by Daveed Mandell
(Editor’s Note: Daveed Mandell is a member of the San Francisco and Bay View chapters of the California Council of the Blind. He worked as a radio journalist for some 30 years and has been an advocate for a long time, especially regarding transportation, environmental and information accessibility.)
Without a doubt, the past decade has witnessed life-changing, mind-boggling advances in accessibility for hundreds of thousands of blind and visually impaired people around the globe. Thanks to a whole new generation of smartphones and tablets — and millions of free or low-cost applications — many of us can now:
- read current books, newspapers and magazines;
- scan printed and handwritten material;
- navigate our neighborhoods and beyond;
- identify objects, money, colors and people;
- send and receive email;
- conduct online transactions;
- play games; and
- obtain visual assistance anywhere at any time.
Developments in artificial intelligence have introduced a technology revolution that has resulted in access to the digital world and the built environment like never before. Yet, not everyone has benefitted from it. While the gap between technology “haves” and “have-nots” has considerably narrowed, most blind and visually impaired people still live on extremely low fixed incomes. By and large, they cannot afford to buy smartphones and tablets, and many of them have no Internet access. Although some of these people have bought, or have been given, Amazon and Google devices with voice assistants, for the most part this bright, new technology era remains closed to them.
The Internet has become increasingly invaluable, and even indispensable, for many people around the world, including many blind and visually impaired individuals. The staggering amount of information, resources, webinars, virtual meetings and community calls surrounding the current COVID-19 pandemic is a case in point. However, many blind people who lack Internet access have not been able to easily learn about these important resources and virtual events.
We in ACB strive to attain equal access with sighted people to the world around us. After all, accessibility is a civil and human right. However, despite the well-known digital divide in this country and around the globe, most sighted people don’t have to depend entirely on digital devices and applications to access the world around them. Without smartphones and tablets they can still follow signs, read print, identify objects and people, and navigate their neighborhoods and beyond.
Most dedicated devices manufactured especially for blind people are even more costly and unaffordable for low-income individuals. Unlike many other industrialized countries, the United States does not provide heavily subsidized or free assistive and mainstream technology equipment to most disabled people. Because of this glaring deficiency, many blind people find it extremely difficult to obtain adequate education and employment. They cannot compete equally with their blind technology-equipped and sighted peers. They cannot travel as easily as those blind people who have the latest artificial intelligence-based applications.
Most industrialized nations provide disabled people with a disability pension or allowance to offset the high costs of living with a disability. Not so the United States. Interestingly, however, one state — Missouri — does provide a disability pension to its disabled residents. A disability pension allows people to save money for such expenses as paying readers, shoppers and attendants, and acquiring money to buy mainstream and assistive technology devices.
One of the reasons that low-income blind people have been left behind is that accessibility to many aspects of daily life is increasingly based on smart devices and applications. That is all well and good for some of us. But is it fair to depend completely on this type of accessibility, which excludes the majority of blind people? Shouldn’t we also strive to advocate for accessibility technologies and standards that don’t depend on devices and applications?
Several examples of accessibility technologies adopted in the United States that don’t require smartphones and applications immediately come to mind. Accessible pedestrian signals are readily available in the built environments of many jurisdictions. We don’t have to carry devices in order to use them. Talking ATMs are now standard equipment at most financial institutions. All one needs to use them is a pair of earbuds. Tactile and high-contrast tiles warn us of subway platform edges. In the same way, truncated domes on street corners warn us to be careful.
Non-visual technologies in the built environment are highly controversial and, therefore, remain largely and relatively undeveloped and unrefined. Many physically disabled people feel that tactile detectable warnings are themselves hazards, because some people trip over them. Many wheelchair users detest them, because wheelchairs cannot often smoothly travel over them.
Several countries have adopted additional non-visual elements in their built environments. For some two decades, blind Australians have been able to easily locate bus stops, thanks to tactile and high-contrast bus stop indicators embedded in sidewalks throughout the country. In Israel, directional guide paths assist blind people to navigate train stations. Several countries have installed tactile and high-contrast directional guide strips in streets to indicate the center of crosswalks.
Some blind people feel that guide paths in train stations and guide strips at crosswalks are not acceptable, because they in some way actually obstruct the environment. For instance, they feel that guide paths in train stations often only indicate certain specific areas and limit where one can travel in these stations. They say that a profusion of guide paths can be extremely confusing. Questions arise, such as how does one determine where they actually lead? If there are several of them, how does one figure out which one to take, especially if they intersect with each other? Are guide paths and guide strips actually architectural barriers?
What can we do to ensure that low-income blind people are able to acquire at least some current technology which would allow them to participate in the modern world? If we are truly concerned about diversity and inclusion, shouldn’t ACB strive to ensure that all blind and visually impaired people have equal and fair access to the world around us?