For blind New Yorkers, a different, and complex, relationship with technology

Chancey Fleet navigates the Upper West Side. (via WNYC.org)
Tweet Share on Facebook Share on Tumblr Print

Each morning, Chancey Fleet wakes up at her house in Sunset Park and reaches for a crucial piece of technology that gets her through the day—a tool most New Yorkers are familiar with: Her iPhone. Fleet is blind, so she can’t actually see the screen. But she has programmed it to work for her.

An NPR application cues up the latest news, read aloud by British reporters. Text-to-voice technology reads off her emails. While getting dressed for her job as an access technology instructor at the Jewish Guild for the Blind's Adaptive Technology Center on the Upper West Side, she can swish her phone over her clothes; an application names the color of the blouse she’s considering wearing that day. HopStop.com, which offers transit directions between two addresses, helps her get to unfamiliar places. AroundMe locates her specific position and tells her where there are A.T.M.s, restaurants and other local businesses nearby. She goes to MenuPages.com in her Safari browser to find out what she can order at a restaurant once she is there. Fleet once used the city’s 311 iPhone app to report a cab that drove over her cane.

Fleet is one of the estimated 120,000 New Yorkers who are blind and nearly 1 million with vision disabilities, according to estimates from The New York State Commission for the Blind and Visually Handicapped.

New York has always been one of the more navigable cities for the blind. People with visual impairments use many of the senses sighted people take for granted but use constantly. They feel the direction of traffic along avenues by the swooshing of cars driving by; count blocks in the grid above Houston Street; note stops on public transportation and listen for subway announcements as the train pulls into stations; ask for directions from their many neighbors on the streets.

MORE ON CAPITAL

ADVERTISEMENT

And then there are the traditional tools made especially for the blind and visually impaired like guide canes, guide dogs, Braille on elevator buttons and signs. There are audio jacks in Metrocard machines and downloadable (and sometimes expensive) voice-to-text software on computers.

For many blind and visually impaired New Yorkers, when they can afford it, technology—often the very same technology used by people with perfect vision—has drastically changed the way they navigate the city. For them, in digitally-mediated, smartphone-obsessed New York, the difference between then and now is much greater.

But that also means the digital divide among the blind and vision-impaired is that much more dire in its consequences. There is about a 70 percent unemployment rate among the blind, according to the National Federation of the Blind, in part because accessible technology is not available in most workplaces. Buying the latest iPhone or Android along with a $100-per-month data plan simply isn't affordable.

Also, since much of the technology that has changed life for blind and vision-impaired was not built with them specifically in mind, developers routinely "break" the websites and applications they rely on, forcing the blind to hunt their way around for alternatives.

Fleet knows a lot about all this. She's 29 years old, quick and sparing and witty with her words. It's Fleet's job, at the Jewish Guild for the Blind, to teach the blind and visually impaired how to use new technology.

Fleet said companies are learning how to make their products and websites accessible.

“Things are positive but there’s always a threat of a sudden backslide,” she said.

If the rapid pace of technological advance seems overwhelming to the average person, visually impaired New Yorkers can find the changes that much more disruptive. For all the uproar users cause over a design tweak in social networking sites, imagine being a blind person who can suddenly no longer access applications or websites that are crucial to their job or daily routines?

For example, websites based on Adobe's Flash technology are usually not accessible, Fleet said. Neither is Google Docs, a text processing service.

“Two months ago, Netflix had a great website," Fleet said. But then, they redesigned and "ruined it," she said. Fleet was suddenly unable to navigate the site and watch movies on it. She called Netflix and they suggested that she use a third-party workaround application.

“That kind of weird sudden backslide could happen with any service you rely on," Fleet said. "It’s still a threat. We never take accessibility as a given.”

If a user is having trouble accessing a website or functionalities on a product, many salesclerks have no idea how to help them, Fleet said.

“There’s definitely a big problem ... weathering these changes,” she said. “What I actually tell my clients is that web browsing—it’s more like cane travel than using anything else. You have to find landmarks and you have to work around construction. You have to use a lot more logic and judgement and you have to use a workaround and people get emotional or scared or frustrated around the web.”

