Commentary: Making Online Review Websites for People with Disabilities

For people who are blind or severely visually impaired, Braille is the equivalent of print letters and numbers to those with sight. Unfortunately, only a small percentage of signs and literature that we interact with on a daily basis are available in Braille. Elevators and bathrooms with Braille signage helps me know I am at the right place when I am out and about. In the rare instance I come across a restaurant with Braille menus, I feel a sense of independence because I can read the different choices on my own. Braille not only allows me to read and write, it also helps me be more independent.

Recently, police officers in Ottawa began wearing laminated Braille badges so that they can be easily identified by residents with vision loss. The badges list the officer’s rank and main police phone number on a Braille overlay. According to the Ottawa Police Department, this initiative was not generated by an incident or public push. Instead, the idea came to them after seeing a presentation by members of the blind and visually impaired community. Thanks to these Braille badges, those with vision loss will be able to confirm that the person they are interacting with is, in fact, a police officer.

To me, this is a great step in the right direction for accessibility and inclusion. The reality is that as people with vision loss, many of us are at a disadvantage when interacting with public officials. Unless we recognize their voice or they identify themselves to us, we might not know if someone is truly a police officer or other authority. Although I realize that some people who are blind might prefer not to examine these badges (they might be uncomfortable or feel strange asking an officer for their badge), it is great to know this option is available, in case it is ever needed.

More businesses and public authorities should follow in these steps by providing accessible information to people who cannot see. Places like restaurants, banks, doctors’ offices and the like should have their literature in alternative formats. Having menus, forms, brochures, etc. in Braille, audio or electronic formats would give us more access to information. It would also greatly enhance the independence of people who are blind or visually impaired in public places.

Commentary: Facebook’s Accessibility Benefits Everyone

For a little over a year, Facebook has been working on a tool that will describe pictures to people who are blind or visually impaired. It consists of artificial intelligence, and automatically generates captions for the photos we or our friends post. There is no need to install software or take extra steps – the tool is available to anyone using a smartphone, tablet or computer. To get a better sense of how it works, read this Sandy’s View post. I also demonstrate how the technology works in this story from CBS 2 Chicago.

According to this article from CNET, Facebook’s technology promises to get even better! For one thing, photo captions are becoming more enhanced. Now, when I am reading through my newsfeed, some of the picture descriptions also include what people are doing. When this technology was introduced over a year ago, I would only hear something like “image may contain: two people, outdoor, beach, sunglasses.” Now, I might hear something like “image may contain: two people, people smiling, people sitting, outdoor, beach, sunglasses.” In other words, there are more details in the descriptions, and this allows me to better visualize the image. Using the same example, I can picture two people having a good time at the beach!

All people – whether blind or sighted – will also be able to search for specific pictures using these descriptions. So, if I want to find the picture of my friends at the beach, I can type some of the words from the caption in Facebook’s search box. As of the writing of this post, I have not tried out this new feature, but will review it in the near future. I can see this added enhancement helping anyone. Instead of scrolling through our newsfeed or friend’s wall, we can simply search for a particular picture and save ourselves some time that way. This technology currently doesn’t include detailed descriptions, like the color of the clothes someone is wearing, but I am sure it won’t be long before we start seeing them. This would make the new picture search feature much more useful.

Social media has become an important part of everyone’s lives, and thanks to accessibility efforts like those implemented by Facebook, people with vision loss can also be included. For almost a year, I have been using Facebook’s photo description feature, and it has given me a better picture (no pun intended!) of what my friends and family are sharing. Although this technology is still in its early stages, it has certainly come a long way and made a difference for people with vision loss. Better yet, it also includes features, like the picture search, that will one day be useful even to those with sight. I sure am excited to see what it has in store for us in the future!

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.

Commentary: Making Gyms Accessible Benefits Everyone

A few years ago, I attended a seminar about the Americans with Disabilities Act at my local Center for Independent Living in an effort to learn more about what this legislation does and does not cover. Much to my surprise, I learned more than I expected, including the fact that the ADA covers fitness facilities. Gyms, for example, should have accessible exercise equipment, including accessible swimming pools.

These regulations for making fitness facilities accessible to customers with disabilities went into effect in 2012. Still, much more needs to be done to implement said requirements. Recently, LA Fitness modified its membership policy to accommodate patrons with disabilities in New York who need aids to accompany them into the health clubs. The membership fee for these assistants will be waved, and the policy will also require New York LA Fitness locations to train their staff on such policies.

Contrary to popular belief, people with all types of disabilities can and do need to exercise just like everyone else. Disabilities set aside, we have the same need to exercise in order to maintain good fitness and health. It is even more important considering that people with disabilities are less likely to participate in any form of exercise plan. Combined with a high unemployment rate and – in some cases – isolation from the community or other social activities, the sedentary lifestyle of many people with disabilities can lead to poor fitness, obesity and health complications like hypertension and diabetes.

