Making Movie Watching Accessible to Anyone

During a recent outing to the movies, I requested audio description service at the theater. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, audio description is the narration of what is happening in a movie, TV show or play. It can help those of us without sight keep up with what is going on, especially in movies and shows with little dialogue. I had done my research, and knew that the theater I was visiting offered a special headset, through which I could hear the audio description commentary without interrupting other moviegoers. The staff knew exactly what I was talking about, and handed me the headset. Much to my disappointment, however, I realized that the audio descriptions were not working as soon as I put the headset on.

This, unfortunately, is an all too common scenario for blind and visually impaired moviegoers throughout the United States. A new startup company is working to change the experience of people with disabilities. Actiview is a recently launched smartphone app which will provide audio descriptions and closed captions of movies for people who are blind or hearing impaired. Best of all, no extra or special equipment is required. Users simply install the Actiview app on their smartphone, and select audio descriptions or closed captions for the desired movie. The app was recently launched with the debut of Cars 3.

Other developers around the world have been working on similar technologies. Last year, the Disney Movies Anywhere app began providing audio description for some of its movies. Thanks to this app, I was able to fully enjoy Finding Dory at the movie theater last year. For the first time, I could watch a movie without having to worry about whether or not audio description was available at the theater. By using my iPhone and earbuds, I could listen to the audio description. If the Disney Movies Anywhere app is an indication of how Actiview will help those of us with disabilities in the near future, it is sure to become a game changer for moviegoers around the world!

We have seen time and time again how modern technology is providing equal access to people with disabilities. Thanks to apps like Actiview and Disney Movies Anywhere, individuals who are blind will have greater access to the movies. We will no longer have to scope out or be limited to movie theaters which offer audio description. Most importantly, I hope that more movie producers will take the needs of people who are blind or hearing impaired into consideration. By providing audio descriptions and closed captions for movies, everyone will be able to access and enjoy new releases. Going to the movies is an activity enjoyed by many, let’s make it more inclusive and accessible for everyone!

How Social Media is Promoting Disability Awareness

People of all ages have embraced technology and social media. Nowadays, we are constantly checking our profiles on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc. to stay in touch with our family and friends, learn about the latest news and stay connected with what happens throughout the world. From seeing pictures of our family and friends, to viral videos of pets doing cute and silly things, there is always something everyone can enjoy! This has also created a great opportunity for people with disabilities to spread more awareness among the general public.

Molly Burke is a Canadian public speaker and YouTuber who happens to be completely blind. After struggling with and overcoming vision loss, bullying and mental illness as a teenager, Molly now works to educate others about the capabilities and challenges faced by people who are blind. Recently, I came across this video where Molly discusses the perceptions and realities of blindness, in an entertaining and engaging manner. Some of the situations she addresses are putting on makeup, using computers, pouring drinks and crossing the street. She also addressed the popular misconception of getting to know someone by touching their face – this was by far my favorite part of the video!

I found this video particularly interesting, because I can relate to all of the scenarios Molly addressed. In fact, I once had a college advisor assume that since I cannot see the computer screen, I dictated my emails and assignments to someone. After I explained how screen-readers and assistive technology work, he was more enlightened and fascinated by the topic! Most importantly, I educated him about what I and others with vision loss are capable of doing.

Molly is not the only public figure addressing the challenges faced by people with vision loss. Tommy Edison, better known as the blind film critic, has been blind since birth. He also uses social media and videos to educate viewers about blindness. Some of the topics he has covered over the years include using an ATM and crossing the street. Like Molly, Tommy uses humor to get his point across to his viewers. Tommy is recognized internationally, and many of his videos have become viral on social media.

As someone who is blind, a journalist and overall media enthusiast, I am thrilled at the unique opportunity today’s technology has given people with disabilities. Not only does it help us have more independent lives, but it also allows us to promote disability awareness all over the world. Long-time Sandy’s View readers know that the purpose of this blog is to inform and educate people about blindness and visual impairment.

Throughout my life, I have found that people are curious and eager to learn about how I and others with disabilities go about our lives. Thanks to social media and blogs, we are able to continue addressing misconceptions and breaking down the barriers faced by people with disabilities. This will one day help create a more accessible and inclusive society for everyone.

Commentary: Is Braille Still Important?

