Posts Tagged ‘disability’

How disability made me more productive

Next month, I’ll be speaking at the Dare Conference in London. It’s a new event, which features some amazing presentations from some incredibly talented people. I’ve spoken at a few events in the past, but never anything as exciting or important as this, so I’m just a little bit scared, particularly as I’ll be presenting on a particularly personal subject.

The conference is being attended by people from all around the world, with representatives from some big organisations. Which makes me both nervous and excited about what I’ll be able to bring to the event during my twenty-five minutes on stage. I’ve been procrastinating and re-drafting this talk for months now, but this month I need to get it all finished up, rehearsed and refined.

So what will I be talking about? My presentation is titled “How disability made me more productive“. Pretty ambiguous, eh? The description gives a little more detail:

I’m a developer and designer with ocular albinism. When I became registered as disabled in 2008, it made me reconsider almost everything about the way I live my life. Admitting to myself that I had a disability was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. But over time it’s also been liberating. By covering up my disability, I was making life more difficult for myself. By being honest and open about my weaknesses, I’ve found the freedom to be more creative, more pragmatic, and to participate more effectively.

I’m very self-conscious of the fact that I don’t want my presentation to be too self-indulgent — it could be all to easy to play the “poor me” card and talk about how difficult life can be. Instead, I intend to talk about the psychological and social aspects of having a disability, and how “being different” can, in fact, be a very good thing. I intend to break down many of the misconceptions of what it means to live with a disability, and to impress upon people how important it is to look at disability as a problem of society itself, not of the individual.

Secondly, I’ll be talking about how I’ve learned to be more open and honest with myself and — more importantly — with others about my weaknesses, and how I learned to turn them into strengths. There are constant challenges to this though, and I want to show how creating a more inclusive environment can help people to be more creative and productive, regardless of ability. We live in a competitive, fast-moving world — sometimes we need to handicap ourselves a little, to create a more level playing field. If we’re racing ahead all the time, and don’t give others the opportunity to catch up, then they might not be able or willing to contribute effectively — in work, or in life in general.

Most importantly of all though, I hope that people will go away from my talk with a slightly different view of the world: a better appreciation of the fact that we’re not all the same, that we all have different strengths and different weaknesses, and that is a very good thing; that by being more adaptive to an individual’s needs and abilities, you can inspire the very best in them. In short: be more inclusive. I don’t think we do enough of that right now. I certainly don’t feel like I live in a very inclusive world, and so I intend to start doing something about it.

It’s coincidental that presenting this talk has coincided with my new role as CTO with an organisation which is setting out to enable people to live a more independent life through the use of technology. If I get time, I’ll also be talking about how we’re starting to look at ways to use emerging technologies in unconventional ways, to allow less-able, elderly and vulnerable people to live a more inclusive and fulfilling life. Some of the things we’re talking about in R&D are getting me very excited.

The Dare Conference is taking place 23rd-25th September, and you can get a whooping £200 off a conference pass by using the discount code SPEAKER13. There’s also a special freelancer rate, which gets you in for just £299+VAT. The organisers have also put together one of those “Convince your boss” wotsits, if you need to persuade the powers that be.

Apple continuing to innovate for accessibility in iOS6

Apple announced the feature-set of the upcoming iOS release yesterday, and I’m always interested to see the new accessibility features. And like with everything else Apple do, they’re not standing still in this area at all:

iOS 6 comes with even more features to make it easier for people with vision, hearing, learning, and mobility disabilities to get the most from their iOS devices. Guided Access helps students with disabilities such as autism remain on task and focused on content. It allows a parent, teacher, or administrator to limit an iOS device to one app by disabling the Home button, as well as restrict touch input on certain areas of the screen. VoiceOver, the revolutionary screen reader for blind and low-vision users, is now integrated with Maps, AssistiveTouch, and Zoom. And Apple is working with top manufacturers to introduce Made for iPhone hearing aids that will deliver a power-efficient, high-quality digital audio experience.

It’s easy to be cynical when Apple make a song and dance about how empowering their technology and software can be, like in this video aired at WWDC yesterday — but the fact is, this kind of thoughtful and inclusive application of technology does improve people’s lives.

The blind shooting the blind

If you were ever in doubt about how empowering technology can be for people with disabilities:

I simply gawped when one blind woman pulled out an iPhone then snapped a perfect shot, guided by the built-in Camera app.

Eventually a common theme became apparent: Apple’s applications — Calendar, Messages, Mail, iPhoto, even Maps and most surprisingly Camera — are completely usable by blind people. These applications aren’t using any kind of secret API sauce. They’re using the same UIAccessibility framework you and I have access to.

