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Blind Access Journal Posts

Aira in the Real World: Out of the Box with Horizon

September 10, 2018 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 35-minute fifth episode in the Aira in the Real World podcast series, Allison, Darrell, Allyssa and Arabella Hilliker unbox, describe and demonstrate the basic operation of Aira’s new Horizon system.

We realized soon after the recording of this podcast that, since the included Samsung J7 is placed in an Otterbox case before shipment, the phone is not as bulky as we reported.

We invite you to listen to our previous podcast, Exploring the World with Aira: A Candid Discussion with Suman Kanuganti, especially if you are learning about this new service for the first time.

If you are ready to become an Aira Explorer, we ask that you use our referral link. Your first month of Aira service will be free of charge, we will receive a discount on our bill and we will thank you for supporting the important work we do here at Blind Access Journal.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Aira in the Real World: Sheet Happens

August 3, 2018 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 15-minute fourth episode in the Aira in the Real World podcast series, Allison, Darrell and Arabella Hilliker work with Aira agent Tai to review and label the sizes of several sets of bed sheets.

We invite you to listen to our previous podcast, Exploring the World with Aira: A Candid Discussion with Suman Kanuganti, especially if you are learning about this new service for the first time.

If you are ready to become an Aira Explorer, we ask that you use our referral link. Your first month of Aira service will be free of charge, we will receive a discount on our bill and we will thank you for supporting the important work we do here at Blind Access Journal.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Power On: Exploring the Elements of a Talking TV

June 28, 2018 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 39-minute podcast, Allison, Darrell and Arabella Hilliker explore and demonstrate some of the accessibility features of the Element ELEFW195 19″ 720p 60Hz LED HDTV.

  • Listen or pause: Element ELEFW195 Talking TV Demo
  • Download: Element ELEFW195 Talking TV Demo
  • We thank Aira agent David for the descriptive labels and mapping of the accompanying remote below:

    1. Power, USB
    2. Picture Mode, Screen Mode, Sleep Timer, Aspect
    3. 1, 2, 3
    4. 4, 5, 6
    5. 7, 8, 9
    6. – (minus), 0, Previous Channel
    7. Volume up, Mute, Channel Up
    8. Volume down, source, Channel Down
    9. MTS (STEREO/MONO/SAP), Menu, Freeze
    10. Info, up arrow on circle pad, Previous Menu
    11. Left Arrow on Circle Pad, Ok Button, Right Arrow on Circle Pad
    12. Channel List, Down Arrow on Circle Pad, Exit
    13. Play/Pause, Stop, Previous Chapter, Next Chapter
    14. Repeat, Closed Captioning, V-Chip
    15. Auto, Add/Erase, FAV

    Would you like to have the capability and independence only an on-demand sighted assistant can provide? If you are ready to become an Aira Explorer, we ask that you use our referral link. Your second month of Aira service will be free of charge, our next month will be free and we will thank you for supporting the important work we do here at Blind Access Journal.

    We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

    If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Random Accessibility Thoughts: We Blind People Need to Change the Path of Least Resistance

May 20, 2018 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

When I was 13 years old, all the way back in 1986, I learned exactly how horrible some people were when I found out the principal of my local high school was not going to let me enroll because of my blindness. She wondered things like, “how would he use the bathroom” and thought I should stay at the school for the blind, which she determined to be the “least restrictive environment” for my educational needs.

This discrimination was ultimately put down, and my local school district had to pay for me to attend public school in another district where I was actually wanted, thanks to the support of family and friends and a hard fought legal battle won on my behalf by the National Federation of the Blind.

Despite this victory, and my subsequent educational success in high school, I lost a lot of my innocence and my ears were forced wide open. I realized, once and for all, that my blindness really did set me apart from the rest of the world and that I would be constantly forced to prove my worth as a human being over and over again for anything I wanted to accomplish. I quickly decided there was an “us vs. them” scenario with “us” being myself and others like me, my blind brothers and sisters, and “them” being the sighted people comprising the rest of the world around me. At age 13, it was already war time!

Then, just one year later, in 1987, I got my first computer, an old Apple 2E with an Echo speech synthesizer! It even came with a 1200 baud modem! It was almost immediately followed by the awesome, revolutionary Braille ‘n Speak note taking device by Blazie Engineering!

I quickly discovered the incredible potential for computer technology to level the playing field for blind people like me. As I integrated technology into my life, I found it enabled a vast amount of communication and greater information access. I could complete the majority of my homework on the long car rides home from school. I could read some books, especially those on technology, using a brand-new service called Computerized Books for the Blind (CBFB). I could communicate with blind and sighted people on computer bulletin board systems on terms of equality. I could even, finally, do my own logging of the contacts I made on amateur radio, saying “goodbye” to static paper logs written with my Perkins Braille Writer and unweildy tape recordings my mom manually wrote into a printed logbook.

