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.

Guest Post: 2017 Summer in the City

Last month, The Lighthouse held its second annual Summer in the City program for teenagers who are blind or visually impaired. Our very own Tyler Bachelder, who is currently an intern in the public relations department, caught up with the participants. Tyler shares his reflections about this week-long program in today’s guest post. Now, let’s hear from Tyler!

On June 25, 10 teenagers from Chicago’s suburbs came to The Lighthouse to spend a week laughing, learning, and laying a foundation for future success. The Summer in the City program guides teens who are blind or visually impaired through a range of activities that will prepare them for a transition to independent adulthood. From a guided tour of Wrigley Field to lessons in self-defense, cooking classes to rock climbing, Summer in the City is a holistic crash course that helps develop confidence and breaks barriers. I spent some time with the kids, interns, instructors, and Shelle Hamer, the director of the program to get a sense of its impact.

Shelle has been in the disability field for the last 35 years, and has done everything from educating to administrating, all related to the needs of people who are blind or deaf blind. As the Manager of Children and Youth Enrichment Programs at The Lighthouse, she oversees Summer in the City. Her goals for the program are straightforward. She wants to establish confidence and independence in teens. The participants stay in dorms provided by the University of Illinois at Chicago, so they are residentially located for the duration. Mornings are spent in classes that teach concrete skills, like orientation and mobility, cooking, self-defense and technology. Afternoons are for adventure! A broad scope of activities take the kids out into Chicago to explore, play, and learn.

Shelle told me that the variety of activities is just as important as their content, because it allows the kids to be gently tested in as many situations as possible.

“If you don’t experience something, you don’t really understand it,” she says.

And this is true. Many of the participants have limited travel skills. In some cases, they may not have even traveled out of their home or neighborhood independently before. They toured Wrigley Field and Shedd Aquarium, climbed a 43-foot climbing wall, ate at restaurants, and more. The whole time, they traveled independently and used Chicago’s world-class public transit.

You might assume that these experiences intimidated the kids. Perhaps they did, initially. But in my time with them, I saw a bunch of enthusiastic, excited, exuberant teenagers thrilled to be somewhere new. They quibbled back and forth over lunch about Wifi problems, teased each other, talked about what they’d been learning, and laughed, a lot. In short, they acted like normal kids in the process of growing up.

I’ve been a self-sufficient blind person for a long time. In fact, sometimes I think it’s been long enough that I’ve lost touch with what it must be like to be wide-eyed and curious. What I saw with the kids over the course of the program was that wide-eyed curiosity, writ large.

This is exactly what Shelle desires for the program! She says that transitional programs for blind and visually impaired teenagers are vital. The skills they need to be successful adults don’t change from blind teenager to sighted, but the methods do. Summer in the City provides a structured and safe environment with just enough flexibility to let the kids explore and test those methods. It’s cane, not car, if you will. But it’s meant to demonstrate that independence is not only possible, but desirable.

One participant, Lucio Delgado, embodies this ideal in his personal story. He immigrated to the United States from Mexico four years ago. When he lived back home, he didn’t have or use a cane. He told me, grinning and laughing as he spoke, that he used to wait at street corners for the sounds of traffic to die down, whereupon he would sprint across the street in the intervening silence. To some this may seem harrowing, but to me it’s a person determined to find solutions rather than problems. With the help of The Lighthouse, his solutions will be much less dangerous.

Beyond confidence from within, the program also offers opportunities for the kids to witness it from without.

“I like having the kids interact with successful visually impaired people,” Shelle says. She refers to the opportunities the program offers for interacting with blind adults that have already achieved self-sufficiency. Seeing is believing, after all. Several of the instructors are blind or visually impaired themselves, and The Lighthouse is full of blind people working alongside sighted ones.

We’re grateful to have hosted these bright, inquisitive young students! The Lighthouse strives to promote independence, and by seeking us out, they’ve taken an important first step in that regard. Here’s to Summer in the City, and many more summers to come! If you or someone you know is interested in the program, you can find out more here.

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 Do Guide Dogs Work?

Most people have heard about and seen guide dogs when out and about. These service animals are carefully trained to lead their owners around other people and obstacles. Individuals with vision loss throughout the world use guide dogs (also called dog guides) to travel safely and independently to and from home, work, school and countless other places. Here are some of the frequently asked questions about guide dogs and how they work.

