Tackling accessibility challenges: Users’ perspectives
The growing popularity of GPS-based mobile phones has radically changed the world of the blind. Economical mobile phone-based GPS systems are now available to help individuals navigate town and country. Navigating along streets and pathways with the help of electronic maps resident in the phone’s memory requires only reasonably priced text to speech software to make the phone’s display usable. When combined with the traditional cane and guide dog, these recent advances in the state of the art confer a new degree of independence for blind people.
Synthetic Imaging Research Inc. (SIRI) is a Toronto-based organization of users and developers of navigation technologies for the blind. Our commitment to becoming leaders in the quickly evolving field of assisted navigation, is only matched by the outstanding efforts and expertise of our four board members, all of which are legally blind.
As an active community-based organization, SIRI leverages the expertise of people with visual impairments (ranging from partial sight to total blindness) in Canada, in order to offer distribution and training of the best navigation technology available, while concurrently improving performance in collaboration with the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre (ATRC), at the University of Toronto.
SIRI arose from the realization that those of us who experience first-hand the exclusionary nature of a world made for others, have the most to contribute to the ideal of an inclusive society.
An important instance of this approach occurred during one of our recent training sessions. Current cell phone users employ mono-aural headsets in order to enable hands-free operation of their devices. This feature is particularly helpful to pedestrians with visual impairments since they will usually have one hand already occupied holding their cane or guide-dog. However, even though the benefits are evident and significant, both high quality bone-conduction as well as the more conventional ear bud-type headsets were rejected by our trainees because these devices interfere with stereophonic hearing. As we learned then, stereophonic hearing is a faculty many people with visual impairments use to move about independently and, therefore, any object resting over their ears would significantly reduce their ability to do so. Being deaf in one ear, as well as blind, this factor had not been on my mind when researching headsets. Moreover, my colleague, who had been happily using his headset as a speaker by placing it adjacent to his ear, had voiced no opposition.
We are currently working on a solution to this problem since headsets, in our opinion, will be a critical component of hands-free navigation. However, developmental decisions will continue to be made from arguments and feedback derived from the cadre of visually impaired developers and users that flow through our special environment. Already, unforeseen issues such as cosmetics (will it muss my hair?) or stigma (will it make me look blind?) have come to plague us. But it may be only in the hard-nosed piteousness of an organization dedicated to our own that these issues would dare to surface and possibly be dealt with.
One aspect of the origin of our management approach is self-evident, for who would be more motivated or experienced in understanding disability than Disabled people themselves? But on another level, we do it because we can. The same technology that has electronically joined this planet into a single community has benefited the visually impaired to a greater degree than the sighted. We cannot yet drive a car or paint a portrait, but, aided by adaptive technologies, we can and do actively develop practical solutions to improve our own independence.
|Authors :||Milton Zysman
Synthetic Imaging Research Inc.