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assistive technology

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).

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

Never Say “No”: Expand Your TechVision with Dr. Denise Robinson

July 14, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 45-minute podcast, Allison, Allyssa and Darrell Hilliker talk with Dr. Denise Robinson all about her company, TechVision and her thoughts about the education of blind children and adults.

TechVision
Low-cost technology lessons for blind children and adults from a certified teacher of the visually impaired (TVI).
YouTube Channel
Watch videos showcasing the educational possibilities for blind children and adults.

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).

In a World Ravaged by Inaccessibility, Aira Brings New Hope to the Blind Community

May 28, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Do you cringe every time you think about that huge pile of print accumulating in your mail basket? Are you worried you might miss something important to your family or be forced to pay a late fee on a bill for the stupid reason that you missed the print notice that was mailed to you last month? How about all the cans in your pantry? Would you like to be more helpful to your child participating in recreational opportunities outside your home? Would you just like to receive sighted help on your schedule, rather than someone else’s?

Aira, the self-styled “Visual Interpreter for the Blind,” is here to help. Aira really is like OnStar for the blind! Simply open the Aira app on your smart phone, dawn the supplied glasses, press a few buttons and, voila! You have near-instant sighted help! Even better: they know what they’re doing!

It’s almost that simple. There are a few caveats:

  • Aira currently requires you to have a smart phone with a data plan and a decent level of knowledge about how to use it effectively.
  • With pricing starting at $89/month for the most basic plan, the cost is out of reach for most blind people.
  • Although Aira goes to extensive lengths to serve everyone in the United States, including providing a AT&T MiFi hotspot for the glasses, it remains limited by the availability of network infrastructure. Your smart phone must have a good signal to your carrier or you must connect it to WiFi in order to use the service.
  • You must be comfortable talking with people, patient with the need to aim your phone’s camera or turn your head and some prior experience working with sighted readers is helpful.
  • Using Aira is not the same as true accessibility. A sighted person is helping you work around a barrier that might otherwise exclude you or prevent you from enjoying the benefits of full participation.

If you can maneuver past these caveats, though, Aira is amazing!

In the week and a half since our family started using Aira, we have used it to help us:

  • Clean our refridgerator: An Aira agent read the expiration dates of numerous items so that Allison could decide what to throw out.
  • Settle the bill: Aira helped Darrell read a Cracker Barrel receipt so he could separate the items he purchased from those his mother bought.
  • Identify medication: Aira helped Allison read the labels on several pill bottles.
  • Go to baby school: Aira described the motions of the teacher and the overall scene to Darrell as he and Allyssa participated in a music therapy activity.

We know we haven’t even begun to touch the tip of the iceberg of possibilities. Last month, Aira helped a blind man run a marathon!

Although Aira is not perfect, they’re off to a great start. We are looking forward to Aira’s continued evolution as an important part of a blind person’s toolbox of alternative techniques, skills and technologies used to enjoy a full life on terms of equality with the sighted.

Are you using Aira? Would you like to learn more? Please feel free to tell us about it in the comments.

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

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

Teaching and Testing iOS App VoiceOver Accessibility Webinar

August 5, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This approximately one-hour podcast is an audio recording of a real-world demonstration for following a systematic plan that explores, evaluates and tests iOS apps for accessibility with Apple’s built-in VoiceOver screen reader for blind and low-vision users. The August 3, 2016 webinar was presented by Darrell Hilliker and hosted by the Arizona Technology Access Program. A video, including closed captioning, is also available.

Teaching and Testing iOS App VoiceOver Accessibility Webinar Notes

Introduction

Webinar Purpose: introduce and demonstrate a step-by-step plan that provides a straightforward way for advocates, developers, educators and others to quickly explore, learn and improve the accessibility of all apps in Apple’s iOS ecosystem.

What is a Screen Reader?

  • A form of assistive technology
  • A Software program that turns information shown on a screen of a computer or mobile device into Braille or speech
  • Screen readers and accessibility enable blind people to learn, work and live in a technology-based world alongside sighted people.

VoiceOver

  • One type of screen reader that was created by Apple
  • Has been a built-in feature on all iOS devices since 2010
  • Enables Braille and speech access for users who are unable to see the screen
  • Speaks screen elements aloud or enables them to be displayed in braille

Accessibility

  • True accessibility means that all parts of a platform’s features, benefits, information, policies, procedures, products, responsibilities, rights, services and technologies are developed and implemented in ways that are usable by people with disabilities.
  • VoiceOver and other screen readers work best when apps are deliberately developed in ways that ensure compatibility.
  • Important for blind/VI individuals to be considered during development and included in the testing process.
  • Apple provides developers guidelines for making apps work with VoiceOver.

