Technophile

Apple’s inclusive tools can change lives

Mala Bhargava | Updated on May 21, 2020 Published on May 21, 2020

On Global Accessibility Awareness Day, we meet people for whom a mere feature can mean everything

Growing up with non-correctable eye-sight, I think back with a shudder to the days when I had to navigate through years of school when I couldn’t see beyond my nose. Being from an Air Force family, that meant about eight schools in three countries. I remember being given a good thwack for talking in class when all I was doing was begging a kid next to me to tell me what was written on the blackboard. I remember not being able to read my Hindi question paper during an exam because it was such tiny text in an unfamiliar script and somehow convincing an invigilator to read it to me just once so I could tackle it by memory. Before she could process this unusual request, she decided to help out and I managed a 65 per cent result to the surprise of classmates who were worriedly glancing over my shoulder and wondering how I’d get through with a language I hadn’t grown up with. I know one thing for sure — I definitely wouldn’t choose to do it again.

Except that things are very different now, aren’t they? We have technology!

If only I had had all my gadgets back when I had to struggle to look like other kids while not having the advantage of seeing what they did. I would use the 100x zoom on mobile phones to see what’s on the board — or take a photo and crop in. I would record classes so I could at least hear what I did not see. I would live-transcribe notes, I would use Google Translate to get to grips with my Hindi — and make sense of Suryakant Tripathi Nirala. And maybe I wouldn’t have achieved a 2 on 100 in Sanskrit — the 2 was for turning up.

Today’s tech is so much more sensitive to those who have physical challenges, recognising that a few thoughtful features could change their lives by making them independent and able to contribute to society just as much, if not more, than everyone else. This year, for Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I asked Apple, one of the big tech firms that believes in inclusive accessibility features on their products, to connect me with users for whom such features had made a real difference.

‘Accessibility gives me my eyes’

Madhubala

 

Madhubala, a sunbeam of a personality, would charm anyone with her animated, warm, friendly chatter. An interaction with this young lady who just happens to be 100 per cent visually impaired from birth, could change your day for the better. And before you go thinking, how sad, forget it. Madhubala is entirely happy the way she is. I asked her if she used accessibility features much. “Accessibility gives me my eyes,” she said flatly, “I have a lot of vision, but not sight. Accessibility gives me that.” She has been working with a major BPO firm for close to 15 years now and is a deputy general manager with the company, involved with corporate training.

Madhubala has grown up using Braille and remembers feeling sorry for her little finger which would hurt rather a lot. She says she owes a lot to the National Association for the Blind who helped her enormously. She began to learn how to use the computer in her school years. Later, in her initial jobs, she used the JAWS software to read the screen on a Windows PC. By the time she moved to her current place of work, phones were used for so many things, including interacting with sighted colleagues. “I used a small Nokia phone and used to memorise the sequence of actions to use the phone, say to open messages,” she said, “I would have to memorise how many times to press a button to enter a specific letter. It was very challenging.”

Madhubala just happened then to buy her husband (also totally blind) an iPhone for his birthday. The two of them experimented and discovered the many accessibility features on the iPhone. They enabled the VoiceOver feature which can do everything from letting you know who’s calling to which app your finger is on. It gives full access to the user.

From then on, Madhubala says, there was no looking back. She acquired an iPhone of her own and uses a variety of accessibility features and third-party apps such as Microsoft’s Seeing AI which lets the user point at something which the phone then recognises and explains in text or reads out. “When travelling, I used to get really mixed up over those tiny bottles in hotels,” she said, “Which was meant to be shampoo and which conditioner?” Using the iPhone helped her to ‘see’ which was which. She now uses the iPhone’s accessibility features to use Facebook, Microsoft Teams, Skype, and just about everything regular users do — all in a day’s work. She believes she’s even faster than many others at working.

‘I customised it for myself’

Narendra VG

 

Narendra VG is a Senior Specialist Workplace Solutions at Enable India, an organisation that helps people with disabilities acquire training and get jobs. He is involved in disability testing and in helping others get job placements. Narendra has successfully handled two sets of physical challenges — he cannot see enough to read and write comfortably, and he has just one finger on each hand. For the past three years, Narendra has also been using an iPhone for its accessibility features.

In addition to VoiceOver, screen reading that is helpful for anyone with vision problems, he also uses customised gestures that suit his specific needs. “Even to access notifications, I need to use three fingers, which I cannot do,” he explains. “But there are other features, AssistiveTouch, that are meant for motor disabilities. That’s what I customise for myself.” Narendra moved from an Android device to an iPhone when friends convinced him accessibility was stronger. He had his qualms because he knew it would be expensive, so he had to be sure. Once he began using his new phone, he found that he could customise to workaround having to use more than one finger. Now a series of taps gets him the desired action. He now finds it easy to use his phone at work. “At work, you sometimes have to react immediately. This I can do without any issues now.”

Sharat works at a public sector undertaking bank but has previously been involved in the design and is familiar with accessibility on Android, Microsoft, and Apple products. He has also worked with websites to make them more accessibility friendly. He points out that accessibility is an issue not just for those traditionally thought of as growing up with disabilities but the general public under certain conditions, such as deterioration of eyesight from age. “Based on each person’s disability, a website has to be customised to be usable. One person may need to see high contrast inverted text and another may need a specific keyboard if he suffers from hand-shakiness due to cerebral palsy, for example,” he says.

Sharat himself has a vision impairment from Retinitis Pigmentosa and a user of accessibility features. “Apple is the ultimate choice when it comes to features for a person with a disability,” he says, “but for a person who cannot afford Apple, they can settle for Android which also has some features.”

Enable with personalised tools

 

Shanti Raghavan founder and managing trustee of Enable India which recently received the ChangeMaker award from BusinessLine, started Enable India because of her brother’s failing eyesight. Her organisation has empowered people with disabilities in 14 categories. “Any persons with a disability can work provided there is the right workplace solution,” she says, “When different assistive solutions remove the accessibility barrier for people, they can be as productive as everybody else.”

She believes in attempting to tackle solutions for those with more severe disabilities and is constantly amazed at how a way can almost always be found. Some 48 per cent of the 700 companies that hire from Enable India have actually opted to employ those with the more severe problems. The organisation assists those who come to it for help to find the right combination of accessibility solutions including using Apple’s VoiceControl for people who can’t move at all.

As for me, despite being lucky enough to be partially sighted, I too have my favourite Accessibility features, the biggest being anything that reads the screen to me, allowing me to get through one book every two days or so.

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Published on May 21, 2020
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