Sometimes, the technology gods just like to play with you. I’ve seen it when people have practiced and practiced a demo, only to see it go horribly wrong when it really counts. When the tech gods want to play with you, you must either laugh at yourself and the situation, or hope that a big hole opens in the floor.
I’ve been very lucky. I’ve read from refreshable Braille whenever giving an address since I got my first Braille Lite in 1996, and I’ve given hundreds of presentations since then. Some blind people say that the safest thing to do is to emboss a hardcopy of an important address, but you could just as easily lose it, it could get squashed, eaten by the ravenous bugblatter beast of traal, whatever.
Today, I was called up to the front of the room at the Blind Citizens Australia convention to deliver my address. I decided to deliver it with the help of my iPhone and my trusty Braille display. While in the audience, I checked and double-checked that everything was working. But when I sat down at the top table, I found that I had lost pairing between my phone and my display. Thankfully, the person introducing me offered a nice lengthy preamble, and I was sure I had time to fix whatever had broken. But as time clearly started to run out, I had a choice. Should I ask the speaker due to speak after me to go first, or should I just wing it? After such a long and generous intro, there was only one thing to do.
In a split-second decision, I decided to just wing it. After all, all those years of table topics at Toastmasters and live talk radio had to count for something.
Bonnie, who is here with me, noticed that things were in a different order, but didn’t realise that I was grappling with a major technology melt-down, so that’s something.
It’s All deliciously ironic, given the subject matter of this address.
So, if you were here with us live or listening on the stream, you’ll notice that the message is the same, but my prepared remarks are a little different.
Ya gotta love technology…and I still do.
Making the most of emerging technologies
Delivered to the Convention of Blind Citizens Australia, Melbourne, 14 October 2017
It’s a pleasure to be back at a BCA convention to catch up with old friends and make new ones.
Through the varied work we do at Mosen Consulting, it’s my privilege to see first-hand the impact that emerging technologies are having on blind people, much of it very positive. Through our books, audiobooks, podcasts, advice to small developers and large corporations, and our one-on-one training, we try to keep focussed on the fact that technology is here to serve us. Good technology is a joy to use, it serves the purpose of helping us complete tasks, making life in some way better or easier or more inclusive.
It may seem sometimes like technology frustrations are going to turn you prematurely grey. But look on the bright side. Even when it isn’t behaving the way we’d like it to, if you perform exactly the same tasks in exactly the same conditions, technology will do exactly the same thing in response. Children of any age? Not so much. My youngest children are all teenagers now, so the age of them saying super cute or super embarrassing things is mercifully over…mostly. But the other day, I upgraded my Apple Watch to the new series 3, and gave my old one to my youngest son, who is 17 and pretty serious about fitness. He kept asking me questions about how to use the watch, and finally, I suggested, quite diplomatically I thought, that he take the time to grab the Apple Watch User Guide for free from the iBook’s Store and give it a read. Other people familiar with technology will know that there’s a very naughty acronym summarising my suggestion, and I didn’t even use the acronym, RTFM, which of course stands for “read the …FLAMING manual”, because I knew he would ask me what it stood for. His response to my suggestion that he do some reading was, “why do I need to read user manuals, when I have you for a dad?” I made a mental note to tell my friends at BCA about that one, so there you go.
I’m definitely the tech guy in my extended family, and I feel good about that. I’m not particularly mechanically inclined, and what I know about gardening could easily be condensed into a single tweet, but I have a good track record of solving people’s tech problems. When you couple the fact that a blind guy can be the guy who fixes everyone’s tech issues when we all get together at Christmas with all the benefits we’ve gained even in the last 20 years in terms of independent access to information, our progress is staggering. Hopefully, my genuine excitement about and enthusiasm for the pace and nature of all these changes comes through in the material we produce.
With a brief like making the most of emerging technologies, I could easily fill the time I’ve been allocated with exciting talk of new gadgets and software which are already improving our lives, or hold the promise of doing so in the short to medium term. But I’d like to examine the question of making the most of emerging technologies from a different angle, which seems particularly appropriate given the theme of this convention.
The conversation I want to start today is a very serious one. It may sound like I’m raining on the tech parade, bringing doom and gloom to the party. I’m an optimist by nature and I remain excited by where we’re going, but we’ve reached our current technological destination with a clear vision, not by stumbling and bumbling along. So where do we go next? How do we make the most of emerging technologies for the betterment of all of us?