GuideDog

 

Q: How and where are guide dogs trained?

A: Guide dogs can either be trained at special schools, or by owners themselves. Regardless of the training method, the dogs must learn how to guide their owner safely around all types of obstacles. Owners also have to learn how to give the dog the different commands for when traveling out and about.

 

Q: What kind of breeds are used?

A: Guide dog breeds include Golden Retrievers, Labradors, Labrador Retrievers, German Shepherds, Poodles and Labradoodles. These last two are primarily used for people who are allergic to dogs. All of these breeds are used because they have the necessary intelligence, temperament and health qualities to be a successful dog guide. Dogs are matched with their future owners based on his or her personality, walking speed and other characteristics.

 

Q: How do dog guides know where to go when traveling?

A: This is a team effort between the dog and its owner. The owner knows where and how he wants to get to a certain place, and he or she is responsible for telling the dog through verbal and hand signals. Directions include forward, left and right. When at a street crossing, the owner is responsible for judging when it is safe to cross based on the sound of the cars, and should then command the dog to begin crossing. Intelligent disobedience is when a dog refuses to cross the street because it is unsafe to do so, even when the owner has commanded it to go forward.

 

Q: Do people have to be totally blind to have a dog guide?

A: People who are legally blind but still have some usable vision may also qualify for a dog guide. Although these individuals might still have some sight, they can still benefit from the assistance from a dog.

 

Q: Why do some people use dogs and others use canes?

A: Only about 5 percent of people who are blind or severely visually impaired use dog guides. Like with anything else, this all depends on many factors, including a person’s lifestyle, travel skills and preferences. Some people prefer to travel with a white cane, while others are more comfortable using a dog. You can read this Sandy’s View post about different thoughts and experiences from various cane and dog guide users.

 

Q: Is it ok to pet or feed a dog guide while it is working?

A: If you see a dog guide wearing a harness, that means it is working and should not be pet, fed or distracted. Doing so can put its owner in great danger, because it is not focusing on guiding. Never come up to a dog guide and pet it without asking its owner! Always check if it is ok, and please do not feel offended if he or she says no. This Sandy’s View post explains more about why dog guides should never be distracted.

 

Q: Where can I find out more about guide dogs?

A: The International Guide Dog Federation (IGDF) provides a wealth of information about dog guides, as well as other resources on dog guide schools and other websites from all over the world.

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.

How Technology Can Increase Braille Literacy

It has long been known that children who are blind or severely visually impaired encounter many barriers for learning to read and write Braille. For one, a lack of resources such as not having the appropriate tools in developing countries prevents students with vision loss from ever learning the system. Youngsters who are blind in the United States also might not have sufficient instruction in the classroom, primarily due to not being able to spend enough time with a teacher of the visually impaired. This leads to Braille illiteracy and thereby numerous missed opportunities for blind students.

To address this alarming issue, T-Var EdTech, a Boston-based startup company developed an innovative tool. The Read Read is a special device that allows students to learn Braille without an instructor. It uses a combination of tactile and audio feedback to teach Braille. Students at the Perkins School for the Blind recently tested the device, and its developer, Alex Tavares, found that they were highly engaged with the Read Read. Tavares and her team are currently seeking funding and support, and they hope to distribute 400 units to 400 students. Individual devices can also be purchased for $495 each.

As a Braille reader myself, I know how important it is for children who are blind to learn braille at an early age. The fact that I was introduced to the system as a preschooler made it much easier for me to fully grasp the concept. Without a doubt, assistive technology, like smartphones and screen-reading software, have drastically enhanced my independence. However, I still believe that it is important for future generations of individuals who are blind to learn to read and right Braille in order to be successful and independent.

The Read Read is a perfect example of how technology can increase Braille literacy among people without sight. It can help students, instructors and parents alike. Teachers can assign Braille lessons to their students so they can practice independently. The parents and families of blind children can also learn Braille with this easy to use tool. Even adults who recently became blind could find the Read Read beneficial when learning Braille. In other words, the possibilities for this device are countless!

Literacy is important for people with and without vision loss. Devices like the Read Read can be true game changers for people who are blind, as they provide an alternative way of learning Braille. Without a doubt, technology has tremendously benefited people who are blind or visually impaired for many years and it sure is wonderful to see developers who want to use it to enhance and increase Braille literacy.