like to introduce you to a man by the name of Jeff Davis. That is not exactly his name and I will not share where he lives, but understand that I have known him for the greater part of 20 years. Mr. Davis is nearly completely blind. Trying to explain what he can see to a normally sighted person makes me think about how I would explain interplanetary space to a fish. Understand that what he does see is almost always uninformative and sometimes distractingly confusing to the point where he just has to close his eyes and block out that input.

Like more than 80% of blind and visually impaired Americans, Mr. Davis is unemployed. Like many blind and visually impaired people he is employable and does want to be active in the community.

Mr. Davis divides his time between taking care of his own mental health, being a presenter for a program that teaches K-8 students about people with disabilities and manning a mental health warm line a few times per week.

During a recent phone call, Mr. Davis mentioned how after a recent software update certain changes were made which severely limited the usability of the mobile operating system installed on his phone and tablet. This has increased his frustration and anxiety.

While accessibility to smartphones and computers in general have made important strides in the past several years, the road has not been smooth and there is no single smartphone operating system that consistently wins the biggest accolades from the disabled community. However, large companies tend to put the most effort into the features that appear to give them the best market bump. The needs of the disabled are often afterthoughts, feel-good projects which are added to seek out just a little more market share, so it can be a while for things to get fixed. Some software developers never even think about building in accessibility features at all.

Mr. Davis does own a smartphone, however he still keeps his old flip phone. He tells me that between half and three-quarters of the blind and visually impaired people he knows use a smart phone and the remainder are split between not having a phone at all or using older “dumb” phones.

Smart phones are glossy, smooth rectangles of glass and plastic while older phones have actual buttons which can be felt. To use a smart phone, a blind or severely visually impaired person needs to slide their finger around the screen and wait for the phone to announce what they are touching. This is much slower and more frustrating then finding the buttons you need by touch.

As an illustration of this, have someone fill a small bag of random household objects, making sure they keep the kitchen knives and scissors out of the bag. Then, have them tell you what object to find, close your eyes and reach in and find that object without looking. Make sure it is not something easy like your car keys. Then, take the same objects and lay them out on the table and have your same helper guide you, by voice, to a random object without touching anything on the table. See which one is faster.

There are many conditions that affect motor control as well like cerebral palsy and Parkinson’s disease which also impair the ability of people to use smart phones. As a passenger, have you ever attempted to type an address into a GPS or dial a phone number in a moving vehicle? It’s similar. I cannot count the number of times I called someone by accident because the light rail I was riding in suddenly hit the brakes.

You might think sure, but smart phones can respond to voice command now. This is true, but do you really want everyone on the train to hear you dictate a memo to your sister, or give out your mother’s phone number when you realize you forgot to wish her a happy birthday while you’re on the train? As good as computer voice recognition has become over the past few years, it does not compete with the noise of the real world. Rest assured that like personal phone calls, voice commanding your phone should mostly be limited to the safety and security of your own home or office.

Companies want all customers to buy the latest and greatest smartphones and want us to ditch our old phones with buttons. We, as customers, have some power over this. We need to advocate for accessible technologies and do not fall into the traps of keeping up with the Apples and the Samsungs. Remember that the person struggling with inaccessible technology might one day be you.