When we come together as blind people in gatherings like this around the world, we’re making an important statement. Through words and deeds, we’re living the slogan of the disability movement that has been used so often over the years that some people view it as a cliché. “nothing about us without us”. If you want to know how important that mantra is for our future, you need only look at how well it has worked when we have insisted upon it in our past.
When Louis Braille devised his system of raised dots that almost two hundred years later still delivers us literacy, independence, opportunity and employability, many sighted people couldn’t see the point in it. Worse, some even tried to stop it in its tracks, to ban it, to literally burn it. A blind man invented Braille, and blind people championed it, sometimes in the face of strong opposition.
In more recent times, a man not long blinded because of an accident decided that it was the beginning of a new story for him, not the end of a purposeful life. An education in computers ultimately led him to founding his own company. The man was ted Henter, the company was Henter-Joyce, and ultimately, another blind software developer, Glen Gordon, made access to Windows truly viable, when many people were concerned that the graphical environment of Windows might mean the end of the progress we’d made under DOS.
Blind people of course don’t have a monopoly on good ideas or on innovative thinking, but what you often find is that significant technological advances come from partnerships between the blind and the sighted. A chance meeting with a blind man on a plane led the brilliant Ray Kurzweil to develop the first reading machine in the world. Russell Smith, the founder of the company we now call HumanWare, and Dean Blazie, who also had a huge influence in ensuring blind people were carrying portable note taking devices long before sighted people were, all worked closely with blind people in the development of their products.
Many of the early assistive technology companies were small. They knew the names of the customers who liked to engage. They attended conventions like this one and listened to our ideas. Together, we built the technological launchpad on which we can now blast off.
While we were using these specialised technologies, advocacy organisations around the world were coming together to brainstorm, to dream, to talk and ultimately to vote on policy positions. The view emerged that because of the minority status of the blind community, governments had a role to play in nudging things in the right direction, since unimpeded free markets are never kind to minorities for whom departure from the typical product portfolio is required. Governments must play a role in espousing a view about what we consider morally acceptable as a society. So, particularly in the United States, with legislation such as section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Americans with Disabilities Act, the message began to resonate that if you created accessible products, Government was more likely to buy your products than anyone else’s. Or to put it another way, if you refused to make your products accessible, you could suddenly find yourself losing an awful lot of business. It’s that reality, the threat of a substantial loss of business in the lucrative government market, that brought the company that might arguably be considered the most successful in the mainstream to date at embracing principles of universal accessibility, Apple, to the table. Now, accessibility is a passion, a value in the very cultural DNA of the company.
Amazon finally got tired of the lawsuits, the protests and the pickets, changed their culture, and are now doing tremendous things in the field of accessibility.
People like us, insisting on a more equitable and just society, faced down the nay-sayers, stood our ground, and worked tirelessly to create the legislative and cultural climate that mainstream companies are now so willing to embrace. That’s an achievement we should celebrate, and must never forget.
Thanks to the stands we’ve taken and the partnerships we’ve formed, there has never been a better time in history to be blind. If you’re on the front line of advocacy, you will know that sometimes, other blind people call us whiners, complainers, ungrateful, often doing so by writing their criticism on the devices that wouldn’t be accessible today without the very efforts they’re so quick to condemn. Take a couple of seconds and give yourself a justified pat on the back.
The future is bright, but the future is not without risks. The principle barrier to us making the most of emerging technologies as I see it, is that as we become more dependent on technology supplied by some of the largest companies in the world, where screen reader and magnifier users are a tiny percentage of their entire userbase and a small component of major hardware and software development programs, it has become harder for us to truly influence outcomes. Just as is the case with the technology market in general, blind people are getting more things done on their smartphone than ever before. Apple brought a screen reader to iOS in 2009, integrating it at no charge on every device they shipped. The term “game changer” is over-used, but that truly was a game changer. Gratitude and a desire to make things even better aren’t mutually exclusive. We can be thankful for how far we’ve come, while realising that all is far from perfect.
Let me paint a hypothetical picture for you. Apple releases a major iOS update. When it’s installed, one of the most basic functions of the iPhone, answering calls, is broken for many users. You turn on the TV news, and it’s the main headline. Breathlessly, the newscaster begins with, “Commerce was plunged into chaos today as millions of people were unable to communicate with one another”. There are interviews with tradespeople, salespeople, all of whom had their livelihoods utterly disrupted. Apple’s share price plummets. Tim Cook holds an emergency press conference to say it’s not good enough, he’s sorry, there’ll be an inquiry about how this slipped through and a patch will be released tomorrow after the team has worked non-stop to create a fix and test it.
