Technology has been both a help and a massive hindrance to the blind community.
As Petr Kucheryavyy scrolls through his Facebook feed, his iPhone spews out a string of unintelligible syllables, not unlike the sounds C-3PO made in Empire Strikes Back when Chewbacca screwed his head on backward. The words move way too fast for me to understand, but Kucheryavyy navigates his audio-based internet world with ease. Images appear on the screen, but he doesn’t see them: Kucheryavyy’s been blind since the age of nine.
“If you go to one of the conventions for the National Federation of the Blind, you’ll hear thousands of phones making these sounds,” he tells VICE. “Apple has figured out that if they build these things on the front end, and make them accessible, there is a giant community of people who will reimburse their investment.”
As Kucheryavyy explains this, a handful of students at the Colorado Center for the Blind (CCB) sit at computers with no monitors, wearing thick black “sleep masks” and headphones. It looks like a scene out of The Who’s Tommy, but instead of training to be pinball wizards, these students are learning how to navigate the internet while blind.
They are being trained on the Jaws Screen Reader, which converts words into speech as they use the arrow keys to manipulate the cursor, tapping through button after button on each page. Considering the deluge of information displayed on a given webpage, you can imagine the encyclopedic mass of words they go through just by checking their email, or reading a blog post. In some ways, these programs have been a godsend for the blind, granting them access to a universe of digital information that would’ve been inaccessible to them on a screen. However, many apps, websites, and social media pages are still not constructed with the blind in mind, and are often incompatible with the programs they use to get online.
“Blind folks are always behind on computer technology,” says Dan Burke, head of Academic and Youth Services for CCB, in an interview with VICE. “The internet is set up for the click of a mouse, but we have to go about things differently. The DOS-era of computers was great, because the screen readers worked well with the text user interface, but when everything became a graphic user interface, things became dicey.”
Kucheryavyy often sings the praises of Steve Jobs for making his products so accessible for the blind. In classic Apple fashion, their products have readers to assist the blind already built in. Jaws, however, is a separate accessory that must be purchased in addition to a computer—it can cost up to $900 and isn’t always compatible with all websites and operating systems.
Although Apple is a leader in helping the blind to access the internet today, it was Jobs who pioneered the graphic user interface that made computers more challenging for the visually impaired. Not to mention, he was on a mission for years to eliminate arrow keys—a primary tool for the blind—from all Apple computers. At the same time, Jobs had always been enamored with computers that could talk, evidenced as far back as the first Macintosh unveiling in 1984, where the computer introduced itself to the audience.
In 2007, when the iPhone first dropped, the blind community was locked out of the explosive smartphone trend, because the touch-screen was entirely sight-based. Previous cellphones always had a braille button on the center key, but the smooth glass surface of the iPhone left blind users with no way to navigate the device.
In response to an outcry from the blind community, Apple created the text to speech program VoiceOver for the iPhone 2, which has gone on to be one of the most celebrated tools for blind internet users, transforming the company from a target of criticism into a pioneer for accessibility. Apple now has accessibility tools on all of their devices, included at no extra charge. Though these features have earned praise from Stevie Wonder and the American Federation of the Blind, they are far from becoming a universal standard of blind technology.
“Jaws for Windows is made by Freedom Scientific, and they’re by far the most popular screen reader, probably 70 to 75 percent of the market,” says Chip Johnson, a technology instructor at CCB. “You can run into problems with Mac because app developers don’t always follow accessibility guidelines. Just because you have speech software, doesn’t mean that everything is going to be accessible. Sometimes you’ll buy an app and it will work great, but then you update it and the voiceover can’t read anything on the screen.”
For a blind person on the internet, app updates are a source of dread and anxiety.
“With every other Facebook update, I can’t use it,” says Kucheryavyy. “And it can be days, weeks or months before they fix it. The other night I needed an Uber at 2 AM, but the app wouldn’t let me use it until I updated it, and once I did it was inaccessible. It happens frequently.”
