Mainstream tech opens doors for blind people

Here and Now

This story was originally covered by PRI’s Here and Now. For more, listen ot the audio above.

Technologies that many Americans use everyday — cell phones, mp3 players, and laptops — function as books, maps and personal shoppers for many blind Americans. For years, there have been devices designed specifically to increase the independence of blind people, but those tools have been expensive and hard to come by. Last week, Brian Charlson, director of computer training services at the Carroll Center for the Blind in Massachusetts, talked to PRI’s Here and Now about the recent technology revolution.

Charlson came bearing old and new devices ranging from a currency reader, to a portable mp3 reader/recorder — a device that can read him word docs on the go — to a color identifier to help pick out outfits and find color-coded items.He says that these tools can be tremendously valuable for a person with low vision or blindness, but until recently, they have also been inaccessible for many.

Charlson explains:

Can you imagine how valuable GPS would be for a blind person? When walking down the street, to know where you are, you’re forever looking at landmarks and signs to tell where you are. As a blind person, you know the landmarks? I’ve got to touch them to know that they’re there. So I simply memorize how many streets down I have to go crossing before I need to make my next left or right turn. And if I’m distracted and miscount, I’ll be a block off, and have to deal with a number of other issues.

Here, with GPS, I can ask it to tell me where I am at any time. The GPS product that I had before this one cost $1200. Then I went online and found a GPS product as an app on my iPhone, and it cost me $18.

Another example of a recently mainstreamed technology that helps blind people is the e-book. Charlson reads both Braille and electronic books. He told Here and Now:

I just got “Joy of Cooking” in Braille — 30 volumes of Braille, 12″ x 12″ x 4″ thick. It took an entire bookcase for one cookbook. But with this, iBooks is a mainstream service. Search, bookmarks, and … it’s reading using synthetic voice, a book that only exists in e-text. But I was able to buy that book that was published 3 weeks ago, as opposed to if I wanted to read this in Braille, it would take somewhere between 9 and 12 months for the process of converting it from a standard format to a blind specific format.”

With the arrival of better and more affordable technologies, Charlson is optimistic that blind and visually impaired people — a vastly underemployed population — can perform jobs more competitively. He hopes that as complex technology becomes increasingly mainstream, employers will understand better how a blind employee can perform all aspects of a job. 


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