Who Accesses Technology? A Random Sampling of Consumers with Vision Loss
Statistics tell us there are 25 million people who report having difficulty reading standard print, even with glasses or contact lenses, in America alone. Those of us writing for AccessWorld have long memories and personal experience confirming the value of assistive technology in work and play, but what about the person with blindness or low vision who isn't "plugged in" to publications like AccessWorld, consumer organizations, or rehabilitation agencies? What about the individual who has never been to a technology-related conference or who doesn't work with technology as part of their daily lives?
I was curious to look into the lives of randomly selected people with visual impairments to see how their relationship to assistive technology might be faring. While in training with a new guide dog at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, I realized I had a perfectly random sample of such individuals right there in training with me! There were nine people in the class, ranging in age from 24 to 74. Some had been blind since birth, and some were experiencing blindness as a relatively recent development in their lives. Their homes were as far away as Halifax, Nova Scotia, or as near as Santa Cruz, California, and their knowledge and/or use of assistive technology covered the entire imaginable spectrum. Below is what I found out about each class member's technology use and history.
Jim, 74, has a 20-year history with macular degeneration. While still employed as a bank vice president for commercial real estate loans, a job he held for 30 years, he used computers daily. As his vision deteriorated and his (not necessarily related) retirement occurred, his struggle to see the computer screen became monumental. He said he currently used his computer at home by increasing the magnification in Windows 7 to its maximum power, holding a 7x magnifier to the monitor, and reading character by character. At home, his wife read his e-mail to him and acted as a reader for his stock trading. Although he had received other low vision services from his community agency in Las Vegas, he said he was not interested in getting computer training from the same source—he couldn't quite fathom using a computer without sight. He did have a digital talking book player from the National Library Service for the Blind (NLS) and was enthusiastic about the books he received from NLS on cartridges. After attending a brief session on the VictorReader Stream, though, he concluded that that technology was more suited to younger people.
Caption: Jim Edwards poses with his new dog guide.
Caitlin Best, 24, has been visually impaired since birth (she was born prematurely), and has been a fan of technology since receiving her first computer in the second grade. After receiving a B.S. degree in managerial information systems, she landed a job in her hometown of Pittston, Pennsylvania, as an equal employment opportunity technician with the Toby Hannah Army Depot. Her first assistive technology was obtained just before entering college, when she received her first copy of ZoomText Xtra, a closed-circuit TV for desktop magnification, and a handheld electronic magnifier for portability. She still uses these same tools on the job. Tools considered indispensable when she packed for guide dog school were her laptop and iPhone, on which—besides checking stock quotes for Jim Edwards on a daily basis—she used Google, e-mail, games, and text messaging, and listened to music and audio books. Since three other people in the class were brand-new iPhone users, she became known as the iPhone guru of the group.
Another power user was Dane Geer, 32, of Bakersfield, California, who teaches assistive technology at an independent living center. In fourth grade, Dane was introduced to his first computer using the DOS-based JAWS program. Today, he teaches JAWS, Window-Eyes, Kurzweil, OpenBook, and other applications. He has just begun exploring System Access from Serotek. Tools that came in his luggage as necessities at guide dog school were his laptop, iPad, iPod, and VictorReader Stream. On the computer, he uses both JAWS and MAGic. Similarly, on the iPad he uses both Zoom and VoiceOver.
Jenny Kennedy, 34, of Wichita, Kansas, was the Apple advocate in class. The mother of two small children, Jenny said she uses the computer daily for e-mail, researching information related to raising her children, completing online forms, and Netflix. Watching movies on her computer is a favorite family pastime. Jenny is a seasoned iPhone user, using it for frequent texting, recording, taking and sending photos, and listening to books from Audible.com. Along with her MacBook and iPhone, she brought to school her NLS digital talking book player and VictorReader Stream. Jenny had three separate GPS apps on her iPhone and was learning to use them while we were in guide dog training.
Linda Sheppard, 51, of Nova Scotia, was the class member with perhaps the least exposure to assistive technology. Having lost her sight just 18 months ago due to Graves disease, she was still in the throes of learning how to do routine tasks with adaptive techniques. Prior to sight loss, she frequently used a computer for e-mail and to build her tremendous recipe collection. She had begun computer training with the Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB). The only piece of technology she brought with her to school was the DAISY book player issued to her by the CNIB. When asked about a cell phone, she said, "I will never have a cell phone. Every building I go into has a phone, so why would I need to carry one?"
