Commentary: On Making Household Appliances Accessible

Most people who are blind or visually impaired have figured out how to manage household appliances, which might not be entirely accessible. We might use special Braille or tactile stickers on our microwave or oven to label the different settings, for example. Buttons on a telephone or remote control keypad are often distinguishable by touch, making it much easier for us to memorize and learn the layout and function of each one. Today’s appliances, like televisions, DVD players and laundry machines include various features, which can only be accessed via a menu. For someone who can’t see the screen, navigating through the menus can be challenging at best, and often even impossible.

Like with a lot of things, technology promises to make household appliances more accessible to people with vision loss. Devices like Apple TV and Comcast’s Xfinity accessibility options have allowed those of us with visual impairments to access and navigate through the different menu selections independently. Other newly developed gadgets promise to help tackle the challenge of inaccessible appliances.

Jack DuPlessis, a teenager from Kentucky, recently created a smart device which makes laundry appliances ‘talk’, thereby helping users who are blind or visually impaired. The Talking Laundry module is an apparatus about the size of an external hard drive and functions simply by connecting it to a wall outlet and the back of a recent GE laundry appliance. It gives users audio feedback, including the remaining time in a washing or drying cycle, spin level and color settings. The young developer and technology enthusiast worked with students from the Kentucky School for the Blind to test the smart device, which may be a game changer in the near future.

Making household items accessible to those of us with disabilities is not only good business practice for developers and manufacturers, it is also becoming crucial more than ever before. Many people, particularly senior citizens, will acquire visual impairments or other disabilities given the aging of the baby boomer generation. These individuals will require the assistance of accessible devices in order to continue living independent and productive lives. While it is true that special devices, like talking watches and telephones with large buttons already exist, many of us with vision loss would like to see a day when all mainstream devices are accessible.

Adaptations can be as simple as including buttons with large print labels or tactile markings. Better yet, making devices with audio feedback, like the Talking Laundry module, can go a long way in improving accessibility. Today’s technology has a great potential of allowing manufacturers to do this and much more. By incorporating accessibility in their products, developers can increase business, while allowing people with disabilities to live more independent lives. That’s what I call a win-win for everyone! Kudos to Jack DuPlessis for his work on the Laundry Talking module. Without a doubt, this is a device that will prove to be useful to millions of individuals with vision loss.

Commentary: How Smart Homes Are Empowering People with Disabilities

Imagine being at home, when all of a sudden you hear your doorbell ring. Unless you were expecting someone, like a mail or food delivery, you might not know who it is if you cannot see. Similarly, unless someone who is blind or visually impaired has a talking thermostat, the majority of these appliances currently in the market are inaccessible. We therefore might require assistance from a sighted friend to change the thermostat, which is not always convenient.

The evolving concept of smart homes is becoming a game changer for people with disabilities, including individuals who are blind or visually impaired. This story from NBC News shows how Apple’s technology, along with smart home accessories, are transforming accessibility for people with disabilities. Todd Stabelfeldt is quadriplegic, and has no movement below his shoulders. Thanks to new technology, he can use an iPhone and Siri to open his garage door, turn the lights on and off, open and close the blinds, adjust the thermostat and monitor his security system independently. You can see Todd interacting with this technology in this video. These are all things that were impossible for him and other people with disabilities to do independently prior to the advent of smart home technology.

Just as smart home technology has allowed people with physical disabilities to be more independent, it can do the same for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. We can now change the temperature on the thermostat by using our smartphone or tablet. It is also possible for us to know who is at the door by asking them before even opening. Moreover, we can control our security system independently, something that was not always easy because of accessibility challenges. Turning our lights on and off and locking our doors is also easier, and all of this will give us more peace of mind knowing we are safe.

As with anything else, there are cons to this technology. One of the biggest concerns is the risk of getting information – including personal details and passwords – stolen. This is a valid concern, but is something that is already being addressed. Facial recognition technology, for example, allows computers to identify users by taking a photo of their face. It is therefore important to make smart home technology, like switches, cameras and mobile apps, secure and accessible to everyone, including people with disabilities.

There’s no doubt that smart homes are changing the way we control our household appliances. People without disabilities enjoy the convenience of controlling their homes with a smart phone or tablet. For people who can’t see or have other disabilities, it goes beyond convenience. This technology allows us to be more independent in our own homes, something that everyone wants and deserves.

What Are Some Of The Sports Played By People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired?

What Are Some Of The Sports Played By People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired?

Spring is here, and with it comes the beginning of baseball season and other activities, including the Boston Marathon. In honor of this, we are highlighting some of the various sports that people with vision loss can partake in. Some sports like goalball and beep baseball are specifically played by people who are blind or visually impaired, while others like swimming and running are easily adapted for these individuals. People who are blind or visually impaired can enjoy many activities, both for leisure and to compete on professional teams.

  • Goalball: this is a team sport, and participants compete in teams of three. Players try to throw a ball which has bells inside (so it can be heard) into the opponent’s goal. The teams alternate throwing or rolling the ball from one end to the other, and players remain in the area of their own goal in both defense and attack. Many countries, including the United States, have a goalball team, which competes in the Paralympics.
  • Beep baseball: as the name suggests, this is an adapted version of baseball. With the exception of the batter and catcher, all team members are blind (those who are partially sighted wear blindfolds to be on an equal playing field with their teammates). The bases beep when activated so that players know in which direction to run. Many states, including Illinois, have beep baseball teams.
  • Swimming: this can be easily adapted for those who are blind or visually impaired and wish to do it as a hobby or on a professional team. Simple techniques – like dividing lanes with ropes to help someone without sight to stay oriented – can help. You can read more about this in my previous post about swimming as someone who is blind.
  • Running: like everyone else, people who are blind or visually impaired run in all types of events. These include track and field, marathons and races. Some athletes might be able to run the course independently, while others – particularly those who are totally blind – will use the assistance of sighted guides. Many people who are blind run in marathons, biathlons and triathlons. The United States Paralympics team also includes a track and field division for runners who are blind or visually impaired.
  • Other sports that can be adapted include cycling, skiing, rowing, sailing, archery, bowling and power-lifting. Judo, wrestling and rock climbing require little or no modifications for participants with vision loss. These activities also have dedicated teams or divisions for athletes who are blind or visually impaired.

This is only a handful of the sports played by individuals who are blind or visually impaired. Although some are specifically designed for this group, others can easily be adapted with special equipment and some creativity. Like our sighted counterparts, those of us who are blind enjoy participating in competitive sports and other activities. Not only is this good exercise, it is a great way to have fun and meet other people! You can get more information and resources about these and other sports from the International Blind Sports Federation website. In next week’s post, I will share the story of fellow Lighthouse colleague Tim Paul who is visually impaired, and will be running in the upcoming Boston Marathon.

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.