Out of Sight

An audio version of this essay is available to subscribers, provided by curio.io.

The Internet delivered on its promise of community for blind people, but accessibility is easy to overlook.

I have been blind since birth. I’m old enough to have completed my early schooling at a time when going to a special school for blind kids was the norm. In New Zealand, where I live, there is only one school for the blind. It was common for children to leave their families when they were five, to spend the majority of the year far from home in a school hostel. Many family relationships were strained as a result. Being exposed to older kids and adults with the same disability as you, however, can supply you with exemplars. It allows the blind to see other blind people being successful in a wide range of careers, raising families and being accepted in their local community. A focal point, such as a school for the blind, helps foster that kind of mentoring.

The Internet has expanded the practical meaning of the word community. New technology platforms aren’t often designed to be accessible to people unlike the designers themselves, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t used by everyone who can. For blind people, the Internet has allowed an international community to flourish where there wasn’t much of one before, allowing people with shared experiences, interests, and challenges to forge a communion. Just as important, it has allowed blind people to participate in society in ways that have often otherwise been foreclosed by prejudice. Twitter has been at the heart of this, helping bring blind people from many countries and all walks of life together. It represents one of the most empowering aspects of the Internet for people with disabilities — its fundamentally textual nature and robust API supporting an ecosystem of innovative accessible apps has made it an equalizer. Behind the keyboard, no one need know you’re blind or have any other disability, unless you choose to let them know.

With the mainstreaming of blind kids now the norm, real-world networking opportunities are less frequent. That’s why the Internet has become such an important tool in the “blind community.” While there’s never been a better time in history to be blind, the best could be yet to come — provided the new shape the Internet takes remains accessible to everyone. In terms of being able to live a quality, independent life without sight, the Internet has been the most dramatic change in the lives of blind people since the invention of Braille. I can still remember having to go into a bank to ask the teller to read my bank balances to me, cringing as she read them in a very loud, slow voice (since clearly a blind person needs to be spoken to slowly).

Because of how scattered the blind community is and how much desire there is for us to share information and experiences, tech-savvy blind people were early Internet adopters. In the 1980s, as a kid with a 2400-baud modem, I’d make expensive international calls from New Zealand to a bulletin-board system in Pittsburgh that had been established specifically to bring blind people together. My hankering for information, inspiration, and fellowship meant that even as a cash-strapped student, I felt the price of the calls was worth paying.

Blind people from around the world have access to many technologies that get us online. Windows screen readers speak what’s on the screen, and optionally make the same information available tactually via a Braille display. Just as some sighted people consider themselves “visual learners,” so some blind people retain information better when it’s under their fingertips. Yes, contrary to popular belief, Braille is alive and well, having enjoyed a renaissance thanks to refreshable Braille display technology and products like commercial eBooks.

Outside the Windows environment, Apple is the exemplary player. Every Mac and iOS device includes a powerful screen reader called VoiceOver. Before Apple added VoiceOver to the iPhone 3GS in 2009, those of us who are blind saw the emergence of touch screens as a real threat to our hard-won gains. We’d pick up an iPhone, and as far as we were concerned, it was a useless piece of glass. Apple came up with a paradigm that made touch screens useable by the blind, and it was a game changer. Android has a similar product which, we hope, will continue to mature.

All this assistive technology means that the technological life I lead isn’t much different from that of a sighted person. I’m sitting at my desk in my office, writing this article in Microsoft Word. Because I lack the discipline to put my iPhone on “Do Not Disturb”, the iPhone is chiming at me from time to time, and I lean over to check the notification. Like other blind people, I use the Internet to further my personal and professional interests that have nothing to do with blindness.

But social trends haven’t kept up with technological ones. It’s estimated that in the United States, around 70 percent of working-aged blind people are unemployed. And the biggest barrier posed by blindness is not lack of sight – it’s other people’s ignorance. Since sight is such a dominant sense, a lot of potential employers close their eyes and think, “I couldn’t do this job if I couldn’t see, so she surely can’t either”. They forget that blindness is our normality. Deprive yourself of such a significant source of information by putting on a blindfold, and of course you’re going to be disorientated. But that’s not the reality we experience. It’s perfectly possible to function well without sight.

