For some reason I still don’t understand, a previous blog post generated a really lively discussion at a school for the blind far far away. I appreciate that this blog has readers from many backgrounds, ages and countries, and love that my opinions can open the door to some great conversations. One of the topics of discussion was regarding assistive technology (those braille/talking/large-print things that make many blind peoples’ lives so much easier). Stemming from that, when is it appropriate to be “treated like everyone else” and there by not receive any accommodations), and be protected and coddled so much that we aren’t required to advocate for ourselves at all?
Reading about this discussion, I took a trip down memory lane. As with all technology over the past 15-20 years, assistive technology ( braille displays, screen reading software, scanning applications) has grown in leaps and bounds. When I was in school, I used a Perkins brailler (think like a 25-pound braillle typewriter, which was as heavy and noisy as you’d think), a slate and stylus for on-the-fly braille writing, and a specialized notetaker (like a bad version of today’s tablets without a screen) called a Braille ‘n Speak to type out assignments. Computers took up lots of space and had to be pre-loaded with specialized text-to-speech software to run on the limited accessible programs available (my first laptop ran only Word Perfect and a braille transcription software so I could print out assignments). A transcriber had her own office and brailled my worksheets, tests, and books unavailable through provincial/federal resource centers – by hand in the early days, by scanning into a computer and printing them out on a big noisy braille printer when the technology was more readily available. Any assignments I did using braille, she had to write above the braille so my teachers could read them. Needless to say, while my work got done, I was far from being treated “like everyone else”; it took a small army and my own special room to get through elementary and high school. Now that I write this out, I owe a HUGE debt of gratitude for those who tirelessly did this work, so THANK YOU!
Over the years, technology has evolved. While specialized equipment such as braille displays, screen reading software, and braille printers are still on the market, many aspects of technology have been made more readily available to the general public. Optical Character Recognition (OCR) software is available inexpensively or free of charge, so scanning documents to read them can be done by almost anyone, sighted or blind. Some screen reading software (which reads the content on a screen in a synthesized voice) is available pre-installed on computers, smartphones and tablets; other options are available for purchase or free of charge, which leaves the market wide open to choose which software works best for a particular individual. High schools and colleges have teachers and professors emailing their assignments to students, and students being able to email them back; if a blind person needs to print out hard copy, printers are readily available at the local Staples for less than the cost of a microwave.
We are at a time when technology has opened up many possibilities, and yet it has closed doors in other ways. Even as I have been writing this post, I’ve seen tweets describing an experience buying groceries and having to ask for assistance because the debit pin pad is a touch screen with no spoken menus and no tactile buttons, or a customer wishing to contact a company but being unable to because of those distorted images on the screen that a screen reader cannot read. When is what we are asking for too much? When does requesting accommodations make us “more valued” than anyone else? For me, personally, it comes down to dignity and respect. I want to be able to go about my day as a consumer, an employee, a student, a patron just like everyone else. Yes, I use specific technology to make that happen, but it has come through figuring out what works for me, and has put me on more of an even footing than I have ever been. Technology can be the great equalizer, providing access to information, employment possibilities, education and commerce; making that equalization possible should be the responsibility of all of us – individuals, institutions, businesses and governments. If I ask for accommodations, it is something that will benefit not only me, but other customers in that store, other students at that school (either currently or in future), other employees in that office. Perhaps it looks like purchasing that screen reading software will benefit only that one student in the classroom, but in effect, it benefits everyone by giving that student an opportunity to learn and engage and educate the others.
So, while technology grows at a rapid rate, ask the questions, request what you need. If it can improve your access to information, employment, education or commerce, ask the tough questions. Ironically, what can be viewed as “special treatment” may be the only thing that will allow you to be treated equally. If we all stay silent and hope someone will come along and make our lives better, we’d wind up with such advanced technology as this… I think we’re a bit past that, no?