In the late 1980s, as I progressed through high school and enhanced my technology skills, I thought I was on top of the world and I just knew there wasn’t anything a blind person couldn’t do if only they set their mind to it and used the necessary technology. While sighted students were still plodding along with pencil and paper, I was taking better and quicker notes on my Braille ‘n Speak. While some Braille books were still available from several sources in the older transcribed format, we started scanning, transcribing and Brailling our own books using technology. With floppy disk, Braille ‘n Speak and the accompanying serial cable in hand, I was the mad scientist around school, hooking up my gizmos to the various IBM computers around school so I could enjoy their text-based user interfaces largely on terms of equality with my sighted peers. In conjunction with my talking radios, I could hook up my computer and enjoy packet radio just like my fellow amateur radio operators around the world.

In this scenario, in any situation where I found I really needed sight in order to accomplish something, I generally found an available sighted person willing to read something to me, because, I knew, thanks to the philosophy instilled in me through my association with the National Federation of the Blind, my blindness wouldn’t stop me from doing anything I set my mind to accomplish.

Sadly, while enjoying my text-based technology, I began to realize the sighted world was leaving us behind. While we blind people clung onto DOS, sighted people moved to Windows. As sighted people embraced the Internet, the old systems like command-line shell accounts, FTP, Gopher and text-based email moved onto the World Wide Web. While we plodded along with our text-based Lynx web browser, sighted people moved on to NCSA, Netscape, Internet Explorer and, finally, to the browsers we know today. As ebooks finally became normalized in the sighted world, blind people got left behind through the use of inaccessible, protective wrappings around information that should have otherwise been accessible.

Fast forward to today, 2018, 31 years after I got my first computer… I think we have another chance at truly equal accessibility, but will we insist on taking it for ourselves?

As I see it, we blind people enjoy the following technology advancements which should help us catch up to the sighted world, if not actually compete with the sighted on terms of equality once in awhile:

  • The free, open-source Nonvisual Desktop Access (NVDA) screen reader makes computer technology more affordable and accessible to more blind people than it has ever been before.
  • Popular operating systems including Android, iOS, Mac OS and Windows all now feature built-in screen readers blind people can use out of the box without the need to purchase and install a separate, 3rd-party solution.
  • Internationally-recognized guidelines, such as the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, provide website developers with the framework they can follow in order to insure their sites are accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Mainstream technology companies, including Adobe, Apple, Google and Microsoft, all provide best practices and tools for insuring the content created using their solutions is accessible to people with disabilities.
  • Legislation, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act in the United States, as well as many other similar laws around the world, are avenues we can use to obtain equal accessibility as a human right.
  • And, finally, when everything else fails, we now have visual-interpreting services such as Aira and Be My Eyes, where we can go back to a scenario where we employ sighted readers to access critical information we’re just not going to get any other way.

Despite all these assets at our disposal, it sadly seems the world around us remains largely inaccessible…

  • The staff at doctor’s offices, hospitals and other healthcare facilities usually whine about HIPAA and being too busy when they are asked to provide accessible, electronic medical records or even, all too frequently, to help us fill out their inaccessible paperwork.
  • Many blind college students still can’t gain access to their textbooks on time because they are not available in an accessible format they can read.
  • There are still lots of blind people who can’t get hired, are unable to perform important parts of their jobs or find themselves left out of promotional opportunities due to the use of inaccessible workplace apps, websites and other forms of information technology.
  • Banks, health insurance companies, and a myriad of other private businesses often still communicate with their customers using inaccessible websites, send inaccessible critical correspondence and insist on inaccessible, obsolete methods of communication without providing reasonable accommodations to blind customers.
  • Many grocery delivery services, stores and other e-commerce companies continue to insist on using inaccessible apps and websites, despite the plethora of options available for making them accessible.
  • Even some companies with an apparently forward-looking approach to accessibility often fail to take care of obvious accessibility issues that lock us out, what I call the accessibility low-hanging fruit, choosing instead to focus on catchy, fancy, whiz-bang accessibility features while hiding behind their “accessibility teams” who rarely, if ever, respond to genuine feedback about their inaccessibility.
  • Even seemingly regulated federal and state government agencies continue to communicate using inaccessible websites, send inaccessible critical correspondence and insist on inaccessible, obsolete methods of communication without providing reasonable accommodations to blind people.

