Rediscovering blindness products

In recent months, I have discovered a tendency within myself that longs for more focused, hassle-free environments or niches, where distractions are reduced to a minimum, and I can immerse myself in one thing, and one thing only. And that has lead to rediscovering the merits of some blindness-specific products.

A bit of history

Products that specifically fulfill the needs of blind users have been around for a long time, and in earlier years, were often the only means of accessing certain information or content. These range from everything like either tactile or talking scales and talking thermometers, and what not, to sophisticated reading machines such as the Optacon, and braille displays. Later, as technology advanced, some of these means of access were replaced by scanners, or as of today, cameras, both stationary and mobile, combined with computers and optical character recognition software.

And as accessibility has become more mainstream, so have many assistive technology concepts such as DAISY book reading or GPS navigation. The greatest example is probably the popularity of audio books. Originally mostly used by the blind, shipped in big boxes full of cassette tapes (or even tape spools, narrated by often semi-professional volunteers, and only available through specialized libraries for the blind, they have evolved into a mainstream way of consumption through services such as Audible. They are very popular among sighted consumers, and narrators are often professional speakers or actors.

Enter the mainstream of smartphones and tablets

While in the early 2000s, cell phones were still mainly made accessible by specialized software, for example Talks or MobileSpeak for the Nokia S60 platform, or special devices such as the PAC Mate were created to bring mainstream operating systems onto special hardware with a screen reader added, the advance of iPhone and Android devices in the late 2000s brought a revolution for blind and visually impaired people. For the first time, accessibility was being built into the platform, and no special software or hardware was needed to operate these devices.

Over the next couple of years, many of the things specialized hardware did before were transferred, or newly developed, for these platforms. To name a few:

  • DAISY e-book players with interfaces to certain library services for the blind
  • special GPS solutions such as BlindSquare or Sendero
  • the KNFB Reader to scan documents with the built-in camera
  • VoiceDream Reader to read all kinds of material, including DAISY, MP3 books, epub, Word, PDF and other documents etc.

All these apps fulfill certain needs for blind users that seem to no longer require the use of special hardware.

Moreover, the cost of these apps is far lower than many of the price tags for the special hardware such as a DAISY player/recorder, stand-alone GPS solution, or reading machines.

One thing that didn’t get replaced, and which is still as important today as it ever was, is a braille display. So smartphones and tablets usually also support braille displays, mainly via Bluetooth. If one is able and desires to read braille, there is still no way around specialized hardware for this purpose.

Problems crept in

All good, or what? Well, I thought so, for a long time, too. I even sold some blindness-related products such as my first generation Victor Reader Stream by Humanware because I thought my iPhone and iPad could now fulfill all my needs. And for the most part, they do, but at a cost.

And that cost is not, in most cases, technical in nature, but rather has to do with the sheer fact that the device I am running the app on is a mainstream device. Many of these problems are, in one form or another, also applicable to people who aren’t blind, but might impact them less than they do me.

Distractions while reading

Here I am, immersed in a book in my eBook app of choice, and the screen reader is merrily reading it to me at a comfortable pace. Suddenly, a notification comes in, for example a Twitter notification, crashing in like a loud bell, either chiming over my narrative, or even stopping it in its tracks. When it does what, I have not figured out yet, seems to be randomly switching. Granted, I can turn Do Not Disturb mode on in such a way that it even suppresses notifications when the screen is active. But I have to consciously do that. At other times, I might want to have Do Not Disturb on while the phone is locked, but get notifications when it’s on, so I have to go back into the third or fourth level deep Settings screen to toggle the option.

This is not blindness specific. A person reading in the same app will get distracted by a banner notification popping up visually just as I am acoustically.

Another example is listening to music or podcasts. With the mobile screen reader on, any notification will by default cause the normal audio source to duck (its volume turned down) so that the screen reader’s voice can dominantly talk over it. You can then either quickly silence speech, or pause the audio source. But what if you’re on your Bluetooth earphones doing something on the opposite side of your room from where your smartphone is? Suddenly, you have two voices talking to you at once. I, for one, cannot cope with two vocal sources talking to me at the same time. I either miss one of them, or don’t catch what is being said at all any more.

