On some days I feel tremendously optimistic about the general state of accessibility as it relates to people with vision impairment. Other times, I step back and take a broader view of the problem and feel that those of us who work to increase accessibility make up a very small group of people who, in the proverbial sense, team up to attempt to eat an entire elephant using only 7-Eleven issue plastic sporks. From month to month and year to year many of us benefit from the incremental progress made to improve accessibility but, at some instances, it feels like we will never make it to the promised land of a fully equitable world for people with disabilities.
Over the past few days, I have thought a lot about eating the elephant and certainly enjoy many of the bites we take but often feel overwhelmed by the task that faces us as we march into the future. Years ago, when I worked at Freedom Scientific, Glen Gordon, one of the smartest technical minds in the AT biz, would listen to me complain about how something or another had poor accessibility and he would remind me that the overall situation has improved greatly over the past ten, fifteen, twenty years. I would see the whole elephant and grow discouraged, Glen would enjoy the bites we had taken and, as he had much greater history in this area than me and could see the totality of the progress made in a historical framework which demonstrates that the difference between today and even the decade since I started looking at these issues is terrific and we people with vision impairment can enjoy quite a lot more than we could in 1998. Thus, looking back, I feel the optimism and a little pride in the contributions I’ve made in these past ten years.
On the other hand, when I watch my wife perform tasks similar to those that I do on a daily basis, when I realize just how much faster and with a much higher degree of certainty she can do things, I find myself looking at the entire elephant and only see that we’ve finished eating a few toes and a little bit of the tail.
The elephant includes but is not restricted to technology and the accessibility thereto. The entire problem certainly includes technology and that is the milieu in which I contribute but we need also include transportation, access to print materials, travel, dining, non-technical aspects of our homes and workplaces, general conveniences and many, many more subgroups where the notion of accessibility plays a role.
In today’s essay, I will discuss some areas where I feel tremendously optimistic, others where I feel encouraged by progress and still others that represent the enormous part of the elephant we haven’t even started cooking let alone eating.
In the twenty or so years in which I have used various talking book services, both those dedicated to people with print impairments and commercial ventures like Audible.com, I have enjoyed watching availability to such materials increase dramatically and I also like the speed of which accessible books become available much more now than ever.
I find Bookshare.org to represent one of the most exciting developments of this period. Hundreds, maybe thousands of volunteers scan books, fix up the quality and place them into the BSO library while the terrific staff under the leadership of the frenetic genius of Jim Fruchterman adds more and more titles in an industrial manner. Less popular books make it to the BSO library as it only takes one or two people with a scanner, OCR program and PCs to care to add it to the library to make it so. Thus, dilettante members of the literati like me can enjoy volumes of literary criticism while others, for example, might prefer real hard core science fiction which rarely makes the popularity cut used by groups who use a more formal process to determine which items should be added to their library. This combined staff and volunteer approach creates a tremendous balance between the nearly anarchistic tastes of the target audience while ensuring access to important instructional materials for students who need them.
Meanwhile, the digital download portion of NLS provides an an ever growing and excellent collection of titles with professional readers. RFB&D continues to expand its already impressive library and other projects like Web Braille and Project Guttenberg continue to provide very cool materials in a consistently valuable manner.
It also should be mentioned that many public libraries around the US and the rest of the world have computers available for their visitors and some systems have access technology on these machines and those that do not can be accessed with System Access to go by a person with vision impairment. Thus, people who cannot afford their own PC or other bit of machinery to use to access accessible materials can do so in many of these libraries. Most of the accessible library, Internet café and computing lounges around the world emerged in the past decade and, excepting fallout from the current economic crisis, I do not see this trend slowing at all.
Accessibility to computing machinery continues to improve each year but, sadly, does not always keep up with the pace of mainstream consumer electronics products. For instance, our friend Jamal Mazrui recently posted to the blind programmer mailing list that he had trouble buying a new desktop at Best Buy. Jamal, unquestionably one of the most advanced users in our community went to the big box store with a list of requirements that would work for a person with vision impairment. If I remember correctly, he wanted a reasonably fast processor, a ton of RAM, a quick hard disk, a good audio system, wireless networking and a few other odds and ends. Jamal didn’t care about a real kicking video adapter or other components that make gaming and more advanced multi-media functionality possible. Jamal also chose to use the Best Buy Geek Squad service to bring his new machine to his home and install it and the wireless network.
When Jamal’s new computer arrived, the kid from Geek Squad set it up, got the wireless network working and waited as Mr. Mazrui tried to install a Windows screen reader. To his shock and dismay, Jamal learned that none of the major commercial Windows screen readers worked with his new box because it came with a 64 bit version of Vista preinstalled on it. Trying to solve the problem, the Geek Squad guy called the store and found that the very middle of the road big box store no longer sold anything with a 32 bit OS included.
