Braille Monitor                                                July 2013

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Technology for the Blind: Blessing or Curse?

by Gary Wunder

HAL 9000, the iconic artificial intelligence from the 1968 movie 2001: A Space Odyssey that killed to protect itself from being deactivated by the human crewJust this morning I read an article from a blind journalist who talked about questions blind people are asked and how stupid or offensive they often seem. For example, when he was recently asked how he could be a blind journalist, his first reaction was to be offended that anyone would assume blindness would keep him from pursuing this profession, and he wanted to withdraw from the questioner and suspend the conversation. Happily, his better angel took over, and he decided to answer the question as honestly as it had been asked.

Before I discuss his answer, I’d like first to reflect a little about the reasons we are offended at questions about blindness when we loudly proclaim that one of our roles as blind ambassadors dedicated to changing the world is to educate the general public about blindness. It may sound trite to point out, but isn’t the only bad question the one not asked? Whether the silence comes from fear, political correctness, or arrogance born of unwillingness to admit that one simply doesn't know, the result is the same: the question not asked is the one not answered, and the question not answered is the stereotype that goes unchallenged, the opportunity missed, the possibility to instill a new paradigm lost, and the chance to build or strengthen a friendship based on mutual understanding thwarted before it can begin.

I certainly know how much fun it can be to sit in a group of like-minded people and marvel at the stupidity of the outsider, but do we really mean what we say when we exchange barbs about the silly or stupid people we meet? Are we simply having a little harmless fun, or are we actually forming and expressing our view of what the outside world thinks of us and how we should react to it? The woman who asks how we know whether our infant’s diaper is wet or dirty might reasonably be expected to realize that the answer is as close as her nose, but, if we were bounded by her world, a world in which marketers develop disposable diapers that change color when they are wet, would her question seem quite so unreasonable? When a person depends upon vision to determine whether or not it is safe to cross the street, should we be surprised when she comes running up to us to tell us that the light is against us? The initial reaction is one of compassion and concern based on what she has seen and the first thoughts that come to her mind. Although it makes for interesting conversation around a table of blind or enlightened sighted people, is it fair when we decide how informed or uninformed other people are about our condition and then use that judgment to decide how involved we will be with the so-called sighted world? Isn’t it inconsistent to be shocked and put off by the questions we are sometimes asked, and at the same time be critical of the sighted mother who hushes her child when she asks why we are carrying that stick or why that dog has a handle?

Getting back to the article I received this morning, the man who decided to answer the question about how he could be a blind journalist did so by explaining that he could because he had a Victor Stream, a laptop, and a Braille display. Is this really the case? Is it the technology I am using now that allows me to write this article, or is it what exists in my brain that makes what I am saying understandable and hopefully interesting? Certainly the technology makes it easier for me to put what I am thinking on paper, but could technology alone communicate my concerns and concepts to those who read my words? I love the technology that lets me speak into a microphone and have what I say appear on a Braille display and a screen. I love the technology that lets me sit on my back porch enjoying the springtime weather, free from the prison of my office, but does the article come from the notetaking device, or is that simply the mechanism I use to put my ideas in readable form?

The Braille Monitor devotes an enormous amount of space to the subject of making technology accessible, not so much because for the first time this technology makes things possible for blind people, but because technology is what our world uses today to communicate with others. The Braille Sense, PAC Mate, and BrailleNote are phenomenal devices for blind people, but they do not allow us to read and write--they are only devices that allow us to read and write using personal data assistants equivalent to those available to people who read and write print visually.

I am highlighting what may seem nitpicky differences because I think that our focus can easily be on technology when it should be on ourselves. Technology may be the most efficient way to accomplish something in our lives, but it is important that we ask ourselves whether it is the only way to do those tasks. If it is, all of our hopes and dreams for equality rest in the hands of creators of technology and in their ability to make it accessible. If, on the other hand, technology or a given piece of it is simply one alternative, then our hopes and dreams still rest in our own creativity, our ability to problem-solve, and our ability to find solutions for the problems that living in a predominantly sighted society throws at us.

As much as I enjoy technology, I want it to be my slave and not my master. I want to marvel at the size and the power of the hardware and software that make up the iPhone, but I want to marvel even more at the fascinating piece of biological technology we wear atop our shoulders. The well-constructed house is fundamentally the product of the creativity and craftsmanship of those who built it and not of the hammers and saws used in its construction. Similarly, I believe that the lives we make for ourselves are fashioned by what we want them to be rather than by what technology makes it easy and convenient to do. Of course blind people must play an active part in shaping the technology that is developed for us while simultaneously carrying the message of accessibility to technology we want to use to the designers of technology for the sighted. But let us always keep in mind that we are the reason for and the masters of technology, and it is our minds and our creativity that make technology valuable.

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