In my last two posts I’ve explained a little bit to you about some of the technology I encounter in my daily life. In this post I’m going to explain a little bit more about how technology impacts me. In general, as a person who enjoys technology, I experience it in everything I do. This post will help you understand a little more about how frustrating and how rewarding my use of technology is.
There are two passions I have in my life: food and technology. These two words describe everything I do on a daily basis. I really enjoy playing with new toys. One of my favorite things to do is pick up a new device and just experiment with it. Very little of my technology knowledge has been learned from the use of the manual. As a former tech-support person, I know how many of you are cringing at that idea. Yes, manuals are very useful and important tools. However when the new device shows up with a single piece of printed instructions in the box, it’s easier to just pick it up and start pushing buttons. It’s really hard for me to wait for somebody sighted to come around and read the manual to me. Even though my sighted husband is also an IT professional, he hates technology and everything related to it. This means that he is unwilling to read manuals or documentation to me. So button-pushing and I am all ready to go-it’s time to play with new toys.
Unlike most technology people, I don’t buy the newest, latest and greatest of every single device I own. I do like to let my technology wear out a bit and run its life course. Some of my technology friends are constantly buying the newest iPhone or the newest app in the market. One of my friends has owned every single iPhone version since the first one was released. Whereas I typically change my cell phone every four to six years. Only when it breaks and is no longer able to run effectively do I ever upgrade. On the other hand, I was one of the first among my circle of acquaintances to get a cell phone. I bought the first flip-phone ever to be sold and kept it for over six years. I upgraded it only when it couldn’t hold a battery charge for more than an hour. My next upgrade was only because there was no more network support for the phone I was using.
Purchasing new technology in our household is a quite extensive process. When looking for the laptop I’m currently using, it literally took me a year to find the right one. As a tactile person, it’s getting harder and harder to make a decision on something like this when there are very few places I can go to feel what I’ll be buying. I hate spending money and when it’s a big-ticket item, it’s hard for me to commit to a purchase. I’m really frustrated by the current trend for everything to be sold through the Internet. Even when I want to buy a new mixer for the kitchen, the only way to really shop for it now is online. There seem to be fewer and fewer brick-and-mortar stores where I can go put my hands on something to see what it’s like. Even worse, many manufacturers are not selling to brick-and-mortars at all. In the example of the mixer, I’ve finally picked one and I’m just waiting for the price to go down. I’ve never touched the mixer I’ve chosen and I hope when it shows up, it’s usable.
I only say this slightly in jest. It’s hard to believe that a mixer can be inaccessible, but anything is possible. When shopping for appliances for the kitchen renovation that we finished last year, to make sure everything was as accessible as possible, we bought only commercial appliances. In the restaurant industry, professional cooks don’t have time to mess around with touchpads and programming a stove. Well neither do I. All the consumer products I looked at had flat-panel, touch-sensitive buttons. There would’ve been no way for me to determine whether I was turning the broiler on or setting the oven to bake. With the commercial oven I bought, it has the simplest, easiest, most accessible controls out there. It has two knobs that are extraordinarily tactile. One has four distinctive clicks to positions to tell which one you’re selecting. On the other knob, my husband was able to use puffy paint to make marks at every twenty-five degree temperature increment. Now the only reason I may run the oven too high is because it’s a great oven and it cooks hotter than most, but not by accident due to inaccessible controls. The only appliance we had to give up on was the refrigerator. Because it’s something that you set once and leave forever, I was able to accept the fact that I couldn’t use the digital display of the refrigerator.
I do have a few other semi-inaccessible appliances in my home. The primary reason for this is that I’m not the person who controls or uses them most often. With a lot of work, my washer and dryer could be made accessible. But as someone else does the laundry in this house, it gives me an easy excuse to get away without having to do that chore. My primary consideration when I bought the washer and dryer was that they did the best job possible. I can do some of the things I need to do with them, but I must admit I haven’t taken the extra steps required to be able to do the rest. The control knob on the washer and dryer can’t be marked in the same way as the stove. The knob position is not at all related to the items as you scroll through. As you turn the knob, you continually scroll through a menu and there are more options than there are turn positions on the knob. If I was to attempt to put a directional arrow on the knob, I would have to turn around the clock face for or five times to get through the entire menu. The way to make this accessible for me would be to memorize how many turns it would take to get to each individual option. I have way too many things to think about to memorize this kind of stuff. For example, I have memorized that if I turn the dryer knob once to the left the dryer will auto detect when the closer dry. That’s good enough for me at this point.
Now to talk a little bit about the fun in my life. For many years I’ve been using a Windows Media PC to control my entertainment. In the days of Windows Millennium, my husband and I installed our first version of Windows Media Center and never went back. The app was as accessible as I needed it to be. For the first time, I could go through the television guide and learn what was on other channels as easily as my husband. Admittedly the setup was not accessible and as long as I continued to use it, I don’t think it ever was. In March 2009 the necessity for it disappeared. My husband and I decided that we switched far enough over to viewing our entertainment on the Internet that we canceled all of our traditional television services. We were amongst the first thousand people to sign up for DirecTV when it was released in the 90s and in March 2009, we canceled our subscription and have never looked back. Today we get all of our entertainment from the Internet. We pay for a Netflix subscription and find the price worth it. But we don’t subscribe to any other paid services. We do use Hulu but we don’t pay for the subscription service. Neither service today offers descriptive video. But I encourage both vendors to look into ways to do this. Descriptive video on some of my favorite shows is the only thing I really miss from watching terrestrial television.
I will be the first person to say that these two services could be somewhat more accessible, however, much of what I watch on them I watch with my husband, so I make my way through. There are tricks that I use to navigate through the systems that I’ve only learned through persistence. Sadly, many blind people are not able to learn these tricks because they use their assistive technology differently than I do. For example, I often use the table navigation commands of my screen reader to get through the Hulu site. Many screen reader users, on the other hand, don’t know how to do this and therefore don’t have the ability to use the workarounds I have created for myself. Many blind people only use atenth of the features included in screen-readers and therefore may find some things more inaccessible than others. When I teach accessibility designing, I often have to remind myself of this. I have often encouraged developers to create tables, forgetting that sometimes table-navigation is not a feature people know how to use.
When you read the above you must think I’m always on the Internet and always attached to a computer. This is not the case. Much of what I do involves my dogs and food. But even those activities sometimes make intricate use of a computer. For example, when I want to bake something new as a treat for people attending my web access meetings, my recipe book is the Internet. I can look through thousands of recipes to find one that suits me best quickly. But sadly, some of the websites I find these recipes on are inaccessible to me. Luckily there so many choices I just move on to the next one. I found a couple of tricks just like everything else to use some of these sites, like searching for the word “cup” to find the ingredients list. But websites with good semantic structure would make it so much easier. Many of my peers are very frustrated when I tell them I don’t use the Internet in my daily life as much as most people do. When I have to shop online, I get a sighted person to help. I work on the Internet all day and I do find it very rewarding. The difference between using the Internet to actually get something done and working with the developer to fix their site is that more often than not I’m frustrated at the sites I visit and therefore I can’t complete the task I am trying to accomplish. When I test the website for work, it doesn’t matter if I fail because the developer sees that and hopefully can go back and fix it so that somebody else can do the task I failed at. Using the website that’s inaccessible without getting the feedback to the developers just doesn’t pay anymore. I hope this piece has helped you understand how one blind person interacts with technology. I am a unique individual, but I hope that the perspective of my life helps you understand how people that are blind and visually impaired encounter technology in their work and home lives and are affected by it.