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Lucy Greco

  Accessibility in Education

02/19/2013

We All Experience Technology Differently

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From waking up in the morning with the aid of a talking alarm clock to commuting to work and checking emails on her Android mobile phone, Lucy Greco, an accessibility expert who also happens to be blind, experiences technology in a slightly different manner than some of us. She gives us a rundown of her typical day interacting with digital devices.

I often wonder what backgrounds you, my readers, come from. I am never really sure if a person reading this piece has ever downloaded a screen reader or used an accessible device. This month, I want to reach out to those of you who have not. I am going to talk a little bit about how I use technology and how it affects my daily life. I am not only an assistive technology specialist but am also a self-confessed technology junkie. If there’s a new gadget or technology released, I would usually be one of the first to buy it.

Interestingly, there have been a few devices for which the ‘me first’ phenomenon hasn’t come into play. I was the “first kid on the block” to get an accessible cell phone in early 2000. However, when Apple came out with the first iPhone to include VoiceOver, a built-in, free screen reader for the iOS platform, I never bought one. When everybody was signing-up on the social networking site Facebook, I didn’t. It wasn't an accessible social media platform and I didn't like the idea of sharing snippets of my personal life online.   

I have only recently begun using Twitter and starting to enjoy it for the rich content I can find. I guess you can say I have always been a person who wants to challenge herself but not jump onto the newest trends just because everyone else is. Another interesting part of this interaction with new technology is the knowledge that my feedback as a user group in accessibility and assistive technology can influence product specifications. On the flip side, as I become older, I also find it more of a burden to learn new technologies and adapt to newer software for each task.  

As a blind person, the way I interact with technology is unique. Most of us are woken up by the shrill tones of their alarm clock, either the traditional clock pieces placed on the bedside stand or the mobile phone alarms. In the morning, I am greeted by the traditional alarm clock. However, my clock speaks the time and greets me. I am a light sleeper and often check the clock in the middle of the night. Unlike a sighted person, I cannot just turn my head to do this. I need to reach over and physically push a button to realize that it’s almost 4 a.m. and I am still not asleep! The other problem is that the friendly little alarm telling me the time may actually wake-up my husband as well. Not a very practical solution, right?

Lucy Greco with her guide dog Pecan The only other technology I encounter in my morning routine is our burglar alarm. My alarm system has a loud voice telling me the status of the alarm. When I reach to turn it off in the morning, it pipes up with a “Disarmed; Ready to arm” message. As I open the door to let my guide dog Pecan out, it beeps loudly and says “Back door.” I find this very reassuring because I know whenever anyone comes in or enters my house, the burglar alarm’s mechanism will alert me. Since I cannot rely on visual cues to know if someone has entered the house or if the door is not completely shut, this little piece of technology is my only link to a sense of security.

My next interaction with technology is through my mobile phone, while commuting to work and from there on through the day. Before I leave for the bus stop, I reach for my Android phone and check my emails, Twitter messages, and today’s headlines. The app ‘next bus’ tells me how long I have to wait before the next bus arrives. If there is nothing much to read, you would still see me playing around with the phone, either listening to music or pinging a colleague. My phone is an Android and it is a complete touch screen, with no buttons on it, not even a home button like you would see on an Apple iPhone. The only hardware buttons on the phone are the power on/off and volume control buttons. Here’s where the first difference between a blind person and a sighted person involved in the same tasks becomes apparent. A sighted person reaches into their pocket and in under 10 seconds will have the screen unlocked and the “next bus” app displaying their stop information. But I sometimes take over 30 seconds just to unlock the screen. The way the android keyboard works for a blind person is you drag your finger over the screen and whatever button is under your finger is spoken and if you pick up your finger the last button you were touching is typed.

My husband is quite concerned about the mechanics of the phone. He’s worried about the fact that it takes me overly long to unlock my phone, and so, in emergency situations I might be unable to quickly unlock the phone and call someone. For me, this delay is ‘natural’, and I don’t know another way of using a mobile. This is the way I have always used a mobile phone. I can’t target the individual buttons I need to find and when I do, I need to be sure that my finger is resting exactly on the right one before I remove it. Luckily, the new android phone keyboard is more forgiving than the previous version.

Read: Who is Responsible for all the Inaccessible Technology in the World? Part 1 and Part 2 by Lucy Greco. 