As the available information and technology for making things accessible improves on a daily basis, I become angrier and angrier each time I encounter yet another inexcusable accessibility barrier. As a blind person who is not broken and is, in fact, a full human being with the same responsibilities, rights and intrinsic value as that sighted person over there, I vow to continue fighting the good, accessibility, fight and I am always looking for a few good warriors to join me.

So, this is all very disappointing and discouraging, isn’t it? What can, or must, we do when we encounter accessibility issues that discriminate against us and lock us out of full and equal participation? Here are just a few ideas:

  • Contact a company on social media services, such as Facebook or Twitter, pointing out the accessibility issues and asking that they be directly addressed.
  • Write and send a certified letter to a company’s CEO pointing out accessibility concerns, providing possible solutions and asking him or her to direct the prompt, ongoing resolution of those concerns in a sustainable manner.
  • Engage in structured negotiations or take other legal action against a company as you deem appropriate after trying other, less drastic methods first.
  • Publicly call out all organizations doing business specifically in the blind community whenever you encounter accessibility barriers, as the leadership of these organizations should always know better.

So, in conclusion, finally… I think there are two ways we can go down the road of better accessibility: optimistic and pessimistic. We should try the optimistic approach first: simply politely point out the accessibility barrier(s), provide possible solutions if you have some good ideas and directly ask for prompt, sustainable resolution… But, if that optimistic approach does not work, we should be willing to go to war… In the pessimistic approach, we have determined that the gloves are off and playing the nice guy is no longer going to work. As I see it, the key goal of this approach is simply to change the perceived path of least resistance from one of inaccessibility and ignoring us to one of greater accessibility and attention to our feedback. This pessimistic, or cynical, approach involves taking complicated, difficult and often dramatic steps such as digging in by not doing what is asked in the inaccessible manner, legal action, protesting at the CEO’s office or in the streets and consistent public call-outs of the organizations ongoing wrongdoing.

Let’s all figure out how to work together, as blind brothers and sisters, to break down, using all means necessary, the accessibility barriers that hold us back from living the lives we want.

Aira in the Real World: Assisted Living Home Tour

April 12, 2018 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this 12-minute third episode in the Aira in the Real World podcast series, Darrell Hilliker tours a potential new assisted living home for his mother with the help of an Aira agent who provides descriptions of the home’s appearance and cleanliness.

We invite you to listen to our previous podcast, Exploring the World with Aira: A Candid Discussion with Suman Kanuganti, especially if you are learning about this new service for the first time.

If you are ready to become an Aira Explorer, we ask that you use our referral link. Your second month of Aira service will be free of charge, our next month will be free and we will thank you for supporting the important work we do here at Blind Access Journal.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Redefining Access: Questions to Ponder in the Age of Remote Assistance

March 29, 2018 • Allison Hilliker

Overview

There is an area of assistive technology that has recently been gaining momentum, and I would like to explore what that means for us as blind people. We are seeing an emergence of platforms that allow individuals to virtually connect with sighted assistants. Users refer to this category of technology by different terms such as visual interpreting services, or remote assistance services. The two most common varieties of this tech are apps like Aira or Be My Eyes, but less formal mainstream options such as recruiting assistance via Facetime, Skype, or a screen-sharing program like Zoom are also available. My aim here is not to focus on any one or two apps specifically, rather, I prefer to explore the general category of access technology that these programs represent. New companies providing versions of such technology may come and go in our lifetimes, and the specifics of each service are less important to my purpose here than exploring the overall category that they fall into. In this article, I will use the term remote sighted assistance technologies, or remote assistance, to refer to this general group of tech. Since there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what these technologies are actually called as a group, I’ll use this term for clarity.

As I see it, the key question related to remote assistance apps is: What role do we, as blind people, want this sort of technology to play in our lives? Regardless of one’s individual political views, employment status, amount of tech expertise, level of education, degree of vision loss, etc., I think most would agree that we, as blind people, are best suited to decide how our community can nmost effectively utilize any new technology. I think it is important for us to consider this question, because if we do not, it is likely that other entities will rush to define the role of these technology’s for us. Disability-related agencies, federal legeslators, private businesses, medical professionals, educators, app-developers, blindness organizations, and others may jump in and try to tell us how we should use this technology. Thus it becomes important for us to decide what we, as blind and low vision individuals, do and do not want from the technology.

