When I was eight years old, I pulled apart my mum’s new video recorder, much to her horror.
However, much to her delight I was able to put it back together again. That’s when she said my love affair with technology started.
Throughout my life, I was always interested in not just the way something worked, but how and why it worked the way it did. These days pulling apart an iPhone is a costly job and not worth the effort, however the software inside has become as interesting to me as the guts of that video recorder.
My first experience of accessible technology was the Franklin Talking Dictionary; it was the first thing given to me at High School back in 1992. By today’s standards, it’s a very simple piece of kit, but it was amazing to me because it was the first time I was ever able to use a dictionary without resorting to magnifiers or asking someone else to read for me. It helped throughout high school with my literacy and seeing it again at an RNIB Shop in Edinburgh recently really brought back the memories.
My next big tech adventure at high school was my Apple PowerBook 140. The school offered those of us with low vision the chance to trial these, and I suppose that is where the love affair with Apple started. I loved the big roller ball mouse and the hilariously funny voices like Fred and Bubbles. Making them say rude words during break always gave us a ton of fun.
Later I would go on to use the new colour PowerBook 540C which was a beautiful laptop most famously appeared in the movie Independence Day as the laptop that Jeff Goldblum uses to save Earth. Apple to the rescue as always, eh?
As I left school, and started my career, I moved on to using Windows PCs, and although I got on fine with them my heart was always in the fruit basket.
My vision was always what I called manageable. For many years I didn’t use a white cane or guide dog and in fact was often thought by others not to be visually impaired at all; as a young guy that suited me fine. However in 2017 all that changed when hypertension caused me to lose a considerable chunk of that vision. And it was at that point that the accessibility of technology was brought into sharp focus (no pun intended).
After returning to work I decided that it was time to make the leap and for the first time start to use a screen reader. As I work with Windows every day I decided JAWS had to be the answer.
By god, it was tough.
The first few weeks were hell. Trying to re-learn how everything worked without a screen was so challenging. However, the best advice I got from another blind person was to shut off the screen and just go for it blind! So I did… and after some time it paid off; I’m now able to use my PC without the screen (not that I can see it anyway to be honest) and I’m able to fully navigate my iPhone with VoiceOver. All of this took a lot of time and patience and I feel for anyone who has to go through this, but may I say what a difference it made to me in my life from a professional and personal point of view.
And my experience has taught me that accessibility is everywhere! From Microsoft PCs to Apple Macs and Chromebooks, to Amazon Echo devices and Google Nest devices all having their own magnification and screen reading capabilities, to new TVs featuring voice guidance software to help you find out what’s on TV, to even the humble washing machine getting an overhaul with features for the blind, we really are noticing that companies are making their products available to all of us.
But perhaps the most important part of all of this is that it isn’t being done to ‘be nice’; it’s all about making money… which is a good thing. I want as much choice as the next person and I want to be able to pay the same as the next person too. There will always be a market for specialist technology such as braille and magnification devices, which is fine, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of mainstream technology being available to those of us who want it.
So what about the future? Well, much like my mum’s old video recorder, I think it needs pulling apart.
I believe that the next logical step for companies to take is to dismantle the whole notion of accessibility in settings on their devices and instead offer those options as a way of personalising your product. From the size of your phone’s text to the loudness of the ringtone, to whether dark mode is the way you choose to look at the computer screen to whether you use Face ID or Touch ID to authenticate your device.
It’s time we started to include more of the world into the accessibility space and by offering those controls and options we build a society that doesn’t put itself into boxes. True inclusion is meant to mean inclusion of everyone, not inclusion at the risk of exclusion of some.
I believe however that the big tech giants are already on top of this, and the willingness to build so much accessibility and personalisation into today’s products can only mean a bright future for the blind and disabled community of tomorrow.
I am an absolute geek who loves technology. I also happen to be severely sight impaired and that has meant my journey with new technology has been challenging. What I've learnt is what I want to share with others and I do that on air in the UK on RNIB Connect Radio's weekly Tech Talk radio show and podcast, and on AMI-Audio's Double Tap Canada radio show and podcast. I'm also a very lucky husband and the owner of the world's coolest dog!