Judd street: Where Progress Goes To Die

When i saw Google had released a new assistive tool, i was reminded of a meeting i had just under two years ago. The CEO of a large assistive technology company wanted to meet. I found this surprising as it was well known that i had progressive ideas on where assistive technology should be going. What would someone from the old guard want? Perhaps they were ready to change?

We met in a cafe on Judd street a few doors down from the RNIB headquarters. Quickly the CEO began to pitch to me their exciting new product. I imagine from the expression on my face they quickly deduced i was not quite sold. The product would cost around the same as an iPhone, increase access to information – but only the information on their system and apparently open up new ways for users to experience information.

I could not get over the capital cost. The intention was to sell a product at an equivelant price of an iPhone but with less functionality. THey intended to develop their own software that would run on a platform they had to licence, develop and partner with someone to make the hardware, deliver and support both hardware and software and make a great user experience. From a business and end user experience this made no sense to me. The only reason the product would cost so much was due to the direction they had chosen.

I countered with an alternative business model, that would reduce capital expense, ensure no hardware costs, leaving only the software. This would not only reduce their costs, but the cost to the customer and be delivered far quicker. I also suggested a mild pivot that would expand their potential markets and demographics. Essentially, i gave them a plan to make more money while delivering the product at a lower cost to the end user. Win, win.

I mentioned it would be vital to move in this direction as mainstream technology companies would be stepping on their toes before they knew it. This it appeared would be the final straw. I was told i was wrong and greatly misunderstood the capabilities of the blind and visually impaired community. It is worth mentioning i am blind they were sighted…

I realised at this point i had been brought here to be told my ideas and philosophy to making the world more inclusive were wrong. I quickly re-iterated my points that mainstream will be addressing assistive needs and please think about changing direction. But no, i was wrong. They boldly stated that mainstream companies would never address the needs of the disabled community. There would always be a market for their products. I felt this greatly misunderstood a few core issues. Namely, that the way information is distributed will change, as will the communities technological ability. If these issues were not addressed they would find themselves in a very difficult situation.

So today i present to you yet another step forward from a large technology company. Ensuring your systems are inclusive is the direction the industry is moving in, i don’t know why some companies still fail to see it. It must be something about Judd Street it is where progress goes to die.

Treadmill Training For The Blind And Visually Impaired

Training on a treadmill when blind has a number of challenges mainly interacting with the controls, monitoring progress and trying not to fall off. There are however, a number of steps we can take to make the experience as accessible as possible. THis is thanks to a few pieces of technology: an iPhone, some Bluetooth sensors and an Apple Watch.

The key to tracking progress is having two metrics. For example, time and heart rate, time and distance etc. With two data points progress can be tracked. Therefore, that is our target, to always have two accessible data points for progress monitoring.

Treadmill

Before we can start using technology to make tracking progress accessible, we need the right treadmill. Any treadmill that has speed and elevation as physical buttons will suffice. Generally, even touch based treadmills still have physical buttons for speed and elevation.

When starting the treadmill it starts at a default speed. It is important to know the default speed of your treadmill, to learn how many presses to get to a given speed. YOu can do this by using something like SeeingAI or ask a sighted person. From that point on its a case of pressing the buttons the required amount.

But how do you not fall off? Practice! After years of running on a treadmill i still find myself holding onto the hand rails now and again. So do not be afraid to hold on until you are comfortable. If you still retain light perception focussing on a light source and ensuring you keep it central can also be a great help. Additionally, using a physical tether you place on the hand rail can be helpful.

Wahoo

Wahoo on the iPhone is a fantastically accessible application that works with a whole host of Bluetooth sensors. The app is well worth exploring to discover all its functionality as you can create some very detailed and specific setups to suit your needs. The important thing to note for accessibility is that it has a highly customisable audio feedback system. You are able to create triggers for distance, time heart rate, battery level and so on. This enables you to create a system that can give heart rate every minute, battery level every 10 minutes, workout distance every 3 minutes. The customisations are up to you. I however, have an announcement every minute for distance, speed and heart rate. I find this sufficient for my training needs.

