The Challenges Of Using Technology When You're Blind

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As a blind kid, I never imagined technology would one day threaten to block my participation in the world. When I first heard the words "that's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" on the radio, I knew that if technology could send man to the moon, it could also make it possible for me to do the things I wanted to do to fully participate in society.

May 18th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day. We're advocates for accessible technology here at Gizmodo, so we thought we'd share the story of someone intimately connected to the issue. -- Cam

This has been true, but only to some degree.

There are life-changing examples of technology, such as GPS and screen-reading software, that have opened up the world for me and other people who are blind or have low vision, in ways that were never available to previous generations.

Despite these developments, I have spent most of my adult life advocating for technology and information to be made accessible. In 2000, I successfully complained to the Australian Human Rights Commission about the inaccessibility of the Sydney Olympic Games website, and won. I was convinced that shining a spotlight on those who broke the law would change things for the better. To my disappointment, the organisers simply chose to ignore the ruling. As the website was not made accessible, my children and I missed certain events.

Since the turn of the century, not much has changed. In 2016, 37 per cent of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were lodged under the Disability Discrimination Act. It's no surprise to me that 33 per cent of these complaints related to being unable to access goods, services and facilities.

Thursday is the sixth annual Global Accessibility Awareness Day, an international event that aims to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital accessibility and users with different abilities.

As a society, we are switched on 24/7, and technology impacts on every aspect of our lives. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the next technological advances do not reverse earlier achievements that so dramatically improved the blindness and low-vision community's access to the world.

If someone had said to me when I was a teenager, "There are going to be these things called touch screens, and they'll be everywhere, and they're going to replace buttons and knobs and dials", I would probably have thought, "Wow, how groovy. I'll be able to use them. Touch is something I can do as a blind person".

The naive optimism of youth!

Touch screens are everywhere. Look around your home, your workplace and other locations you frequent. It's likely there are touch screens on most of your kitchen and household appliances, on the fitness equipment at your gym, and on the payment device at your favourite cafe. The list is endless.

And the issue is that while I can touch the screen, there's nothing that tells me what I'm touching or what happens on the screen when I do.

Here's what I mean. There's a small dry cleaning boutique in walking distance of my home. They have a lockable box on the outside of their shop so clothes can be collected after the shop has closed. The box is unlocked by entering a PIN on a touch screen. I know when my dry cleaning is ready for collection because they send me a text message on my iPhone, which I can read, because Apple has made the iPhone's touch screen interface accessible. Unfortunately, the box's touch screen interface is not accessible and I have to wait until the shop opens in the morning to collect my dry cleaning.

We have reached a tipping point where touch screens are proliferating at an unprecedented rate, and we'll soon be living in a post buttons-and-knobs world.

Unless designers, developers and manufacturers start including accessibility as a priority – and policy makers and legislators enforce this – then those of us who are blind or have low vision will be locked out of everyday life. We will struggle to do the most basic things like cooking on an electrical cooktop, cooling our homes in summer and making financial transactions with confidence.

As our national leaders, the government must take urgent action to give people who are blind or have low vision access to life. Otherwise, instead of surfing the technological waves, we will be drowned by them.

Bruce Maguire is the lead policy adviser at Vision Australia.

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