What, specifically, do we want though? I do not think that we have had a sufficient number of dialogues about this issue to decide. I think this is due in part to the seeming newness of this technology as it relates to blind people. It seems that many folks are yet unfamiliar with the existence of such programs, or if they are aware, they have not yet realized the possible implications of their use. Still others focus on one or two well-known products, and assume that their popularity may be a passing fad. It is true that we have seen many supposed revolutionary technologies come and go over the years. It is fair for us to be cautious before making any sweeping pronouncements about any one tech. My opinion however is that, no matter if any one company, app, or service comes or goes, we are entering a new realm of assistive technology here with the growing availability of these remote assistance type programs. No matter which companies or groups ultimately provide the services, this category of tech will remain, and its impact on our lives as blind people will become more and more apparent. The point being, even if you yourself do not use any remote assistance technologies, you may benefit from taking part in dialogues relating to their use, because the results of such dialogues could prove far-reaching for blind people as a community.

What, then, specifically, might be the issues we consider? I do not pretend to know all the possible ramifications of these technologies, but two large considerations come to mind, and these two will be my focus for the remainder of this article. Some areas I would like us to think about as a community relate to the impact of remote assistance technologies on accessibility advocacy, and their effects on education/training.

Accessibility Advocacy

I have spent a good portion of my adult life advocating for accessibility. I have written dozens of letters, negotiated with business owners, filed bug reports, talked to developers, provided public education, and done countless hours of both paid and unpaid testing. When I advocate for a company or organization to make its tools accessible, I like to think that I am not just working to improve my own experience as a disabled person, but hopefully to improve the experiences of other users as well. However, the results of such efforts are often quite mixed. For every accessibility victory that I have, I encounter dozens more that do not yield any real improvements. Often companies seem unwilling or unable to make any genuine accessibility changes. Other times, changes are made, but when the site/app/product is updated, or the company switches ownership, then accessibility is harmed. And these barriers are frustrating! Not just frustrating, but such barriers often prevent us from getting important work done. As a result, the availability of remote sighted assistance technologies can make a good deal of difference in our lives. For example, if a website is not accessible, we can still utilize it. If a screen does not have a nonvisual interface, we can accomplish the related task. If a printed document is not available in an alternate format, we can read the info it contains. And the positive outcomes of such increased access can be extraordinary! I am excited about that level of access as I am sure many blind people are.

Yet, over time, with consistent use of remote sighted assistant technologies, might we enter a future where we, as individuals and as a community, are no longer advocating as readily for accessibility? If we enter that future, what might the consequences be? For example, I recently had to make a reservation at a hotel I would be staying at for a business trip out of state. I found that the hotel’s online reservation platform was not accessible with my screen reader. Since that hotel was a good fit for my trip, and because the rates were lower on the website than they would be if I called the hotel directly, I fired up my favorite remote assistance app to have a sighted person navigate to the hotel’s website and make the reservation for me. I felt good about my choice because I got the job done. I reserved my hotel room quickly and efficiently, and did so with little inconvenience to anyone else. And after all, is that not the main point? Was I independent? Yes and no. I did not physically make the reservation by myself on my own computer, but I did get the room booked and did not have to ask a coworker to do it or call the hotel directly. And I was able to get the room reserved during the time in my schedule that was most convenient for me. So I would call that an independence win.

However, here is the part that leaves me with some concern. After getting my room reserved, I did not then contact the hotel to explain the accessibility issue I discovered on the booking part of their website. Could I have? Absolutely, but alas, I did not. And if I had, would my advocacy efforts have been weakened by the fact that, one way or another, I had gotten my reservation booked? Although, in an alternate scenario, one where I did not have remote assistance technology available, I might have spent a good deal of effort contacting the company, explaining the issue, and still not gotten it resolved. In the end I may have had to choose a different hotel, book the reservation over the phone but paid more money, or had a colleague reserve the room for me. And I personally like none of those scenarios as well as the one I have now, where the remote assistance app helped me get my room booked. Yet, by doing this, I am insuring that the inaccessible website remains. If I had contacted the company to advocate for accessibility changes, I may not have gotten the needed accessibility, but by not contacting the company, I definitely did not get improved accessibility. Realistically, those of us who use remote assistance technologies are not likely to do both things – use the assistance while also advocating for accessibility. Some of us may, or we may do so in a few cases, but overall there are not enough hours in a day for us to put as much effort into accessibility advocacy when we have gotten the associated tasks done. Even if we do choose to advocate, might our cases be taken less seriously than before because we ultimately got the task done? In a world where businesses do not often understand the need to make their products and services accessible, will we find it even harder to make our cases if we manage to use the products and services? At the very least, there could be implications if we ever wanted to take legal action, because so much of the legal system focuses upon damages and denials of service. Even if we are not the sort of person to pursue an issue through legal channels though, might we find it harder to educate individual companies about the need for accessibility? Because from a business-owner’s perspective, a blind person was still able to use their service, and the subtleties of how or why we were able to do so would likely be lost in the explanation process.

