When I first started blogging and was writing articles for BlindConfidential two or three times per week, I did so to add a more critical voice to the community of people with vision impairment. I wanted to show how AT companies earned windfall profits on devices that they could manufacture pretty inexpensively. I wanted to show the various contradictions I've observed in the major blindness organizations. I felt this community needed a social critic and as nobody else was doing it, I took it on and Gonz Blinko was born.
Thus, my more than 500 articles are almost all pretty critical of some aspect of the blindness world or another.
I've written a few articles showing progress in one area or another but this article intends to be a celebration of the many things we can now use that were inaccessible to us in the past. This is going to be in my personal essay style so won't contain links to other sites or specific products I might mention. This article will not discuss traditional access technology products like screen readers or braille displays but will focus exclusively on mainstream products that are now accessible.
This article does not include a comprehensive catalogue of all accessible mainstream products available today. In some cases, I mention a specific product or brand thereof but readers should understand that there may also be other products with similar features so I recommend you do some shopping before buying anything I mention in this piece. I should also mention that I've been told about some of the products I mention by blind friends whom I consider highly reliable and who help me with a lot of my other articles so I have not personally tested them myself.
If there is a single class of product that has improved the lives of blind people over the past decade or so more than any other, it is the smartphone and tablets similar to them. The first accessible mobile phone I used was a Nokia running the late Torsten Brandt's screen reader called Talx, Code Factory, a company in Spain, also had a screen reader for mobile phones but I never saw it in action. These early mobile phone screen readers were quite useful and satisfied my needs for a pretty long time.
Then, Apple released the iPhone 3GS and the world of mobile computing for blind people went from making and receiving phone calls and texts to more apps than one could imagine and it had a screen reader built into the device that was convenient and easy to use. google, Amazon and Samsung would follow later with accessible mobile devices about which I know little so would appreciate any comments a reader may have about these other devices as I've only used an iPhone for a lot of years at this point.
If we take a look at what a blind person might use their smartphone to do, each of us would probably have somewhat different applications as we all have different needs and desires. I would bet that there would be a lot of overlap in these lists too.
A smartphone can obviously make and receive phone calls, send and receive text messages and do all of the stuff early versions of mobile phones could do. They also provide myriad other features and apps one can install to do all sorts of useful and fun things.
For blind people, GPS is a very valuable feature for wayfinding and, along with a map app, it's available on virtually all smartphones. Sometimes if I'm out and about on my own with my dog and get a bit disoriented, I just ask Siri, "Where am I?" The response is an address from which I can reorient myself. I've also used the turn-by-turn directions in AppleMaps to find specific stores and restaurants in San Francisco while in unfamiliar neighborhoods. I've a good friend who swears by the app called BlindSquare as it goes further than just giving directions and tells you what is nearby that you might find interesting. I don't know of any current smartphones that do not have GPS and mapping software.
All smartphones also serve as small screen entertainment centers and, as we're blind, a bigger screen really doesn't help us much. If you've an AppleMusic or Spotify subscription, you're smartphone pretty much gives you access to all of the music ever recorded. If you're like me and enjoy podcasts, your smartphone will have a number of apps from which you can choose to listen to your favorites. I often listen to sporting events on TuneIn Radio and use some other apps for entertainment.
With a smartphone or tablet, a blind person has access to BARD, Bookshare, Audible, Kindle and some other libraries. Essentially, a blind person has most of the English language books available in the palm of their hand. VoiceDream Reader is an outstanding reading app for iOS and it connects directly with your Bookshare account so you don't need to use one app to download a book and another to read it. We've gone from ordering books on cassettes and waiting for them to arrive in the mail to having all of these books available with a couple of taps on the screen.
As far as I can tell, all smartphones support cellular data. If you left your house having forgotten to download something, with cellular data, you can do the download while riding the bus or walking down the street. Cellular data is also used in the wayfinding apps described above.
A smartphone also gives you a browser in your pocket. Most restaurants today have their menu online so a blind person can now read the menu independently and, if they are alone, they don't need to bother the waitperson to read them an entire menu.
One can keep up with their email and social media accounts with a smartphone so they're always up to date with what their friends ate for lunch. There are educational apps for smartphones that can teach you anything from playing the ukulele to learning to speak Mandarin. There are a few games for blind players that run on a smartphone. There are even Office suites for smartphones but I prefer doing those sort of tasks on a laptop. There are also a ton of communications apps like Skype, Zoom, Facetime and more that one can use for voice communication, holding meetings and in my case, making international calls which can get quite costly. And, there are many other things a blind person can do with a smartphone that I don't think about too often that you might enjoy.