With Facebook, blind users will often find themselves switching back and forth from a Mac with VoiceOver, to a PC with Jaws, to a smartphone mobile app, trying to find one that is compatible, in that moment, with the latest updates. Kucheravyy says he goes through this same process with LinkedIn, where one portion of the website works on a PC, and others work on his iPhone. Then there are portions of LinkedIn that aren’t accessible on either one.
“We’re in a time period where you’re going to see more of a push for Americans with Disabilities Act standards to be applied to the internet,” says Kucheravvy.
Enacted in 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibited a number of discriminations against those with disabilities, thereby forcing all retailers to make accommodations for the blind (and others) inside their stores. The internet was hardly the place of commerce in 1990 that it is today, so there was little foresight given to extending ADA standards onto the web at the time.
That began to change in 2006 when the National Federation of the Blind sued Target because their website wasn’t accessible to the blind. One of the plaintiffs in the suit cited a common problem with websites that aren’t compatible with screen readers, saying that when he tried to click on a Dyson vacuum cleaner he was looking to buy, the reader described the product as “Link GP browse dot html reference zero six zero six one eight nine six three eight one eight zero seven two nine seven three five 12 million 957 thousand 121.”
The case was settled two years later, with Target agreeing to pay $6 million to the plaintiffs, alongside $3.7 million in attorney’s fees.
In 2010, the NFB and the American Council for the Blind represented a student from Arizona State University, who sued the school over a pilot program involving the use of Kindle e-book readers in the classroom. The Kindle did have an audio function that translates text to speech, but in order to activate it, the user must first navigate a series of visual-based menu options. The lawsuit was settled with no damages or attorney’s fees sought by the plaintiffs, and Amazon promised to make the Kindle more accessible to the blind.
“For a long time the unanswered question has been whether websites that operate as businesses but don’t have a physical store—like Amazon—are the kinds of businesses that the Americans with Disabilities Act can address,” says Mark Richert, Director of Public Policy for the American Foundation for the Blind. “In the Target lawsuit, the court said that anything that you can do online that you can also do in the store, that’s the extent that the website must be accessible to people with disabilities. And anything [outside of retail] need not be accessible.”
Richert also cites a case against Netflix wherein a federal judge ruled that the web-based company was legally bound to ADA standards, as well as a California state law that offers no distinction between physical and internet businesses when it comes to disability laws.
“With Netflix and the iPhone, those are mostly for fun, where things get a little more sober is when it comes to Health technology,” says Richert. “If everything is online, and visually impaired people cannot access or use their [healthcare websites], then they can’t read their health records, or manage their health insurance, or communicate with their doctor. These are pretty significant barriers.”
Throughout my time at the Colorado Center for the Blind, independence was a subject strongly emphasized by every instructor I talked to. Being able to navigate the world on your own terms is essential to building confidence in the blind. At CCB, students work with power saws, cook large meals, and are dropped alone in unfamiliar parts of Denver, expected to find their way home by only asking one person a single question, without the aid of a smartphone.
“Some people have low expectations of blind people, and are surprised when we can feed ourselves, or get on the bus,” says Burke. “They think blind people are unaware of their environment, that because you can’t see things you’re therefore lost. But the best way to come to terms with being a blind person is to know that you don’t have to change your life. You may not be able to drive a car, but it doesn’t mean you can’t go downtown, or work in a job that forces you to rely on technology.”
“I’ve noticed that some blind people depend on their iPhones a lot,” says Chris Parsons, a technology instructor at CCB. Parsons often warns her students not to become too dependent on smartphones, since the apps can at times be unreliable, and because some students will use voice to text messaging and not bother to correct the inevitable errors of the words.
“Technology in a way is a beautiful thing for blind people because we get a chance to access a computer, or scan paper and read documents [through optical character recognition software and text readers],” says Kucheryavyy. “But on the other end, we’re suffering because the people who are using the same technology are distancing themselves in a personal way, in my opinion. Technology has been terrible for personal socialization. You get this environment on the street where they don’t communicate with you, if somebody is walking toward you, a simple ‘Hello, good morning,’ that would allow a blind person in a noisy environment to navigate around you. But we don’t say hi to each other. We’re so busy on our phones.”