Apple has certainly been the talk of the town this week, both in the sighted and blind communities. Everyone had something to say about Apple, and Serotek was no exception. Both Mike Calvo and Michael Lauf posted thought-provoking and heartfelt articles about the buzz surrounding the company this week, and I felt compelled to add my own contribution.
It began with the WWDC conference on Monday, when Apple announced, among other things, the third generation iPhone. While our sighted counterparts discussed the merits of Apple’s latest offering, the blind community, for the first time, had something to discuss as well. And discuss it we did, on email lists, social networking sites, podcasts, blogs, and in any other venue you could think of. When Apple announced that the iPhone 3GS, in all its sleek, futuristic, buttonless glory would be accessible, it wasn’t hard to predict that the blind community would talk about it. But who knew that the addition of accessibility to a wildly popular product would be so controversial? It was, though, in rather spectacular fashion.
There were those who fully embraced the iPhone without ever having seen it, simply because Apple was the company behind it. There were those who expressed a great deal of enthusiasm for what Apple had done, all the while taking a “wait and see” approach to purchasing the device. There were those who decided to show their support for Apple’s accessibility initiative by preordering the iPhone, knowing that if it wasn’t perfect the first time around there would be a need for real-world consumer feedback to make it better. And then, there were those who scoffed at the very idea of a blind person using a device with a touch screen, and who showed not the slightest interest in seeing the unit in action. This was not, after all, the kind of interface that a blind person typically used. After reading the documentation on how the device would work, it could be safely and emphatically stated that such a device would be a hindrance, not a help to a blind person’s productivity.
It was the attitude of this group which really disturbed me. It wasn’t their smug superiority which bothered me the most, though that was bad enough. It wasn’t their complete lack of enthusiasm for new technology which by all rights should have generated at least a spark of curiosity that upset me. A jaded attitude about a new approach to things wasn’t something I could readily understand, but I couldn’t condemn them for that either. No, what bothered me the most was their willingness to denounce others for expressing their enthusiasm in exploring the unknown. Curiosity should never be discouraged, and if you observe those who explore a path you aren’t willing to take yourself, you might be pleasantly surprised by what you learn from them.
On social networking sites like Twitter, the iPhone debate continued well in to Tuesday with no end in site, and discussions became more and more heated. But I had a job to do, and it was time for me to focus on things other than Apple for a while. Well, that was a great idea in theory, but it wasn’t going to happen. You see, something else transpired which dragged my attention back to Apple and its place in the blind community. The Braille Monitor produced by the National Federation of The blind published a review of the VoiceOver screen reader in its June issue. I knew very little about the Mac except that it had beautiful hardware and a screen reader built in to its operating system. This scant knowledge wasn’t nearly enough to decide whether or not to purchase a Mac, so I was excited to see what the folks from the International Braille and Technology Access Center had to say about the functionality and ease of use of the VoiceOver screen reader. The Center, and the NFB itself, have always been well-respected voices in the blind community, and for many the recommendations made by these groups often influence their decisions to purchase a product or not. With the Institute’s high degree of credibility in mind, I sat back and prepared to enjoy a well-informed review of the Mac and its screen reader.
As I began reading the article, a few things jumped out at me. I remember playing with a Mac equipped with the Outspoken screen reader in the early ‘90’s, yet the article states that the Mac platform has been inaccessible until quite recently. While I knew that VoiceOver had been around for a number of years and that Outspoken was available before that, I wasn’t going to dismiss the entire article because of those inaccuracies. As I read on, my excitement for Apple’s innovations began to diminish. Browsing the web seemed cumbersome and counterintuitive, and there were things that I took for granted in Windows, such as a functional calendar solution, that were apparently completely unusable on the Mac. The end result of the article was that the NFB could not recommend any product, even if it was free, if it would hamper the productivity of a blind person. And from what I had just read, I had to agree that the Mac didn’t appear to be a particularly productive solution.