DORRIE RUSH WAS SITTING AT HER DESK IN A 59TH Street tower on a recent afternoon, tapping her finger around the screen of her iPhone without looking at it. A robotic voice calls out the name of the applications that she happens to touch on: “Stocks,” “YouTube,” “Where the Hell Am I?”

When she finds the one she wants, “Where the Hell Am I?,” and taps twice on the same location, the robotic voice tells her an exact address, to let her know where she is.

Elsewhere on her desk is an iPad, from which another robotic voice calls out the time of day every 15 minutes or so. It also tells her when its batteries are low and it needs to be plugged in. The text on her Windows computer screen is zoomed to eight times its default size.

Rush is the technology evangelist at Lighthouse International, a 105-year-old institution that assists the blind and visually impaired with treatment and counseling. She was diagnosed with Stargardt's disease, an inherited form of macular degeneration, in her 30s. She can’t see street signs or building numbers, or her iPhone screen.

“Just a few years ago there was not one big mainstream technology product that was fully accessible to me—not even one. But now there are companies like Apple," Rush said. “The iPhone and the iPad can be used by anyone: You, me, or somebody with their eyes closed or no vision at all.”

Rush, 53, used to work in the fashion industry; she's slender, with Anna Wintour-like blunt-cut bangs. Her speech is energetic and studded with Yiddishisms. Like many New Yorkers, she gets a little lost in Central Park.

“Even when I had 20/20 vision, I could not find my way across one side of the park to the other,” she said. “I was always veering in the wrong direction.”

But if she uses her phone, she can find the nearest subway station and it can tell her which direction she is facing, so she knows whether to go north or south.

Recently, she hunted for a Chinese vegetable deep in Chinatown.

“All of a sudden I realized I was in a completely unfamiliar place,” she said. And asking locals who didn’t speak English for help wasn’t getting her anywhere.

“And the streets are so messed up, they’re so not linear,” Rush said.

She plugged in her earphones and fired up her iPhone compass application to tell her how to orient herself to the north.

“I kept going north, north, north, it told me.” When her Locate Me application told her she was at Canal Street, “I knew where I was,” she said.

“I’ve watched people coming out of the subway and saying, 'Which way is Madison?'” she said. “When you’re not visually impaired and you come out of the subway and it’s not a familiar spot, you’re asking the same thing.”

But, of course, it’s more difficult for someone who can’t see.

“Even if you get to the corner, you can’t see the sign,” she said.

“You can ask the person next to you where the hell am I? But who wants to do that all the time?” she said. Now, there's an app for that.

Rush’s gregariousness suits her well for her job, where she helps Lighthouse clients learn about the kinds of technology that can help them. As marketing director of assistive technology, she also talks to "accessibility teams" at major technology companies, from Apple to Nokia to Microsoft. She explains what people like her need in order to use their products, without having to download additional software extensions or attach telescopic contraptions to their screens.

Darren Burton, national program associate for technology at the American Foundation for the Blind, is blind himself. He said it’s a battle to keep companies aware of needs for people like him and keep their new products, updates, websites and technologies adaptable for use by the blind or people with vision impairment.

“You really gotta be kind of savvy, it’s kind of fragmented, you know, like which version does it work on?” he said.

Many start-up companies, in his estimation, simply don’t ever think about making their applications and products accessible. That's despite the fact that more than 20 million people nationwide are blind or visually impaired.

“Our demographic doesn't always have enough of the dollar signs to get a company to do that,” he said. “A lot of these brilliant kids, it’s just not on their radar screen, so awareness is a big thing.”

Android develops apps for accessibility as part of a project called Eyes-Free.

“For years, they’ve been developing technology for, certainly for people who are visually impaired or blind, but really for people who just aren’t looking because sometimes they can’t look,” she said. “The truth is, all of these things are good for me but great for everyone.”

She catches her boyfriend using the same technology she uses to zoom in and make pictures bigger. The couple recently got lost while on a tandem-bike-riding expedition in Van Cortlandt Park, and used the iPhone’s compass application and Where the Hell Am I to figure out how to make it back to civilization. Her other Baby Boomer friends complain about not being able to see the tiny type on menus in low-lit restaurants and wish for zooming application on their iPhones. Many people aren’t even aware that these features are already available on their phones.

“When Apple first put a voice into the Nano, I thought I had died and gone to heaven,” Rush said.

