Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

On January 9, 2007, the Apple iPhone was unveiled by the late Steve Jobs in front of thousands of curious spectators. The launch of this new and entirely touch-screen operated cell phone changed the way in which people across the globe interact with technology. For me and countless other individuals with vision loss or other disabilities, the iPhone and similar mobile devices not only gave us greater access to technology, but they also afforded us more independence that previously seemed impossible.

My brother and several friends were among the lucky ones to own that first iPhone from 2007. I always heard excited chatter from them about the cool features it had. “I can even check the weather,” my brother told my relatives in Mexico. At the time touch-screen devices like the iPhone were completely inaccessible to those of us with vision loss, so I could only dream of enjoying that technology. That all changed in 2009 with the launch of the iPhone 3GS, when Apple incorporated Voiceover, its screen-reading software into this and future versions of the iPhone.

Like most of my friends who were blind, I was skeptical and didn’t know if the iPhone would work for me. The thought of being able to use a touch-screen without sight seemed daunting and impossible. It was not until 2012 that I decided to switch to an iPhone after constantly hearing rave reviews from my friends, who were extremely pleased with the accessibility. Their feedback did not disappoint. For the first time in my life, I was able to send and receive text messages on my own thanks to the iPhone. I could also check the weather and email on the go, something that my family and friends took for granted.

Today, the iPhone not only helps me stay in touch with the world, it also gives me more independence. Apps like LookTell Money Reader and TapTapSee allow me to identify things without needing someone’s assistance. With the Bard Mobile and NFB NewsLine apps I can download books, newspapers and magazines in a matter of seconds to listen on my iPhone. The kNFBReader app quickly scans printed documents and reads them out loud to me. Thanks to Voiceover and the built-in accessibility of the camera, I can even take pictures! Finding last minute transportation has become easier thanks to apps like Lyft and Uber, and I can easily find my way to unfamiliar locations with the phone’s GPS.

Without a doubt, the iPhone and other mobile devices have dramatically enhanced the lives of everyone, but even more so for people with disabilities. Technology has changed significantly since 2007, the time when I and other people with vision loss could only dream of being able to use these devices. Kudos to Apple and other manufacturers who are constantly trying to make their devices accessible to everyone. The possibilities with technology are endless, and I am sure it will only continue to help people with and without disabilities connect to the world and live more independent lives.

Guest Commentary: A Picture of Visual Impairment Filled with Contrast

Axel Davila is a student at Georgetown University and contributor to Sandy’s View. Axel came to the United States from Venezuela, and this week he shares his thoughts on the differences and similarities regarding the accessibility situation of individuals with vision loss living in Latin American countries and the United States.

Moving from one country to another is never easy. Leaving your culture behind to experience something new can be a challenging endeavor. However, there comes a time when you have to try it.   After five months living here in the United States and having heard testimonies of visually impaired citizens from Venezuela and Argentina which I have gathered for the Sandy’s View blog, I feel a bit more qualified to offer my personal impressions.

At first glance, the main problem is the numbers. It is not that the disability figures and rates are higher in Latin American countries than in the United States. The reality is that in Latin American countries, there are not official statistics or research. Therefore, analysis of the problem is more difficult because the numbers aren’t there to back them up.

During my time in the United States, I have seen greater inclusion of people with visual impairments and other disabilities.  This can be attributed in part to the fact that the U.S. has been a more open society that listens to the needs of its citizens, including the disabled community.

Another positive aspect has to do with building structures and facilities. In this country, it is more common to see someone who is visually impaired more able to navigate their surroundings.  This infrastructure that is accessible to everyone – is incorporated into buildings. Additionally, the majority of the time public transportation has accessibility for those with disabilities. These features include elevators for people who use wheelchairs and periodic audio information updates for passengers with visual impairments. In contrast, public transportation in other countries lacks these features. For example, buses do not descend to ground level to make it easier for people to get in, which presents difficulties for those with mobility impairments.

Another major problem for people with vision loss living in Latin American countries is that they encounter obstacles, such as non-compliance of drivers with traffic lights, and trash and potholes on the sidewalks. Not to mention the lack of traffic lights with braille or sound.  As you might imagine, it is quite complicated for someone who is visually impaired to be a pedestrian in these countries.