Nancy McMasters, 51, of Bend, Oregon, was first exposed to assistive technology in the early 1990s. She had worked in a warehouse where counting boxes and matching shipping labels to order forms finally became too difficult for her to do with limited sight. With a large, high contrast (white on black) monitor, she landed a job in customer service as a sex educator sales associate for a company called Good Vibrations. After 11 years, she was laid off and is currently unemployed. To guide dog school she brought a laptop with a 17-inch screen that she uses for e-mail, and a Samsung smartphone on which she can send and receive text messages by using large font and high contrast. Other favorite computer tasks for her are researching anything that piques her interest and shopping for everything from dog supplies to shoes. Although she had been receiving services from a blindness related agency off and on for nearly 20 years, she said she had never heard of the NLS and was extremely enthusiastic about the many gadgets demonstrated by her classmates.
Katrina Widman, 48, of Toronto, Ontario, is a self-taught Window-Eyes user. Having lost her sight just a decade ago, she received assistance from Canada's Assistive Devices Program. She learned the Window-Eyes program by listening to the GW Micro tutorials that came with the software, and similarly learned to use her PlexTalk DAISY player and recorder by "pushing all the buttons. If it talks back to me, I learn what it does." Originally from Australia, Katrina says her computer is on all day at home, where she uses it for e-mail, keeping address lists, organizing a huge recipe collection, and shopping. She has ordered groceries onlne not only for herself in Toronto, but for her aging parents in Australia as well. She purchased an iPhone just two weeks before coming to class, and was already an avid iPod user. To class she brought a laptop, an iPod, and her new iPhone.
Bevie Heninger, 63, was thrown into the world of employment and technology when her husband died in 1992. She learned to use Window-Eyes and became a licensed massage therapist. She maintained all records for her business on the computer and now, in retirement, continues to use the computer daily for e-mail, shopping, and recipe collecting. Four years ago, Bevie became an avid user of System Access, which is now her screen reader of choice. She raved enthusiastically about Serotek and about AccessWorld: "I love that publication," she said, adding that she learns much of what she uses in assistive technology from these pages.
Caption: Bevie Heninger poses with her new dog guide.
Bevie also used her computer to communicate with mission groups for two mission trips she took to Ethiopia and South Africa. Her purpose on both trips was to locate people who are blind to give them white canes. As a result of her experiences, she has founded an organization called Global Canes, which is dedicated to teaching orientation and mobility skills to missionaries who can, in turn, teach them to people who are blind in third world countries.
Bevie, too, was a brand-new iPhone user when she came to class. In addition to her iPhone, she brought with her a laptop running System Access and a VictorReader Stream.
I am, of course, the ninth class member. As has been the case when in guide dog class in previous years, I had the tools of my job with me. My netbook with braille display and scanner (which was never needed since all materials were provided in accessible formats) were set up permanently on my desk for writing my blog, checking e-mail, and working on articles in progress during snatched moments of available time within a fully packed training schedule. Also in daily use were a braille notetaker and portable DAISY book player.
In past classes, I have been one of only a few students using technology. In this 2011 class, seven of the nine students present brought laptops running JAWS, Window-Eyes, System Access, or ZoomText. There was one MacBook user, and five of the nine were using iPhones with VoiceOver or Zoom. The two remaining students brought their library-issued digital talking book players.
The knowledge and exposure to assistive technology varied widely among us, but if this random sampling of consumers with vision loss is at all representative of the entire population, people are discovering the value of assistive technology.
Not interested in whether their handlers had computers or smart phones or DAISY book players were the nine Labradors who were at our feet during the interviews. The article would not be complete without mentioning them: Graduating with Jim Edwards was yellow Labrador Mongo; With Caitlin Best was black Labrador Teka; with Dane Geer was black Labrador James; with Jenny Kennedy black Labrador Heather; with Linda Sheppard yellow Labrador Toren; with Nancy McMasters black Labrador Diablo; with Katrina Widman black Labrador Cancun; with Bevie Heninger yellow Labrador McGee; And with Deborah Kendrick black Labrador Flo.
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