Now, that technology is available in many Apple products.

“That’s a standard that I hope will not be a question, whether or not it’s accessible, but an expectation,” she said.

Last month, she went to the Apple Store at 14th Street in Chelsea where there was an informational session about accessible technology available in their products. Apple Store salespeople demonstrated how their iPhone, iPad, iPod and Mac OS X products include screen magnification and VoiceOver, a screen-access technology, for the blind and visually impaired.

“The reality of all this brought on a surge of unexpected emotion," Rush wrote on her blog, Dorrie’s Sight, where she chronicles her experiences living with technology and products for the blind and visually impaired. “I was welling up a little. These were not the tears of misery that technology used to evoke in me—they were the tears of joy. I realized this was not just about how you see—it was about how you hear, how you feel, how you think. It was not just about some of us, it was about all of us.”

Evangelists like Rush and Burton say start-ups should take the Apple way of doing things and make their products accessible.

It's good business. Designing for all people, regardless of age, ability or status, or “Universal Design” as architect and product designer Ronald L. Mace called it in the '70s and '80s, opens the largest possible market for a product. Some of the most successful companies design based on this principle, including Gatorade, Tupperware, Oxo-Good Grips and Apple.

Besides, Burton argues, it's cheaper than ever before.

“Back in the day, it was really expensive to make something talk,” Burton said. Now, “it’s not the rocket science.”

Burton said soon people will be able to scan medicine bottles, and a phone will be able to tell them the dosage and side effects. He hopes to one day be able to scan over a street sign or any building and have his phone tell him his exact location, instead of having to fire up an application.

“I can get pretty close a certain restaurant in Little Italy,” Burton said. A G.P.S. system will tell him, “You’ve arrived at your location.” But, not quite. Maybe the restaurant is actually a few doors down, he said.

"We’re getting close," Burton said, extending the metaphor to adaptive technology in general. "That’s going to get more accurate as we go.”

Rush emphasized that G.P.S. technology or location applications like these don’t need to be improved specifically for people who can’t see. A more accurate G.P.S. is better for all of us. A computer or an iPhone that you can talk to, that can talk back to you, is potentially useful to everyone.

“When you say to somebody, even who is 80, and you say that they can have an iPad and it can work for them and they can learn to use it and it can have all the functions that they need, I’m not kidding you, they light up,” Rush said. “They’re so excited. It’s such a funny thing. And when they touch it, it’s not like it’s different from anyone else. They’re like, 'I can have this? I can use this?' It is so amazing. Whereas where we used to say 'We’re going to give you this ugly, clunky thing and it’s going to make you different from everyone.'”

SOME NEW LEGISLATION SEEKS TO MAKE ACCESSIBILITY the standard. In October 2010, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, which will require menus on TVs and other electronics to be "blind-guy friendly," as Burton puts it. In June, the New York Senate passed the Accessible Electronic Information Act, which, if signed by the governor, provides print-to-accessible services for blind and disabled New Yorkers.

And perhaps users and technologists are slowly becoming more aware of accessibility. Some Tumblr users write detailed descriptions of photos posted on the social network, so that visually impaired users can get more involved in the conversations that develop around them. Last week, about 50 arts and technology innovators attended an assistive tech meetup, which was meant to inspire them as they create their next start-up or program.

But new technologies and laws aren’t always the answer: The community of people who are blind and visually impaired, Fleet argues, must organize that much more and teach each other how to navigate the new possibilities and difficulties of the digital age.

“What I really want is for more of us to realize is we are each other’s best resource,” Fleet said.

In New York, the size, breadth and diversity of that community is a big advantage.

"When I was in Virginia, I was the only blind person that they knew," she told WNYC in an interview last year. "And they just thought I was great and amazing, so I thought I was great and amazing. It doesn't really fly like that in New York, because there are a lot of working blind people and there are a lot of people that are going to school and have two jobs and have families and it’s more of a reality check up here. You’re not going to be lionized just for being able to walk out your door and get to work."

In addition to her dayjob, and going to graduate school at CUNY for a degree in disability studies, she also currently runs a weekly computer clinic in a library for a few hours on Saturdays.

“We can’t meet the entire needs and it’s a little step," she said. "But we need to be leveraging the community and empowering them."