By Kristy Schenderlein
Today, we observe Blind Americans Equality Day, also known as White Cane Safety Day. Congress, in 1964, set aside October 15 to observe the achievements of people who are Blind or visually impaired (BVI) and to call attention to the importance of the tool and symbol of blindness. It was President Obama in 2011 who changed the name to Blind Americans Equality Day.
Just as the Liberty Bell is a sound of freedom for the United States, the tapping of a cane is the sound of independence for the blind. This simple innovation from the 1920’s allows blind and visually impaired individuals the opportunity to move and travel safely and independently to work, school and around the community.
Not unlike the rest of the world, technology has changed the lives of BVI people everywhere. Many BVI use assistive tech to perform productively in their daily lives and in business. In tribute to the White Cane, hear is a look at a few pieces of clever technology that assists the blind community to be successful in the workplace and their everyday lives.
- Screen Reading Software – Screen readers such as JAWS and NVDA allow blind and visually impaired users to quickly and efficiently navigate through the computer and perform the same tasks as their sighted peers. In many cases, screen readers have even made a BVI more efficient. Take for example, reading a corporate memo. Average reading speeds for adults is around 200-250 words per minute, while experienced screen reader users will set the reading speed to 300 or more. Many operating systems are building screen readers directly into their systems like Microsoft Narrator and Google ChromeVox. Other programs can be downloaded for free or purchased for download.
- Smart Phones – Screen readers now exist on all Apple and Android phones. VoiceOver (Apple) and TalkBack (Android) are built directly into smart phones and can be installed with one click. This technology allows users to use their phones just as their sighted peers can. Simple swipe and tap movements can be used to read and write texts, use apps to conduct business and even use the phone for what it was designed for – to stream music, videos and games! While sighted colleagues are battling traffic, with the use of their smart phones, BVI can continue to be productive, while commuting on mass transit or in a ride share!
- Refreshable Braille Displays – A braille display is a device that can be used on its own or hooked up to a computer. Once downloaded to the display, a document can be read and edited on the braille display, which produces lines of braille using electro-mechanical pins. You can even take notes, type documents or read books and magazines on your display. Braille displays are small and portable so when creativity strikes, a BVI can take a note down anywhere!
- Seeing AI App – Seeing AI is a free app from Microsoft that harnesses the power of AI to describe the world to the Blind and visually impaired. The app uses AI and the phone’s camera to describe objects, people and text. A user can quickly capture a document, and have it read back to them or use the short text feature to immediately read snippets of information, like the address on a piece of mail. Seeing AI helps people with visual impairments complete everyday tasks in the office, at home and in the community.
Technology like these and the white cane have allowed the blind and visually impaired to fully participate in society. Unfortunately, however, an estimated 80% of the blind and visually impaired are unemployed or underemployed (US Bureau of Labor Statistics) in large part due to a lack of understanding on how BVI can perform the essential functions of a job productively. In observance of the day, take the time to educate someone or to gain some education from a BVI. Ask a colleague or friend what technology they use to get the job done. Or, instead of shushing a child asking about the white cane or guide dog that just went by, feed that curiosity with information. It makes the world a more inclusive place when we can take the time to learn about one another.