I have written before about how for people with disabilities, a smartphone is way more than something cool, or a convenience, but a real life changer in how people can interact with the world, be productive, and live their lives. For me, technology truly narrows the gap caused by blindness between me and the sighted world I live in.
As children grow up, a lot of their time is spent in school. As I think about my school days, I realize how much technology has improved since I graduated, and how today a smartphone can stand in for a lot of old devices, and do it well.
When i was in high school, I carried around a Perkins Brailler. A manual braille typewriter. It was heavy and noisy, but it was what there was. Taking notes in class was disruptive and I’m sure annoying for everyone else, so then I started also carrying a tape recorder. Along with those, and large braille books, blind students didn’t need to take weight lifting in school. Ok, actually I still had to in order that the last of my PE requirement was completed.
Late in my sixth grade year, Sandy, my vision teacher called my parents, and suggested that I took typing in summer school. That was when we really learned on typewriters, and more than two errors per page meant I had to retype it. I hated that class, but then i could finally type. I could begin to type assignments for school and hand them in like any other student, My Mom also suggested that I could also write letters to family and friends. Typing was a big step forward.
Around the same time, my parents and I started to hear that computers were improving, and becoming important especially for blind students, and that they would be the future. When I finally got an Apple IIe in eleventh grade, not only could I edit school assignments before printing them out, but I could also use the basic language to do math functions beyond my four function calculator. Today, an advanced talking calculator costs $700. I still don’t have one, but instead use several calculator apps on my phone.
Finally when starting college, I could replace the Perkins brailler most of the time with a Braille ‘n Speak, made by Blazie Engineering. It was a note taker about 4 by 8 by 1/2 inches that could edit up to thirty files and had 192k of memory. Later versions expanded up to 640k of ram, many more files, and also had a basic scientific calculator and stopwatch timer. Taking notes was way better, and I didn’t have to write rough drafts of papers at my desk. I still remember how on my bus rides to and from high school, thirty minutes each way, i wished I’d had a portable typewriter I could type with on the bus; the Braille ‘n Speak would have more than fulfilled that wish.
In middle school, I was fascinated with time and stopwatches. My mobility teacher, Brent, used a stopwatch to time me walking to places during my mobility lessons. When I studied how different materials absorbed sound and went to the science fair, my teacher loaned a stopwatch to my parents to help with the experiments. I was envious of classmates who had digital watches with stopwatches built in. My parents found an old mechanical stopwatch and took the glass off so that I could feel it, but it was fragile at best, but there wasn’t anything better at the time. There wasn’t really any stopwatch truly accessible until the Braille ‘n Speak about five years later. I now have four devices with stopwatches built in around me as I write this; it’s still nice to have and use now and then.
Brent also would let me use a braille compass on some of my mobility lessons. Later, a company came out with a talking compass, but it was only specific down to thirty degrees like north, north-east, east, etc. considerably less than the braille model.
When Apple announced that VoiceOver would be on the iPhone 3GS I was excited that finally the smartphone would be accessible to me, but I didn’t think that it would in the end, replace so many objects I used or had bought that were made specifically for the blind.
The 3GS was also the first iPhone model to have a compass, and it destroyed the talking and braille compass markets overnight. As mentioned before, the talking compass wasn’t very specific, and the braille compass couldn’t be read in real time. The person would have to close the compass lid and hold it flat for about ten seconds then open it to read the direction it was facing. The iPhone compass would speak down to 5 degrees accuracy, and also speak changes on the fly. The clock app also had a timer and stopwatch.
Smartphones can now take the place of an adequate digital recorder, certainly good enough to record a meeting or class lecture. With external microphones and third party software, the quality of recordings from smartphones can also approach that of professional level recorders.
Back in the day many blind students and professionals carried around books on tapes. Now with smartphones, one can download many audio and e-books on to their devices taking up much less space and staying way more organized as well as letting people be much more efficient not wasting time looking for a specific tape they may have forgotten at home.
When I used to write mobility routes for Brent, I would have to write down, or remember how many blocks between places or turns. Now with iPhone apps like BlindSquare, it’s like having talking street signs that tell you where you are, and landmarks you pass. This is on top of Apple or Google maps, that tell you where to turn and when you’re reached your destination.
Out of all the cool things that exist now, GPS apps are probably what I didn’t expect the most, and it has made traveling independent much more efficient and convenient than ever before.
One still needs good mobility skills for sure, but the smartphone can really help fill in the gaps which raises one’s confidence.
Some extra info: Blind students who attend many school districts here in America often have two extra teachers. They usually have a “vision teacher” which is an abbreviation for “teacher of the visually impaired” who help the student with braille, and other things that are different to do because of lacking vision. Another teacher many blind students here have is called an “orientation and mobility” teacher. These teachers help the student to learn how to navigate safely using the white cane. The student learns how to plan routes, cross streets safely, and use public transportation systems in their area.
Mobility and Vision teachers are required to be certified, and also have graduate degrees in their fields.
Some out there don’t do much more on their phones than play games, and any normal blind student will find a game they enjoy and play it too, but for those of us who are blind, the smartphone also helps us to keep up more often with our sighted counterparts, which is a huge game changer, that our sighted family, friends, and colleagues can but may not ever imagine until they observe it..
Yes, I know, I keep saying “life, and game changer” but I strongly feel that I cannot understate how much technology improves the lives of those with disabilities. If I were not disabled at all, I probably would not realize this either. I am not picking on sighted people in any way, I just would like if we all were more aware and more deeply realized how technology can improve people’s lives in amazing ways.
I know that smartphones aren’t all good though, and they are often banned from classrooms because of distractions they often cause. With proper restraint, however, their helpful capabilities can be more fully utilized. Here’s hoping that more understanding and balance can soon be achieved, so that students are allowed to use what they need, but also pay attention and learn what is being taught in their classes..