Blackberries, of the organic variety, can be luscious reminders of warm summers and, for this author, of childhood afternoons spent berry picking down the road from my family's summertime lake home in Wisconsin. Mr. Munson, who dutifully tended his blackberry patch and generously invited the neighbors to partake, taught me one invaluable lesson. "Take care when dealing with blackberries, so as not to get injured by the thorns."
While both Mr. Munson and his blackberry patch have passed into the warm memories of my youth, his admonition to take great care with blackberries recently returned as a prescient observation of the contemporary scene. Yes, I am talking about the other BlackBerry, the almost ubiquitous, handheld e-mail device. It was created and is manufactured by Canada-based Research In Motion (RIM). These icons of our mobile society may remind those of us who are blind or have low vision not of a delectable seasonal treat, but of the thorny and unrewarding part of their namesake.
Despite our understandable reluctance to do so, entering the "BlackBerry patch" is sometimes unavoidable. Unfortunately, the technical thorns growing on high-tech BlackBerry devices cannot be accommodated by wearing gloves. How, then, can the user of assistive technology gain access to BlackBerry technology? And if access is possible, will an employer or network administrator accept the alternative strategy? For answers to these questions and to explore some of the technical and practical dimensions of this issue, I turned to several individuals who are making their way through the BlackBerry patch and asked them just how often they have gotten stuck.
Description of the Problem
The BlackBerry system is a closed-loop technology. All aspects of the technology are proprietary, and access is strictly controlled by RIM. In short, the BlackBerry network consists of server technology, to organize and process e-mail messages through the air transmission of messages and delivery of e-mail to a handheld device for viewing and responding. The devices on which the e-mail is viewed resemble other PDAs (personal digital assistants), such as smartphones. Despite their physical and functional resemblance to smartphones, all BlackBerry hardware is designed and manufactured by RIM. To date, we are aware of no accessibility package that can make the closed BlackBerry device usable nonvisually.
From the perspective of mobile professionals and others who need their e-mail delivered anywhere and everywhere they go, several other options appear to be equally attractive. Given this fact, one is prompted to ask, "So what's the big deal with BlackBerry?" It is when one looks at the picture from the administrative point if view that an understanding of the advantages and even elegance of what RIM has created comes into focus. Because BlackBerry is closed and proprietary, security and administrative control can assume leading roles. For example, an administrator can deactivate a BlackBerry device, which may have been lost or stolen, on the network, regardless of what actions the user takes. Changes to the device's software and settings can be made, again without the user's participation.
This ability to force or "push" information to the devices on the network is what sets BlackBerry apart from conventional e-mail that is delivered wirelessly. "Push" technology also means that whenever an e-mail message is delivered, the BlackBerry device will receive it. This is a radically different situation from that of Windows- and Palm-based systems, which have to remain active and go out to the server periodically and ask, "Are there any new messages?"
An important functional characteristic of a BlackBerry implementation is the synchronization of e-mail messages and other information between the server, which supports the desktop computer, and the handheld BlackBerry unit. How many of us have had the frustrating experience, when we traveled with a laptop for a few days, of suddenly not having an important message with flight or other necessary information because it was at home on the desktop? How often have you not had your work calendar handy at home in the evening to check your schedule while you are making family plans? BlackBerry users will never find themselves in this situation, since the software constantly updates and reconciles the messages and information, regardless of where they are viewed, created, or deleted.
It is this one-two punch of push technology and constant synchronization that many enterprise-level administrators find irresistible. AFB TECH has observed, over the past several years, that the decision of whether to use BlackBerry devices is rarely, if ever, left solely up to the individual, as is, for example, the choice of whether to use a cell phone and which cell phone provider to use. Consequently, the result often becomes a high-stakes affair, in which the employee who is blind or has low vision may be expected to perform in a BlackBerry-centric environment without the benefit of an accessible alternative, save for simply not using the technology, which is not much of an option.
Federal employees often identify the almost-universal distribution of BlackBerry devices to professional-level government workers as a real stumbling block to both their job performance and career advancement within the federal system. This situation is especially ironic in view of the intent of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act to ensure equal access to electronic and information technology for federal employees.