Reading e-books in braille

I don’t know about other blind people, but I found that, having tested several systems over the years, none of them get continuous reading right with a braille display. Doesn’t matter which OS, desktop or mobile, I was using, they all had flaws that made a continuous reading experience, fully submerging in the contents of a great fantasy or science fiction novel, a pain in the posterior. One or two of them had German forward translation of grade 2 all wrong for literature, forcing upon me capitalized writing, which is uncommon. Others would jump erratically around when pages were flipped. Others wouldn’t even offer grade 2 in a language I am speaking at all, and while I can read computer messages or code in computer braille just fine, I just downright refuse to do it with literature. It’s just not acceptable.

I also found that most of them did a better job in English than other languages, like my mother tongue German. And from asking around, i hear similar things about French or Spanish. But even in English, I heard several reports from people I talked to that the braille displays jumping around unpredictably at times causing massive reading interruptions, is a common theme even in English.

So after extensive testing and research, I can confidently say that all mainstream solutions thus far have failed to address one major part of my needs: Continuous literature reading in braille. The fact that there are several solutions out there that do braille grade 2 translations well in various languages means that it can be done, it’s just that it isn’t being done in all of the screen readers I tested.

GPS in pedestrian mode

Yes, there are lots of GPS solutions that try to address the needs of blind pedestrians, some more costly than others, some on a subscription model, others not. But all of them fall short in that they usually don’t integrate well with the maps solution that is on the devices by default, use their own map material, and some also use additional services for points of interest, but they all just don’t quite get the precision right that I’d expect. I was doing a little shootout with my best friend, both on main and side streets as well as an off-road situation in a park or forest. He was using a Trekker Breeze from Humanware, I was using my iPhone with several GPS apps on it. We both set landmarks and also compared how our devices would behave in situations with street junctions or other situations. We both went the same routes, so we had roughly the same GPS coverage. Let me say that, while on streets, routes were OK with both devices, although even there his intersection announcements were more precise than mine and my GPS apps would more often get wrong addresses than his Breeze, it was in the off-road situation where he really beat the crap out of my apps. The precision with which the Breeze alerted him of landmarks for turning points in park pathways and other situations was just mind-boggling.

In addition to these observations, I also noticed that my apps, regardless of which one I used, were all very verbal and distracting, trying to give me lots of information I didn’t need at that moment. And the UIs were all much more complex than on the Trekker, I took longer, even thogh I was familiar with the apps, to get certain tasks done than he was. And did I mention that I cannot sort two voices talking at the same time? With my screen reader on, and much of the apps being self-voicing anyway, I often found myself in situations where two different synths were babbeling information I could have found useful, but couldn’t keep separated because of the two-voices problem.

General inconsistencies and inaccessibility

One other problem that keeps me always on the edge when using mainstream devices are screen reader inconsistencies and inaccessible apps or websites. Any update to an app can break accessibility, any update to the OS can break certain screen reader behavior, or web content I might need or have to consume at a particular moment can prove to be inaccessible, requiring me to either fiddle around with screen reader tricks to kick it into obedience, or simply not being able to get something done at all. Yes, despite all web accessibility efforts, this is still more often the case in 2018 than any of us could want.

Reorienting my views and behavior

All of these problems didn’t dawn on me at once, except maybe for the direct comparison of GPS solutions described above. They crept in, and over time became more and more annoying, even a stress factor at times. Reporting bugs in the braille translation to various companies and projects have not yielded much of improvements, not by me or by other braille users. And others just cannot really be fixed without some serious rethinking along the lines of “Hey, the user is reading a book, so maybe we should be smart enough to not disturb them as much…”

So I thought what could be done to rectify this situation? I want to get less distracted while doing certain things, or get more precise directions when walking in my favorite park. I recently lost a lot of weight and became more mobile physically, so this is something that is more important to me today than it was a few years ago. But it must be an enjoyable experience, not one that stresses me out just because of the cognitive load of trying to compensate for my apps’ lack of precision. And as I get older, I can tolerate less of these stress levels than when I was younger. Was burnt out once, don’t need to go there again for sure!