Yet, even if any one, two, or one million websites are never made accessible, how important is that fact if blind people can still do what they need to do? Maybe we will agree that it is not important. That might not be the worst thing, but I am not sure we have decided this as a community yet because, for the most part, such dialogues have not taken place in any large-scale way. My guess is that opinions on this issue will vary widely, and that sort of healthy debate could be a great thing. It is that variance that makes the issue such a crucial one to discuss.

In the case of my hotel website, I may have been able to get my room reserved, but I did nothing to help insure that the next blind person would be able to reserve her room. I have solved my own problem, but in the process, I have bumped the issue along for the next blind person to encounter. True, that next person may also be able to use her own remote sighted assistance app, and the next person and then the next person, but ultimately the issue of the inaccessible website remains. Have we decided, as blind individuals, that this solution is enough? Because there are complexities to consider. Right now, not all the remote sighted assistance technologies are available to every blind person. Sometimes this unavailability is due to financial constraints I e some of the remote assistance tools are quite expensive. Some remote assistance apps are not available in certain geographic regions. Occasionally the technology is not usable due to the blind person having additional disabilities like deaf-blindness. Some of the assistance programs have age requirements. Other times these technologies are not practical due to the lack of availability or usability of the platforms needed to run them. In any case, it is true that such remote assistance solutions are not currently available to everyone who might benefit from them. Even in an ideal future where every single person on earth had unlimited access to an effective remote assistant technology solution at any time of day, would we still consider that our ultimate resolution to the problem? Might we still want the website to be traditionally accessible, meaning that the site be coded in such a way that most common forms of assistive technology could access it? Would we still prefer that the site follow disability best practices and content accessibility guidelines? Especially considering, in the case of my hotel’s website, that the work needed to make the site more traditionally accessible might be minimal. Do we decide that whether we make our hotel reservations via an accessible website or whether we make them via remote assistant technology, the process is irrelevant as long as we get the reservations made?

Taking this quandary one step further, consider that today there are a handful of organizations, schools, and cities who are paying remote assistance companies to provide nonvisual access to anyone who visits their site. Such services could be revolutionary in terms of offering blind people independence and flexibility unlike that which we have seen before. However, what might the possible drawbacks of this approach be? If I, for example, could talk my current town of Tempe Arizona into paying for a remote access subscription that would give me, and other folks in the city, nonvisual access to all that our town has to offer, wouldn’t that be an extraordinary development? Yes and no. I wonder if, after agreeing to spend a good deal of money on remote access subscriptions, would our city then be unwilling to address other accessibility concerns? Would they stop efforts to make their city websites accessible? Might they resist improvements to nonvisual intersection navigability? Might our local university stop scanning textbooks for students because our city offers remote access for all? When our daughter starts preschool in our local district, might they tell us to use remote assistance, rather than provide us with parent materials in alternative formats? Since our daughter too has vision loss, might her school be reluctant to braille her classroom materials because they know our city provides alternatives for accessing print? On the surface, such scenarios may seem unlikely, but are they really so impossible? After all, if the city is paying for a remote assistance service, would they still feel compelled to use resources on other access improvements? Might residents find that it became harder, not easier, to advocate for changes? What happens to other groups who cannot typically access remote assistance technologies, such as those who are deaf-blind, seniors who may not have the needed tech skills, or children who do not meet the companies’ minimum age requirements for service? If a local group of blind people wants to increase access in their town, and their city only has a set amount of money they are willing to spend on improvements, which items should we be asking for? Remote access subscriptions, increased accessibility, or a combination of these? Such questions are not implying that cities/organizations that purchase subscriptions are making poor choices or that they should not obtain these subscriptions. I am simply asking these questions to get folks thinking about possible implications of widespread remote access use. It is possible that none of my proposed scenarios will come true. It is more likely that other scenarios and potential issues will arise that I have not yet thought up. The point here is not to criticize the groups that employ these services, rather to get us all asking questions, starting dialogues, and considering possible outcomes.