Without a doubt, technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, especially for people with disabilities. New devices make it possible for those of us with physical, visual and other impairments to do things that were previously impossible. Not a month goes by without hearing about new devices or apps that allow people who are blind to access and read print material without needing Braille. Just a few days ago, I came across an article about a new ring-like device that would read out loud books, letters and other print documents. New devices like these make people wonder if Braille is still important.

To me, inquiring if Braille is necessary is like asking if print is still important. For people who are blind, knowing Braille is the equivalent of knowing to read and write print by someone with sight. I began learning Braille during preschool, the same time my sighted classmates were learning print. Braille allows those of us without sight to learn to read and write. What’s most important, it teaches us to spell and the rules of grammar and punctuation. It would be difficult at the very least to learn all of this by simply listening to audio materials.

Braille is important even for adults who already know how to read and write. It has long been known that learning Braille can be a tremendous challenge for older adults. Diseases like diabetes make it difficult to be able to decipher the dots by touch. Not to mention the complex nature of the Braille system, which some describe as similar to learning a new language. Still, people who lose their sight at a later age should learn basic Braille. It will help them with simple things like reading elevator signs and labeling household items.

I am not undermining the importance and helpfulness of today’s assistive technology by any means. Thousands of people with vision loss now have greater access to print books and other documents thanks to new devices and software. I can read important letters in a matter of seconds without having to wait for them to be transcribed into Braille or for someone to read them to me. This is incredibly helpful both at home and on the job.  I am sure that new devices like the one I recently read about will continue to allow people who are blind to have more access to the printed word, resulting in greater independence.

Braille will always be an important means of reading and writing for people without sight. Although audio books and screen-reading technology help us have instant access to print materials, nothing can substitute the confidence and independence that reading and writing Braille provides. Both Braille and technology are equally important for people who are blind, and this will always be true no matter the time period we live in.

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.

Commentary: Wearable Technology for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Over the past few years, technology developers have begun focusing on making technological devices that are portable, wearable and easy to use. Some popular examples include the Apple Watch and Fitbit. People can check their email, keep track of their diet and exercise, track the weather and so much more. As with past trends in technology, many developers are focusing on making devices that can assist people with visual impairments. The primary goal of these devices is to help those with vision loss gain more independence.

Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about new wearable technologies being designed for people with visual impairments. Last week, for example, I read about research being done in India to develop a ring that can read printed documents out loud. Microsoft is also undertaking a project to make a pair of glasses that could potentially tell people who are blind or visually impaired what’s around them. This is just a small sample of the hundreds, if not thousands, of products being developed in universities and companies all over the world to help people with vision loss.

Although the concept of wearable technology is still in its early stage, we are starting to see how it will be able to help people with vision loss. A few months ago, I tried out the OrCam, a small camera that, when mounted on a pair of glasses, scans and reads out loud printed text. The OrCam – like most wearable technologies – is still under development and will need to undergo several improvements. Still, I was highly impressed by how accurate and fast it was. After just a couple of seconds, it started reading a print page in an easy to understand voice. I sure look forward to the day when I can read all print material by using a simple pair of glasses!

I began using a smartphone four years ago, and to say it opened the world to me is an understatement. Thanks to new and accessible apps, I can read books, stay in touch with my friends, know what color something is and even use GPS to travel in unfamiliar places, all with my cell phone. I sure thought that technology could not get any better at the time! Learning about the new and exciting products that are on the way makes me realize once again that the possibilities of technology are endless.

I have always believed that technology has leveled the playing field for people with disabilities in many ways. Thanks to it, we can go to school, hold jobs and be more independent. We still have much more to understand on how new wearable technology can help everyone, but I think what we have seen thus far is very promising. How do you think wearable technology will help people with vision loss or other disabilities in the near future? Please share your thoughts!

Commentary: Making Technology Accessible From the Start

Biometric login, or using someone’s fingerprint or snapshot of their face to verify the person’s identity, is said to be more secure than traditional passwords. As an avid technology user, I couldn’t agree more. Passwords and password security are not guaranteed in today’s day and age. We will all eventually forget a password, and this often means we will have to go through the annoying process of resetting or changing it. Let’s also not forget about all the viruses, and even hackers that can easily steal our passwords and other information. Using one’s fingerprint and taking a selfie to login is simple – no need to remember complicated passwords!