But how could this be? I have several friends who own Macs, and they’re usually rather sensible people. Yet, they are quite fond of their Macs, and many of them spend more time on the Mac than in Windows. Something wasn’t right here. Had my sensible friends been brain-washed to accept a cumbersome and unwieldy screen reader without protesting its many apparent flaws? Were my normally sensible and rather busy friends ok with not having a functional calendar to keep track of appointments? Had my dear, normally sensible friends been influenced by some sort of hypnotic suggestion? Was some strange electromagnetic field generated by the beautiful, sleek hardware keeping them from realizing the truth?
It was time to do a little research, and save my friends from their horrible fate if I could. I set out armed with a google search engine and a thirst for knowledge. Not surprisingly, one of the first things I came across was the VoiceOver documentation itself. After giving it a quick perusal, it seemed that web page navigation wasn’t nearly as cumbersome as it had appeared in the NFB article. But perhaps the documentation was meant to lure gullible and trusting consumers like myself in to believing the hype, and if I wasn’t careful I’d end up just as deluded and brain-washed as the very friends I was trying to save. I knew I needed to find people with real-world experience in using the Mac, so my Google search continued.
Imagine my delight when I found an episode of the Screenless Switchers podcast dedicated to discussing the very article I had just read. As I listened, I got exactly what I was hoping for – an entirely different perspective on the Mac than that provided in the article. Granted, the podcast was produced by seasoned Mac veterans rather than someone who had explored it for only a week, but I was nevertheless intrigued by the podcast. I did get to hear live demonstrations of how the Mac performed in certain situations, and even more importantly, I discovered that some things described in the article as utter impossibilities on the Mac were in fact quite easy to accomplish. My thirst for knowledge still hadn’t been slaked though, so I continued with my trusty Google search engine and discovered a wealth of content related to the Mac experience from a blind person’s perspective. There was the Mac-cessibility blog and podcast, the Mac Visionaries mailing list, and of course I’ve always known that there is a Mac chat held each Friday night on the System Access Mobile Network. In reading blog posts, documentation, and actually speaking with a few Mac users, what I discovered was that those who used the Mac were productive, intelligent people who enjoyed the Mac experience. All agreed that there was room for improvement, which was actually pretty comforting. Every product, no matter how skillfully developed, can use improvement.
I felt much better after having done some research, especially as my findings varied significantly from the rather disappointing and unfavorable experience represented in the NFB article. Imagine if I had read the article with no further research at all.
So, is the Mac right for me? I don’t know yet. I want to do more research and have a little hands-on experience before making that decision. Is the iPhone right for me? I don’t know yet, but I’m keeping an open mind. But it isn’t really my own decisions I’m thinking about at the moment. It is the people who read scathing posts from individuals denouncing the iPhone and accept them on faith that I worry about. It is the people who read articles from seemingly trustworthy sources and accept them as fact that I worry about.
But why am I so concerned? It all goes back to my earlier statement that curiosity should never be discouraged. I always try to approach new technology with an open mind, and often with a sense of wonder. How can this new technology change my life? How can others benefit from this new technology? What new ideas will be sparked by the availability of this new technology? I hope never to lose that sense of wonder. I understand that my approach to technology may not be the right approach for everyone. I know that some people view technology merely as a means to an end, and don’t necessarily feel their heartbeat quicken every time they find out that something new is on the horizon.
Still, I reflect on the idea that we were all beginners in terms of technology at one time, and whether we’re now technical gurus or folks who just use our computers for the bare necessities, we all had hurdles to overcome as we learned more and more about technology. How different might our outcomes have been if we had been discouraged from exploring a new technology on the basis of a single scathing remark or a single poorly researched article from a credible source?
I don’t want to see even one blind person lose their sense of adventure because they’ve been inundated with the message that the status quo is just fine thank you. I don’t want to see even one blind person lose their sense of adventure because it’s easier to stay in the comfort zone than to step outside it. And I don’t want to see a single blind person who loses sight of why we explore new technology in the first place, to see what new things it can offer us, not to compare it to what already exists and find it lacking just because it is different.
What I do want to see is a whole community of blind people looking to the future with that sense of wonder and expectation, and being excited, not afraid to embrace the changes which will inevitably come.