I don’t know the number of times I had to second guess myself when pushing the keys of the mobile phone while inputting the password. Since I have a braille display, sometimes it takes me a few moments to even get the keyboard up if the phone remembers I was last using the display. The Android accessibility suite allows me to use the keys on my braille display to enter text in to the phone. However, even when the braille display is not paired with the phone, the phone remembers that it should use the braille display’s keyboard to enter text and I need to click a specific spot on the screen to change back to the on-screen keyboard. Personally, I think this is a bug. But for now I deal with it. If a sighted person had to fight with their phone as much as I do, I don’t think cell phones would have caught on as completely as they have.

Once I reach work, I have a 50-50 chance of finding my computer ready to work the minute I sit down.  Many mornings I reach for the keyboard hoping for the ever-faithful spoken initial statement, “Press control alt delete to log on” to be greeted by silence. Sometimes it’s a simple problem like the computer isn’t turned on but more often than not, it’s something as silly as my screen reader failing to authorize itself and unable to speak because it doesn’t think it has a license to. 

I have spoken many times about how copyright accessibility blocks access to information for blind users. This is just another example of that. The copy protection used by my screen reader keeps my computer from speaking as it thinks that it has no license. This is one of the biggest headaches I have to deal with at work, on and off. Starting my work day with licensing problems and poor screen-reader implementation of the licensing is not something I recommend. When I managed the lab used for student exams on the Berkeley campus, this particular problem would rear its head at the most inconvenient times. More often than not the student would be in the middle of an exam and their screen reader would turn off. The Berkeley campus is a large, sprawling centre with old buildings. These buildings were not meant to have modern technology infrastructure tacked on after the fact. Needless to say, the network connections couldn’t always be relied upon. The screen readers would check for a license frequently enough that a five-second break in network connectivity would disrupt the licensing. 

But wait, you say, wouldn’t it just check again?  No, sorry, it’s too late. The screen reader has now set itself to a “demo” mode and if it doesn’t expire instantly, it will do so shortly thereafter. My students and I have lost countless hours of work due to this specific issue. However, without the screen reader, we would not be students or managers, functioning and working full-time in society.

Read: From Classrooms to e-Accessible Classes: Making e-Learning Inclusive - blog by Lucy Greco. Read the article.

Recently my campus switched from a departmental support system to a centralized IT system. I was lucky enough earlier to have my office right next door to the IT person. Now the IT staff is located 15 minutes away on the other side of town. Previously I used to knock on the IT door and say, “My computer stopped speaking again.” Today, if I am lucky, I can grab a person in the hallway and ask them to walk me through saying what’s on my screen, or perhaps they will tell me what that flashing error message is that I just can’t read.

After hearing this, you are probably thinking that I would be highly opposed to something like a shared service center for IT.  But no, I am not. When it comes to my basic configuration and support needs, which is shared with every other person in my office, I have found the central service to be faster and more effective. Shared services is a larger pool of individuals with diverse knowledge and backgrounds and I am more likely to get a person who knows how to solve the problem, instead of having to fight through it with a person who has only a narrow set of experiences.

My needs are different and my user profile is different than some of my colleagues. I don’t need an IT person on-call just for me; no one can afford that in this day of highly paid, skilled professionals. What I do need is assistance from an individual who does not need to be paid for their skill-set but is affordable enough to be on hand when the need arises. But wait again you say, this doesn’t happen often enough to have a person on hand.  

As new innovative technologies flood the market, individuals with disabilities may benefit from them but struggle to use them. Product development always outstrips the accessibility. We can only hope that accessibility eventually catches up, just like the talking clock has. In my next article, I will expand on this issue and talk about other instances when an on-call IT professional could be very handy, not only to aid persons like me at work, but to share with them specific accessibility-related skills that they can leverage and utilize for other clients.

I am a highly productive individual who has accomplished a great deal during my time at Berkeley. However, with the state of assistive technology, I have a large percentage of uncounted hours struggling just to use the tools my coworkers take for granted. Statistics have shown that individuals with disabilities will stay in the same job their entire lives. A lot of this is comfort zone and familiarity. I might be asking for a little bit of assistance just to get past these barriers caused by technology, but university or business administrations can be assured that by putting a little bit of extra effort into improving tools and the workspace, I will be there when many of my colleagues have moved on.

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Related Resources

Blog: Ensuring Social Media Accessibility for Persons with Disabilities by Debra Ruh | Read the article.

Event: CSUN 2013: 28th Annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference | More Details on Event.

Publication: Making Mobile Phones and Services Accessible for Persons with Disabilities |ITU-G3ict report | Download PDF.