Commentary: On How Mainstream Technology Is Including People with Disabilities

April 20, 2017

I recently came across two news stories that show just how much technology has impacted the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired. Only 20 years ago, technology — both mainstream and assistive — was extremely complex and not necessarily accessible to people with disabilities. Nowadays, it is helping individuals with vision loss in ways never imagined before. Last Monday, a runner who is blind was guided through the Boston Marathon by Google Glass. This is something that I would have never imagine possible in my wildest dreams even two years ago!

Over the weekend, I purchased a new wireless printer. Since I had my previous printer for nine years, it was fairly outdated – I wanted to be able to print from my iPad and iPhone. Finding and shopping for the right printer was made easier thanks to my computer and screen-reading software. I could easily search different printers on the internet, read reviews and so on. After purchasing and picking up the printer, I only needed minimal sighted assistance to connect it to my Wi-Fi. Gone are the days when setting up a computer or printer required connecting several cables and installing different software programs!

Reading these articles, along with my recent experience with the new printer, brought back many memories from the days when technology accessibility was very uncommon. I began using a Braille notetaker to do my homework and take notes in class during middle school in the early 2000s. This device, which was about the size of a small purse, had a special Braille keyboard and display where I could read what I wrote. It also allowed me to print hardcopies of my assignments, which I could then turn in without needing a teacher of the visually impaired to translate my Brailled answers into print.

While these and similar assistive technology devices were tremendous innovations at the time, they still had their drawbacks. For one, they were highly sophisticated machines, and often did not work with most mainstream technologies. The Braille notetaker device I used at the time was only compatible with three or four of the printers that were in the mainstream market. Let’s also not forget the price. Most of the assistive devices and software available would cost upwards of a few hundreds or thousands of dollars.

Technology sure has come a long way since those days. Almost 20 years later, it gives me and countless others who are blind or visually impaired a level of independence that seemed impossible back then. Besides the numerous devices that are constantly being developed for people with disabilities, mainstream gadgets like mobile phones and tablets have redefined the concept of assistive technology. I no longer have to use specialized devices to take notes or access the internet. Portability and ease of use have also drastically improved. Today, different apps on my iPhone help me read audio books and print documents, identify money and colors and even provide navigation directions to unfamiliar places. Previously, I needed to have separate tools to do each of these things.

As someone who has witnessed the rapid development of technology, I am excited to see what the future has in store, particularly for people with disabilities. Assistive technology will always play an important role in the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired, as it has enabled us to be more independent. There’s no doubt that special devices like screen-reading software and Braille displays are still important for people who are blind. Nevertheless, using mainstream devices as assistive technology has helped open a whole new door of opportunity for us and increased our inclusion into society.

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