The Benefits of a Plan for Evaluating and Testing AppAccessibility

  • Advocates may use the plan to identify the accessibility issues they report to developers.
  • Developers may follow the plan to test their apps.
  • Decision makers may incorporate the plan into their user-acceptance testing and other procedures.
  • Educators may use the plan as a framework for evaluating the non-visual accessibility of iOS apps.

Starting VoiceOver

  1. Press the Home button on the iOS device. (round button located on the bottom middle of the screen)
  2. Tap Settings.
  3. Tap General.
  4. Tap Accessibility.
  5. Tap VoiceOver.
  6. Hold the VoiceOver switch and swipe to the right to turn it on.
  7. (Recommended) Hold the Speak Hints switch and swipe to the right to turn it on.
  8. (Optional) Triple tap the screen with three fingers to enable the Screen Curtain. This feature blanks out the screen, resulting in a more realistic environment for nonvisual accessibility testing.

Use Any of These Techniques To Activate VoiceOver Without Sight.

  • Press the Home button three times quickly. (Works if the Triple Click Home option in the iOS device’s accessibility settings is configured to use VoiceOver)
  • Hold down the Home button and ask Siri to “turn on VoiceOver”
  • Connect the iOS device to a computer running iTunes and turn on VoiceOver under the accessibility configuration screen.

The Plan

  1. Open the app to be tested.
  2. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  3. Flick to the right through all elements on the app’s home screen.
    1. Are all controls labeled in a way that makes sense when you listen to VoiceOver without looking at the screen?
    2. Are you able to choose all buttons and other controls by double tapping them as you hear them spoken by VoiceOver?
    3. Does VoiceOver stay focused throughout use or does it become jumpy and read items out of order?
    4. When one or more items in a list is highlighted or selected, does VoiceOver say “selected” or provide any other indication of its status?
    5. If a list typically enables a sighted user to pull down with one finger, is a VoiceOver user able to update the list by swiping down with three fingers?
    6. Are all elements available to VoiceOver or are some items not spoken?
    7. Are there features that require the use of custom gestures that are not available to VoiceOver users?
    8. If visual cues, such as color, are important, does VoiceOver speak this information?
    9. Are all elements presented in a logical order as you move around the screen? If the relationship between elements is important, is it clearly conveyed nonvisually?
    10. Listen for special hints, such as “double tap to play,” spoken after the name of each element. If these hints are never heard, make sure hints are enabled in VoiceOver settings.
    11. If audio is playing, does its volume decrease, or duck down, while VoiceOver is speaking?
    12. Does a two-finger scrub (Z-shaped gesture) activate the escape function of the arrow in the upper-lefthand corner of the screen?
    13. Does the app offer accessibility enhancements such as direct touch, keyboard shortcuts, magic tap or specific support for Braille displays, switches or other forms of assistive technology?
  4. Flick to the left through the same home screen. Make detailed notes of anything that does not seem to function as expected with VoiceOver enabled.
  5. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  6. Flick to the right, one element at a time, and double tap the first item where choosing it should lead to another screen.
  7. Repeat steps 3 through 5 on every screen the app contains, testing and noting any issues found with all elements.

Reporting and Resolving Accessibility Bugs

If you are a developer, using the notes obtained from testing, make all bug fixes necessary to deliver a fully accessible experience for users who rely on VoiceOver. Consider prioritizing the correction of accessibility bugs according to the order suggested in the plan. See the resources at the end of this presentation for details.

If you are reporting accessibility bugs to a developer, consider using the following format:

  • Description: A few concise words explaining the accessibility issue.
  • Steps to reproduce: Write down the exact steps you followed to cause the accessibility bug to happen.
  • Current behavior: Summarize the incorrect or unexpected behavior you are observing.
  • Expected behavior: Summarize the behavior you expect to observe once the accessibility issue has been resolved.
  • App and hardware information: Include a statement concisely providing as much information as possible about the version of the app being tested and the iOS device on which it is running.

Example Bug Report

The following accessibility bug was recently filed with Facebook against an important feature in the company’s iOS app.

Description: The details of event invitations are inaccessible to VoiceOver.

Steps to reproduce:

  1. Make sure VoiceOver is turned on in Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver on the iOS device.
  2. Open the Facebook app.
  3. Open any event invitation.
  4. Tap the top of the screen with four fingers.
  5. Repeatedly flick to the right through the event invitation, pausing after each flick to listen to the information provided by VoiceOver.
  6. Note that important information, such as the event’s date, location, time and other details, are not spoken.

