Wheelchair ramps to get …online?

We all know that navigating public spaces in a wheelchair can be difficult, if not impossible, without ramps. As we move more into the online space, the ramp issues fall away, but the visually impaired now get access blocked by unconsidered design steps.

The online platform is largely visual and, thanks to innovative geeks and coders, there are fantastic software programmes and Apps to access this space on audio. …that is, if the developers comply to accessibility guidelines. Safari browser has a reader button that cuts out all images so only text is visible. This is useful for screen reading aids, but is often overwhelming for low vision or dyslexic readers. Text enlarging programmes are expensive, require training and need continuous upgrades. 

Many totally blind users access text online using open source or purchased text to speech software. If one is new to blindness, it takes time, opportunity and money to learn the necessary skills to access basic word processing technology. It is a mission, but not impossible. 

Whilst I am grateful for organisations that provide such services, my heart lies with low vision users, who make up over 90% of the visually impaired people in South Africa…many of whom are seniors. They can see too much to learn Braille and see too little to read large print. 

People with central vision loss, or macular degeneration, usually navigate the physical environment using landmarks and peripheral visual clues. E.g I walk 3 blocks and then turn left at the funny tree, then I use the entrance just after the dustbin and walk down the corridor to the person behind the counter where the red chair is. This way, a person who cannot see signs or faces appears to have no vision problem. The same goes for navigating online. We look for ‘clues’. A white stripe at the top right corner is probably a search bar. We can see where the edit boxes are, but the fancy greyed out description of what to write, is elusive. On familiar Apps we press the 2nd blob of blue, or the top left edge to go back. Who knows what is actually written there. 

With fancier designs on screens and moving images on websites, it is increasingly difficult to actually read a new or unfamiliar site. Often the writing is over an image and many times the colour of the font is the same as parts of the image. This causes visual clutter and is very confusing. 

One in ten South Africans struggle with dyslexia and, similar to low vision, have confusing sensory input that causes frustration, and sometimes even hopelessness. One does not want to take away all the fun from web and App designers, but keeping the space inclusive for those who are text handicapped, will increase the users experience and likelihood of returning to that application. 

Simple, logical and user friendly colour-coded areas would make navigation much less stressful for more people than you would think. 

Banks, public services and transport networks could really do with being more aware of the needs of people with sensory processing issues by considering sound-scaping, landmarking and simplifying, increasing contrast and colour coding to include the text handicapped. Who would not want 5 million more satisfied customers? 

 If reading is a right, then I trust that my writing this is a worthwhile read.  

Electric Books

Oh, my word!

Words create. Grouped together they form ideas, clarify concepts and uncover emotions. They can be breaking or healing, creating or destroying. Words, like single. little bristles on a hand crafted paintbrush, gather together in choreographed groups to curve, colour and create images that appear uniquely in every reader’s mind. Being able to see them, read them aloud, digest them and allow us to continuously form new thoughts, and so,‘in my book’ (excuse the pun) are a basic human right.

Recently my son drove me to the local library to pick up an audio book from the rather limited selection. AS we walked in I was overcome by the nostalgic smell of old books – a blend of dust, leather and tobacco…with a faint whiff of old style floor polish. It instantly raised the memory of my grandfathers study. I sniffed the air and reminisced aloud. He too, was yanked into memory lane by the smell of the pages, mindful of the joy of choosing childhood favourites that opened new worlds of adventures.

Tables of old library books filled the foyer and people of all ages, shapes and sizes were scanning through the treasures in search of those classic gems.

Acrid jealousy hung in my nostrils as I grieved the loss of being able to read a book. The fleeting emotion of self pity wafted over my heart with the loneliness of not being able to join this assortment of people enjoying the hunt.

Then I took my thoughts in hand shooed them towards thankfulness. It is a privilege to live in thees modern times where technology gives me access to electric books.

My cell phone does not quite have the same memory jolting scent (yet) but I do , with some double – tapping and poking around, get to listen some great books. Scan reader apps, and a little more effort, also allow me access to ordinary books and, for those with the privilege, there are some excellent audio libraries online.

My recent introduction to artificial intelligence, gives me much hope that the advance of technology will once again allow us blindies to put our noses back into old style books.

…and that’s not my last word on it.

Loo-king for relief

One of the toughest things about travelling to other countries is that signage and placement of almost everything is unfamiliar. I have a weird obsession for interiors that make sense for the vision impaired, illiterate or people who do not like reading.