Something that the U.S. and other countries have in common is the constant use of technology. Nowadays, cell phones absorb people’s attention. On one hand, they can present disadvantages, as people are less aware of what surrounds them. This, of course, is a problem for pedestrians with and without disabilities. On the other hand, the advent of technology also has major benefits. In the United States, apps such as Uber and Lyft have contributed to making it easier for people who are blind or visually impaired to get around. While these apps also exist in Latin American countries, these services are not always accessible or safe.

These are just a few of the most noticeable accessibility differences between the U.S. and other Latin American and Caribbean countries regarding people with visual impairments. There is a lot more to achieve in all of these countries, including the United States. However, acknowledging both the current problems and achievements can put things into perspective. As I continue to be here in the United States and contribute to the Sandy’s View blog, I will try to shed more light on the current situation of people with visual impairments in different parts of the world. By doing this, I hope to not only tell their stories but also to spread more awareness about individuals with disabilities living in different countries.

Winter Travel Tips for People with Vision Loss

Winter Travel Tips for People with Vision Loss

Winter officially begins next Wednesday, but Chicago and many other cities across the United States are already experiencing extremely cold and snowy conditions. Traveling in inclement weather is difficult for everyone, but more so for people with vision loss or other disabilities. Today, we are revisiting the subject of traveling outside during the winter with some tips for people who are blind or visually impaired.

Most people are not aware, but snow muffles the sounds of things. Someone who is blind or has significant low vision relies on echoes and other sounds to orient themselves to their surroundings, so snow will make this difficult. Crossing streets can also become challenging, because it can be harder to hear the sound of cars. Snow also interferes with the information we get from our canes. When streets, sidewalks and grass are covered in snow, it is difficult, if not impossible for cane users to know where we are. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten thrown off my path because I had no idea where the sidewalk begins and ends!

People who use dog guides have other challenges when dealing with ice and snow. Salt is wonderful for getting rid of ice, but it can hurt a dog’s paws. Dog guide users won’t always know if or where salted spots are located, so they must take additional precautions to prevent their four-legged companions from getting their paws hurt. Dog boots can help keep the paws warm and prevent injury from the salt or other sharp objects hidden under the ice and snow.

Perhaps the best advice for people with vision loss is to be cautious when traveling in the winter. The white cane is generally good at detecting snow and icy spots, so take precaution and walk at a slower pace if need be in these areas. If you get disoriented and need assistance, don’t hesitate to ask whoever is nearby for help. Of course, when it snows it’s generally cold, and this can make traveling outside more unpleasant — keep in mind that you might already be traveling at a slower pace to begin with! Always bundle up when traveling in extremely cold temperatures.

When winter conditions are extremely cold or dangerous, you might want to look at other forms of transportation. If you feel unsafe waiting for a bus or train in cold or icy weather, it might be a good idea to consider taking a cab, Uber or asking a friend or family member for a ride. Of course, there will be times when you will absolutely have to wait for public transportation outside. Always bundle up with extra layers of clothing and find a shelter to protect you from the inclement weather in this situation.

Winter is hard for people with and without vision. Coping with this often brutal weather is no walk in the park for anyone, but by having good independent travel skills and using our common sense, we’ll be able to safely get around. These are other useful tips from the American Foundation for the Blind on traveling during the winter with a white cane. Stay warm, and safe travels to everyone! What other winter travel tips do you have for people who are blind or visually impaired?

Commentary: On Equal Access to Standardized Tests

The College Board recently made an announcement that will benefit students with disabilities who wish to take standardized tests for college admission. Starting in 2017, most students who receive test accommodations through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan will have those accommodations automatically approved for standardized exams from the College Board. These tests include the SAT, advanced placement college exams and more. In other words, students will receive the same accommodations they use in their day-to-day assignments to take these exams.

I believe this decision from the College Board will have a positive impact for students with disabilities. For one, it will eliminate unnecessary hassles for requesting disability related accommodations. I still remember all the hurdles my parents, teachers and I encountered when I was about to take the SAT. Fortunately, my teachers of the visually impaired knew about the paperwork to begin the process for requesting accommodations. Nevertheless, waiting to receive approval was a time consuming process, often taking a month or more. In the end, I always received accommodations, such as providing the exam in Braille and audio cassette, and extended time. These were accommodations that were already part of my IEP.