Current behavior: In its current implementation, event invitations are inaccessible and virtually useless to blind people using Facebook’s iOS app.

Expected behavior: Blind Facebook users should be able to access event invitations on terms of equality with their sighted friends.

Facebook version 60.0.0.37.141 is running on an iPhone 6 with iOS version 9.3.3.

Accessibility Testing

  • If you are a developer, check your work using blind alpha testers, followed by a select group of beta testers from the blind community.
  • If you are an advocate, thoroughly test the app according to the plan,then provide detailed feedback to its developer along with your accessibility request.
  • If you are an educator, test the app against this plan and any additional laws, policies or regulations your institution may have in place before recommending its use for your blind students.
  • If you are a decision maker, test the app against this plan and any additional laws, policies or regulations that apply to your agency, company, organization or personal conscience, then do not recommend or purchase the app if it is not accessible. Provide feedback about your decision to the company that owns the app.

Resources

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).

Lawsuit Leads to Reconsideration of Patent

October 9, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has re-examined a patent held by the maker of a screen reader for blind computer users in connection with an infringement lawsuit filed against a competing company. Reliable sources hailed the move as a significant victory for the defendant.

The Document Placemarker patent, held by Freedom Scientific, Inc., covers a specialized screen reading capability that allows a blind person to save their position on a Web page and return to the same place at a later time. The company’s Job Access With Speech (JAWS) screen reading software incorporates this feature.

In a July 15, 2008 complaint filed in the United States District Court, Middle District of Florida, Tampa Division, the self-proclaimed “world’s leading manufacturer of assistive technology products for those who are vision impaired” accused GW Micro, the maker of the competing Window-Eyes screen reader, of deliberate patent infringement, claiming their placemarker technology is the same as that described in the patent. According to court documents, Freedom Scientific is seeking an injunction requiring GW Micro to stop including the placemarker feature in their product, asks for significant unspecified financial compensation for the infringement and requests recovery of legal fees.

“I believe that this technology shouldn’t have been patented to begin with,” said Doug Geoffray, Vice President of Development with GW Micro, Inc. “It obviously was around way before what they’ve done. We have stated that our version, Window-Eyes 3.1 back in 1999, had previous position capability.”

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office agreed. In a re-examination of Freedom Scientific’s patent, at the request of GW Micro’s attorneys, the office rejected all claims to the invention.

“A person shall be entitled to a patent unless the invention was patented or described in a printed publication in this or a foreign country or in public use or on sale in this country, more than one year prior to the date of application for patent in the United States,” stated a published document describing the re-examination as the basis for the patent’s rejection on the grounds that the technology had already been invented.

The document also cited two existing patents and the availability of IBM’s Home Page Reader, a product employing place marker technology prior to the Freedom Scientific patent, in its reasoning behind the decision.

“We take that as a positive sign,” Geoffray said.

“It’s a victory,” said Dennis Karjala, Jack E. Brown Professor of Law, Faculty Fellow, Center for the Study of Law, Science, & Technology at Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. “There’s no question that, if the re-examination decision is upheld, that’s the end of it. There is no patent.”

He said Freedom Scientific may still have some cards to play in this case.

“The patent owner in a re-examination proceeding may appeal,” Karjala said. “It goes to an appeals board within the Patent Office and then they can later seek judicial review. This thing could go on for awhile.”

According to the re-examination document, the Patent Office must receive a response from Freedom Scientific by Oct. 28 if it wishes to appeal the decision.

Karjala said the legal trend points to a probable GW Micro victory.

“Because the Supreme Court has been reviewing so many of their cases with an obvious eye to overturning them, the Patent Office is pretty sensitive now that they’re being accused of being too patent friendly,” said Karjala. “My guess is once you got a ruling by the examiner that the patent is invalid, I’d say the chances are pretty good it will be upheld by the board in the Patent Office. If it’s upheld by the board, the chances that a court would overturn it in this atmosphere are pretty slim.”

Freedom Scientific representatives declined to comment, citing the ongoing litigation.

Notes:

  • The examiner cited Patent 6085161 describing the invention of a system for assigning and playing specific sounds when a Web page changes or the user encounters a specific Web page element such as a header or list. All of the claims in Freedom Scientific’s patent were rejected based on the positioning techniques described in this “sonification” system.
  • The examiner also cited Patent 7058887 describing a means of determining the position on a Web page according to user-defined settings, including the page’s domain. This IBM patent was referenced in the re-examination as clarification for the rejection of the sixth claim.
  • The examiner also referred to the IBM Home Page Reader Version 2.5 Manual.
  • Ex Parte Re-examination, Control Number 90/010,473, Central Re-examination Unit, U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Visit the Patent Application Information Retrieval Web site and enter the specified control number to obtain this document. The Patent Office provides this document only in scanned image PDF, which is inaccessible to blind readers. An accessible copy of this document has been made available using Kurzweil K1000 Version 11.03 optical character recognition software.
  • An accessible copy of Freedom Scientific’s complaint was made available in the July 24, 2008 article about the lawsuit.