Design for inclusion of all types of abilities is a little more complex than one would initially think.

I came across this really great loo sign in Toronto airport. The size and contrast is perfect for people with tired eyes or low vision as well as including a small sign for those with tunnel vision who have little peripheral visual perception. One of the signs is low enough for little people, children and and those in a wheelchair.

I also found a long textured tile pathway in the middle of the walkway, which most sighted people would not even notice. It is a useful texture feedback guide underfoot for those of us who are not quite sure where to go, as the corridor is visually ‘cluttered’ with display stands, street restaurants and groups of travelers standing around. I found it a reassuring guide.

‘Looking out’ for inclusive design seems ironic for a VIP, but I am grateful to those architects who take the time and effort to make it happen.

Finding a loo, without too much trouble is a real relief!

Following clothes

This morning I walked from a bright, sunny quadrangle into a shadowy corridor that leads down a ramp, through a doorway, into a foyer. It takes a long time for my eyes to adjust to the change in light, but today was my lucky day. Two precious people were walking ahead of me and one was wearing a black and white striped skirt, a perfectly elegant landmark unknowingly escorting me through the narrow doorway.  

I did say thank you and, since I know her quite well, joked about the usefulness of  the vertical pedestrian crossing! We laughed together about the odd behavior required by people with confusing vision. It only then dawned on me that I have something to write about: the usefulness of following bright clothing, bags, prams, rolling suitcases and the like. 

Public spaces , and public transport, are often very difficult to navigate… without the public. Insufficient colour contrasts, lack of decor landmarks and complicated signage often make moving about alone quite trying.

Thank God for people.

Camouflage Carpet

We inherited a beautiful Persian carpet from relatives who immigrated. It is plush and colourful with a bold black background. We decided to put it into our bedroom and it is there that I discovered it’s mischievous, secret addiction. If I take off my slippers next to the bed, they are nowhere to be seen in the morning. I have lost shoes, cell phone chargers, handbags and even the dog on this carpet. It is only when I close my eyes and feel around the floor, or stand on a yelping pet that I know it is not really the camouflage carpet, but my inability to see detail. The surprises on the floor keep me chuckling.

Our next carpet will be monochrome!!

Sunshine Surprise

It was a cold, crisp Friday morning as I pulled on my gloves and headed down our sunny driveway to start my day. I had a spring in my step as I headed into the sunrise with all the joys of a new day playing hopefully in my minds eye. Our complex was peaceful and I presumed all residents were out an about, so the “hello” from the shadow bumped me right off my rails. I let out a whoop, quickly followed by a laugh and I think my neighbour got a bigger fright than I did.

Oh, the joys of low vision and not being able to see anything in a shadow!

We both recovered with friendly apologies and explanations…and now he knows that my mobility cane is not just an optional accessory.

Low vision awareness, happena one awkward moment at a time.

Tongue in cheek and other mishaps

So one of the ways us ‘blindies’ get to manage tasks that require sight, is to use our tongues. As you and any damaged dental feature would know, tongues are independently intelligent, super curious seekers of adventure that can identify little ridges, gaps, holes and glitches. So, when my iPad is not at hand and my fingers are not managing to identify intricate detail, I give the task over to my tongue. It helps me find matching earrings, the eye of a needle, the type of screw or the hole in a bead.

So today I needed Andre to help me buy placing a blob of quick- drying Superglue on a little bracket to keep it in place. He put on his reading glasses (yes, we are that age) to do the job. The glue was not coming out, so I took the bottle out of his hand, put it in my mouth to feel the clogged spout and proceeded to bite off the plug of dried glue. As I pulled the bottle away I felt the glue on the tip of my tongue, the inside of my bottom lip and the back of my teeth. In terror of these all sticking together forever I bared my teeth and stuck out my tongue like a shrieking gargoyle until it all dried separately – not a pretty sight!

For future reference, the glue came off my tongue easily, it took about 5 minutes to wriggle the matting out of the inside of my lip (with a layer of skin), I eventually flossed some of the dried bits out of the gaps between my teeth and there is still glue on my fingers as I type.

I posted my mishap on a chat with other visually impaired friends thinking I was a bit weird. Well, one of the guys reads his credit card number with his tongue, others test batteries (shocking), read embossing on glass bottles, identify coins (after washing) and find reset buttons on watches and modems.

I know there is a Biblical reference about taming the tongue, but I am heading for training mine … to taste AND see!