Tech for the visually impaired will bring tears to your eyes

Tech for the visually impaired will bring tears to your eyes

Summary: How can someone carry on using the internet if they can't read? Assistive technology is there to help, but it's hit and miss — mostly miss.

TOPICS: After Hours

There was a time over the summer when it looked very likely that I'd lose the ability to read altogether.

I'd already lost all central vision in my right eye earlier in the year and was relying on my (congenitally weak) left; at the end of May, that too started to go down the same path. (If you're interested in what happened, look up AION, then ODD-AION).


Once you've spotted it starting, the progress of the degradation goes on over three weeks or so. Which raises an interesting question: what do you do as you drift towards your own personal black hole?

READ THIS: Going blind in a digital world: The road to reclaiming my web sight 

I decided not to settle down with a favourite book or catch up on politics, nor even to buy in a couple of crates of fine Islay malt, but to try and get things set up at home with whatever tech aids would let me carry on as best as possible on the other side of the Schwarzchild radius.

(That's a logical step, but one that's incredibly hard to take. It means accepting things that you are otherwise trying to keep outside your psyche for reasons of sanity and hope.)

Assistive technology

So, I asked people. I explored online. How can I carry on using the internet if I can't read? There's a whole field called assistive technology that sets out to turn text to speech and speech to text, navigate the visual through the audible and tactile, and add layers of access onto systems designed in other ways. Like the pre-AION me, you probably know something of this and imagine that it's like a switch you throw.

It all looked intensely frustrating and piecemeal, and with a huge amount of learning required — and with no particular continuity of progress after that

Oh boy, is it not. I won't go into details, but what I found was nearly enough to get me back on the whisky survival plan. What there is, is hit and miss — and mostly miss.

The big names in the field are very expensive and very restrictive. It's easy to imagine that they were designed primarily to work with a subset of enterprise IT in a certain way, and are priced as if they're a monopoly product. Almost as if they're designed to tick boxes for companies with legal obligations to their visually impaired employees, rather than providing as good an access to as many systems for as many people as possible. It's probably a great business plan, but not one I would elect to support.

Then there is a whole swathe of other products, which work better or worse at various tasks. If you want to write and read pure text, you're probably in luck: if you want to navigate the modern web and have any chance of doing what you need to do, you're probably out of it. It all looked intensely frustrating and piecemeal, and with a huge amount of learning required — and with no particular continuity of progress after that. I was staring lock-in in the face, and not in a particularly nice place.

Gmail fail

One of the things I tried particularly hard to do was get audio access to my Gmail. Google has its own accessibility projects within Chrome — Chromevox to speak online content, ChromeVis to set colours — and as I largely live my productive life within Chrome and Google, and both have a history of genuine openness, that seemed like a good investment of time that surely qualified as precious.

I have to report failure. I found ChromeVox developers online, forums of experts and the relevant documentation, but I never managed to get to the point where I could go to my Gmail inbox with my eyes shut and find and read the messages. The documentation was incomplete and contradictory (typically because it was out of date and/or platform specific), and there was the usual cycle of "Try this, it works"; "No, it doesn't"; "Oh, no, it doesn't does it? I wonder why...".

I also looked at Windows, iOS and Android audio support for online reading and interaction. My overriding impression is that it's 10 years behind the times in all respects. Forget cross-platform, forget keeping up with innovation, you have to find a niche that just about works for you and devote yourself to learning how to live in it. To say this is not good enough is a sentence several curse words too short.

Shirking responsibilities

The industry as a whole is shirking its responsibilities shamefully; there are individual points of light, but no critical mass. I don't wish to put down the many campaigners and hard-working developers who see the problem clearly and work hard to make things better, but it isn't working. More — much more — needs to be done.

The world of the blind needs vision.

Then I got lucky. By the time I'd been through such discoveries, it was becoming apparent that the visual degradation wasn't going to take all my reading away. (It managed quite a lot but stopped just short of breaking it completely.)

Even limping along, visual reading is so much quicker and easier than having things read to me — and there's no particular reason to think it'll get any worse any time soon — so, gratefully, I left the world of the web screen reader. (It is a bad world, and needs some severely angry campaigning, so I may return once the dust has settled, with some severely angry words.)

With things settling down and some intense boredom setting in (people so overlook the workplace as a place of entertainment), it was time to get the editorial Doc Martens back under the editorial desk and work out what to do next. And that is the story for next time — I'll warn you now, it's not going to be pretty.