Heart rate sensor – Wahoo TICKR Heart Rate Monitor, Bluetooth / ANT+

The Wahoo heart rate sensor is a Bluetooth enabled heart rate strap. It is simple to configure, strap it on open up the wahoo app and add a new sensor.

Heart rate crucially is a simple and effective way for a blind person to train on a treadmill. Choose a heart rate zone to train in and off you go. A good start would be to run at 65% of your maximum heart rate. With audio triggers set to every minute this is easy to track and just requires you to adjust speed and elevation on the treadmill as you see fit.

Bluetooth foot pod – Zwift RunPod

**PLEASE NOTE: the Bluetooth sensor mentioned here is not the one i use. The sensor i use has been discontinued, with the Zwift RunPod its replacement.
Zwift RunPod
Is another sensor that will enable a broader range of data points: cadence, speed and distance.

The setup is similar to the heart rate sensor, open wahoo add a sensor and away you go. With multiple data points you can choose the ones you would like to train with. It is worth noting however, that speed is a difficult metric to train with using this type of sensor, as the speed will jump around quickly making it difficult to track. Distance or cadence are easier to train with. I have found the distance is accurate to my treadmill distance, so is an ideal pairing. There is an option to adjust the sensor within Wahoo if you find the distance metrics do not match those of the treadmill.

Apple watch

The Apple Watch removes the need for Wahoo and its additional sensors. It is capable of heart rate, distance and cadence. I find my watch tracks quite well to my treadmill distance. The one downfall however, is automatic audio feedback. I find that so useful when i am training long on the treadmill. I do however, find my watch incredibly useful for outdoor running and prefer to use it over the app based system on my phone.

SO what do I use?

Right now i use a combination of all the systems above. With Wahoo i use a 1 minute interval for feedback but still find myself tracking on the watch too. For treadmill training it appears we have lots of options and its worth trying them all.

If you have any questions feel free to ask and i will do my best to answer

Last year -> this year

Entering a new year always makes me ponder the challenges and goals for the year ahead. The past year has been the usual treading the lines of technology, inclusivity and running so the year ahead will cover those bases but in new ways.

Last year my two technology highlights were creating an eye gaze control system and working on user led accessible hackathons. The eye gaze system saw its first use in a real time painting robot, its applications however, are much broader and would be great to see it integrated with environmental control in 2019.

The hackathons were also a fantastic success. There was a careful and thoughtful focus in the projects being user led. This allowed a number of disabled people to nengage, highlight a goal they had and be a key driver during the hackathon. This is something we hope to grow not only this year but in future years.

This year I intend to work on the sonification of data to enable greater inclusivity within computer science and particularly machine learning. Interpreting and analysing data is an important step and the current tools are somewhat lacking. This will form my MSc dissertation project and looking forward to getting stuck in.

Through exposure to some incredibly interesting projects through the hackathon work, i also intend to do a few side projects around switch access. With a focus on zero force switch access, i.e. trigger switches without.a physical press of a button.

The inevitable over eating at Christmas has also ensured i commit to some running. My favourite side of running nowadays is helping others achieve those goals. So in the first half of this year i will be training with a few friends and crossing the finish line alongside them on their first races.

There is of course always the thought of pushing the boundaries, something that is never too far away. All i need is for LIDR to drop in price and that line of possibility will be moved forward once more.

HOWTO change the font size in safari on the iPad and iPhone

The ability to change font size can have an enormous impact on accessibility. Pinch and zoom is wonderful for this on iOS, but it introduces another problem. Zoom to much and you now have to scroll sideways as well as down to consume content.

There is however, a little workaround. You can increase and decrease the font size on a per site basis in Safari. This is done through a bookmark, adding two bookmarks one for increase and one for decrease. You can manually set the appropriate font size. Reloading the website will return the font to its original size.