Over the past few months, we’ve heard a lot of pretty cool stuff from GW Micro, including its scripting facility, first to market with iTunes support and some other doo dads that impressed those of us who follow this stuff pretty closely. FS has done some nifty things with its 10.0 release, including knocking off the System Access feature that provides the user with the ability to control a remote computer if it has JAWS installed on it and what I have heard but haven’t had time to try is a really excellent set of improvements to its support of Firefox, Aria, iAccessible2 and Web 2.0 content. Meanwhile, the Serotek guys continue to make highly innovative improvements to System Access without charging their installed base for upgrades. Unfortunately, none of these Windows screen readers work in the 64 bit version of Vista which seem like the only one sold off-the-shelf at the mainstream consumer electronics stores.
An excellent bit of news, however, comes from the guys who make NVDA as they have grown into the only Windows screen reader that runs under the 64 bit operating system. So, while I’m encouraged by improved accessibility to Windows, I get grumpy over the lag between mainstream progress and that which we PWVI can access.
I am very optimistic about the progress I’ve seen in VoiceOver and Orca on Macintosh and GNU/Linux respectively. VoiceOver worked immediately when Apple moved to the 64 bit version of OSX and continues to impress me on a daily basis with how well most OSX applications work with the newcomer to the screen reader market. The same can be said for Orca which moves forward at a pace far more rapid than that of the more established screen readers on the Windows platforms.
I’ve also been happy to see companies like Apple with its latest iPod and Olympus with some of its digital recorders/media players start adding accessibility features to mainstream devices. I expect to see much more of this from a much broader range of manufacturers in the recent future. These developments are certainly very tasty bites of our elephant dinner.
Looking at the entire elephant, however, means we must explore accessibility outside of the pure technology arena. As independent people with vision impairment, we need to deal with lots of low tech situations that cannot always be remedied with high tech solutions. I’m writing this essay on an old Toshiba laptop plugged into the AC outlet on the dashboard on the Toyota Matrix we own. I have JAWS 9.xx.xxx running at the moment but, if I need or want to , I can switch to Window-Eyes or SA as I’ve both of them installed on this clunky old PC. Thus, I can use Microsoft Word to compose an essay in the car but I cannot navigate the menus on our XM satellite radio or do terribly much to adjust the climate in the vehicle or, without launching one of the accessible GPS programs I have, get a good idea of where we are and how much further it will be until we reach Savannah where we will stay the night.
Traveling in general represents a whole bunch of accessibility challenges. Few airports provide relief areas for service animals that do not require leaving the security area and being rescanned on the way back in. If one is traveling far and has relatively short times to switch planes, one’s animal can grow very uncomfortable and, in some rare cases poop right in the terminal. . [Note: X-Celerator has only crapped in one airport and I think he may have been making a statement on the overall experience of Atlanta/Hartsfield as it is, for man and beast alike, one of the least pleasant buildings on this continent.]
Most hotels provide rooms that they claim provide universal accessibility. Unfortunately, lowering the bar on which one can hang clothing, putting in a roll in shower and roll under sink, adding flashing light fire alarms and a few other alterations that intend to accommodate people with mobility impairments and do a little for people who cannot hear provide nothing useful for blind people and, even more so, sometimes make the room less comfortable as it contains a lot of variation from the standard hotel room to which many of us have pretty well memorized.
There are a number of things that a hotel can add at relatively low cost that will actually make a guest with vision impairment considerably more comfortable. These include such simple things as a large print and Braille channel guide for the television. A tactile map of the remote control would be nice too. Maybe a tactile way to tell between the real and decaf coffee in the room. There are lots of talking thermostats available and none cost too much. A tactile/large print guide to the telephone would be nice too. None of these items need be placed in a room in advance of of a blind person’s arrival, they can simply be handed to the blink when she checks in and it can be returned at check out time (I suppose this isn’t true for the thermostat but maybe that can be made in a modular enough manner that it can easily be swapped in or out as needed).
Hotel housekeeping personnel should learn that, if a guest self identifies as having a vision impairment, they should do their best to return objects to the place where they had been when the guest put them down. At a Ritz Carlton in DC once, I had to call the front desk to send someone up to my room to find almost everything whose location I cared to know every time I came back to my suite. After a couple of days and my repeated requests to the Ritz concierge they finally caught on that I didn’t want to go on a scavenger hunt to find my shampoo every time I wanted to take a shower. The Ritz Carlton chain, with its $850 per night charges, can become very accommodating very quickly but standard Red Roof Inns or other low cost roadside attractions have far less careful employees who never seem to have a clue.
Some hotels have rooms that have windows that face into a courtyard or atrium. When I enter such a room I pull the curtains shut as I can’t see out and I’d usually prefer that no one can see in and, even more so, I presume that few people on the outside want to look at me. Inevitably, a hotel housekeeping person will reopen the curtains and I will forget to check their status when I take a shower. Thus, I will reenter the main part of the room naked and cause people on the outside to see a nude dude when they didn’t care to. I’d be most afraid of this if I stayed in a hotel like the one in Toronto that faces into the baseball stadium. I can’t imagine that 60,000 Canadians want to see me in the raw.
