By Ben Clare
What an honour it is to be asked to do the editorial for this edition of Blind Citizens News!
Just a few quick sentences about me before we dive in.
My name is Ben Clare, I’m 43, totally blind, a long-time member of BCA, originally from Sydney but now living in the small town of Shoal Bay, positioned on the shore of Port Stephens, about 60ks from Newcastle and a little reminder of where I’ve spent a large part of the past 15 years or so, working in several Pacific island countries and East Timor, doing everything from teaching kids in remote villages how to use computers with JAWS or NVDA, braille literacy, fundraising, advocacy, inclusive education advice to government departments, special schools and more. In fact, some of you may have received emails from me, asking for preloved equipment to be sent to the islands. To the many of you who’ve helped and continue to help, I can say every donation is well utilised and helping more blind and low vision kids than ever to attend school, university and/or gain employment.
Anyway, when considering a topic for this little piece, I was initially loathed to talk about the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic; so much has been written about it already, from every angle and from every “expert” point of view. The media continues to explore every perspective and of course, we all shudder when those numbers come in on a daily basis. Apart from formally acknowledging BCA which I believe is doing a fantastic job advocating in exceptionally difficult times, how BCA is flourishing when so many other organisations are not, I didn’t have an appetite for talking more about the pandemic. I wouldn’t have except for what happened over the Christmas/New Year period, what is continuing to happen at the time of writing and which I hope will be a distant memory when you are reading this. I’m referring to how PCR testing centres became overwhelmed in most states and territories, partly due to the increase in demand and also because so many places were shut down over the holidays; the panic this caused and how the government reacted by pivoting to rapid antigen tests, these do it yourself little numbers that I’m told somewhat resemble pregnancy tests, which have been available in most states since October but largely rubbished as being inaccurate or not accurate enough, until there was no alternative and suddenly they were a hot commodity and getting your hands on a single RAT as they are known is like looking for a needle in a haystack.
This frenzy, while also reminding me of the toilet paper fiasco at the beginning of the pandemic also prompted me to think about something that often affects us as blind and vision impaired people, the lag between technology becoming available and when it is accessible to us.
The other day I was thinking about the good old days when I was in year 11 at Northholm Grammar School in Sydney in the mid to late 90’s. Prior to that, I had done my time in blind schools where braille was the norm, along with note takers such as the Eureka, Keynote and for a special treat, we could use the old Apple 2E which had a speech synthesiser attached to it. At that time, I thought blind people had the same access to technology as everyone else, only learning differently when I went to Northholm, being the only blind student there. My Eureka A4 was reliable enough and I thought it was the most advanced form of technology available. The boring laptops the other students were using didn’t have the advanced music composer and they couldn’t get away with playing a game of Aliens during a study period or even in an exam if the actual work was completed early. In fact, most of my friends were quite jealous of me and my Eureka.
I was in for a rude shock when during a history class, the teacher said we were going to the computer lab to do some Internet research about Prohibition in the US. I had only the vaguest notions of what the Internet was at that time and that class became memorable for much more than learning about the Volstead Act. I became fascinated with how the teacher could log onto websites based in other countries, how she used Yahoo! and AltaVista to search for specific information and how she printed information and handed it out to the students (I had to wait for it to be transcribed into braille.)
I fervently hoped the Eureka could connect to this amazing information super highway using the Communications program. It worked on bulletin boards so why not the Internet? Disappointment was immense when I realised my little Eureka was being superseded and for the moment, the Internet was an inaccessible tool for blind people. While the Internet was being utilised as early as 1993, only 4 years after HTML opened the way for web pages we still browse today, it wasn’t until 1999 when browsing the Internet really became accessible with the introduction of the Virtual PC Cursor in JAWS version 3.31, released in October.
Fortunately, the lag in technology becoming accessible has decreased markedly, with more mainstream products than ever before accessible on release or shortly afterward. However, many challenges remain and keep us advocates on our toes; everything from EFTPOS machines, inaccessible websites and apps to assistive equipment affordability continue to pose difficulties and inequality.
The pandemic has brought into sharp focus how this lag can do everything from decreasing independence for blind people to the very real risk of us being unable to access essential services. In this particular case, I refer to the rapid antigen tests which are as inaccessible as you can get. The current design of all versions does not allow for independent testing, a very real issue given the panic surrounding the virus and the possibility of people refusing to assist, lest they become exposed to the virus themselves. Some units are tactile enough for the blind user to actually perform the test independently but would then require assistance to read the results and submit them to state government apps; as is compulsory in some jurisdictions at the time of writing.
Fortunately, Aira, our little American friend who does so much more than just finding lost items on the floor and locating the nearest McDonalds has come to the rescue in a way, offering to interpret test results and provide instructions on carrying out rapid antigen tests, an inadequate solution for some and not through the fault of Aira which is allowing a degree of independence in an area I believe to be very important, given the stigma surrounding the virus. The technology involved in these tests is very simple and it got me to wondering, why wouldn’t manufacturers want to design an accessible version of their product at the outset? Commercial viability is often used as an excuse, certainly the commercial television networks in Australia use this excuse when repeatedly lobbied to provide audio described programming. Apart from the fact Netflix and Amazon Prime have disproved this assumption by providing audio descriptions on all original and some acquired content, the same argument could be used for manufacturers of RATS, given we’re told again and again how the virus is more severe for vulnerable people and the majority of crippling restrictions introduced around the world are aimed at preserving health systems and vulnerable people.
While I don’t necessarily view myself as particularly vulnerable, this word would comfortably be applied to blind people, especially by those who are sighted and despite the risk of the word seeming patronising, a perceived vulnerability could come from the fact blind people rely heavily on touch for mobility and socially distancing can be more difficult.
At a time like this, a time when people are more self-absorbed and when we are repeatedly told RATS are the new answer to getting on with our lives, the lag in technology becoming accessible is very much apparent.
Were there issues with testing prior to RATS coming into vogue? You bet but the issues were quite different; then it was getting transport to the testing location that posed a problem for some. I heard several stories about how when someone ordered a taxi or Uber to collect them, all would be fine until the driver found out they were going to a testing location. Usually, the voyage proceeded because the passenger was already in the vehicle but the friendliness of the driver often changed.
Is it all bad news? Not quite. An extensive Google search came up with an article that had a single sentence about the possibility of an accessible RAT. A Chinese manufacturer is looking to develop such a device that would either give a tactile or audio result and it’s hoped it could be available later this year.
Keep an eye on Google though, technology just might move a little quicker and something might be available sooner than we think; we can but hope! I know BCA has its finger on the pulse as always.