Education and Training

I think it is especially important to think about the implications of such technologies on the world of education. Whether we are talking about the education of young blind children in schools, blind students pursuing degrees at universities, or adults new to vision loss who are going through our vocational rehabilitation system, what becomes most important for us to teach to these individuals? How much time and energy aught we put into basic blindness skills, alternative techniques, and independent problem solving? When a student enters Kindergarten, how many resources do we put into adding braille to objects in their classroom, brailing each book they come across, installing access software on their computers and tablets, insisting that the apps/programs their class uses work with this software, adding braille signage to the school building doors, and making sure the child learns to locate parts of their school using their canes? If the answers to those questions seem obvious, then do those answers change if the age of the student changes? Do we feel the same way about using resources if the student is in third grade? Seventh grade, tenth grade, or a college student? Do the answers change if the student is new to vision loss, has multiple disabilities, is a non-native English speaker, or has other unique circumstances? Do the high school and university science labs of the future equip their blind students with braille, large print, and talking measuring tools, or hardware and software to connect them with remoted sighted assistance? Do we do a combination of these things? And if so, when would we expect a student to use which technique, and how might we explain that choice to the student? Moreover, how might we explain the need for that choice to a classroom teacher, a parent, an IEP team, a disabled student service office, a vocational rehabilitation councelor, or an administrator in charge of allocating funding? In our rehab centers and adjustment to blindness training programs, , what skills do we now prioritize teaching? In our Orientation and Mobility or cane travel classes, do we still spend time teaching folks how to observe their surroundings nonvisually, assess where they are, and develop their own set of techniques for deciding how to get where they want to go? Or is the need for problem-solving less important if one learns how to effectively interact with a remote sighted assistant who can provide visual info like reading street signs, describing neighborhood layouts, relaying the color of traffic lights, and warning of potential obstacles ahead? While most folks would agree that a level of basic orientation and mobility skills are essential for staying safe, which skills, specifically, do we see as being the most crucial given the other info now available to us via remote assistance? In our technology classes, which skills would we spend more time on, how to explore and navigate cluttered interfaces, understanding the various features and settings available in our access software programs, or developing a system of interacting effectively with a sighted assistant whom we reach through an app? Again, if the answer is that we do all those things, how much time do we spend on any one and in which contexts? How much of any certain type of training might our rehab and other funding systems actually support? If agencies, schools, and organizations agree to fund remote access subscriptions might they then choose not to fund other types of training or equipment? Does this funding level change if the person resides in a town or region that has its own subscription to a remote access service? What if the school that a student attends has its own subscription, so the student primarily learns using those techniques, but then the student moves to an area without such access? I have my own thoughts about the answers to these questions, but rather than me devising my own responses, I’d like us, as a community, to consider these questions because their answers have the potential to affect us all.

Employment

Employment is often the end-goal of most training and education programs. It is true that blind people have an abysmally high unemployment rate, so almost anything we could do to lower that would be worthwhile, right? Does an increase in remoted sighted assistant technology use actually result in an increase in employment for blind people? Maybe. Maybe not. I suspect we do not have enough data to make a call about that yet. On one hand, remote assistance technologies could enable us to do certain employment tasks more independently and efficiently than ever before. On the other hand, we may find that there are still some technologies that we will need to use autonomously in order to be workforce competitive. Even with remote assistant technologies, we may find that some inaccessible workplace technologies create show-stopping employment barriers for us. When that occurs, we find ourselves back in the realm of needing accessibility advocacy. If we create an education and rehabilitation system that relies heavily upon learning to use remote assistance tech, might we build a future workforce of blind people who are more equipped, or less equip for the world of employment? Only history can tell us for sure one day, but in the meantime, we have to consider what impact our choices about the tools we teach, and the types of access we advocate for, may have on future job seekers.

How much impact has our accessibility advocacy really had on employment rates though? Just a few decades ago, many people believed that assistive technologies would finally level the playing field and revolutionize access to education and employment for people with disabilities. While we have made some strides, we as blind people have not seen much in the way of greater levels of employment. Despite advocacy done by some of the brightest and best minds our community has to offer, we do not yet have nearly the level of universal accessibility that we need to participate as effectively in society as we might like.

Setting Our Priorities

Here in the US, recent legislation has weakened the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that fact, combined with a history of lost discrimination and accessibility related cases, may not give us as much hope for the future of accessibility advocacy as we might like. We may wish for apps and websites to be accessible, our classrooms to have braille, our books to be available in alternate formats, our intersections to be navigable, our screens to have nonvisual interfaces, our transit information to be readable, and our products to have instructions that we can access, but the reality is that most often this is not the case. Are we making progress? Absolutely. And arguably, the only way we can attempt to insure future progress is not to abandone our advocacy attempts.