Public transportation in the US is, in most places, too poor to even warrant discussing. I am, however, on my way back from Boston to our home in Florida. Hence, I’m leaving a public transit Mecca to return to a god forsaken sandbar which boasts a mediocre bus system that doesn’t really seem to go anywhere I want to be.
The Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA called the T by locals) provides a tremendous level of accessibility to nearly every place in the immediate Boston metropolitan area. X-Celerator and I traveled independently on three different subway lines, a handful of busses and enjoyed the pedestrian friendly environment at our destinations. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland and a few other forward thinking locales have systems that range from very good to excellent but the vast majority of our nation looks at pedestrians as freaks and feels that reducing greenhouse gasses by using mass transit is akin to converting their entire population into atheistic communists.
Even in pedestrian very friendly places like Cambridge, MA (across the river from Boston) much can be done to improve the accessibility of the sidewalks. People who use wheeled mobility for transportation got blended sidewalks to provide better access for their use well before anyone realized that highly blended sidewalks are a hazard for blind people and also cause really bad puddles to form on rainy days. So, to mitigate these problems, the city has started to install “foot Braille” but seemingly in random locations and blinks cannot count on their being everywhere. Cambridge has also put in beeping traffic lights at some intersections but as this is also inconsistent one cannot count on their being present.
Brookline, Massachusetts has talking traffic lights which are just different enough to those that beep to cause confusion. I would have hoped that the region could have gotten together to roll out a consistent set of these aids in the entire area covered by the MBTA.
It seems that an increasingly large number of restaurants, especially major chains like Ruby Tuesday’s, Hard Rock Café, Applebee’s, TGI Fridays and their equally mediocre analogues that line the roadsides of generica have started offering Braille menus. A personal pet peeve is triggered when a server asks a sighted companion, “would he like a Braille menu?” which often causes me to blurt out, “I’m not fucking deaf!” which usually makes me feel bad for losing control but this trigger really hits a raw nerve in me.
Unfortunately for me and more than 80% of other blind Americans, Braille literacy is too poor to use an embossed menu with any efficiency. I can figure out what it says but so slowly that it is always better to have the menu read by a companion or a server if I am alone.
As an increasingly large number of restaurants have web sites and have started, in some cases, to offer Wi Fi to their customers, I have the wild idea of having said restaurants put their menu onto their local system and people with all sorts of disabilities can employ the user agent of their choice to access the information. I could fire up IE on my mobile phone and the default page that comes up for customers can provide the menu which I can read using Mobile Speak Smartphone. This is easy, low cost and will make a tremendous difference for all kinds of consumers at these eateries.
Shopping, in the traditional “brick and mortar” sense of the word remains a tremendously challenging activity for people with vision impairment. While these places of public accommodation do little to prevent blind customers from entering, they also do very little to make the shopping experience convenient. If I go to a super market on my own, I ask X-Celerator to find the customer service counter and, assuming it’s in a relatively standard place, we get there and ask the assistant manager to please assign us a person to help us shop. Then we wait for said peon to arrive and start on our way. I will then ask our companion if he knows what items are on sale which either evokes a shameful reply implying that due to his illiteracy we cannot go over the circular together or a response that suggests that this person can hardly speak English or Spanish or any other language that I might be able to stumble through food talk well enough to communicate. Oddly, I’ve gone shopping in New Delhi and have always had better English speakers assigned to helping me than can be found in Florida or Boston. I agree with Thomas Jefferson’s assertion in his debate with John Adams as they campaigned for the presidential election of 1800 that the US should not have an official language but I also believe that people in customer service jobs should not be selected from the lot of the least useful people at the shop but, rather, should be literate and speak the languages of the majority of their customers with reasonable fluency.
Once assigned a helper, we set off to purchase our groceries. I always make a list so I do not forget anything but there seems no way for a shopper with a vision impairment to browse or do any impulse buying. To wit: when I’m buying my staple fresh fruits (bananas and vine ripened tomatoes) I have no way to know that some seasonal fruits and vegetables are present, hence, I miss out on blueberries, peaches, red plums and other delights that aren’t always present. If my companion had to recite every bit of fresh produce in the department, I’d have no time to get to the meat or peanut butter. Other entirely impulse purchases, Marshmallow Fluff, Scooter Pies, pre-made kidney stew, etc. also seem out of reach as said companion would need to recite every product in the store as we pushed the cart past them which would make for a very long amount of time spent hearing mostly things I don’t want.
I do not have a good solution for the grocery shopping problem nor shopping for clothing or other items about which one might enjoy browsing. I know some blind people who buy the exact same kinds of clothing all of the time. They know precisely what to ask for and when they get home they know their white shirts will go with their khaki slacks, black socks and regular pair of shoes. Frankly, I like to be a bit more expressive with my wardrobe and find that I must bring either a woman or gay friend to help me pick out nice outfits.
I could go on and on providing examples of the rest of the elephant that we still need to digest but I am feeling tired now but will write a part two and maybe three in this vein during the coming weeks as there is just so much I would like to cover.