Making gyms accessible is not as hard as it might seem. Simply moving equipment around to give someone in a wheelchair enough room to transfer might be all a customer with a physical disability needs to be able to access the exercise equipment. Someone who is blind or has low vision might benefit from one-on-one, hands-on instruction from a personal trainer, and large print and Braille labels will allow him or her to operate exercise machines independently. By adopting policies similar to that of LA Fitness, those with disabilities who require someone’s assistance will allow these individuals to partake in all the facility has to offer. To me, it is all a matter of finding creative, and often simple, accessibility solutions.

People with disabilities have the same right to exercise and be fit and healthy. Not only does working out help us obtain good health, but it also gives everyone a great opportunity to socialize and meet others. Gyms should create an accessible and welcoming environment for people with disabilities. By doing this, they will both comply with the law, and help an often overlooked community maintain good health and create more social opportunities. In what other ways can gyms be made more accessible and inclusive of people with disabilities? Please share your thoughts!

Commentary: On Voting Accessibility

Early voting for the 2016 national and local elections is in full swing, and disability rights groups throughout the United States are advocating for more accessible polling places. Last week, a story on NPR discussed the many accessibility barriers voters with disabilities still face in the 21st century. From inaccessible ramps to a lack of knowledge from poll workers’ on operating accessible voting machines, the challenges we face are many. Last Saturday, I cast my vote, and although the process went smoothly, I could still identify myself with some of the accessibility issues discussed in this story.

“I would like an audio ballot,” I told the poll worker who checked me in. Theoretically, every polling place should have an accessible voting machine, and workers have received special training on setting it up. Much to my surprise, the worker did not seem taken aback by this request, although she had to ask someone for help. “You know how to set up the audio on the machine, right?” she asked a fellow worker. After waiting for five minutes, I became concerned. Other friends who are blind have gone to vote, only to find out that polling staff cannot start the accessible voting machine.

My mom was also voting that day, so I knew she would be able to read the ballot and cast my vote if need be after she was finished. She would just have to sign an Affidavit so she could accompany me into the booth. Fortunately, the poll worker was able to get the accessible machine to work after finding the special card required to start up the audio ballot. I was able to vote independently and privately by using a pair of headphones and a special handheld keypad to make my selections.

All of my voting experiences have been very similar thus far. Truth be told, I am always concerned even before going to vote. Each time, I worry that the workers will not be able to set up the accessible voting equipment, or that they will not even know what I am talking about. It’s not that I don’t want someone else to help me, but like anyone else, I want and deserve to be able to vote privately and independently. This is a right that those of us with disabilities have fought for for many years, and although laws like the ADA and Help America Vote Act guarantee equal access, simple and even unintentional barriers can prevent us from voting independently, or even getting to our polling place.

It is estimated that over 35 million of Americans with disabilities, or one-sixth of the electorate, are eligible to vote during this election. For this reason, it is crucial to have equal and full access in polling places across the country. Simple things like fixing broken doors or elevators can help those with mobility impairments get inside their local polling place. Educating poll workers about accessible voting machines will allow voters who are blind or visually impaired to vote independently and confidently. To me, there is something special about actually going to my polling place to cast my vote. Everyone deserves this basic right, and more should be done to give voters with disabilities equal access on Election Day.

Commentary: Making Classroom Technology Accessible for All

Last week, the Federal government and Miami University in Ohio reached an agreement to provide access and equal opportunity to activities and classes for students with disabilities. The lawsuit – which came from a student who is blind – accused Miami University of failing to provide accommodations to students with disabilities and violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Among other things, Miami University will make accessibility improvements in the technologies it currently uses, as well as meet with students with disabilities in order to develop a plan to make accommodations for each student.

Many people might wonder why there is still an accessibility problem in colleges and other facilities. After all, the ADA has been around for 26 years, so surely colleges and universities have all implemented changes to make buildings more accessible. This is accurate in the sense that many schools throughout the United States have installed ramps, elevators, Braille signs and wide entrances. Since the ADA was passed into law in 1990, it does not include accessibility standards for modern technology. Although independent organizations have developed standards to make websites more accessible, for example, few businesses or institutions adopt them, often because they are unaware they exist.

I know all too well about how inaccessible technology can present challenges to college students who are blind, because I myself experienced this situation in school. While my classmates could easily log on to computers in the library or computer lab, I would often show up just to find out that screen-reading technology was nonexistent on those machines. In other words, even finding an accessible computer can be difficult, often impossible, for students with disabilities. I was lucky to have my own accessible laptop, but there were still times when I desperately needed to do school work on another computer. The time when my laptop crashed right before finals is the first instance that comes to mind!

In today’s day and age, assistive technology helps people with disabilities be more independent and successful. Thanks to it, we can go to school, have jobs and be involved in social activities. Screen-reading and magnifying technology allows those of us with vision loss to use computers, smartphones and tablets just like everyone else. Technology is becoming more and more important in today’s world, and that is why schools should always consider the accessibility needs of its students with disabilities. Like anyone else, they want and deserve a positive experience while pursuing their education.

I hope that this agreement between Miami University and the Federal government will help create more awareness for other schools regarding the accessibility of their classes and other activities. This will in turn create a more inclusive and welcoming environment for all students.