Yet, how much effort have we, as disabled people, put into accessibility, non-discrimination, and inclusion already? With the millions of websites, apps, products, documents, and software programs that still remain inaccessible to blind people despite our combined best efforts, might shifting our focus to increased usage of remote sighted assistance technologies be the most practical next step? Maybe it is and maybe it is not. I think we as blind individuals may want to take a hard look at that question. There are a variety of angles to consider and possible outcomes to explore. Ultimately, we may find that the answer is not a binary one. Perhaps we will find that we want a balanced approach, one that includes accessibility advocacy and remote assistance both. That solution might be a wise one. However, the implementation of that balanced approach will take some careful thought and discussion. There are many competing interests at play here, and reasons for promoting any one solution at any one time may vary depending upon the interests of the persons or group promoting them. Additionally, when questions of funding arise, different groups may insist upon different levels of compromise. Before those tough decisions get made, I’d like us to have had a few more dialogues about the above scenarios so that we can be clear about what we want and why we want it.

Moreover, there is a difference between access and accessibility. Access may mean that a person with a disability can ultimately get a thing done. Accessibility, on the other hand, generally means that the object was designed in such a way that a person with a disability can utilize it with little extra help. This is not to say that accessibility inherently makes a person more independent than access does, or that either is superior, it is just to say that the two things are quite different. Remote assistance technologies do get us access to things, but they do not necessarily make those things more accessible. However, in the sense that we are able to participate effectively in the world and do the things that we want to do, both access and accessibility are quite valuable. Even so, when resources are limited, we may find that we as blind people may have to decide which we most prefer, access or accessibility. Then we may need to decide in which circumstances we might prefer one to the other, and how far we might be willing to go to obtain them. When do we stand our ground and insist upon accessibility, and when do we feel confident that access is an acceptable solution?

Final Thoughts

I think this issue is a crucial one for us to consider from various angles. Personally, I have thought about the above issues a lot as a blind woman and as the parent of a low vision child. I have thought it through from the perspective of an employed college-educated person who has had the benefit of some excellent blindness skill training. I like to think of myself as someone who has a healthy balance of technology and basic technique mastery in my life. In short, I love technology, I love braille, I also love the feeling I get from independently walking out in the world with my cane. I am an early adopter of new technologies, and yet I have spent much of my life hiring human readers, drivers, and sighted assistants to get certain jobs done. My life experiences have helped me to understand that not always is the highest-tech solution the best one, nor should it be viewed as a last resort. I say this to give context to my views, not as a way of insisting that my own perspective is the best or most correct. There are doubtless many other perspectives from individuals with other very valid points, and that is why I believe further dialogue is necessary.

Remote assistance technologies are here to stay, and it is up to us as blind people to define what role we want them to play in our lives. These technologies are not the solution to all our problems nor are they the cause of them. They are new tools, and like any tools, they are only as good or bad as the hands that use them. Yet there will be many hands and minds who will want to shape the future of these tools for us. Before a private company, a government agency, a tech developer, a federal legislator, or a field of professionals try to define their role for us, we must come together to ask the hard questions, share our perspectives, and make the tough, but important, decisions about what we want for ourselves, our children, and for our futures.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Finally, if you prefer Facebook, feel free to connect with Allison there.

Aira in the Real World: Finding Baby Canes and Bathrooms

February 8, 2018 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this 27-minute second episode in their Aira in the Real World podcast series, Allison, Allyssa and Darrell Hilliker demonstrate working with an Aira agent to locate Allyssa’s cane and the restroom in their local public library.

We invite you to listen to our previous podcast, Exploring the World with Aira: A Candid Discussion with Suman Kanuganti, especially if you are learning about this new service for the first time.

If you are ready to become an Aira Explorer, we ask that you use our referral link. Your second month of Aira service will be free of charge, our next month will be free and we will thank you for supporting the important work we do here at Blind Access Journal.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Aira in the Real World: Describing a Fetal Anatomy Ultrasound

February 6, 2018 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 17-minute first episode in their Aira in the Real World podcast series, Allison and Darrell Hilliker share a recording of the fetal anatomy ultrasound of their upcoming baby with the help of description from an Aira agent.

We invite you to listen to our previous podcast, Exploring the World with Aira: A Candid Discussion with Suman Kanuganti, especially if you are learning about this new service for the first time.

