Not that many years ago, becoming blind meant that you were issued with a begging bowl and a blindfold. In the more recent past and present day, it means that you are taught how to weave baskets or perhaps string beads. This is all fast changing with technology advancing further than ever before and blind people putting themselves out there, showing the world that they still can play a full and fruitful part in society.
Let me be totally honest here and admit that I too was once unaware of the plights and situations that the visually impaired live with and encounter every day. That is until I become a blind man myself. I guess I would have also directed a comment or question to a blind person’s sighted companion, “What will he have to drink?”. I too would have been startled and confused by the blind person’s ability to communicate by email and social media. I perhaps would have also tried to say politically correct things like, “You are so inspirational!” and told the person how amazed I was at their ability to function with such a crippling affliction. The reality of a blind person’s world is, however, very far from what I and most uneducated sighted people know.
So, how does a blind person communicate with technology? Let me try and explain. The most valuable tool that allows us to use computers and mobile phones is something called a screen reader. This is a little robotic voice that not only reads out and audio describes whatever icon is under our mouse as we hover around our devices. It also speaks letters, words and sentences to us as we type them. I can scroll around the home screen for example with this voice over screen reader software switched on and the voice tells me what icon I am hovering over. From my email programme to Facebook and Twitter, from YouTube to a Word Document, I navigate primarily with the arrow keys on my laptop and then hit enter to select the last read button. It’s that simple.
On my mobile phone touch screen it works almost the same. I either slide around and listen to the labels or flip my finger from left to right or vice versa. I can open the last read icon by double tapping the screen to select.
So, let me take you through the step by step way that I would create a new Tweet. I first need to scroll to the correct app on my iPhone. The voiceover software reads the buttons as I scroll through: mail, contacts, calendar, clock, Facebook, messenger, Facetime, Skype and then Twitter. As soon as the name of the icon I want is read, I stop scrolling and give the screen a double tap and the app opens. I then flick through the top of the page until I hear the icon labelled ‘compose a new Tweet’. I double tap it and it opens a text pop up. I then have three choices by which to compose my message. I can either slowly ‘type’ my tweet on the phones screen using the same touch and double click method; I can click on the dictate button and speak my message which is transcribed as text for the Tweet, or I can pick up my bluetooth keyboard and just type. I normally choose the keyboard.
As I type, the letters are read out to me – in this way I can be sure to check my spelling. When the space key is pressed I hear the words. Once I have completed composing my tweet, I again touch the phones screen and move around to the ‘Tweet now’ button. A double tap here and my new message is shared with the world.
I know this may seem tedious and yes, at times it is, but it is better than nothing. Communication has a way of freeing a blind person otherwise trapped and confined to spending many hours alone waiting for a sighted guide to assist.
Thanks to technology, I am able to use much the same system to post status updates on Facebook, skype chat with friends all around the globe, listen to audio described books, send and receive my own emails, research things on google, stream my favorite radio stations and listen to you tube clips. A blind person is able to do pretty much anything that a sighted person can, given the correct equipment and training. Unfortunately much of the world does not ever get to play with these toys and is left to the baskets and beads.
So that brings me to my point, is it really the person that is disabled or is it the environment that forces them to be disabled?
There are a few ways that you can make yourselves more accessible to the visually impaired. Some are really simple and some are a little more tricky. Let’s start with the easy. Everyone can post a description when sharing their selfies on social media. Screen readers do describe pictures somewhat, it my say ‘A man standing in nature’. Whereas a description written by the person who took the picture can be much more descriptive, ‘This is a picture of Chris standing under the shade of a massive oak tree with a cascading waterfall to his rear. This photo was taken in the wine lands region near Cape Town during a short walk I did in the forest today.’
Ok, that is maybe a heavy embellishment and it is not really expected unless you were sending that pic to me or posting it on my wall and tagging me in it. I would really just be happy to know who is in the picture. I really don’t have to be told what clothes they are wearing. I imagine them all naked anyway. Ha ha.
The more tricky way to help is to get the software and app developers to properly label their buttons on their programmes and websites. Imagine me wanting to stream my favorite radio station on my iPad and the button that says play is not a word but rather a picture. My little robot voice just says ‘button’ then and I have no way of knowing whether I will accidentally delete the app or hit play. Guess what, most of the time, I move on to a different station.
Another simple way to connect with a blind person is to just speak to them. Don’t be afraid, we are not demons or possessed. We don’t know that you have come into the room or left. Except for our heavy footed friends that is. Just say hello and until I recognize your voice well enough to greet you by name, tell me who you are.
Now all of this is really simple, but who am I to judge? I would have made exactly the same mistakes and bad judgement just three years ago when my eyes still worked. So let me not rant, but rather try to educate and show you that a blind person is very capable if the right circumstances exists.
Blind people have normal jobs and do all the things that sighted people do. We like good food, travel, music and nature. We just see everything in a different way jusing our remaining four senses. This is sometimes a really good way of experiencing things and can even lead to more appreciation of the situation.
So let me leave you with this, It took me going blind for me to see things more clearly than I ever had before. Remember that the number one rule when meeting a blind person is to treat them just exactly the same as any other individual. #BlindManCan