The meat of this article si less inspiring though, as it discusses the failure of so many app developers to pu the powerful APIs at their fingertips, to good use for creating accessible apps.

This seems to be a common theme, and something which desperately needs to change. I love this little snippet from this post:

Here, then, lies the answer to how to tell whether some developer you’ve just met (or are interviewing) is serious about their craft in five seconds flat: borrow their device, and triple-click the home button. If you don’t hear “VoiceOver on”, or get prompted about VoiceOver, consider that −3 points on the Steve Test.

Inspiring videos edited by kid with cerebral palsy

A lovely little article from the Verge about the videos created by a young boy who has cerebral palsy:

This is Christopher Hills. He’s an Apple fan. He also has cerebral palsy, and as you’ll see in the first video below, he can’t control his muscles easily. The incredible thing about Christopher, though, is despite that, he edited these three videos himself. Not unlike Stephen Hawking, he uses a single button to manipulate his computer, which he presses with his head, connected to a device called a Discover Switch.

As well as being very inspiring and life-affirming, these videos also highlight the fact that with the appropriate assistive technology and software which is accessible, wonderful things can be created by people who are severely disabled. Remember, this is a kid who uses a single switch to work with a video editing application: technology proving to be truly empowering.

Biting the hand that feeds

Chris Hofstader writes about the seemingly mis-guided politics of the National Federation of the Blind — an advocacy group which is throwing it’s weight around with lawsuits in an effort to persuade large organisations to improve accessibility. One of their more recent targets has been Apple who, ironically, do more than any of their competitors:

Last July, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB)at its summer convention proposed a resolution “condemning and deploring” Apple for the sin of not requiring that everything sold in its app store be fully accessible. The NFB proposed a second resolution that said it was “frustrated” and “disappointed” with Apple’s not including accessibility requirements for its app store. The second resolution passed. While I agree that having such a requirement would be nice, Apple has done vastly more than its operating system rivals Google, Microsoft and all flavors of GNU/Linux to promote accessibility. Also, Google and Microsoft have their own app stores with no requirements for accessibility either.

Before I launch into the politics that seem to have led to the NFB resolution, I will provide a few examples that demonstrate Apple’s overwhelming lead in providing systems accessible to people with vision impairment. Since introducing VoiceOver, the utility people with print impairments use to hear the contents of the screen spoken or sent to a refreshable braille display, Apple has sold 100 million devices that are accessible to this community. Additionally, every product in an Apple retail store that has a user interface includes VoiceOver. A blind person can go to an Apple store and try out everything they sell except the iPod Classic which hasn’t had a software revision in a really long time. I can use any Macintosh, iPhone, iPod Nano, iPod Shuffle, iPod Touch and more sold in the past few years without installing any extra software. Meanwhile, I would need to spend nearly $1000 extra to use Windows on a “standard” computer if I want to use the most popular screen access utility for that platform. Android from Google includes a screen access tool called “TalkBack” which is, in my educated opinion, years behind the out-of-the-box experience provided by Apple and the costly add-ons required by Windows.

This is one of the things which many people overlook with Apple’s operating system: the built-in accessibility features are years ahead of any other OS vendor, and are available out of the box. It’s a perfect example of the adaptive accessibility model I keep banging on about: a rich set of features, which are available to use by anybody, regardless of their ability. So I get quite disheartened when I read about Apple being slammed for poor accessibility.

The crux of the situation is best summed up by Chris’ comment:

While slamming Apple at their annual convention, they celebrated Google with lots of presentation slots for their Android system. As I wrote above, Android accessibility is poor at best but NFB probably got a fat contribution from Google and, as any advocate knows, money talks, accessibility walks.

iPad Opens World to a Disabled Boy

An anecdotal little piece from The New York Times about the iPad as an enabling device for a young boy with a motor-neuron disease:

Owen, 7, does not have the strength to maneuver a computer mouse, but when a nurse propped her boyfriend’s iPad within reach in June, he did something his mother had never seen before.

He aimed his left pointer finger at an icon on the screen, touched it — just barely — and opened the application Gravitarium, which plays music as users create landscapes of stars on the screen. Over the years, Owen’s parents had tried several computerized communications contraptions to give him an escape from his disability, but the iPad was the first that worked on the first try.

There are also some interesting insights about the adoption of the device amongst different groups of disabled users:

For a mainstream technological device like the iPad to have been instantly embraced by the disabled is unusual. It is far more common for items designed for disabled people to be adapted for general use, like closed-captioning on televisions in gyms or GPS devices in cars that announce directions. Also, most mainstream devices do not come with built-ins like the iPad’s closed-captioning, magnification and audible readout functions — which were intended to keep it simple for all users, but also help disabled people.