This is the third instalment of “Access,” a Black Press Media three-part series focusing on accessibility in Greater Victoria. See Part One- Access: A Day in the Life Using a Wheelchair in Victoria, and Part Two- Access: Greater Victoria non-profit brings the outdoors to people of all abilities
Heidi Prop’s fingers run over the raised white cells on her BrailleNote Touch Plus. She easily reads more than 200 words per minute, consuming online content with the tips of her fingers faster than most people can with their eyes.
Without vision since birth, Prop doesn’t ‘see’ the words in her head when the pins pop up to form braille words on the android-based braille tablet, she instead hears them like a narrator. She’s sitting in an office at the Pacific Training Centre for the Blind (PTCB) in Victoria, but the braille display allows her to read and write almost anywhere. With a braille output, Prop can check her email, browse the web, download apps and more.
The device is a model of technology that’s added ease to her life, but not all aspects of digitization have made the same leap; many aspects of the internet remain hidden to the blind community.
For example, devices called ‘screen readers’ make web pages accessible, but often stumble when navigating inaccessible websites. Elizabeth Lalonde, PTCB executive director, opens a Wikipedia page on grizzly bears and a robotic voice begins washing over the screen at a rate too rapid for most of the sighted population to consume.
But before the screen reader reaches the information, Lalonde has to navigate a series of unlabeled links and buttons – small hurdles standing in front of the content she’s trying to reach.
PTCB helps people who are vision-impaired learn how to navigate the world around them – from crossing the street and taking transit to cooking dinner or reading braille.
The centre also focuses heavily on using the web – a skill more or less required in order to survive the modern world. But technology is advancing beyond the speed of accessibility, says Alex Jurgensen, lead program coordinator at PTCB, who adds that creators end up playing catch up, adapting their websites and devices for vision and hearing-impaired users long after initial creation.
“A lot of information is out there, but websites can often be inaccessible,” Jurgensen says, noting things such as forms, apps and anything with unusual or unlabeled text can pose a challenge. Scrolling through unlabeled links will have the voice reader say “link” with no further description and scrolling over an image with no alt text embedded in the code will simply read off the name of the image file.
Lalonde says Instagram, for example, is simply not worth using for the vision impaired. But it could be if people described what was in their photos, or if Instagram added an alt text option for each picture, so users could describe what they posted, such as “pug sits on a red blanket in the park on a sunny day.”
Jurgensen describes it as adding a ‘sticky note’ to your image – an easy step that allows those who are vision-impaired to access a prominent element of everyday internet use.
But some elements of the information age don’t adapt. For example: memes. Text created as part of an image is indistinguishable for screen readers. Jurgensen notes apps such as Skip the Dishes can be difficult too. Without labelled button options, he’s ordered food far spicier than he’s intended.
One exception is the iPhone, which becomes usable for vision-impaired users with the simple slide of a toggle that turns on ‘voice over.’
“Camera. Maps. Google. Finance Folder.” The robot voice used to guide drivers to their destinations guides Lalonde through her phone. She double taps on the screen when she’s ready to use an app.
But devices with built-in accessibility software are few and far between – a disheartening reality for the more than six million Canadians living with disabilities.
Lalonde and Jurgensen say websites and online content should be “born accessible,” with accessibility built-in as part of the creation, instead of as afterthoughts or available only through expensive or impractical add-on software.
People with vision-impairments aren’t the only ones facing challenges either. A huge number of videos fail to include subtitles or descriptions of content, throwing in barriers for anyone who has hearing impairments.
And the barriers are nothing new. The Web Content Accessibility Guidelines were published in 1999 by a group of international experts in digital accessibility. The guideline was used internationally to create digital accessibility policies.
The experts created a testing and scoring format for websites and programs, finding the most successful sites included criteria such as audio tracks (so people who are hearing impaired can understand audio information), the ability to re-size text, the ability to turn off or extending time limits on tasks, and designing consistently, so people will always know where to find what they are looking for when they are navigating the site.
READ ALSO: Victoria’s $750,000 accessibility reserve fund makes improvement ‘not the side project’
And while the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms included people with disabilities when it was created in 1982, it’s only recently that a bill relating directly to accessibility was taken to the House of Commons.
The Accessible Canada Act (Bill C-81) received unanimous support in May and is in the final stages of becoming law. Accessibility Minister Carla Qualtrough called the bill “the most transformative piece of legislation” since the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and called its progress “a testament to the work, commitment and contributions of the Canadian disability community.”
The bill, still not fully formed, is expected to include digital content and technologies law, likely based on the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines – meaning a number of official sites might be scrambling to get their content up to code.
“A lot of the solutions are fairly simple,” Lalonde notes. “But it’s a question of getting businesses and innovators to adapt accessibility into their process from the start.
“It’s a catch-22,” she adds. “Technology has made a major difference in my life and I know [in] the lives of a lot of blind people because it’s allowed us to access so much more information than we could access before. In some ways it’s been absolutely phenomenal, but … the lack of accessibility keeping up with the technology – that’s the problem.”
Jurgensen nods. “No matter how many steps we take forward it feels like it’s a cat and mouse game, and we’re the ones who are one step behind.”
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The Albert A. Ruel Road to Blindness
A 21 year old man stood on the beach at the Sproat Lake Provincial Park with friends early in May of 1977, and upon gazing across the lake found the Gulf Oil sign missing from the dock-side filling station there. When this fact was shared with his companions they glanced at him with puzzled looks and said, “No Albert, the sign is still there”.