If you are ready to become an Aira Explorer, we ask that you use our referral link. Your second month of Aira service will be free of charge, our next month will be free and we will thank you for supporting the important work we do here at Blind Access Journal.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

Apple Listens, Sometimes, and Advocacy Can Be Worth Doing

November 10, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

When Apple released iOS 11 on Sept. 19, it dealt a nasty surprise in the email inboxes of those of us whom happen to be blind. A change in VoiceOver meant that, everytime we used a feature intended to help us increase our productivity, we ran the risk of deleting emails we wanted to keep. In his Sept. 29 blog post Cupertino, we have a design problem, blind community influencer Jonathan Mosen delivered a thoughtful explanation of the issue and members of the connected, online blind community began a concerted effort asking Apple to reverse its design decision. As explained in Cupertino, thank you for listening, Apple restored reliable email management to its blind customers in iOS 11.1.

On Nov. 8, Marty Schultz, the developer of the wildly popular Blindfold Games, informed the connected, online blind community he would no longer be able to create new games or update existing games due to a new rule Apple imposed on its app developers in an effort to declutter the app store. Blind people immediately began asking Apple for a reversal of the misunderstanding behind the decision. Mosen wrote an open letter to Tim Cook and an online petition was started asking Eddy Cue to review and reverse the company’s decision.

What do these turns of events tell us? First, while by no means perfect, decisionmakers at Apple are listening to and acting upon the accessibility concerns of blind customers. Second, blind people are proactively advocating for their accessibility rights, providing the feedback companies like Apple need to see in order to make the right decisions. Without our advocacy, I am quite confident many blind people would be deleting the wrong emails in iOS 12 and Blindfold Games would cease to exist. There’s a heck of a lot of work that still needs to be done. Let’s encourage each other and keep on fighting the good accessibility fight!

Expand Your Independence and Work Around Inaccessibility: Join Aira for a Sept. 12 Conference Call

September 8, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Michael Hingson, Aira’s Director of Strategic Sales, has asked us to distribute the following announcement regarding a conference call for blind people who may be interested in expanding their independence using Aira.

If you are looking for ways to deal with the inaccessible, real world, we hope you will take some time to attend the Sept. 12 conference call, contact us for answers to any additional questions you may have and sign up to start enjoying the benefits of remote sighted help on your schedule. Signing up through this link provides you and us a free month of Aira service, which helps you and our family.

Hello,

I am writing to invite you to a teleconference call on Tuesday, September 12, to introduce you to Aira. Perhaps you have heard of Aira or perhaps you have not yet heard of this incredible product.

We call Aira “a visual interpreter for blind and low vision persons”. With Aira anyone can accomplish tasks usually inaccessible to blind people because they require significant eye sight to perform them, more eye sight than we have ourselves.

So, what is Aira exactly? Aira is a product consisting of smart glasses with a tiny high-resolution video camera, an app on a smartphone, and a specially trained agent who describes the images seen by the glasses’ camera. To use Aira a blind person contacts Aira through the Aira app. When a request is made an agent is called by the smartphone while at the same time a video internet connection is established between the agent and the glasses. When the agent answers the call from the user, not only does the agent see what the camera transmits, but they also receive gps and Google map data showing where the user is and what is geographically around them.

Agents are specifically hired because they have an aptitude for describing and providing information as required. They go through special training and a rigorous battery of tests before they are permitted to accept calls and go to work. Aira agents do not help, but rather they provide information. If, for example, you use Aira while walking and you approach a street corner the Aira agent will not tell you when it is safe to cross the street. The agent can indicate it they see cars coming and they can tell you when the traffic light turns green for you. Aira does not replace canes, guide dogs or your travel skills. Instead, Aira enhances your toolbox of information gathering techniques.

People have used Aira to go shopping, travel through airports and malls, better perform household tasks such as identifying and preparing meals, putting on makeup, visiting places such as amusement parks and Arlington cemetery, assembling items and even running in the Boston Marathon. Aira is limited in what it can do only by your imagination.

If you want to learn more about Aira you are invited to attend a special teleconference call on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 at 2PM Hawaiian time, 5PM Pacific time, 6PM Mountain time, 7PM Central time, and 8PM Eastern time. To attend all you need to do is to dial in with the phone number (605) 468-8004, and enter the access code 329906# when the call is answered. During the conference, you will learn all you wish to know about Aira. We shall be conducting a live demonstration with an Aira agent assisting me, or at least describing to you what I am doing as well as helping me answer your questions.

Should you have questions you wish to ask me before the call please feel free to contact me directly at michael.hingson@aira.io and I will do my best to provide a timely response. This teleconference is intended to be an introduction to Aira and not a call for existing Aira users to discuss their thoughts. Such a forum already exists.

I hope to see you next Tuesday and I look forward to you joining the Aira family. Below my signature are some links you can click on to learn more about Aira. Thank you for your time.

Best regards,

Michael Hingson
Director of Strategic Sales