by Meka White
There have been times in my life where I have experienced a sudden moment of freedom that was so astounding, so impactful that I didn’t realize how it would affect me until given the choice. Have you ever been offered an opportunity and you didn’t fully understand how good it would feel because you’ve always done that one thing the same way every time? As a blind person, these moments are set routines that I don’t always question. The closest example that I have to hand is being in someone’s home that I really wanted to leave and then suddenly realizing that hey, there’s an app for that! I could just leave! I didn’t have to phone a friend or lament that I hadn’t preset a ride in advance using paratransit options. I had a cell phone whose features were fully accessible, and I could simply set up an Uber or Lyft. Being able to get out of a situation that made me feel uncomfortable was a heady sensation because I was depending on myself. I had the tools and could simply leave without having to come up with a plan of calling friends and hoping someone would be available.
Another example that comes to my mind is the day that the Seeing AI app became available and its OCR capabilities made it possible for me to go through my mail on my own. I didn’t have to hire anyone for simply scanning what is essentially nothing but junk mail and bills and wondering if it’s better to have a friend help me or a stranger. The friend would know about all of my business and possibly take it upon themselves to speak with someone under the auspices of meaning well without knowing that they were throwing my autonomy and privacy under the bus. But the stranger would also know all of my business and I’d have to wonder how much I could trust them. Using Seeing AI for that and then either Be My Eyes or Aira to get live support if I just wanted a quick idea of what I was dealing with or if I just got sick of trying to tilt my phone in the right direction again was a fantastic feeling. There are many reasons to use these apps, and they are not perfect. But they have helped me gain a greater sense of independence because I have options. If I need to go through sensitive print information, I can do so on my own terms. I can surf through all this junk mail on my own.
I had another one of those “wow!” moments recently while taking my roommate out to Red Lobster for her birthday. I know that there has been advocacy concerning the accessibility of point-of-sale machines, but it’s always been in the background, like chatter that I’ve been able to tune out because it sounded too complicated, even if it did work. Since I am a disorganized hot mess on the best of days, I couldn’t imagine dealing with groceries, a guide dog, putting the credit card in the machine, all while there’d be a line of people behind me wanting to get things done. I also knew that many restaurants have tablets at the table, but I didn’t really ask about them. I’d heard about some of them being made more accessible, but there are so many things which don’t work that sometimes I just don’t bother to ask if this might be the one time when there is an exception.
That day, one of the supervisors at Red Lobster came to our table and asked if I would mind testing out the tablet that was in the center. She gave me headphones to use, and I was able to navigate through the tutorial, turn up the volume, increase the speech rate, and follow the instructions as a synthesized voice spoke in my ear. The tablet uses Talkback, which is the screen reader that is available on Android phones and tablets. I don’t have a lot of experience with that particular screen reader, but I’ve used an iPhone and an Amazon Fire tablet for a long time, so I’m used to using the gestures necessary for navigation.
After awkwardly stumbling through the tutorial (which has too many lessons when you’re just trying to do a quick and dirty menu sweep at a table with friends), I made it back to the home screen and decided to peruse the menu, starting with the drink specials. I was able to read the food items, descriptions, and price.
After the meal, I asked the supervisor if I could borrow her headphones again, and she watched me go through the motions of paying my bill. Honestly, I had no idea how this was going to work. Usually, the server reads the total bill to me, and if the price seems too high, I ask for a breakdown, which takes more time and often has me apologizing for simply having to ask someone to go through the extra motions. Then I usually ask to be shown where to sign, because I never seem to have a signature guide on me. Finally, I ask the server to write down the tip, which is incredibly awkward as I have to calculate in my head and hope that I’m not being judged for the number I put in.
This time was a different story. I was able to go through every aspect of the bill-paying experience by myself. Talkback was very responsive to my gestures and spoke all relevant information. I was able to read the breakdown of my bill independently and winced quietly as I realized just how much that delicious tropical treasure drink cost me. I confirmed the price and then included the tip. I inserted the card, double-tapped the “next” button, and entered my PIN information. I spent an awkward moment trying to find the numbers on the screen only to finally realize that there was a physical PIN pad at the bottom.
I didn’t know how much I wanted that experience until I had the opportunity to do something that probably seems very small to some, but it was a very good feeling for me. It was a good feeling because I had a choice.
While this was a game-changer for me, I understand that this would not be an accessible solution for a deaf-blind individual. It is audio only and at this time, I do not believe that there are Bluetooth options to pair a braille display. There is no braille on the machine except the word “audio” on the back corner. I hope that we continue advocating with the idea that access for some is not access for all. I want all of us to be able to experience these freeing moments of independence and self-sufficiency.
I am glad that I was able to have this experience. I’m glad that the staff at Red Lobster let me know about the machine. I hope they take me up on training them in its use.
For me, independence is all about choice and having options. I’m so glad that I am getting the opportunity to make the decisions that work best for me. I remember the days when I thought that having a phone that only allowed me to read the first couple of menus was enough and that I’d never move to a touch screen because I mistakenly believed it would be inaccessible and “a phone should be a phone!” I used that phone to point its camera at the tablet on the table and scan for the QR code on the digital receipt so I could get Red Lobster points. We’ve come very far, but we still have a long way to go. I look forward to the world discovering more options to increase independence and break down barriers. The self-confidence that comes as a result is indescribable.