Dear AccessWorld readers,
Occasionally, we need to take a step back and look at the big picture, so to speak. This is true in our personal lives, professional lives, and even in our relationships with technology. Everyone who experiences vision loss and uses technology certainly has a love-hate relationship with it at times. I know I do. Both mainstream and access technology have changed radically over the past several years. Even the past two or three years have brought about substantial changes and improved access for people with vision loss.
Reading back issues of AccessWorld chronicles this evolution. For example, in the June 2011 Editor's Page devoted to cell phone accessibility, I wrote:
We all know the cell phone commercial where the guy with the glasses asks, "Can you hear me now?" With the constantly shifting sands of the cell phone industry, including the introduction of new technologies, mergers of cell service carriers, changing rate plans, and the appearance and disappearance of specific cell phone models, a better question for those of us in the vision loss community may be, "Is it accessible now?"
If you're looking for a cell phone that is completely accessible "out of the box," good luck. At this moment, AccessWorld is aware of two—that's right, two—cell phones that provide built-in speech output support for all the phones' features. Those two phones are the Haven, a clamshell-style feature phone offered by Verizon Wireless, and the iPhone, offered by Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
In the rest of the cell phone market, many models do not offer the ability to adjust display font size or to use speech output at all. Others offer adjustable display fonts and partial speech output. However, you look at it, real built-in cell phone accessibility is hard to come by.
It's very disappointing and frustrating to me that at this point in time there is such a lack of built-in speech output functionality for mobile devices. By law, telecommunication devices must be accessible to people with disabilities, but in practice most simply are not. When cell phone manufacturers don't include accessibility features in the designs of their products, they are overlooking millions of potential customers. Likewise, when cell service providers sell inaccessible cell phones, they perpetuate this disservice.
That excerpt from June 2011 reads like it was written a lifetime ago, but it wasn't really. At that time, AccessWorld could only identify two accessible cell phones, and now there are numerous choices for those looking for speech output. I don't know of any current cell phone models that do not offer adjustable font size and display options to assist people with low vision, nor do I know of any models without volume enhancements. In 2011 tablets barely existed, so true mobile productivity was almost non-existent for people with visual impairments. Today, whether you choose Apple or Android, there is no question that you can accessibly make and receive calls, use text messaging, send and receive emails, surf the Web, check your stocks, check the weather, download and listen to music, read a book, and take a picture and share it with friends. You can make purchases from your phone, check your newsfeed and post to Facebook, tweet, and catch up on the latest political goings on around the world as they happen with your news organization of choice, just to name a few. So, just think "big picture" for a moment and consider how improvements in technology have literally changed our lives for the better. Technology has increased opportunities in education, employment, and independence, and is helping to create a more interactive, engaged, and inclusive world.
As technology changes and evolves, so do the devices we use to access it. Feature phones, for example, with a clamshell design and tactile buttons are all but gone from store shelves, and it won't be long until they are but memories. Touchscreen phones and devices with elevated capabilities and means of access are here now, and they are the way of the future.
I know some people, visually impaired and fully sighted alike, who hold tightly to older technologies and form factors. I write this message as a way to encourage these readers to embrace the future of technology and all the possibilities it has in store. Moving away from older, more familiar form factors can be challenging and yes, there is a learning curve, and yes, sometimes the learning curve is quite steep, and yes, you can master it. By doing so you will become more efficient, gain more independence, and reap countless personal, social, and professional benefits.
My advice, when you start on your transition to updated technologies, is to plan smart. Make sure you have your data backed up securely. You may need to investigate and invest in some formal training, you may need to find sighted assistance, and you may need to blow off steam when things get frustrating, but the frustration will pass as you gain proficiency. My best advice is to never stop looking for the next best thing, and never allow yourself to get too far behind the ball. Technology builds upon itself, so don't allow yourself to get three or four versions behind, or to keep relying solely on devices or technologies that are no longer supported. This will only increase your learning curve and frustration when you're finally forced to use something new. When you wait too long to upgrade your technology, you are, in fact, placing limits upon yourself. Stay current!
In addition to working to stay current with your access technology, it is just as important to have more than one tool in your tool box. By that, I mean that it is important to have the ability to use more than one technology to access information. Don’t allow yourself to fall into the rut of only using one screen reader, for example.
As Jamie Pauls described in his May 2019 article, Getting the Job Done with Assistive Technology: It May Be Easier Than You Think:
Gone are the days when I must limit myself to only one screen reader and one program to get a task accomplished. If a website isn't behaving well using JAWS and Google's Chrome browser, I might try the same site using the Firefox browser. If I don't like the way JAWS is presenting text to me on that website, maybe I'll switch to NVDA. If the desktop version of a website is too cluttered for my liking, I'll often try the mobile version using either Safari on my iPhone, or Chrome on my BrailleNote Touch.
Jamie’s words demonstrate how being able to switch among screen readers and Internet browsers, for instance, can make a world of difference in whether you achieve access, or you don’t. Being able to move to a mobile version of a website can dramatically simplify browsing that site or purchasing its products or services.
If you haven't tried Firefox or Chrome, download them, give them a try, and keep them at the ready for when you experience access challenges using your current Internet browser. Likewise, if you have not worked with NVDA, try it! And while you're at it, check out how far Narrator, Windows built-in screen reader has come recently. The more options you give yourself, the better your results will be.
There will be pitfalls, of course, and unfortunately everything may not always be fully accessible. However, more is at the fingertips of people who are blind or visually impaired than ever before, and more access is on the way. Efforts by consumer and grassroots groups, advocacy, and legislative action have all come into play to bring about the access we have today, and these efforts are on-going. The American Foundation for the Blind and AccessWorld do our best to help keep you informed and up-to-date on information and technologies that will have a positive impact on your life, but it remains your responsibility to seek out the information and to keep learning about technologies, devices, apps, or techniques that will work for you.
I challenge all AccessWorld readers to seek out, embrace, and use the best in newer technology to the best of your ability, and to join the American Foundation for the Blind in our vision of a world with no limits! At AccessWorld, we know that a world without limits starts with education. We also know that pursuing a good education can be particularly challenging for people with vision loss. In the upcoming July issue, the AccessWorld team will again turn our focus to providing valuable information and resources for students, parents, teachers, and professionals in the vision loss field to help make educational pursuits less stressful and more enjoyable. Be sure to check back in July for our Back to School issue.
With best regards,
American Foundation for the Blind