To enable this feature follow the steps below:

  1. In Safari create a new bookmark, this can be of any website as we will be editing it soon
  2. Open bookmarks and tap edit and edit your new bookmark
  3. Change the Title to either Increase Font or Decrease Font
  4. Copy the Appropriate code from below into the link fiel
  5. Click save and repeat so you have both increase and decrease font size bookmarksd

Increase Font size

javascript:var%20p=document.getElementsByTagName('*');for(i=0;i%3Cp.length;i++)%7Bif(p%5Bi%5D.style.fontSize)%7Bvar%20s=parseInt(p%5Bi%5D.style.fontSize.replace(%22px%22,%22%22));%7Delse%7Bvar%20s=12;%7Ds+=2;p%5Bi%5D.style.fontSize=s+%22px%22%7D

Decrease font size

javascript:var%20p=document.getElementsByTagName('*');for(i=0;i%3Cp.length;i++)%7Bif(p%5Bi%5D.style.fontSize)%7Bvar%20s=parseInt(p%5Bi%5D.style.fontSize.replace(%22px%22,%22%22));%7Delse%7Bvar%20s=12;%7Ds-=2;p%5Bi%5D.style.fontSize=s+%22px%22%7D

Now whenever you need to adjust the font size on a website, tapping the increase or decrease font size button will adjust the font on your current website. This is a simple way to increase the accessibility of any website in Safari on the iPad or iPhone.

Apple defining the future of accessibility

with the public beta of iOS 11 now well underway, I thought it was time to dive in. There have been a number of improvements for accessibility but the two i would like to cover are smart invert and image description.

For the past few years the way we interact online has been changing. In the early days of the internet and indeed the early days of social media, interactions were predominantly text based. Now however, images and video reign supreme. This leaves the blind and people with low vision at a disadvantage. We now struggle to interact online. It is easy to miss out on the thread of a conversation if it begins with an image or if images are posted as comments. Facebook and Twitter have made improvements on this front, the former adding automatic image tagging and the latter allowing the user to add tags to an image. This is however, restricted. Not only to Facebook in its case but for TWitter relies on the user to add those additional tags. It is easy to see how restricting this can be for the blind and visually impaired. Dare to go outside these wall gardens and ;it becomes even worse.

So Apple’s new image description feature is welcome indeed. Interestingly within Facebook you now have two sets of tags. Selecting an image with VoiceOver initially reads Facebooks tag then a three finger tap Apple’s. This can give even more context to an image, as right now both systems seem to focus on describing the images slightly differently. Using the feature on twitter means for the first time all images can be described. It truly is a wonderful feature and i have used it multiple times in each use of an app. It is worth noting of course, that this works across all apps, so no matter where you find an image, a triple finger tap gives you that vital detail.

This leads me to Apple’s other new feature Smart Invert. Previously inverting the screen meant all images and media was inverted too. Now this is done intelligently and media is no longer inverted. This is instantly noticeable on the home screen, where icons are no longer inverted. Open an app with a dark background and the system is smart enough to know not to invert. This is truly powerful for people with low vision. This is the difference between not being able to see photos one day and you can the next. As an example, there was a point in my sight loss journey where i was unable to see faces in real life, but i could in a photo. This is because you view a photo on a backlit screen so there becomes enough contrast. However, with a white background this contrast difference can be lost and you no longer see the image. This smart invert corrects for that.

These two new Apple features for me are the greatest steps forward for accessibility in years. It is hard to put into words what it will mean for people to see photos again. Or even enable them to interact more socially online. Apple has now set the bar incredibly high for accessibility, the competition needs to take note. It isn’t about policy, its about ensuring people can always connect and engage. That is what true accessibility is..