This exact scenario did in fact play out when iOS 9 was released. The only difference is, it just affected blind people, so few people cared. The problems answering calls were only present when VoiceOver was running. It was a bug repeatedly reported during the testing phase by many blind people, but it was released to the public nonetheless. Because it only affected blind people, it wasn’t headline news, it didn’t even make the news. There was no apology from Tim Cook, no journalist brought it to his attention. And the fix was not quick in coming.
If you think I’m bringing up ancient history to be sensational, ask any Braille user about iOS 11, the latest version of Apple’s operating system, released with serious bugs reported by multiple people all the way through the test cycle. And there is confusing new Braille behaviour possibly coming to iOS 11.1, which, assuming it isn’t a bug that will be fixed, few people will want.
In Android, Braille is improving but still lags far behind other platforms, and debate goes on about the lack of ability to configure multitouch gestures.
Those with access to the Amazon shopping app woke up one morning to find someone had unilaterally disabled Alexa support when VoiceOver was running.
By all means, let’s wake up in the morning and be grateful that we live in 2017, and be thankful for how far we’ve come. But let’s also move forward based on one important principle that underpins all others. We are worthy. When we buy a smartphone, we are just as worthy of a product that is fit for purpose as when a sighted person buys that same smartphone. We need to ask ourselves, would a company release with this bug if it had the same impact on sighted people that it does on blind people. If the answer is no, it’s unacceptable for it to be released for us. All software has bugs, but anything that materially impedes our ability to do our job, get our study done, and communicate with loved ones and colleagues is a step too far.
We are worthy, because as equal citizens, we’re protected by the same consumer protection laws as everyone else. A product must remain fit for purpose. Those laws don’t say that a product must remain fit for purpose except if you can’t see.
The next important principle that will ensure we make the most of emerging technologies is acceptance of this truth. When you manufacture assistive technology, you become an assistive technology company, and we must hold all assistive technology companies to the same standard. I’ve worked over the years for two of the biggest blindness technology companies in the world. I know how insistent, justifiably so, many users of those products are that they deliver on their promise, and that while no software can ever be bug free, released software is delivered without major show stoppers. If a major show stopper does slip through, they rightly expect action to be prompt, just as action was very prompt when Apple released a software update that broke cellular connectivity for some models, that software was patched within hours.
So, I’ve never resented the robust dialogue from users over the years that I’ve been subjected to as a product manager. This technology has an incredibly high positive impact when it works well, an incredibly high negative impact when the manufacturer breaks it. But now that major global players, with very deep pockets are also assistive technology companies, we have no reason not to hold them to the same standards of excellence.
With assuredness that we are worthy of a quality product that is fit for purpose, we come back to the mantra that has underpinned everything we’ve achieved to date. Nothing about us without us. When companies enter a new geographical market, they spend time researching the culture and the kind of features that are appropriate. We in the blind community have developed our own culture of dialogue over our technology. Our culture expects to be included, consulted, and respected. To get the products we want, we must hold fast to those cultural expectations and insist that if you want to serve us, you treat us as we expect to be treated.
People living blindness every day, in conjunction with the incredibly skilled people these companies employ, are a formidable and unbeatable combination. But if that dialogue doesn’t happen, the consequences are time-wasting at best, downright disruptive at worst. If you read my blog or listen to my Blind Side Podcast, you’ll be aware of the controversy surrounding a decision Apple made, objected to by many testers before release but not reversed despite those objections, where the actions rotor in Mail operated inconsistently compared with much of the rest of iOS, causing many busy people to inadvertently delete emails. That sort of thing would not happen if our feedback was truly being heeded at a time when it could make a difference.
In roles I’ve held over the years, I’ve met many an excited software developer or inventor who believe they’ve come up with the next big game-changer for the blind. Sometimes, they have. But not a single project I’ve ever been involved with hasn’t been refined for the better because of meaningful dialogue with real blind people at the formative stage. It is too easy for big companies to think that because their product talks, they’ve fulfilled their obligations. Accessibility and usability are two different things.
In conclusion, we’re on a thrilling journey of new opportunities and the smashing down of barriers, thanks to constant technological innovation. What a wonderful age in which to be alive. I’m delighted by how far we’ve come in wide societal acceptance of the notion that products should be accessible to us. There are still gaps, and we must continue with the same advocacy strategies that have won us our victories so far. But we know that disastrous things happen when we allow ourselves to be the people for whom things are done, rather than the people with whom things are done. To make the most of emerging technologies, let’s affirm that we are worthy, it’s our future, and in partnership with the best and brightest, we’ll make it come true together.