This new decision from the College Board will also help prospective college students with disabilities succeed. Standardized tests are hard for almost everyone, but even more so for students with disabilities who do not receive adequate accommodations. Back in high school, I knew several peers with physical disabilities who required extended time to complete the exam. While extended time was approved for them on the SAT, it was significantly less than what they ordinarily received through their IEP. This meant they would not have enough time to complete the entire exam, thus negatively affecting their score.

When given appropriate accommodations, students with disabilities can succeed in standardized tests. Accommodations do not make the exams easier or harder for them. They simply help them achieve their best performance possible, and I believe that is the overall goal of these exams for every student. By streamlining the process and allowing students with disabilities to use the accommodations already available to them, they will be able to do just that. Moreover, I hope this new practice will give more students with disabilities the opportunity to attend the college of their choice.

Tips for Sending Accessible and Enjoyable Greeting Cards and Pictures

Tips for Sending Accessible and Enjoyable Greeting Cards and Pictures

Now that you have some ideas from last week’s post on what to give your friend or family member with vision loss, it is time to revisit the topic of holiday greeting cards and pictures. Everyone appreciates receiving greeting cards, and there are many options for people who are blind or visually impaired. Simple suggestions and even creativity can help you come up with a greeting card or picture album everyone can enjoy!

Braille Greeting Cards

Several organizations that work with people who are blind or visually impaired sell Braille greeting cards. The Chicago Lighthouse’s Tools for Living Store, for example, sells a wide variety of greeting cards for different occasions. A Braille message is included in each card, and space is provided for you to write a personal message. If you know Braille or someone who does, you can write your message in Braille!

Tactile cards

Some greeting cards already have raised or embossed images. A lot of times the paper has simple embossed designs, and other cards have tactile shapes made from materials like felt or glitter. I personally appreciate it when someone gives me one of these cards (although sometimes they do it without realizing it). The down side is that they might cost more than standard cards. If you’re the creative, do-it-yourself type of person, then you can easily make a tactile greeting card. You can find thousands of styles and design ideas online.

E-Cards

These are digital greeting cards that are sent through email. They often include picture animations and short audio clips. You can even personalize the cards with your own pictures and short audio recorded messages. I have a love-hate relationship with these types of cards. Although I can easily click on the link to view the card, I often have no clue what’s in the animation or pictures. Animations aren’t always accessible with screen-reading software, and more often than not, the images aren’t described. I remember once getting a Christmas Hallmark e-card, and although I could hear “jingle bells” playing in the background, I had no idea what the images were.

Describing Pictures

Sharing pictures is increasingly popular thanks to social media. Just like anyone else, blind and visually impaired people love receiving pictures of their friends and family, and of course any photos we might be in! No matter how you send the photos – through email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. – it’s always a good idea for you to add a brief caption describing who and what is going on in the picture. Of course, if your friends or family members with vision loss were in a particular photo, chances are they will remember when it was taken. By providing brief descriptions, we will be able to enjoy these snapshots as much as everyone else!

Regardless of what method you use, those of us who are blind or visually impaired will greatly appreciate the effort you put into sending us a card or photo we could enjoy. Even if the message in the card is handwritten, we will most likely find someone who can read it and describe the picture for us. Still, finding a card that is accessible can help us read and enjoy it on our own. I hope these tips and suggestions will help you get your loved ones with vision loss greeting cards that are accessible and enjoyable. Happy holidays!

Commentary: Spreading Disability Awareness

Students across the nation are undertaking activities to promote acceptance and inclusion of people with disabilities. In Virginia, a group of students recently published a guide for creating inclusive environments for people with disabilities in schools. Here in Chicago, another student organized different disability awareness activities to show what people with disabilities are capable of, and how society can become more inclusive to this community. Both groups hope their projects will further create understanding about the needs of those with disabilities.

