Built-in smart phone accessibility increases my independence and awareness
This guest blog post was written by Ben Mustill-Rose. Ben works at the BBC as a Developer In Test for mobile iPlayer in Salford where he helps maintain the teams servers & writes internal tooling. He can also be found giving accessibility advice to other teams in the organization or helping kids to code / teaching them about STEM. Outside of work he is a keen swimmer and enjoys brewing cider.
On a rainy day, some time in 1998, my family purchased its first computer amidst murmurings of needing to “manage our accounts” and “get connected to the internet”. By and large this was a successful endeavour. My brother and sister spent some time each evening playing some carefully selected educational games, my dad discovered a love for Solitaire, and my mum switched from writing her letters by hand to electronically – almost overnight.
The spanner in the works came in the form of me. While at the time I was able to see colours, and could just about guide other blind people, I was – in a medical sense – totally blind. It was clear that I wasn’t getting as much out of the computer as the rest of the family were. After a few months it was decided that this would not do and it was declared that my parents would do whatever it took to make sure that I could enjoy the computer in the same way that everyone else was. Shortly after this they became acquainted with the prices of assistive technologies (£1000 for a screen reader that would make the computer talk, and £6000 for a device that would let me read printed materials) and were noticeably less keen on the idea.
Having not been taught to read print, the next 1.5 years or so found me making do with keeping my face close to the screen and learning to associate various “pictures” / “squiggles” (icons and pieces of text respectively) with actions. E.g. I had no idea that the button on the left of the taskbar was called start, but I knew that the darker part (black text on a grey background) on the bottom left of the screen would give me more options if I clicked it. It was only after a friend stepped in to help that we were finally able to procure a screen reader, although in the future I would use the association technique to make my first game and reinstall Windows.
Fortunately, its 2016 now and the outlook’s nowhere as bleak as it once was, as all of the most popular computer operating systems have various options for a free screen reader. if you’re running Windows you can use Narrator, a comparatively basic but still useful screen reader from Microsoft. Then there’s NVDA, a more fully-featured option, or if you have a copy of Microsoft Office 2010 you can use Window-Eyes for free. Mac OS includes VoiceOver and Linux derivatives have Orca, amongst others.
The decreasing cost of hardware accompanied by the proliferation of free screen readers is opening up the world of computing to more and more people as time goes on. The cost of making our computer accessible to me in 1998 was £1000 + an extra £1000 for the computer itself. Now you can purchase an Amazon Fire Tablet for under £50, which delivers a more than adequate accessibility experience out of the box. That represents a staggering 97.5% reduction in price and the experience that a Fire delivers is arguably better than that of our first computer!
One side effect of the increase in promotion of accessibility is the disruption of the assistive technology software industry. No longer are blind people dependant on expensive tools from established software vendors – instead we now have access to a wide variety of inexpensive applications geared towards improving our quality of life, some of which have replaced dedicated hardware devices.
Now that I am able to write braille on my phone I have much less of a need for my faithful but clunky Perkins brailler. Apps like KNFB Reader allow me to read printed materials independently, which increases my autonomy and privacy. If I have a tin of something or other – and I don’t feel like playing some weird game of culinary roulette – I can now identify it, without opening it.
Navigation apps such as BlindSquare help me travel independently, as opposed to being the person that my friends have to pick up – and if we go to a restaurant I can now read the menu myself. The increase in accessibility of apps like iPlayer means that I don’t have to feel left out when sighted people are talking about the latest programme that everyone’s watching and colour identification apps like Colorvisor go some way towards making sure that the clothing combinations I wear out are relatively sensible. Those apps are just the tip of the iceberg really, but I hope they have helped illustrate just how transformative the increased awareness of blind people and our requirements has been.
The above paragraph would probably be a nice way to end this post; it paints an incredibly palatable, ‘all is good in the world’ type picture of how things are in 2016 for blind people and it’s not at all inaccurate. However, if we delve a bit deeper, there are several aspects of the above referenced “transformation” that I feel should be of concern to blind people everywhere.
For most blind people who are looking to purchase a smartphone it’s a given that it will be an iPhone. Even if we put aside my opinion that VoiceOver is actually getting worse over time, it really worries me that so many blind people are dependent on a screen reader that Apple appears not to make money on . What would happen if one day Apple decided that money does matter after all?
I currently use NVDA around 50% of the time at work – it’s a great tool and I only see my usage of it increasing. However, I worry that this piece of software that is arguably essential to my role is only developed by 2 people. As more and more people come to rely on this screen reader I can’t help but wonder what the consequences would be if even one of the developers – for whatever reason – chose not to continue with the project.
These worries aside, it’s undeniably a great time to be blind. Technology has allowed me to be more independent than ever before and the overwhelming majority of it is completely mainstream, which drives down prices and helps to foster inclusion. The next 10 years will be incredibly interesting, partly because of the amount of disruptive technologies that will surely appear and partly because of the amount of antiquated companies that will disappear. I can’t wait to see what will happen!
I’d like to thank Wayfindr for giving me the opportunity to guest on their blog and you, the reader for taking the time to read my post.
You can explore the Wayfindr Open Standard here.