Commentary: Accessibility in Business Should Be More Than An Afterthought

Commentary written by guest writer Tyler Bachelder

Did you know that businesses are letting over $8 trillion slip right through their proverbial fingers? Me neither. But Caroline Casey, an Irish disability activist does, and she wants to show them the money. That sum is the estimated amount of disposable income possessed by approximately a billion people with disabilities worldwide. She believes that with the right insight and guidance, businesses can begin tapping that money for their own gain. But this isn’t just a naked appeal to greed. It’s also good citizenship. It starts with a consideration for disabled consumers in the boardroom. She wants companies to know that they need to do more than pay mere lip service to accessibility. To her, this is a win-win situation. Businesses cater to the needs of disabled people, and in return they get loyal customers who feel appreciated and valued, plus the wallets that come with them.

Take a look around and you can see this ethos already paying off. The go-to example that most blind people would likely jump to is Apple. Apple has, through the entirety of its design process, considered the needs of disabled people, and it’s been revolutionary for us. Their suite of accessibility tools is comprehensive. The iPhone has screen magnification, LED flash to notify deaf users of alerts, image recognition to describe photos, the ability to type in Braille on the phone, shaped buttons for color blind users, guided access to minimize distractions for users with cognitive disabilities, and so much more. And those tools are generally replicated on a Mac. Apple is something of a prestige brand. Consumers pay a premium for its products. Often, disabled people don’t have as much money individually, due to lack of inclusion in the workforce. But, limited income aside, blind people flock to Apple devices no matter the cost. Why? Because Apple cares about their needs. For a lot of us, Apple is the brand, not a brand. Imagine, for a moment, what that means for this segment of the market. Apple has it largely on lockdown.

And that leads us to Casey and her mission. She imagines a world in which companies consider accessibility at all levels of operation, from supply to design to service to the built environment. That sort of consideration can engender a lot of loyalty from a demographic that often feels underserved and neglected. It’s also a clear win for public relations. Search Google News for Apple Accessibility and you’ll witness journalists frothing over how thoughtful, how philanthropic, and how cool Apple is for doing this work. What company doesn’t want that kind of public goodwill?

Let’s also remember that accessibility can benefit everyone, not just disabled people. How many times have you taken an elevator when stairs would work? Be honest, I won’t tell. You’ve had a bear of a day at work, the commute home is a nightmare, your feet hurt, all you want is to, for a second, be at rest. So into the elevator you go, and you’re grateful right? That elevator is intended for wheelchair users, but I’ll bet what’s left of my eyesight that you’re thankful for those precious thirty seconds of stillness, aren’t you? That’s accessibility at work.

Casey wants companies to realize that the investment of time and money into accessible products and services pays dividends both financially and in the court of public opinion. Too often, due to a lack of education about what it means to be disabled or what it would take to improve the status quo, businesses neglect it altogether. If informed at all, they’re usually misinformed, mistakenly believing that these considerations would be prohibitively expensive. For instance, minor changes like high contrast colors in design, larger signage, appropriate lighting, products that feature tactile elements, websites built with screen readers in mind, digital versions of manuals, TTY phone numbers, most of these things are insignificant changes with very little cost attached. And it’s much less expensive to design while considering accessibility, rather than retrofitting something later, because often if you change one small feature, others must change to make way. I’m thinking here of buildings built before the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, specifically, but the principle applies generally too.

So Casey plans to travel to Colombia and ride horseback across the country, all the while documenting her journey on social media. The #valuable campaign is meant to educate, rather than cajole. At the end of her journey, she will beseech over 500 companies to consider their lost money. Let’s hope this effort can create at least one more Apple in the world. The changes won’t happen overnight, but there is momentum. I’ll be in the elevator, waiting for the doors to open on a brighter future.

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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.

How do People who are Blind and Visually Impaired use the iPhone?

The first iPhone was sold 10 years ago on June 28, 2007. While it immediately became popular among millions of people throughout the world, those of us with disabilities were unable to use, let alone enjoy all of the iPhone’s exciting and (at the time) new features. That all changed in 2009 with the launch of the iPhone 3GS, when Apple included screen-reading technology for blind and visually impaired users. Subsequent models also provided accessibility features for people with hearing, physical and learning disabilities. I began using an iPhone in 2012 – you can read more about how it has helped me in this commentary.

 

Although the iPhone has been accessible to the blind since 2009, many people from the general public still do not know how someone without sight can use smartphones or tablets. In the case of the iPhone, Apple has included a screen-reading program called Voiceover. This software – which comes already preinstalled in every Apple device – reads out loud what is on the screen when we tap on it. To open an app, we tap on it twice. Other gestures help us read text, type and adjust various Voiceover settings, like the speaking rate. Various Braille display devices are also compatible with Voiceover. This allows us to read what’s on the phone’s screen by using Braille if we so wish. Other settings, like text enlargement are also available for users with low vision in the iPhone’s accessibility menu.

 

So, what exactly can people who are blind or visually impaired do on the iPhone? Pretty much everything sighted people can and more! Besides being able to make and receive phone calls, read and send text messages, play music and check our social media pages, people who are blind or have other disabilities can become more independent with everyday tasks. I can listen to audio books, know what color something is, read print materials, identify household items and even take pictures! Nowadays, numerous apps allow people with vision and other disabilities to do these and many other things independently. All of this was virtually impossible prior to the development of the iPhone.

 

If someone had told me 10 years ago that I would one day be able to use the iPhone, I would’ve simply laughed at them. Using a touch screen by someone who is blind was a concept never even dreamed of in 2007. Technology is constantly evolving, and I am sure it will continue surprising all of us. Speaking of surprises, I am not amazed that non-disabled individuals still ask me how I use my iPhone when they see me flicking and tapping the screen with ease. After all, I myself did not think I would be able to ever enjoy this innovative device when it came out 10 years ago. My hat goes off to Apple and the other developers who strive to make modern technology accessible and inclusive for all. Not only is it a good business practice, it is the right thing to do.

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.