Thus, I will state that I believe the smartphone is the single biggest step forward in technology used by blind people in decades.
What About Training?
Some blind people pick up a smartphone and can figure out how to use it on their own fairly quickly; others, however, have more difficulty learning how to use this sort of device and for them a group called Mystic Access has tutorials for many of the products I mention in this article, some are available for no cost and some have a modest cost.
Other Smart Devices
In the years since Apple released the iPhone 3GS, Amazon and some other companies have started making smart versions of a number of other products. Many blind people I know have one or more Alexa devices in their homes, while some have the digital assistant from Google or the weird Apple HomePod, various versions of Echo seem to dominate this market. Every morning as I drink my coffee, I'll say, "Alexa, play WUSF" and my local NPR station will start playing. I've attached my AppleMusic account to our Echo so I can say, "Play The Clash" and music will come out of the Echo. I enjoy some of the games Alexa has and, for a very inexpensive device, I like it a lot.
It seems that a lot of tv manufacturers are building smart televisions that have a screen reader built in. If my information is correct, Amazon is leading in this area and its fancier models have Alexa built in and can largely be controlled by one's voice. LG, Samsung and others also produce smart televisions but I've not received any personal reports about them. As these televisions vary widely in price and I'm willing to bet that their accessibility is not equal, I recommend spending time shopping for one of these to ensure it meets your needs.
There are also accessible set top boxes. We don't have a fancy smart television with a screen reader and all but we do have an AppleTV set top box. Like most Apple products, it has a screen reader and I use it to watch various things on tv. As with the smartphones, though, some of the AppleTV apps are not accessible. I know of other set top boxes but don't know anything about their accessibility so please tell us about them in the comments section below.
Ride Sharing and Delivery Services
If one has a smartphone and needs to get a ride somewhere, they can launch the Lyft or Uber app and with a few taps a car and driver will be on their way to pick you up and bring you to your destination. Almost every ride sharing driver I've had has been very nice and would do things like help me find the correct door at a very complicated hospital and, they help me find the curbside check in at the airport and they often carry my bags for me. Because I use a guide dog, though, I've had some very bad experiences with drivers (always of a particular ethnic group) who refuse to let us into their car. I know there is legal action going on about service animals and ride sharing services and that blind attorney Tim Elder is involved but I do not know the status of these cases.
With a variety of smartphone apps, one can order all sorts of things from meals to a new laptop and have them delivered to your door within hours, sometimes even faster. In most relatively populace locales, one can have all sorts of varieties of foods delivered from restaurants, they can have their groceries selected and delivered to their home, in legal states they can order marijuana and have that delivered to their front door, you can even order a new car without visiting a dealership. Blind people who reside in places without good public transit and may have trouble affording a ride sharing service or taxi can benefit greatly from these delivery services.
A lot of years ago, I worked on a standards committee called V2 that intended to come up with a standard for smart home technologies. We worked pretty hard for years to come up with the standard but, as far as I know, it was only implemented once to control a Roku device as a demo. In spite of our failure, though, home automation has arrived and an increasingly large number of appliances and other home amenities now support it.
Our home is still dumb. We have one device that can be controlled using home automation and it's our thermostat which I rarely change. I've a number of blind friends, however, who have done some terrific things with their smart homes and I enjoy hearing them telling me about something cool they've done with their system lately.
One can now control a things ranging from opening and closing their curtains to setting their home security system to the mode they want to running their dishwasher, washing machine and drier. Accessible appliances are here and I expect we'll see more come to market in the next few years.
Years ago, one could purchase a talking microwave oven but they cost a fortune; now, one can get a talking microwave very inexpensively, a solid step forward in the kitchen. While talking microwave ovens vary in price and some can be costly, Panasonic and possibly some other companies offer accessible microwaves that, rather than using voice, provide tactile controls a blind person can use easily.
There is also the InstaPot Smart which can be controlled by one's smartphone and seems capable of cooking a real lot of different things. This pot connects to wifi and can become part of a home automation system. I do know a lot of blind people who really enjoy this product. There are a number of different models of the InstaPot so you'll need to choose the one that best meets your requirements.
I've not seen an accessible stove but I can't say that I've looked for such either. A very good friend of mine who takes fine dining very seriously told me about an oven called The June Oven which utilizes both computer vision and a smartphone app to facilitate access to lots of features. This is an oversized toaster oven and costs around $1200 so it's out of my price range and probably yours too. He also says that this device still has lots of work left to be done to make it 100% accessible but the it already shows tremendous potential.
