By Fiona Woods
BCA’s election platform for 2022 asked politicians to make technology work for everyone, especially people who are blind or vision impaired. We called on all parties to implement a nationally consistent program so that all people who need assistive technology can access it. We asked for technology to be used to achieve equal access to voting, banking, government services and products and much more. While part of BCA’s purpose is to remove the many barriers to people who are blind or vision impaired accessing the services we need, I believe that sometimes we create our own barriers. One of the major obstacles I needed to overcome before I was ready to stand for election as your President was my unfamiliarity with and level of discomfort in using technology. I am sharing some of my feelings about it here, because I am sure many of you will identify with them. While I don’t expect all of you dream of becoming BCA President, I trust a few of you do and I hope others will be encouraged to examine and accept your own feelings about technology and acknowledge how they might be preventing you from exploring the opportunities it offers.
These are some of the feelings you might experience when you think about learning to use a new phone, computer, website, app or program:
‘I feel the world has left me behind’
Personally, I was never the first to have every new device on the market, but, as a young woman, I needed to learn and use technology for my study and work. I had a Versabraille, a braille device which connected to a computer, and stored its data on cassette tapes. I also used an Optacon, a device which used a hand-operated camera and an array of pins to reproduce print shapes which could be read with a finger. These devices were expensive, unreliable, time-consuming and required lots of concentration, but they enabled me to get my work done. When I left work to have my first child, the Windows operating system, without any numbers or dates, was just launching. As many of you will know, if you are not involved in work or study, there are limited means of accessing technology or training in how to use it. My volunteer roles were performed in-person or over the phone. I considered myself unqualified for part-time jobs for which I might otherwise have applied, because I lacked computer skills. I found we were turning up to early morning soccer matches which had been cancelled at short notice, because I wasn’t able to receive text messages. Where once I could call the relevant member of my fruit and vegetable co-op to place my order, I was relying on friends to send email orders on my behalf. I decided to get a mobile phone and to learn to use it independently.
‘I feel fearful’
People who grow up using computers seem to have a natural curiosity about them. They will press buttons and open tabs, just to see what happens. I grew up being told that computers were for experts and involved special languages and that one day they would rule the world. I still worry about what will happen if I accidentally leave a page or enter an unintended field. In my workdays, it was all too easy to delete or lose whole slabs of text. When I first started exploring with my daughter’s rejected iPad, I used to disconnect it from the internet, so I could be confident I would not upload or buy something without meaning to. I realise now it’s not quite that easy.
‘I feel overwhelmed’
Everyone knows that the one truth about technology is that it keeps changing. This is particularly challenging for people who are blind or vision impaired, as new updates too often impact accessibility. No sooner was I reasonably comfortable with email than my soccer team and fruit and vegetable co-op decided to conduct their business on Facebook. One of my children also moved overseas and I wanted to share in their adventures. Joining Facebook made me anxious, as it made my information public in a way it never had been before. I asked my elder children to check all my settings and profile information and those of people who requested to be my friends; I still have them vet those. Facebook has seriously damaged some people and has an obscene amount of unfettered power, but for me it has been the source of information, connection and fun. I know more about some of my friends and relatives and can talk to them more freely than I would if we were in the same room. I have joined groups discussing parenting, baking, fitness and assistive technology for people who are blind or vision impaired. Beyond disability, I am part of my local community discussion group. Through my posts, I can give feedback about an event, recommend a book or tradesperson or ask why there are helicopters flying overhead, just like anyone else. If I choose to, I can offer a disability perspective to a discussion where it might otherwise be absent.
‘I feel out of my depth’
When I got my first iPhone, a 4S which was not the latest then, all I knew was to ask the Apple salesperson to turn on voice-over; they had to consult instructions to do this. Everything I learned was from the phone manual, YouTube, Applevis.com or from other people who are blind or vision impaired. It wasn’t long before I felt confident to dictate short messages and emails. I acquired a Bluetooth keyboard, which allowed me to type more quickly and accurately, and I started to write and edit longer emails. As I have the good fortune to be a NDIS Participant, I was able to use some funds to acquire a braille note-taker. Learning to use the note-taker was hard. It was my first such device. I was not familiar with the elements of a webpage or much beyond basic word processing. If I had not by then been a director of BCA, I might not have found the motivation to persist.
‘I don’t know where to start’
If you have used a computer or phone before with sight, you might be able to do more than you think. There are many online resources, although you may need help to locate these. You can use your voice to search or type in some key words. There are many places that offer training in technology; for seniors there is beconnectednetwork.org.au. Local connectors are unlikely to be experts in screen-readers or voice-over, but they will be curious about technology, and they may be willing to learn along with you.
Specialised help and training is available from most blindness service providers and you can receive personalised training from some independent consultants. You could use NDIS or My Aged Care funds or negotiate an hourly rate.
‘I can’t afford it’
Until Parliament provides technology for all, I sadly don’t have any clever answers for this one. It can be hard to use NDIS or My Aged Care funds for computers or mobile phones, as these are considered standard items that all members of the public need to buy. It’s not necessary to have the latest versions, especially while you are first learning. I am still using an IPhone6S. Ask your friends and relatives to give you their old phones or computers when they upgrade and to turn on their in-built voices and accessibility features. Take the plunge and start exploring.
I know many of you reading this are thinking “it’s all very well for her”. Despite my perfectly rational fears, I have not been hacked or stalked. I have been followed home from a train station and I received prank calls on my old landline. Fear did not stop me walking home or using the phone, but it taught me to use precautions. Similar prudence can be reassuring when exploring the internet. The E-safety Commission has some useful resources at www.esafety.gov.au/. I have taught myself new skills and added new apps gradually, over years, as I needed to or felt adventurous. I am still working to become a competent JAWS user.
I feel included, competent, confident and courageous: Now I can order and pay for my shopping, set my heater to the ideal temperature, find and make a new recipe, select appropriate music, and video call my mum all by myself, using my phone. To many of you reading this, these achievements will seem minimal, but they are hard won.
Although technology offers so many useful and worthy opportunities, what I most relish is the way I can use it for completely frivolous activities, like finding out who caused the latest celebrity break-up or watching the latest video of someone opening a box.
BCA is and always will be committed to ensuring that people who are blind or vision impaired can access information about ours and other services in many ways. In addition to our frequent emails and social media posts, we regularly add recorded content to our telephone service at 1800 033 660, we publish a brief update in members’ preferred format with this magazine and, for the latest news, you can tune in each week to our radio programme, New Horizons. BCA will always advocate for alternative services for people who are unable to use technology. Irrespective of our stridency, a whole range of services can now only be used with a mobile phone or computer. Remaining phone-based services are often poorly funded and insufficiently staffed. When I was a child, it was relatively common for neighbours to ask to use our phone or to walk to a nearby public phone box, because they did not have their own landline. By the time I had finished school, this was almost unheard-of. It is fast becoming the same with mobile phone numbers and email addresses. There are enough things preventing people who are blind or vision impaired participating fully in the world of technology. I have written this in the hope of encouraging some of you to examine which feelings may be holding you back.
For me, access to the internet has enabled me to participate in my many communities in ways which would not otherwise have been possible. If you have discovered new worlds through technology, please write and tell us about them. If you disagree with everything I have said here, please write and tell us about that as well.