It was then that a few things happened at once. I was talking to my best friend, and at some point, he mentioned that his belovid Breeze was slowly, but surely, coming apart after 7 years of heavy use, and that he needed something new. Through research, I found the Victor Reader Trek by Humanware, which combines two devices into one: A Victor Reader Stream and a Trekker Breeze. Since we’re both in Germany, we’ll still have to wait a bit until this device is released here, but it’s definitely something both of us are curious about. The Trek, as it’s called, can do multiple things well: Audio books from various sources, podcasts, and other media consumption in controlled, secluded environment without distractions, and it can do navigation in its orientation mode. If you’re interested in hearing a bit about it, I found the Tech Doctor Podcast episode on the Trek that was released a few weeks before this writing.

The second thing that happened was that I came across the ElBraille, a Windows 10 PC in docking station format that can connect with two models of the Freedom Scientific Focus Blue braille displays. I own the 14 cell version, so I asked a local dealer to give me one to try. It turned out to not be a fit for me, for various braille-related reasons and more, but it prompted me to look for other small braille devices that could be used to read a braille book that had been converted from a digital source. And because I was a huge fan of the Handy Tech Bookworm in the 1990s and 2000s, an 8 cell braille device that fit in the palm of one hand and could be used to read for hours and hours, I eventually landed with the Help Tech Actilino, a 16 cell display with many features similar to the bookworm. I’ll be getting a device in two or three weeks to test it for a while, and am very curious if I can use it to submerge fully in a piece of braille literature without the weight of a full braille book crushing my ribs. If it is anything close to the Bookworm experience, I am almost sure I’m gonna love it.

Conclusion

As I have been using many mainstream devices for several years almost exclusively until now, I have found that often, the sheer richness of them can cause a cognitive load that gets in the way of enjoying certain activities that are meant to help you unwind, just get to where you need to be, or otherwise cause more hassle than should be necessary. It dawned upon me that after all, some of these blindness specific devices could again have a place in my life to help me relax more or take some other stress out of daily activities. After all, these devices are a very controlled environment, and I could imagine that not having to deal with the inconsistencies of a screen reader, the inaccessibility of a website, or the translation goofiness of some braille output could be refreshing for a change.

I fully realize that this is not an option for everyone, and I want to clearly state that these are views coming out of my personal experiences over the past few years. These assistive technology devices still have quite a high price tag, and especially given the high unemployment rate among blind people in all parts of the world, and considering that government funding is not available everywhere, it is more important than ever that mainstream devices become more accessible with every day. But people also differ, and time has shown that touch screen devices aren’t for every person, either. Some people just cannot effectively use them. So the statement that for some, such special devices are still the only means of accessing certain content, remains as true today as it was ten, twenty, or thirty years ago.

Interestingly, I have also noticed this tendency to consciously take time off from the distractions of the smartphone has become more prominent around me. My partner, for example, uses a Kindle Oasis for reading books exclusively. It does not have notification bells and whistles, but she can zoom the text to a scale that’s comfortable for her eyes. As she once said: Books on paper can’t be zoomed. So this tendency to use dedicated devices for immersive tasks is a theme I am seeing more and more within people across a multitude of abilities.

Time will tell if this will actually work out for me the way I am hoping it will, but the desire for some simplification and reduction of overhead is definitely strong within me. 🙂

Disclaimer

The products mentioned here are purely mentioned as the result of my research. This is not a sponsored blog post, I get no money from any of the mentioned companies for mentioning their products. I did a lot of product research and looked at far more options than I mentioned here, but these were the ones I settled on for wanting to try them out.

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