I’ve gone to speak at different elementary, junior high and high schools, and each time I am pleasantly surprised by the thoughtful questions students ask! Children wonder how I read, get around and cook without being able to see. Truth is, although adults also find these things intriguing, they might be hesitant to ask. Meanwhile, children will ask without hesitating, and will better understand and learn about disabilities from this experience.

To me, non-disabled children are also more understanding and willing to accept people with disabilities when given a chance to interact with them from a very young age. I experienced this firsthand at school, where more often than not, I was the only child who couldn’t see in my class. I remember going out to recess and playing on the playground equipment with my sighted peers, who didn’t seem to mind my blindness. To them, I was just another peer who happened to be blind, but other than that I was like anyone else. Teaching young children about disabilities will help them better empathize with people with disabilities. As a result, they will focus on what we can do instead of what we can’t.

Disability simulating activities can also go a long way in teaching people about various impairments when done properly. If students put on blindfolds and walk around or do other things without guidance, they will believe it is impossible or that blindness is frightening. On the other hand, if someone, preferably another person who is blind, teaches them about the different tools and techniques to do these things, they will learn that people who are blind or visually impaired can and do adapt successfully to their disability.

Kudos to the students in Chicago and Virginia for their initiatives of promoting disability awareness and inclusion. As individuals with disabilities, we are constantly trying to demonstrate our abilities to society in hopes that more people will look past what we cannot do. These and similar projects are perfect opportunities to show others how important it is to accept and include people with disabilities in the community, school and work. I’m sure these students and their fellow classmates will have a better understanding and acceptance of people with disabilities once they become adults, and this will go a long way in promoting inclusion and awareness.

Holiday Gift Ideas From The Lighthouse’s Tools for Living Store!

Holiday Gift Ideas From The Lighthouse’s Tools for Living Store!

The holidays are here, and with them comes celebration and gift giving! Like with everyone else, you want to give your loved ones with vision loss something they’ll find both useful and enjoyable. The Chicago Lighthouse’s Tools for Living Store has over 900 products for people of all ages. From stocking stuffers to the latest in technology, you’ll be sure to find something everyone will like!

Game enthusiasts will love the wide selection of products. The store carries Braille and large print versions of popular games like Bingo, Scrabble, Checkers, Crazy Eights, Uno, Hoyle and Pinochle. Dominos with raised dots and Brailled dice are also available. With the wide selection of auditory and tactile toys and games, you’ll be sure to find something for children of all ages as well!

The wide selection of Braille, large print and talking watches will help your loved one keep track of time! They include many features, such as alarm, stopwatch, calendar and thermometer. Other talking, large print and Braille products are also available. These include calculators, telephones and thermometers. Those who enjoy cooking will love the kitchen tools, like Braille and large print measuring cups and adaptive cutting boards and knives.

The Tools for Living Store sells a wide selection of assistive technology products. These include hand-held magnifiers, digital players and recorders, screen-reading and magnification software and note-taking devices. Portable CCTVs and talking GPS devices will help those with vision loss be more independent. Wearable technology, like the OrCam and Esight devices, are the latest in assistive technology for people with vision loss, and are available at the Tools for Living Store. Please note that some of these devices require initial consultation in order to insure they are right for the clients.

Chicago Lighthouse mugs, shirts, tote bags and holiday ornaments make great stocking stuffers for everyone! The Braille readers on your list will surely appreciate a Braille holiday or greeting card along with their gift! Other small items, like sunglasses and pocket flashlights are also available. In other words, the Tools for Living Store at the Chicago Lighthouse has something for everyone on the list!

To find out more or purchase any of the products offered at the Tools for Living Store, you may stop in person at our main location at 1850 W. Roosevelt Road in Chicago, or at our Glenview facility, 222 N. Waukegan Road. You may also call toll free, 800-919-3375 Or email store@chicagolighthouse.org. To order online, visit http://www.lighthousetoolsforliving.org. Receive free shipping with orders over $150 placed between December 1 and 31! Please note that we suggest you place your order before or on December 11 in order to ensure delivery before the holidays. Proceeds from all products support the programs offered at the Chicago Lighthouse, serving people who are blind, visually impaired, disabled and Veterans.

Happy holidays, and happy shopping to all!