This all sounds great, until we think about people who are blind or visually impaired. How can we possibly snap perfect selfies with inaccessible equipment? Research done at the University of Surrey and Carlos III University of Madrid discovered that facial recognition technology is highly inaccessible for blind and visually impaired users, despite its growth in popularity. Researchers found that often these users cannot take perfectly aligned selfies because smartphone and computers are inaccessible to them. The team suggested including audio components to assist users in taking an accurate selfie.

I have seen this same problem over the years with other technologies. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, blindness organizations and technology developers were working to make ATMs fully accessible to the blind and visually impaired. Later when touch screen cell phones came out, developers began working feverishly to make these usable to people without sight. The reality is that as technology evolves, so will accessibility issues for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, most technology manufacturers neglect to think about folks with disabilities when designing new products.

This should not be a problem in the 21st century, when technology is at its peak of development. We constantly see or hear about products that will be in the market in the near future. There’s not a week that I don’t read about new devices that will come out in the next 5 or 10 years. Why is it then that manufacturers are failing to take people with disabilities into account? It has long been said that people with disabilities are the largest minority, both in the United States and all over the world. Furthermore, the number of people with disabilities throughout the world is projected to increase in the near future.

Facial recognition and biometric login technology can greatly increase security. Unfortunately, it is still not accessible to people with vision loss. This means that I and fellow blind and visually impaired individuals will be excluded from many products and services if this form of login becomes standard. According to the World Health Organization, there are 285 million people in the world who are blind or visually impaired. This is a significantly large number of individuals who would be unnecessarily excluded from today’s technology!

Prior technology accessibility problems have been resolved, so that is why I hope this and other technologies will soon become accessible to everyone regardless of ability. Technology manufacturers are always on their feet developing new products, why not stop and think about how to make them accessible for everyone. This, I think, can go a long way in eliminating accessibility difficulties that often can be easily solved from the get-go.

Commentary: Using Virtual Reality to Cure Blindness

When I think about cataract surgery, the first thing that comes to mind is a simple procedure available practically anywhere. Unfortunately, that is only true in countries with adequate access to health care services. People living in third-world countries and remote regions have limited, if any, opportunity of even seeing an ophthalmologist or any type of eye care professional. Simply put, a cataract is a clouding of the lens that can impair someone’s vision. Sadly, this causes many people in the developing world to unnecessarily lose their sight. Over 20 million people are affected by cataracts, and according to the Rand Corporation, another 12 million will be affected by 2020.

 

The alarming statistics of those losing their sight due to cataracts in underdeveloped nations were shocking to say the least, and maybe it’s because I’m fortunate to live in a country where most patients with cataracts have immediate access to the latest developments in medicine. Typically, someone with cataracts can go to their eye doctor and take care of this problem in a matter of days or weeks. Unfortunately, many people in third-world countries will never have access to a general care doctor, let alone a cataract surgeon.

 

Several nonprofit organizations hope to reduce these numbers by teaching aspiring doctors in underdeveloped nations simple but effective cataract removal procedures. HelpMeSee and Cure Blindness are two such organizations, and both plan to teach medical students and doctors cataract surgery using different virtual reality methods. They hope that by combining this technology with hands-on experience, more physicians will be trained in these simple but important procedures. Most importantly, they hope to make the difference in the lives of countless individuals by preventing blindness and even restoring their sight.

 

As a long time technology user, I admit I’ve reached a point where I take these tools for granted. Of course, the fact that I’m blind allows me to appreciate the independence it gives me, but I rarely think about how it can help those who don’t have access to even basic medical care and other necessities. Learning about how these two nonprofits are using virtual reality to help cure a basic ailment really puts things into perspective. I am once again amazed at how modern technology can be used to help those in need have a better quality of life.

 

In contrast, not everyone utilizes technology to benefit mankind. All too often, the media reports stories about hackers and how they threaten our safety and security in today’s technologically driven world. I sure am glad to learn that others are using technology for what I think was its initial purpose: to make our lives better and easier. I find it extremely unfortunate and even disturbing that so many people with cataracts are still losing their sight unnecessarily. On the other hand, virtual reality and other technological and medical innovations give us all hope that these individuals will one day see a brighter future.