An Alternative Solution
Setting the inaccessible BlackBerry devices aside, one technological solution is available that has recently enjoyed some success. BlackBerry Connect is software that emulates the functions and behavior of a BlackBerry device on a few non-BlackBerry PDAs. When combined with a screen reader to provide voice output, a portable handheld package that rivals BlackBerry's own hardware can be created.
Don Barrett, an assistive technology specialist for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, DC, recently began to use BlackBerry Connect and the TALKS screen-access program on a Nokia E62 PDA. "The experience has been superb," Barrett reported. "I can easily go to the inbox, open it, and reply."
Barrett has found the E62 to be a useful device that provides a satisfying experience. "I have found it best to use my index fingers, rather than my thumbs, as my sighted colleagues do." The BlackBerry Manager is accessible, according to Barrett, which further contributes to the overall success of the product.
The BlackBerry Manager is the primary interface through which BlackBerry functions are controlled. It allows Barrett to control which kinds of messages are transmitted to the E62. For example, Barrett has excluded certain lists to which he subscribes, to reduce the number of messages that he has to download on the relatively slower wireless connection. "I love it. I can reply to messages and clean out my inbox on my way to work."
In addition to full access to the inbox, BlackBerry Connect facilitates access to the department's address book. For updating his personal contacts, Barrett connects the E62 to his desktop periodically. PC Suite, a Nokia application, is required to complete this task. In comparison with BlackBerry Connect, PC Suite is a far less accessible experience. Some inaccessible features of PC Suite require the use of the virtual mouse, and installation required the assistance of a sighted person.
During our interview, Barrett recounted the history and chronology of the process of gaining access to his department's BlackBerry system. "Dave Dougall from RIM talked about BlackBerry at IDEAS, the annual accessibility conference for the federal government, a while back," Barrett recalled. "And I told him that blind guys needed a solution." Technically the obstacle, as Barrett understood it from RIM, is the fact that the BlackBerry hardware uses Java Micro Edition. There is no accessibility strategy that can provide access to this version of the popular Java language, thus excluding the availability of screen access. RIM suggested an alternative solution, however, a third-party device running BlackBerry Connect.
After the conference presentation, Barrett approached the telecommunications department of his agency and suggested that an alternative to the standard-issue BlackBerry hardware might provide him with access. "Telecom agreed, and AT&T said it would support the service and the E62. The department bought TALKS, and it was implemented."
From his perspective, security was never an issue. Barrett assumes that Connect is as secure as a standard device. Furthermore, no issues of security were posed by the network administrators.
Barrett stressed that there is a learning curve and that using the E62 and the BlackBerry Manager takes some practice and patience. Still, Barrett was quick to point out that if you receive a message from him, you may read the following at the bottom: "Sent from my handheld accessible device."
Another BlackBerry Connect User
Just outside the Washington, DC, beltway, on the America on Line campus, BlackBerry hardware and service were recently deployed for AOL's management-level employees. Tom Wlodkowski, the director of accessibility for AOL, shared his experience and some observations of the impact of this organizational initiative on him as a blind person.
When asked what influenced him to investigate alternatives and use an accessible BlackBerry solution, Wlodkowski said, "Company policy quite frankly influenced me. Steps were taken at AOL that suggested that all director-level employees and above would be given Blackberry devices, and those who were not directors who had a need would also be given them. It became a way to stay connected to the business. That stated, some directors may have chosen not to have one, but I wanted the flexibility, and since they were offering BlackBerry devices to management-level employees, I thought I should avail myself of one."
Like several others who use BlackBerry Connect, Wlodkowski conducted his own research once he decided to obtain a BlackBerry. "I contacted Dave Dougall at RIM and asked, "What are my options to access Blackberry as a blind user?" He came back with the Nokia E62 running BlackBerry Connect and said that would be the quickest way to get access at the moment."
