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Lucy Greco

Accessibility in Education


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08/13/2013

The Everyday Life of a Blind Technologist


Inaccessible, touch-based household appliances are the last mile barriers for persons with disabilities. Lucy Greco writes about how accessible technology impacts the way she eats, reads, works, and goes about her daily life.

As a technology enthusiast as well as an accessibility professional, I experience technology in everything I do. In my last two posts, I focused on the devices I rely on and the challenges I face at work as a blind technologist. In this post, I would like to outline how everyday technology impacts me.

One of my favorite things to do is pick up a new device and just experiment with it. Very little of my technology knowledge has been learned from browsing through the manual and applying all the guidelines one-by-one. As a former tech-support person, I know how many of you are cringing at that idea. Yes, manuals are very useful and important tools. However, when the new device shows up with a single piece of printed instructions in the box, it’s easier to just explore the device by pushing buttons!

Image of a Smartphone

Lucy Greco says: Unlike most technophiles, I don’t buy the latest entrants to the digital communications market

Secondly, it’s frustrating to depend on a sighted friend or colleague to show me the ropes in using a new gadget by reading out loud every line of pointer, some of which may be extraneous. Even though my sighted husband is also an IT professional, he hates dealing with gadgets and devices and is unwilling to read manuals or documentation to me. So button-pushing is the best available choice to get to know my (now old) Smartphone, laptop and desktop.

Unlike most technophiles, I don’t buy the latest entrants to the digital communications market. I do like to let my technology wear out a bit and run its life course. Some of my gadget-obsessed friends are constantly buying the newest Smartphone or downloading apps by the hundreds every other week. Typically, I change my cell phone every four to six years. Only when it breaks and is no longer able to run effectively do I ever upgrade. On the other hand, I was one of the first among my circle of acquaintances to get a cell phone. I bought the first flip-phone ever to be sold and used it for more than six years. I upgraded it only when it couldn’t hold a battery charge for more than an hour. My next cellular purchase came about only because there was no more network support for the phone I was using.

Purchasing new technology in our household is a tedious affair. When looking for the laptop I am currently using, it literally took me a year to find the right one. As a person who relies on tactile feedback, it has become increasing difficult for me to begin the process to browse, finalize and buy a new computing device. There are very few places where I can go to feel what I’ll be buying. The reason: the current trend for everything to be sold through the Internet. Even when I want to buy a new mixer for the kitchen, the only way to really shop for it now is online.  There seem to be fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar stores where I can go put my hands on something to see what it’s like. What’s worse, many manufacturers are not distributing or retailing at showrooms anymore. In the example of the mixer, I have finally selected one and I am waiting for the prices to fall further before I purchase it. I have never touched the mixer I have chosen and I hope it’s convenient, handy and easy to use when it does show up!

I only say this in jest. It’s hard to believe that a mixer can be inaccessible, but anything is possible. When shopping for appliances for the kitchen renovation that we finished last year, to make sure everything was as accessible as possible, we bought only commercial appliances. In the restaurant industry, professional cooks don’t have time to mess around with touchpads and programming a stove. Well neither do I. All the consumer products I looked at had flat-panel, touch-sensitive buttons. There would’ve been no way for me to determine whether I was turning the broiler on or setting the oven to bake.

Kitchen appliances, some accessible, some not

With the commercial oven I bought, it has the simplest, easiest, most accessible controls out there. It has two knobs that are extraordinarily tactile. One has four distinctive clicks to positions to tell which one you’re selecting. On the other knob, my husband was able to use puffy paint to make marks at every 25 degree temperature increment. Now the only reason I may run the oven too high is because it’s a great oven and it cooks hotter than most, but not by accident due to inaccessible controls. The only appliance we had to give up on was the refrigerator. Because it’s something that you set once and leave forever, I was able to accept the fact that I couldn’t use the digital display of the refrigerator.

Now to talk a little bit about the fun in my life. For many years, I have been using a Windows Media PC to control my entertainment. In the days of Windows Millennium, my husband and I installed our first version of Windows Media Center and never went back. The app was as accessible as I needed it to be. For the first time, I could go through the television guide and learn what was on other channels as easily as my husband. Admittedly the setup was not accessible and as long as I continued to use it, I don’t think it ever was. In March 2009, the necessity for it disappeared. My husband and I decided that we switched far enough over to viewing our entertainment on the Internet that we canceled all of our traditional television services. We were amongst the first thousand people to sign up for DirecTV when it was released in the 90s; in March 2009, we canceled our cable subscription and have never looked back. Today, we get all of our entertainment from the Internet. We pay for a Netflix subscription and find the price worth it. But we don’t subscribe to any other paid services. We do use Hulu but we don’t pay for the subscription service. Neither of the two services offers descriptive video. But I encourage both vendors to look into ways to do this. Descriptive video on some of my favorite shows is the only thing I really miss from watching terrestrial television.

I will be the first person to say that these two services could be somewhat more accessible, however, much of what I watch on them I watch with my husband, so I make my way through. There are tricks that I use to navigate through the systems that I have only learned through persistence. Sadly, many blind people are not able to learn these tricks because they use their assistive technology differently than I do. For example, I often use the table navigation commands of my screen reader to get through the Hulu site. Many screen reader users, on the other hand, don’t know how to do this and therefore don’t have the ability to use the workarounds I have created for myself. Many blind people only use a tenth of the features included in screen-readers and therefore may find some things more inaccessible than others.  When I teach accessibility designing, I often have to remind myself of this. I have often encouraged developers to create tables, forgetting that sometimes table-navigation is not a feature people know how to use.

I am not always online, says Lucy Greco

Lucy Greco says: I am not always attached to a computer

When you read the above you must think I’m always on the Internet and always attached to a computer. This is not the case. Much of what I do involves my beautiful dogs and eating good food. But even those activities sometimes make intricate use of a computer. For example, when I want to bake something new as a treat for people attending my web access meetings, my recipe book is the Internet. I can look through thousands of recipes to find one that suits me best, quickly. But sadly, some of the websites I find these recipes on are inaccessible to me.  Luckily, there so many choices, that I simply move on to the next one. I found a couple of tricks to use some of these sites, like searching for the word “cup” to find the ingredients list. But websites with good semantic structure would make it so much easier.

Many of my peers are very frustrated when I tell them I don’t use the Internet in my daily life as much as most people do. When I have to shop online, I get a sighted person to help. I work on the Internet all day and I do find it very rewarding. The difference between using the Internet to actually get something done and working with the developer to fix their site is that more often than not I am frustrated at the sites I visit and therefore I can’t complete the task I am trying to accomplish. When I test the website for work, it doesn’t matter if I fail because the developer sees that and hopefully can go back and fix it so that somebody else can do the task I failed at.  Using the website that’s inaccessible without getting the feedback to the developers just doesn’t pay anymore.

I hope this piece has helped you understand how one blind person interacts with technology. I am a unique individual, but I hope that the perspective of my life helps you understand how people that are blind and visually impaired encounter technology in their work and home lives and are affected by it.

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Related Resource

Blog: David Fazio reviews the Meridian App that Allows Smartphone Users to Find Their Wway Back Home | Read the Article.

Publication: Leading Practices on Disability Inclusion | Download Free PDF.

Event: M-Enabling Australasia 2013 Conference and Showcase | August 14-15, Sydney | View Event Details.

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• AAATE 2015: Association for the Advancement of Assistive Technology in Europe, Budapest, Hungary


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