The Heart of Accessibility Evangelism

September 8, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I think we all recognize that, in many cases, there simply is not a strong bottom-line business reason for companies (either assistive technology or mainstream) to work hard on making sure their technologies function in ways that are in the best interests of all users, including those of us whom happen to be blind. There are, thus, only two major levers available to us in our advocacy efforts. The first involves the fact that, in our society, accessibility is simply the right thing to do. This approach involves the “heart” of accessibility evangelism. The second approach involves making a business case for accessibility based on the application or presumed applicability of one or more disability rights laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act or Section 508 of the Federal Rehabilitation Act. In this rather rough approach, accessibility is ultimately forced as an alternative that is less expensive than continuing to ignore our needs.

In the case of screen readers, the economic incentive is simply to ensure the product works with Internet Explorer, Microsoft Office and the Windows operating system. Any additional capabilities, especially with respect to custom job related applications like Salesforce.com and Siebel, is viewed as icing on the cake. Precious little effort is expended on the part of assistive technology companies to ensure the usability of many customer relationship management (CRM) and other similarly critical application infrastructures required in today’s workplaces. How many jobs do you know about where use of e-mail, spreadsheets, web browsing and word processing are all that’s required in order for a qualified employee to conduct the duties of the position?

Most mainstream technology companies claim there’s little or no real business incentive to make their products and services accessible to us. After all, blind people represent less than a percent of the world’s population and there’s just not enough money in it for companies to justify the expense. Only the possibility of legal action or the presumed applicability of some Federal laws make the expense of accessibility less than the potential loss of business from government agencies.

As we all can see, the current state of affairs remains bleak. It has been this way for a long time now, yet the problem may accelerate due to the ever-widening gap between the capabilities of increasingly sophisticated and visually oriented mainstream technologies with respect to the rather limited nature of current screen reading technology for the blind. My apologies if this offends, but it is, ultimately, the truth against which I would invite any credible challenge.

As we continue to advocate for mainstream technology companies to reasonably accomodate our needs for equal access to the technologies in our daily lives, on the job and in the classroom, we must also simultaneously advocate for our assistive technology companies to focus on innovation, rolling out screen readers that can meet the challenge of the current and future world of technology, much of which continues to be developed by people who have absolutely no inclination toward accomodating us. It is wonderful when assistive technology and the mainstream computer industry can work together, meeting one another halfway in order to provide access, but the days of screen reader developers relying on this approach have been numbered for quite sometime in all but a precious few cases.

As we insist on innovation which will permit us to continue learning and making a living, we are going to have to devise new methods of accessibility advocacy. Our approaches must convince the decision-makers in the technology industry that at least one of the following statements is true:

  1. Conscience dictates that delivering accessibility is simply the “right thing” to do.
  2. The presence or absence of accessible technology often makes the difference between whether or not a blind person is able to fill a particular position in a company or take advantage of an educational opportunity.
  3. It is better to help blind people than it is to hurt, ignore or otherwise leave us out in the cold.
  4. Accessibility is a good thing to do from a media or public relations perspective.
  5. Accessibility can represent an “interesting” project to undertake from a development point of view.
  6. A small increase in the customer base will result when products and services are made accessible to blind computer users.
  7. Blind customers of companies who take the effort and time to address our needs tend to be among the most loyal portion of the company’s overall customer base.
  8. Sighted people who care about what happens to their blind colleagues, friends and relatives may prefer doing business with companies who do the “right thing” with respect to accessibility.
  9. Religion may indirectly dictate that blind people should be afforded equal access to information.
  10. The laws in several nations of the world directly or indirectly mandate a certain level of accessibility for people with disabilities.

It is important to note that only four of the items (customer loyalty, increased customer numbers, laws and public relations) on this “accessibility evangelism top ten” list can be said to relate directly to business considerations. The rest relate to the heart. What does a person believe to be the “right thing” to do with respect to their emotional make up as well as their logical mind? Should we devise ways to shame those who would ignore us into doing the right thing? Would a person ignore the needs of their spouse, relative, close friend or colleague should they become blind? How would such a person want to see their blind spouse treated? Wouldn’t they insist on reasonable accomodations? Should we place a bit more emphasis on the “heart” of accessibility evangelism? Your thoughts are welcome as always in the form of a comment to this article.