AirPods, The Most Accessible Headphones

Headphones are an often overlooked but essential piece of equipment for the blind. Accessing a screen reader in the privacy of your own home in a quiet room is a simple affair, you can just use the loudspeaker of your phone or computer. Add some environmental noise, head outside or dare to venture into a coffee shop and the loudspeaker is no longer functional.

Headphones enable me to use my iPhone both indoors and out and about, i literally couldn’t use my iPhone without headphones. Therefore, over the years i have amassed a rather substantial collection. Everything from a cheap pair of JVC up to a rather expensive pair of active noise cancelling Bose. I am rarely seen without a pair of headphones and have them stuffed in every pocket and every bag.

I am constantly looking for the perfect pair of headphones, the pair that will make using my iPhone that much more accessible. Now i have found that elusive pair, the Apple AirPods.
The AirPods are Apple’s truly wireless earbuds. Two single ear pieces that fit snugly inside their own charging case.

They solve many of the problems a blind user has with headphones. Cables. Cables are a nightmare. Get them tangled in your pocket? Try untangling them when you can’t see. It just takes that much longer to untangle them. To the point where if I quickly need to access my phone i would prefer not too. The time taken to untangle the headphones ends up being greater than the time i needed to use the phone. So often i would either ignore a notification and vow to take a look when i got home, or place the phone close to my ear to listen. After all with a screen reader the only way you get privacy is by using headphones. Imagine if all your texts were read aloud? That embarrassing one from your friend is even more embarrassing when everyone in the lift hears it too!

So the wireless nature of the AirPods truly makes them more accessible. I can just quickly and easily slip them in. No cables to un tangle, just flip the lid of the storage case and they are in my ears for that quick check of my phone.

This brings me to one of my other favourite accessible features. Only using one of the AirPods. When you rely on sound to understand what is happening around you, having one ear focus on the screen reader frees up the other to environmental noise. Handy when walking down the street and handy at home or in a meeting. Previously if i received a notification in a meeting and hadn’t worn headphones upon entering i am left with three options. Ignore the message, go through the messy untangle process or interrupt the flow of conversation by having everyone hear your notifications through the loudspeaker. Now.I have a fourth option, just slip in one AirPod and i am away.

While out and about another side effect of being blind is generally having only one hand accessible. To navigate around i either use my guide dog or a long cane. This basically gives me no way to untangle the headphones, so i would often go for the loudspeaker approach. This is gambling with the possibility of dropping your phone as you attempt to juggle it around with one hand.

Now i just slip out one AirPod from the case, pop it in my ear and activate Siri.

There is one other fantastic bonus of using one ear piece. I double the battery life. Not to mention whenever i remove them from the case they are fully charged.

The AirPods truly have increase the accessibility of my iPhone by enabling me to use it in more daily events. I no longer have to remove myself from a social space to use my phone, these AirPods are increasing my social ability.

They truly are the most accessible headphones.

Thank goodness for technology

When my sight began to slip away, I feared losing so many things I love. After all, so much of our daily lives revolves around the ability to connect on a visual level.

My first love has always been technology and just as touch screens were becoming common place, I was unable to see them. How could I possibly interact with technology that was so heavily visual? There wasn’t even any tactility to the screen, it was a perfect smooth piece of glass. No raised buttons to identify what I was pressing, no way to memorise an elaborate process of taps and clicks – I felt lost. Lost but not defeated; I clung steadfast to the belief that there must be a way to adapt this to make it work to my benefit.

There was an unforeseen advantage- and as a result an adaptability – to this. The migration to touch screen forced the industry to reimagine how we would interact with these devices. The result was Apple developing VoiceOver for the iPhone, a gesture based screen reader. I didn’t realise it at the time but this would be my entry point to making the world accessible.

