Some Technology Leaves The Blind Behind

By Joshua Brockman
NPR Morning Edition, January 30, 2009

For those who can’t rely on vision or hearing to guide their navigation of
consumer electronics devices, doing simple tasks can become a huge
challenge. Meanwhile, the price of many of the devices created specifically
for the blind or deaf is anything but accessible —
and would give most consumers sticker shock.

As consumer electronics companies race to create more flat screens,
touch-screens and other sleek innovations to woo mainstream consumers,
there’s at least one group of people who are not celebrating this trend: the
blind and visually impaired.

For those who can’t rely on vision to guide their navigation of consumer
electronics devices, doing simple tasks like changing a thermostat’s
settings, navigating a playlist on an MP3 player or using a GPS device may
require the assistance of a sighted person.

“The real detriment today are flat screens, flat panels – flat everything,”
says Mike May, the president and chief executive of Sendero Group, a
California-based company that makes accessible Global Positioning System
products for blind and visually impaired people.
“If you can’t feel it, that’s not a good thing in terms of buttons. If it’s
all touch control, that obviously doesn’t work for a blind person. You feel
around and you set things off, which is what would happen on a
touch-screen.”

Compounding the problem: DVD players and other consumer electronics
typically now have onscreen menus in lieu of knobs. And these menus don’t
typically offer audible feedback or voice prompts.

“Hundreds of thousands of people on this planet are blind or with low
vision,” says recording superstar Stevie Wonder, who has been blind since
infancy. He spoke with NPR at the International consumer Electronics Show in
Las Vegas earlier this month.

“So to me, that’s enough to say, ‘Let’s do something about it.’ And when
you think about how by making things more accessible for those who are
blind, how it would then make them more independent, then for the taxpayer
that means less money. I think it’s just time for the manufacturers and the
companies that are making millions and millions of dollars to get on top of
their game and do what they need to do to make it happen.”

High Cost Of Accessible Products

An accessible product is one that someone can use independently.
Unfortunately, the price of many of the devices or software applications created specifically
for the blind or deaf is anything but accessible and would give most general
consumers sticker shock. A case in point is the KNFB Mobile Reader, software
that enables a cell phone to read printed text aloud to a blind person
through synthesized speech. It sells for close to $1,000 not including the
cell phone.

Advocates for accessible technology say they would like to see more
accessible features in mainstream products. The key for manufacturers to
keep costs down is to get feedback from the blind, deaf and others early in
the design process, then integrate features to make
mainstream products accessible.

Manufacturers, however, also face another challenge: What works for someone
who is deaf – such as a touch-screen menu or a flashing light – may be
completely unusable for a blind user. And the beeps or tones that are
helpful for blind people do nothing for a person who is deaf
or hard of hearing.

“There’s not very many products in the mainstream arena or even in the
accessibility arena that are perfect,” May says. “There’s always room for
improvement. We’re on something like our 10th version of our GPS for the
blind, and it’s far from perfect.
But the important thing is we have a dialogue with the customers.”

The menu screens on some gadgets can be especially frustrating. Wonder says
it’s important for accessible technology to avoid having menus that just go
round and round and round. He suggests a musical solution: “If you’re going
to do that, then maybe put some tones on there and then make the tones be in
a scale that once you get to the end of the various menus, it goes back to
the lower tones, so that a person knows where they are in the scheme of that
screen. And those things to me are very simple to do.”

Showcasing Vision-Free Technology

At a booth showcasing “vision free” products at the Las Vegas show,
accessible technology experts gathered to demonstrate a handful of products
developed with features that make them accessible for the blind. Wonder gave
awards to some of these companies, including NPR , which was honored for
helping to develop four accessible radios, including a captioned radio for
deaf users, as well as a radio with Braille, among others.

Peter Cantisani, a blind technology engineer for RL & Associates Inc., a
networking company that also sells products for the blind and visually
impaired, gave this reporter a hands-on tour of the booth. Cantisani
demonstrated some of the products – including a talking
thermostat made by Talking Thermostats.com and a talking blood pressure
monitor made by Life Source, and an HD Radio made by DICE Electronics with
voice prompts and audible cues in addition to supporting a forthcoming radio
reading service that will provide spoken text from some magazines and
newspapers. Many of these products were designed using voice chips.

He also demonstrated how a mainstream product, like the Bose SoundDock for
iPods, has features that make it accessible.

“It wasn’t designed for the blind,” Cantisani says. “It was just designed
by Bose to be a good speaker.” But he says the speaker’s slightly recessed
volume buttons provide good tactile feedback, and when the power cord is
plugged in or taken out, it makes an audible sound.

But it may not be enough for companies to accidentally arrive at features
that are user-friendly for the blind or deaf.

“I think the government has to get involved and say, ‘Listen, if you want
to get some of the tax breaks that you want, then you’ve got to make things
accessible for those who are physically challenged,’ ” Wonder says
. “You’ve got to give something to get something. I’m all the way with
that.
If you want to win, let’s all win. Let’s do this to make it happen for
everyone.”

Technology At Work

Accessibility can be particularly problematic in the workplace. Employers
often use technology that’s incompatible with devices designed to be
accessible to the blind and deaf.

“It isn’t always that our technology doesn’t keep up, but the developers of
the software that is used in mainstream America do not develop their
software so that it can be accessible with our
technology,” says Marlaina Lieberg, chair of the information access
committee of the American Council of the Blind.

Lieberg says problems with technology in the workplace contribute to the
nearly 70 percent unemployment rate among those who are blind. Deaf and hard
of hearing people also say they have disproportionately high rates of
joblessness. ( Listen to what Stevie Wonder has to say about this.)

Anne Taylor, director of access technology for the National Federation of
the Blind, says the NFB would like to see more mainstream product
manufacturers and application developers seek feedback from communities whom
they serve.

Taylor says the market potential isn’t just about those who are
presently blind or vision-impaired: “They’re missing out on real market
opportunity if they’re not prepared to cater to people who may experience
vision loss in the future.”

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