Braille in Brazil

I noticed an article talking about how Brazil was going to start production of braille writers in the country.
Likely you can pick any population demographic and see the striking difference between the haves and have-nots on the planet. Each time I read one of these articles about an accessibility technology being built or used in a place that hasn’t had it in the past, I’m thankful for the education and experiences I’ve had.
I grew up during a time when it was no longer standard practice to send kids who were blind off to a residential school. In my case I was offered a choice between what I’ve come to call the “Braille Jail” (Wisconsin’s school for the Visually Handicapped) and what was a pilot program in Wisconsin at the time to send kids with disabilities to “regular” schools and provide the additional resources necessary as part of the education within the school.
This was long before terms like “mainstreaming” and “classroom assistant” were a part of the educational landscape. In my case these additional resources simply meant a full day of school in kindergarten instead of the traditional half. My afternoons were spent doing things like learning braille and developing my sense of touch. In later years it meant a resource was available to do things like read books, tests and such. This is an over simplification and perhaps I’ll blog about my entire education experience at some point.
Reflecting back on my education today, I am so thankful I had the experiences I did. I’ve talked to many people who are blind who didn’t have anything approaching the positive attitudes from teachers and other students I did. All wasn’t necessarily perfect as the school system I attended was not in the city where I lived. Today living in the Seattle area, a distance of 17 miles doesn’t seem like a big deal. Back then the same distance–from Fond du Lac to Oshkosh–was like two different worlds.
Perhaps my only regret is that I didn’t attend any of the same schools as anyone else in my family. Sure the stories of school days past are pretty much the same the nation over, but the characters in mine versus others in my family are all different. That said I wouldn’t even call it a regret. In a family of 11 kids, it was assuredly easier to be my own individual when I wasn’t lost in the shuffle of being just another “Ford” at the local high school.
I’ve used a lot of gadgets, technology and devices over the years. That’s likely another blog post or two but it is nice to see what I regard as one of the standards, namely a Perkins, being made available to more people. Screen readers, scanners and such are all great but I’ve had my Perkins since I was five and it is still something I treasure. Some do not have the physical ability to read or write braille, but for anyone who does, braille is a must and the sound of a Perkins hammering away as someone writes is music to my ears.

An Accessible Harry Potter?

Bob Regan of Macromedia has a great post talking about Flash accessibility and a newly relaunched J.K. Rowlin site that is a model for Flash accessibility. How nice to see accessibility of such a high profile web site being taken seriously.
Harry Potter books are not on the top of my reading list but having played with the site a bit I’m really impressed to see how well the Flash works with several screen readers. How cool!

Apple’s VoiceOver

On Friday Apple released their latest operating system Tiger with a screen reader named VoiceOver included as part of the operating system. I dropped by a local Apple store today to take Tiger and VoiceOver for a spin.
First off I think it is great to see a screen reader for the Macintosh again. Since development of outSPOKEN was stopped a couple years ago, the newer Mac operating systems haven’t been accessible to people that are blind.
My initial impression, based on about 60 minutes of exploration, is that VoiceOver has potential. I wasn’t thrilled by the speech synthesis (there are much smoother options out there) but I was able to interact with the machine and get around.
The real test of course is how productive one can be. Zipping around an OS is one thing but the end goal is to accomplish the tasks you bought the computer for. My explorations today didn’t get far enough to launch any applications beyond the VoiceOver help and OS navigation so now I’ll need to decide if I want to invest the time and money to relearning the Mac environment.
In playing with VoiceOver today the thing I was reminded of again is how much longer it takes to learn technology if you are blind. Back when I was actively teaching technology this was a point I emphasized to my students. There’s a strong temptation for instant gratification when it comes to technology but I believe spending a bit of time in learning how to fully use something pays off.
On one hand this is a bit frustrating. I know that folks that are sighted can often grab a mouse and point and click their way to productivity with a new application in a few minutes. By contrast it can take hours to learn a new application with a screen reader.
Since working at Microsoft though I’ve also gained an inside knowledge into just how much research goes into making that point-and-click environment seem obvious. I don’t think the mainstream technology industry is at the point where it is really understood what it takes to move beyond basic accessibility to an application. In general the focus is still on ensuring that basic access is available.
If you think of accessibility as a journey, then Apple’s release of VoiceOver means that a few more destinations are again available to people who are blind. Hopefully over time we can move to more discussions of how to enhance the journey and not just ensuring that people who are blind can take the trip.