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.

Commentary: An Affordable Braille Tablet for the Blind

Recently, the media has been talking a great deal about a Braille tablet being developed at the University of Michigan. While the new device will not be released to the general public anytime soon, researchers hope to come up with a prototype to make future Braille tablets more affordable. Current Braille displays consist of a special motor and plastic pins that pop up to form Braille characters. The new prototype would use liquid or air to create bubbles that would make each Braille letter or number. According to researchers, this would result in a more portable and affordable Braille device.

 

To be honest, I’m usually very skeptical about newly developed prototypes of devices to help the blind and visually impaired. The first example that comes to mind is that of new navigation tools. Lately, I have read a lot about new vibrating canes and shoes that will supposedly help us find our way more easily. While the ideas behind these prototypes are great, I am just not sure how they will work or help me in real life situations.

 

The complete opposite is true about the tablet being developed at Michigan University, however. I strongly believe it has the enormous potential of being a game changer for those of us who read Braille. For one, it will benefit young students who are just beginning to learn Braille and other academic subjects. Sighted students now learn science and math concepts by using tablets and other technologies, so it would be wonderful for blind and visually impaired students to also read math problems and have tactile renderings of pictures on tablets. This would encourage the use of Braille among young students and give them instant access to visual materials.

 

Blind adults would also benefit from this new tablet. The technology used in the prototype promises to be cost-effective, and researchers hope that this will lead to an affordable device. Currently, Braille displays can cost several thousands of dollars due to their expensive and sophisticated technology. Another major drawback is that these displays only show one line of Braille at once, therefore making reading more tedious. The developers hope to make a prototype that will be portable while having the capability of showing an entire Braille page. Best of all, the tablet would cost under a thousand dollars – that’s a great deal if you ask me!

 

As a Braille reader who fully embraces technology, I applaud the effort being put into this new prototype. I see a lot of potential for its success, and hope it will soon be in the market. Smart devices are revolutionizing the way we communicate and learn, and an affordable Braille tablet is long overdue. Mainstream tablets are becoming more and more accessible, but it sure will be nice to have one with Braille for blind and visually impaired individuals who prefer or need to read using this system. Better yet, I hope that by having an accessible and affordable tablet, future generations of blind individuals will have more access to print materials. This, I think, is a basic right we all deserve.

Sandy’s Top 5 Assistive Technology Products of 2015

top 5Technology is constantly advancing, and 2015 was not the exception! Many assistive technology products promise to change how those with vision loss read, get around and even “see” pictures in social media. Today, I am highlighting the top 5 assistive technology tools and products released in 2015 for people who are blind or visually impaired.

 

  1. Vario Ultra

 

Previously, Braille displays and notetakers were notorious for being bulky and heavy. The Vario Ultra is manufactured by Baum Retech, and is both a portable Braille display and notetaker. It supports up to six Bluetooth and USB connections with smart phones, tablets or computers. Users can read what’s on their iPad and laptop without needing to connect and disconnect each device separately.

 

  1. Connect 12

 

One of the main goals of assistive technology is to make products that are both accessible and inclusive to those with vision loss. HumanWare’s Prodigi Connect 12 tablet and magnifier is a perfect example of such products. This device has the functions of an Android tablet, and the popular Prodigi software provides magnification and OCR tools for low vision users.

 

  1. ELF

 

While not intentionally designed for the visually impaired, our own Tom Perski from the Chicago Lighthouse’s assistive Technology Center thinks this vehicle can potentially allow those with low vision to get around independently. Designed by Organic Transport, the ELF is an electric bike with wing mirrors, head and tail lights, indicators and even a horn!

 

  1. OrCam

 

Manufactured by OrCam Technologies Ltd., the OrCam is a wearable camera that, when attached to a special pair of glasses, reads text and even has facial recognition capabilities. Blind and visually impaired people can do things like read restaurant menus, newspapers, food labels and even program it to recognize someone’s face! To use it, the blind or visually impaired user simply needs to look at the text or person they wish to identify.

 

  1. Facebook’s Accessibility Tool for Pictures

 

This tops off my list, because it is unlike anything seen before! Matt King is Facebook’s first blind engineer, and he hopes to give other blind individuals the ability to “see” the pictures on their news feed. He is currently working with Facebook’s accessibility team on an artificial intelligence based tool that will describe the photos people share, and they are slowly releasing it to the public. The tool is still a work in progress, but the Facebook accessibility team hopes that this will be the first of many alternatives to make pictures accessible to everyone.

 

Just as in previous years, the potential of assistive technology has amazed us all. Developers are constantly working to enhance their products and develop new options that will help those with vision loss be more independent. As an assistive technology user, I am sure looking forward to see what 2016 has in store for us all!