Outstanding support from the AOL information technology (IT) department resulted in easy procurement and setup of the hardware and configuration of the BlackBerry Connect software. Obtaining and installing the TALKS screen-access program proved to require more time and some detective work. "My IT guys showed up with an E62. They had configured it and tested it, just like they would for any other user. They also activated a built-in TTS [text-to-speech] on the phone. I told the IT guy this was not complete. So we called AT&T, which referred us to Nokia, and we eventually made it to Beyond Sight, where we purchased the TALKS product."
Wlodkowski received his E62 with TALKS in early June 2007. He recounted his first steps and early experience. "At first I missed some of the subtle things like keyboard commands to get to things quickly." He believes that using assistance is essential to learning the system in the beginning. "Could I have done it on my own? Yes, but it would have taken much longer." Having sighted help in navigating the menus was important. Some differences in navigation and focus took time to understand and grow accustomed to. "There are subtle differences. For example, when you want to delete a letter, you actually need to move to the next letter. The delete is actually more of a backspace key. You need to be willing to put in the time to learn these things when you first get it."
Several months later, the BlackBerry has become an important piece of technology for Wlodkowski. "Last night I was sitting on my couch at 10:30 p.m., connected to my e-mail because we had an issue and I needed to check in, and it was easier to pull out my little handheld device than to go in and log on to the desktop. It is most useful for staying in touch; getting e-mail; and, when absolutely necessary, writing e-mail. I felt connected, and if you are the director of accessibility, you had better show that you are interested in what is going on."
In addition to e-mail, the calendar has become a useful tool. A recent request from his wife to coordinate some family events prompted Wlodkowski to pull out the trusty E62 and check his availability. He was able to put some new school and personal items in his calendar and know that they would be displayed on his office computer immediately. Wlodkowski is clear that he has not only gained access to a mobile device, but that he is benefiting from the mobility and features that have made this technology so attractive to millions. "Did I do it before with a laptop? Yes, absolutely, but now I don't necessarily have to take the work laptop home. I have another option, just like my brother does who is in hotel management and always walks around with his BlackBerry. In this case, did Dave's suggestion lead to my having an equivalent mobile e-mail experience, as my colleagues, family, and friends? I would have to say yes. I'm not saying that I have equal access to all feature sets on BlackBerry devices, but if the main task is to be able to read and write e-mail to my team, I can do it."
Wlodkowski also takes the longer-range view, placing the BlackBerry Connect experience in the larger context that includes other applications running on the same E62. He thinks that when the experience is viewed from this perspective, developers still have much work to do to ensure that clients have access to applications such as instant-messaging and web-browsing software. "I would say that it's a mobile device, so you are limited by the number of keys. I would say we have a ways to go to make it as quick. If I go to a web site that is optimized for mobile devices, arrowing through the links isn't always smooth. Do we have some of the same issues between assistive technology and applications as we do on a desktop? Well, the answer is yes."
Placing the move to a BlackBerry-enabled PDA in the context of a corporate policy is important. Both individuals who told us of their BlackBerry experiences stressed that without their employers purchasing the technology, the high price would have made it unlikely that they would have chosen a BlackBerry solution for strictly individual or personal communication.
The learning curve is not a trivial matter. Planning a strategy to learn the navigation and features of the BlackBerry is one of the keys to avoiding the BlackBerry's thornier side. After conversations with these two satisfied BlackBerry users, it is reasonable to believe that in addition to the blackberries that you can pick from a patch like Mr. Munson's, the electronic BlackBerry may also be a tasty treat.
Where to Buy
It is not possible to purchase a ready-to-go package with BlackBerry Connect, TALKS, and a compatible cell phone or PDA. Beyond Sight <www.beyondsight.com>, the Littleton, Colorado-based, vendor of access technology, provides the full TALKS package, the version required for BlackBerry Connect, for $295. It can also advise you on the availability of suitable phones and PDA devices. In addition to the Nokia E62 PDA, which both of the profiled individuals are using, several product combinations that use a portable keyboard and a conventional cell phone may be options.
BlackBerry Connect software is available from RIM: e-mail: <firstname.lastname@example.org>; web site: <www.rim.com>. No special version is required, according to Beyond Sight.