Health Care Devices
These days, one can go to Amazon or another major retailer and find a pretty wide array of accessible health care devices. Talking thermometers have been around for years but the prices on them have dropped dramatically. There are talking blood pressure cuffs, there are talking devices for diabetics and other talking medical devices out there. If your needs for this sort of device goes beyond taking your temperature or blood pressure, I recommend talking to your doctor before making decisions about a medical device that would have really bad consequences if it fails.
I should also mention that Walgreen's and possibly other pharmacies upon request will provide you with talking prescription bottles. This is really useful if you take a lot of different prescription medications. These prescription bottles can also provide a reminder to take your medication which can be useful if you become absent minded on occasion but, if you take a number of pills at the same time, you will be treated to a chorus of loudly beeping bottle caps all going off at once.
Exercise and Fitness
I will confess that I do not exercise much. I take a walk with my wife and dog most mornings and that's about the extent of my exercise routine. I know this is unhealthy, especially at my age (61) but, when it comes to physical activity, I've grown into a lazy sod. This has nothing to do with my blindness, I just stopped doing anything athletic over the years.
I'll be a bit hypocritical here and recommend that you exercise and I'm happy to report that a lot of exercise equipment and physical training trackers that are now accessible and can be enjoyed by those keen on perspiration.
I've a friend in India who uses an accessible treadmill so he can now know how far he walked without getting anywhere. Almost all stores that sell exercise equipment and sporting gear will likely have a number of smart products that you can give a try. Also, you can save a lot of money by getting this kind of equipment used and I'd bet some of the smart versions are starting to show up on the secondary market.
A number of years ago, I wrote an article for this blog called, "The Irony Of Inaccessible Music Technology." Plain and simply, as digital replaced analogue in music, the gear became less and less accessible. If you go to a GuitarCenter and ask to be shown guitar amps, you'll find that almost every one there has some sort of digital display which, of course, is not accessible. Ask to be shown recording equipment and you'll find that nearly every product has between one and many accessibility problems that will make it either very difficult or impossible to use.
The one major exception to the digital gear accessibility problem comes from a company called Native Instruments. They make a keyboard based instrument that, as far as my more musical blind friends have told me, is 100% accessible. They even made it so third party plug-in software is accessible. If you play keyboard or do any musical composition, this is definitely a device you should consider.
I often listen to things on my iPad using a blue tooth speaker from Bose. The speaker is quite small, recharges very quickly but, most interestingly, it also talks. It will give me my battery level, tell me to which device it is attached by blue tooth and it speaks a warning if the battery gets too low. I had an inaccessible blue tooth speaker before I got this one and I could use it just fine but the speech on the Bose is nice to have.
A number of years ago, there was a company that made a talking multimeter. A multimeter is a device used in electronics to test a lot of different things while working with electronics. When the manufacturer of this device heard that blind people were using it to do electronics projects, they removed the speech as they were afraid of a liability lawsuit from a blind person who got hurt working with electronics. I think they still make inaccessible multimeters. The first accessible multimeter I ever saw was at the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and it was an older unit that had a serial port on it. One of the MCB people wrote a program in VisualBasic and used the serial port to gather the information to speak to the user.
I've also heard of an accessible portable HAM radio. This came from China and, while not fully accessible, it was accessible enough for a friend of mine to use. I think this radio may still be manufactured but I think I heard it was no longer available in the US.
What About The Future?
I think the technology I hear most blind people talk about is the automated vehicle that does not require a sighted person to be in the driver's seat. A fully automated vehicle is still years away from being generally available, it will be very expensive but it will also be very cool. Unfortunately, I don't know how long it will take to get these vehicles on the road safely. One day, I'll hear a very optimistic story about automated vehicles and the next day I'll hear that there's been another tragic accident caused by a driver watching a movie on his iPad instead of looking at the road. I'm not holding my breath for the blind person edition of a Tesla.
I'm not terribly good at thinking up ideas for new accessible products but I bet the future will grow increasingly accessible and nearly all of the innovation will come from mainstream companies.
While blind people face all sorts of problems due to poor accessibility, there is a lot of progress happening in this area that is making our homes and lives more and more accessible with each passing year. Please do write comments mentioning accessible mainstream products in the comments section, also include products you wish existed as one never knows if someone will try to build it.