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Losing Sight But Gaining Perspective


I fervently believe that technology can solve many of the world’s problems. They’re just too many ways in which it is improved my life. During my life I saw the technological evolution from snowy black and white television images to a smart phone app that can read back to me the label on a box of cereal in a voice barely detectable from that of a human.


I’ve watched transportation progress from the thrill of taking a day trip all the way from Indianapolis to Cincinnati just to visit the zoo. Now I think nothing of flying from New York to Beijing for a weekend conference.


Over the past few years I have been slowly losing my sight; not that my uncorrected vision was ever very good. Since my sight loss has been gradual, I’ve been able to look for corrective measures or, as they are known in the trade, adaptive devices or tools. These devices, and the research that’s going into them, are extremely helpful to those with hearing problems, vision impairment, learning disabilities and poor motor skills, for example, those suffering from Parkinson’s disease.


I’m all in favor and very supportive of these efforts but they are mostly coming out of University studies and government grants. Few of them come out of profit-making corporations because most companies don’t see this area as profitable. I’ve gone to a lot of meetings recently with developers, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists and the two buzzwords are: “Mobile” and “Monetize”. I’ve seen some really wacky app demos lately that appeal to a niche market that on the face can’t make any big money. But somebody’s funding these things because they clearly think these apps will make some money. Developers focusing on accessibility, however, can’t seem to make the case for monetization.


This is one of the few times, since I became a journalist, that I’m about to become an activist. I’m taking up the mantle of “mainstreaming” accessibility tools. I want developers to recognize that accessibility tools are useful for everyone else. About a year ago, I attended a wonderful presentation by Svetlana Kouznetsova, a web designer who is deaf. The one thing that struck me from her talk was that things that seem mandated for small groups really accrue benefits to the whole.

One of the examples she gave was that the American Disabilities Act (ADA) requires wheelchair access to public buildings and cut-outs at intersections to make them wheelchair accessible. The main benefits were that ramps in airports made it easier for everyone else dragging along their roller bags. In my neighborhood there’s a baby boom going on and in every intersection there are several baby strollers competing for access to the cut-outs.


I had another interaction with Sveta at a new Meetup group focused on making New York City more accessible. She was explaining how difficult it was for a deaf person to deal with announcements in the subway. There are no visual cues, for example, when a train you’re on changes its route. Awareness is everything. Two days later I was on a train that switched from local to express stops. An elderly woman in front of me wanted to know what the announcement was about because her English wasn’t very good.


Gee, wouldn’t it be nice if you could not only provide real-time text changes for the deaf but also provide translation for the gazillion languages spoken in New York? Sveta opened my failing eyes once again.




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