Just as there are societal barriers, we’ve yet to reach an accessible tech utopia – far from it. Blind people are inhibited in our full participation in society because not all online technologies are accessible to screen reading software. Most of this problem is due to poor design, some of it due to the choices made by content creators. Many blind people enjoy using Twitter, because text messages of 140 characters are at its core. If you tell me in a tweet what a delicious dinner you’ve had, I can read that and be envious. If you simply take a picture of your dinner and don’t include any text in the tweet, I’m out of the loop. Some blind people were concerned when reporters appeared to have caught a new feature that to allowed full tweets to be embedded in other tweets as an image, which would have meant the conversations which thrived on this platform would be out of reach for our screen readers. Twitter, to its credit, has reached out to us and made clear this was not the case. But even though it turned out to be a false alarm, the Twitter episode brought home to many of us just how fragile accessibility really is.

My voice is sometimes not heard on popular mainstream sites, due to a technology designed to thwart spam bots. Many fully-sighted people complain about CAPTCHA, the hard-to-read characters one sometimes needs to type into a form before you can submit it. Since these characters are graphical, they can stop a blind person in their tracks. Plug-ins can assist in many cases, and sometimes an audio challenge is offered. But the audio doesn’t help people who are deaf as well as blind. It’s encouraging to see an increasing number of sites trying mathematical or simple word puzzles to keep the spammers out, but allow disabled people in.

Many in the media seem wary of “post-text Internet,” a term popularized by economics blogger Felix Salmon in a post explaining why he was joining a television station, Fusion. “Text has had an amazing run, online, not least because it’s easy and cheap to produce,” he wrote. But for digital storytelling, “the possibilities are much, much greater.” Animation, videos, and images appeal to him as an arsenal of tools for a more “immersive” experience. If writers feel threatened by this new paradigm, he suggests, it’s because they’re unwilling to experiment with new models. But for blind people, the threat could be much more grave.

Some mobile apps and websites, despite offering information of interest, are inaccessible. Usually this is because links and buttons containing images don’t offer alternative textual labels. This is where the worry about about being shut out of a “post-text” internet feels most acute. While adding text is an easy way to ensure access to everyone, a wholesale shift in the Internet’s orientation from text to image would further enable designers’ often lax commitment to accessibility.I feel good about how the fusion of mainstream and assistive technologies has facilitated inclusion, but the pace of technological change is frenetic. Hard-won gains are easily lost. It’s therefore essential that we as a society come down on the side of technologies that allow access for all.

While we must be vigilant, there is cause to be optimistic. Blindness often begins to hit teenagers hard at the time their sighted peers are starting to drive. Certainly, not being able to get into a car and drive is a major annoyance of blindness. As a dad to four kids, it requires me to plan our outings a lot more carefully, because of the need to rely on public transport. Self-driving car technology has the potential to change the lives of blind people radically.While concerns persist about Google’s less than stellar track-record on accessibility, products like Google Glass could potentially be used to provide feedback based on a combination of object/face recognition and crowd-sourcing that could help us navigate unfamiliar surroundings more efficiently. Add to that the ability to fully control currently inaccessible, touch-screen-based appliances, and the “Internet of things” has potential for mitigating the impact of blindness – provided we as a society choose to proceed inclusively.

Not only has the Internet expanded the concept of “community”, it has redefined the ways in which traditional communities engage with one another. I don’t need to go to the supermarket and ask for a shelf-packer to help me shop, I can investigate the overwhelming number of choices of just about any product, and take my pick, totally independently. When I interact with any person or business online, they need not know I’m blind, unless I choose to tell them. To disclose or not to disclose is my choice, in any situation. That’s liberating and empowering.

But to fulfill all the promise of the Internet, we must be sure that just as someone in a wheelchair can negotiate a curb cut, open a door or use an elevator, so we must make sure the life-changing power of the Internet is available to us all – whether we see it, hear it, or touch it.