Now that my phone was equipped with the ability to read on screen items aloud, the phone became indispensable. It would be my reading tool for university, with all the books converted to digital form and my phone now reading them aloud. It would also become my window to interacting with the world at large – Facebook, Twitter, email all made accessible through this fantastic interface. It even allowed me to help my kids with their homework. It would creep into every aspect of my life becoming more and more indispensable as the days wore on. The unforeseen disadvantage: battery anxiety. My phone was now an extension of me, filling in the gaps that my lack of sight had created.

With the constant creation of new and previously unthinkable technological advancements, I wonder whether my main assistive device will even be the phone? Looking ahead 5-10 years I foresee a transitional period in the mechanics of interacting with our technology. One that will see a move away from typing onto screens and move towards spoken language, with a natural migration to a screen-less (or at least screens as we know them now) future. I believe that this technology is just on the horizon and something I relish the thought of.

Accessibility – low hanging fruit

There is a lot of low hanging fruit ripe for the picking within the inclusive design realm. So in 2017 what fruit do i think is the ripest?

Dark mode. This one feature alone implemented OS wide could make a huge difference to a substantial user base Not only would it solve a problem for the visually impaired for whom contrast is a major issue, but those with situational requirements where dark mode makes the most sense. Think late at night in bed, that white screen just makes your eyes ache.

So will there be an appetite for this in 2017? My gut says yes. If rumours hold true and the iPhone moves to an AMOLED display, we will see an introduction of dark mode. This will have a wonderful knock on affect of influencing design direction for a while. So not only we will see dark mode introduced at the OS level, but we will start to see a whole host of apps fall in line.

The dream scenario? Would be for apple to introduce a way for apps to toggle in and out of dark mode dependent on users preferences. This may be a visually impaired user using this feature instead of invert colours, or perhaps a sighted user having dark mode set for specific tie frames. I think this scenario is less likely than an OS wide dark theme and waiting for app creators to fall in line, but we can dream.

So lets see if that low hanging fruit is finally picked this year.

Lightweight night vision goggles

Night blindness is a common issue for people with low vision, especially those with Retinitis Pigmentosa. While your vision may be adequate for mobility in daylight, as the night draws in and contrast begins to drop, night blindness occurs. 
When i had sufficient vision for this to be a problem for me, I was always tempted by night vision goggles. There have even been research projects exploring this possibility. The good news is it can really help with mobility, the bad news night vision goggles are expensive, cumbersome and heavy.
Due to these restrictions i never quite took the plunge. But an interesting development once again has me intrigued in night vision. Thanks to a new breakthrough the advantages of night vision goggles can be had in a spectacle frame. There is still a need for external power, but great to see this moving forwards.
As augmented reality products advance it would be great to see this technology integrated to enable low light navigation.

Night vision goggles

Blind hiring? Use the blind

Technology has a diversity problem, as do many other companies. An immediate point of change is the hiring process, my interest was peaked from a comment by Leslie Miley, of Slack. It was proposed that a blind assessment process is used during hiring, stripping applications of identifiable data.

This is an interesting proposition and similar to one i have been proposing for a while. Don’t simply do blind assessments, use blind people to do the hiring.

Passed the application assessment stage, blind people really come into their own. The inability to see the applicant massively reduces implicit bias. It cannot be overstated how important it is to remove those unconscious bias that we all possess but find it difficult to identify. Removing the ability to visually trigger these unconscious biases will assist in improving the diversification of the hiring process.

But couldn’t you just wear a blindfold? Why use someone who is blind?

Apart from this being a terrible gimmick, social interactions can be difficult when you remove the vision of one participant. However, blind people have had years to perfect non visual interactions. To the point where if I dont have my guide dog or cane with me, in social interactions no one ever realises i am blind. I can maintain eye contact – which, greatly eases the comfort of the other participant, something a blindfolded participant would be unable to do.

Blind people have also been spending many years understanding how to read people without visual cues. Actually listening to someone, rather than adding a level of visual distraction. These advanced listening skills are something that take years to hone, and blind people have been perfecting them their entire lives.

So if yo want to diversify your hiring process, start by diversifying your hiring team.