NEXT: Doom and zoom.

Topic: After Hours

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Time is your enemy

    "It is a bad world, and needs some severely angry campaigning, so I may return once the dust has settled, with some severely angry words."

    In the late 80's (ARPANET) and early 90's, surfing was text-only. Enter Netscape 2.0, and the online technology explosion. Your Schwarzchild radius started growing in leaps and bounds.

    It's amazing how many so-called "web developers" know absolutely nothing about accessibility. With every line of code, your Schwarzchild radius grows. Adobe swears Flash can be accessible; finding a developer who knows how is akin to finding a needle in a hayfield.

    It's not just the visually-impaired who will benefit. People with cognitive disabilities and reading disabilities find assitive technology very helpful. But until someone actually cares enough to scream, no one will hear (or read the Closed Captions on your Vimo / Youtube video - if you have them).

    If you're not part of the solution, you ARE the problem! Please... start your cursing, YESTERDAY!
  • Speech enabled tech both my parents are blind, this is their tv
  • I'm sorry for your trials, but I am also annoyed

    that you now feel it is everyone's responsibility to bend over backwards to restore your life to the way it was before you were blind.
    • Is sparing a cup of sugar also "bending over backwards?"

      It's really shameful how selfish some people are :-\

      More companies need to take accessibility seriously, it's really sad how little has been done.
  • Gmail and voice

    I have heard that Dragon Naturally Speaking version 12 handles gmail fairly well. I am ordering it for my visually impaired mother.
  • More tools

    Rupert, if you are also considering mobile tools, check out Robin for Android. It can read your gmail out loud, among other things. While it was initially meant for drivers, it's designed to be essentially eyes-free, and we'd love to optimize it further to be useful to the visually-impaired. Would love to get your feedback!
    • More tools for the blind — Talkler. Email for your ears.

      Rupert, there's a new app launching soon on iPhone: Talkler. Email for your ears. Talkler is the free smartphone app for reads-aloud-to-you, voice-controlled email. We're working with UMBC on the accessibility testing, and we'd love to hear your thoughts!
  • Not As Scary As It Could Be


    I can certainly sympathize with the frustration you must feel trying to adapt to a world with diminishing vision. I remember the definite adjustment period when I moved from using magnification software to using a speech interface. I'm not going to say it wasn't without it's challenges, but it can certainly be done. As a blind person, I successfully hold down a job in the technology field, and rely on assistive technology to accomplish most of what I do.

    You mentioned the high priced assistive technologies. As a long time user of the products, I definitely agree that there is a significant cost, however when you consider some of the things the software does, and the relatively small market of users, it is a little understandable, sort of.

    I'm wondering if you've tried any of the low cost options out there? System Access from Serotek, or NVDA? The latter being free. I'll warn you that NVDA's default voice sounds like a Welsch robot, but there are inexpensive alternatives, including Microsoft's default voice built into Windows 7) that are available.

    Mac users have the option of invoking VoiceOver, Command+F5, and this comes built into the operating system at no extra cost.

    You mentioned iOS. Were you looking at the built in accessibility features (VoiceOver, Zoom), or third party add-ons. I was super impressed when I picked up an iPhone and for the first time ever had access to a technology I never thought would be open to me: a touchscreen. I use my iPhone every day for business and personal tasks; compose and read e-mail, text message, browse the web, interact with social media, even make phone calls (I know, it's an iPhone, who does that?) and many other things.

    specifically addressing GMail. Using a screen reader, I find the best access is either with the "basic" interface (found as a link at the top of the page when a screen reader is running), or using a program such as Outlook and accessing through iMap. I actually use a combination of these options. Outlook on my notebook for routine mail, the Mail app on the iPhone when I'm on the go, and the web interface if I need to search, or deal with threaded messages. I used to work for the National Federation of the Blind's International Braille and Technology Center, and routinely advocated with Google for increased accessibility to their products. While access is not instantanious, nor even achieved as quickly as most of us would like, it is progressing.

    I'm certainly not intending to dump all this information on you as a criticism for what you're expressing. I can't imagine what it must be like to be dealing with this with no history (I've been blind all my life, I didn't know anything else)). However, I would like to encourage you and let you know it is possible to do nearly everything you did before losing your vision. it may take time, but the alternative techniques are there and you can develop them for yourself.

    I'm sure you, or an admin of the comment system, has access to my e-mail address. Please don't hesitate to contact me if I can be of any assistance.

    Tony Olivero