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.
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 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?
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.
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