That was the beginning of a road through confusion, anger, isolation, loneliness and discovery for me. It all began with a visit to a local Optometrist who could see that my vision wasn’t right, but that corrective lenses wouldn’t help. He then referred me to a General Practitioner, where I received a clean bill of health and an additional referral. This time to an Ophthalmologist. Immediately upon peering through the dilated pupils, Dr. McKerricher was able to see the problem, Retinal Vasculitis.
Now, you would think that all would start to improve at this point, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. You see, CNIB, from 1918 until 1985 only served the needs of people who were “Legally Blind”, a level of vision loss I wouldn’t reach until November of 1979. The words of Dr. McKerricher still echo in my mind today, “Albert, I don’t know what has caused this and nothing we’ve tried is helping to stop it, and you’re not blind enough for me to refer you to CNIB”!
In the middle of this transition from 20/20 vision to “Legally Blind” came the Motor Vehicle Branch and it’s rules of the road. On August 3, 1978 I drove a car for the last time as my vision had reached the level at which operating a motor vehicle became too dangerous, further intensifying feelings of fear, isolation and anger. Sadly, through this period the only available guidance and support was through family and friends, but not the experienced professionals I needed at the time. Although these support systems are critically important they can often be smothering and facilitating, rather than encouraging and supportive.
With gratitude, and some trepidation I finally was able to access CNIB services in November of 1979, and the world opened up then. There I was able to meet other blind people and receive the daily living and mobility skills required to live independently in this sighted world. I learned elementary braille and began to discover technology as necessary tools of independence.
Thankfully, in 1985 CNIB’s National Board altered the course of service to visually impaired Canadians forever. They added a third prong to their Mission Statement, “To promote sight enhancement services”. This opened the door to all Canadians who were beginning to lose sight, as well as those who had a fear of vision loss to access the full range of CNIB Support and Rehabilitation Services. So now, whether it’s someone’s Mother who is experiencing Macular Degeneration, or an Uncle experiencing the affects of Glaucoma, all have the ability to seek information, guidance and support as all involved deal with the fear and anxiety that accompanies such life altering experiences.
With the help of professional Rehabilitation Workers and Employment Counselors I was able to continue traveling independently within my own community, and even more remarkably anywhere in the world I desired to go. I managed to attend College in Nanaimo and New Westminster, as well as traveling to the Mayo Clinic and to doctor’s appointments in Nanaimo and Vancouver without assistance. All of this while living with some usable vision, but not yet needing a white cane for travel.
During the mid 1980’s I was a stay-at-home Dad and did all that was required of that challenging work, from changing diapers to preparing meals, and from cutting the grass to maintaining our home. I even took a woodworking course through Alberni’s Adult Education program and built and restored several pieces of furniture. Of course the 1958 Chevy Impala in the garage was my pride and joy, and I devised ways to do much of the work it required.
I also joined and participated in many community activities, like the local Car Club, and a disability support group that catered to the needs of people with many different disabilities. Of course, continued participation in family life remained of critical importance through this period.
In 1989 a secondary condition began to extinguish the vision that remained, which set into motion a new stream of professional rehabilitation services and supports. By the spring of 1990 Glaucoma had turned out the lights completely, and the darkness I had feared so desperately was upon me. Strangely though, I found this to be a great relief rather than the tragedy I had imagined it would be.
Through several professional rehabilitation sessions, and by joining peer mentoring and advocacy groups I was able to come to terms with this strange feeling, and to learn additional skills and strategies for living with no visual cues of the world around me. This is also about the time that I decided to explore CNIB as an employer, and to see if I could provide the sort of guidance and support to others that had been my pleasure to receive. Those 14 years were a wonderful experience of ongoing discovery for me, as teaching may be the best way to solidify one’s own learning. In other words, those we assist through this transition in turn help us all as we develop best practices and improved service.
Following a 14 year career with CNIB I also served the blind community as the first National Equality Director employed by the Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians (AEBC), and as a Basic Computer Literacy Trainer with the Canadian Council of the Blind (CCB). Most recently I have enjoyed coordinating the CCB’s newly launched Get Together with Technology Program in Western Canada, which brings to the fore my passion for assistive technology and the power of peer mentoring.
Without sight I have continued to travel far and wide, with trips to Conventions of and for the Blind in Anaheim California and Melbourne Australia, as well as to many events and activities in Toronto and Vancouver. Of course my work has taken me to many communities throughout Western Canada, and most particularly nearly all regions of BC and on Vancouver Island. None of which would have been possible without the services and support of organizations like CCB, AEBC and CNIB.
For most people blindness generates a fear of extended movement, both within one’s home and community, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Independence comes from personal desire and increased skill. Many community organizations can assist with both through their mentoring and skill development programs. I remember always that life has little to do with what happens to me and 100% what I do about/with it. There is a quote I like to use from the National Federation of the Blind in the USA, “With adequate skill development and opportunity blindness can be reduced to the level of a nuisance”, and nothing could be closer to the truth.
Helen Keller said many years ago, “There is nothing more tragic than someone who has sight, but no vision”. She also challenged the Lions Clubs of the world to become the “Knights of the Blind, and to take up the crusade against darkness”. I too joined a Lions Club in 1992 and continue to work on the crusade that Helen Keller began in the 1920-s.
View all posts by Albert Ruel