Skip to Content

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).

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

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).

Exploring the World with Aira: A Candid Discussion with Suman Kanuganti

July 13, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 50-minute informal podcast, Allison, Allyssa and Darrell Hilliker talk with Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti at the 2017 National Federation of the Blind Convention about this promising, new disruptive service that aims to give blind people “instant access to information” through the use of augmented reality and wearable technology.

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).

Categories: Uncategorized

Amateur Radio Field Day 2017

June 29, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In this approximately 10-minute podcast, Darrell Hilliker demonstrates high-frequency (HF) amateur radio operation and thanks Gary (AC7R) and his crew for the chance to spend some time on the air during Field Day weekend.

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).

Categories: Amateur Radio, podcast

Apple Considering Accessible On-screen Text and Described Videos at Future Events

June 12, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

After watching Apple’s June 5 WWDC keynote and listening to a summary of the event on Jonathan Mosen’s Blind Side Podcast, it dawned on me that we blind people are missing a lot of critical information!

Many of the videos played at Apple’s events lack sufficient dialogue to be comprehensible by a blind person without audio description, and there’s a lot of text displayed through on-screen slides that is never verbally mentioned by the presenters. On the Blind Side podcast, it was necessary for Jonathan’s sighted daughter to describe the videos and read the on-screen text in order for the blind podcasters to understand important details from the keynote, some of which may significantly impact those of us who rely on the company’s built-in accessibility.

On June 7, I decided to write the following note to Apple’s accessibility team asking that audio descriptions of on-screen text and videos be provided moving forward.

Hello Apple Accessibility Team,
While watching the WWDC keynote, I observed there was no way to hear audio descriptions of the on-screen slide content or the cool videos.
I have since learned about crucial accessibility improvements in software such as iOS 11 that were not verbally mentioned but were presented only through slides.
Have I missed something, or does Apple leave out this critical information?
In view of Mr. Cook’s declaration that accessibility is a “human right,” I am asking Apple to provide audio description of slides and videos during its events moving forward.
I look forward to hearing from someone on your team soon.
Thank you for your consideration.
Regards,
Darrell Hilliker
Accessibility Evangelist
BlindAccessJournal.com

I received the following same-day response from someone on the company’s accessibility team.

Hello Darrell,
Thank you for your email.  We appreciate the feedback and will pass this on to the appropriate people for their consideration.
Apple Accessibility

While the response was generic as corporate communications go, I am hopeful that the “appropriate people” will take this feedback from a loyal Apple customer seriously and that, moving forward, we will experience accessible on-screen text and described videos at future Apple events.

If you agree that Apple should, indeed, take care to fully include its customers and developers with disabilities by providing accessible on-screen text, audio description and closed captions, please add your voice to mine. Simply visit Apple’s Accessibility website and email the team.

Categories: accessibility, advocacy