Anne Ford 2015-09-12 10:00:34
The visually impaired lag far behind in use of computers and smart phones. Lions are determined to close the gap. About eight years ago, Aaron Carroll, now 47, began losing his sight to a disease called sarcoidosis. His rapidly diminishing vision led to the loss of his position as a customer-service worker—and with it, some of his self-esteem. After working with the Chicago Lighthouse to regain his computer skills and learn adaptive technology such as screen readers, Carroll was recently hired at a health clinic call center. “Working will definitely put me closer to regaining my independence,” he says happily. “When you lose your vision, you become dependent on other people to help you do things. Going to work, that’ll really help my self-confidence, knowing that I can take care of myself.” There are countless other stories you’ll hear from just about any computer instructor of the blind or visually impaired: the student who solved his transportation problem by learning to order groceries online. The deaf-blind man who can now navigate his town, thanks to a GPS with Braille display. The person who started crying when he successfully learned how to stream a radio sports broadcast from his hometown. The attorney who thought her career ended with her sight, until she learned how to use a computer again and began practicing law once more. The grandfather who learned how to take a photo of himself with his smart phone and send it to his daughter in another state, who hadn’t seen him in years. “We see success stories every day,” says Ian Stenseng, a computer and assistive technology training manager for the Seattle Lighthouse for the Blind. The success stories typically are the result of intense computer training, excellent assistive technology and a knowledgeable and persistent instructor. But many of the 21 million Americans with some form of vision loss aren’t so fortunate. Far too often those who are blind or visually impaired do not understand or use computers and other digital technology. The sighted world enjoys the technology of 2015. Those with visual impairments often lag years or decades behind. That’s why Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) recently granted the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) $125,000 to develop a training and awareness program that will enhance technology literacy and competency among the blind and visually impaired. With the help of an advisory committee, whose members include Lion Dr. Tracy Williams, a low vision specialist, the AFB will use the grant for a one-year planning, research, and training pilot that will seek to answer the question: exactly what must be done to bridge the technology divide for the visually impaired? The results will be shared with Lions Clubs International, university programs for teachers of the visually impaired and others stakeholders. It’s a help-the-helpers strategy. Train or educate those who assist the visually impaired to maximize the mastery of technology use and shrink the technology gap. Statistics on computer use among the blind and visually impaired do not exist. But those who work with the blind know the technology gap is sizable. “Our belief is that most people who are blind or visually impaired either are not using a computer-accessibility strategy such as screen-access software or speech recognition, and that those who are using them probably are not using them all that well,” says Paul Schroeder, the AFB’s vice president of programs and policy. And we’re not talking about gaining just the ability to play games and share pleasantries. Fewer than 40 percent of visually disabled Americans ages 21-64 are employed (as compared to the general employment rate of about 65 percent), and more than 30 percent live below the poverty line. In this digital age, computer skills are crucial to gainful employment, social connection and even routine daily activities. “If you don’t have computer access, you really fall behind the general populace,” says Peter Tucic, an assistive technology specialist at the Chicago Lighthouse for People who Are Blind or Visually Impaired, a social services agency that assists people with low or no vision. Tucic, who is blind, staffs the Lighthouse’s computer assistance hotline, taking calls from anyone with vision loss who needs help interacting with assistive technology. “Generally the people I encounter aren’t very informed about how to use computers, smart phones, and similar devices,” Tucic says. “They might know, for example, that the iPhone can talk, but they don’t know how to get the most out of it. People who didn’t get on that first wave of computers—they’re not one step behind, they’re three or four steps behind. If you don’t learn how to use an iPhone today, well, in five years your whole home could be on Wi-Fi. It’s kind of like going from shooting a musket to operating a cruise missile. There are a lot of homebound blind people, and they’re becoming sequestered and marginalized.” For years, AFB has encouraged mainstream computer companies such as Microsoft to make their products compatible with assistive technologies and reviewed these technologies in its magazine, Access-World. Now, Schroeder says, the LCIF grant has equipped AFB to begin tackling what he calls “the training problem.” A huge part of the reason that computer literacy levels among the blind are so low, he says, is that their teachers simply don’t know the technologies well enough themselves. “Whether it’s teachers who teach kids with blindness or counselors who teach adults with vision loss, there’s a well-documented gap in instructors’ own comfort level with the technology,” he says. Mary Abramson, an instructor in the Chicago Lighthouse’s office skills training program, has long known that training for computer instructors of the blind is not what it should be. In fact, most instructors in this field learn on the job. Why should that be? Well, formally training trainers is a costly endeavor, she points out, since most computer instruction in this population takes place one-on-one rather than as a group. “If we tried to have an entire computer class for visually impaired students, we’d never get a class together, because everybody’s at a different place skill-wise and learns in a different way,” Abrahamson says. “One-on-one is, of course, not the most cost-efficient way to do this, but it seems to be the most effective.” “A one-size-fits-all solution doesn’t always work,” agrees Stenseng of the Seattle Lighthouse. “Something that might work for somebody who has low usable vision is not going to work for someone who’s a hearing-blind person or someone who’s deaf-blind. We’re constantly struggling between solutions that are as universally accessible as possible but also meet these very specific and diverse needs.” And then there’s the fact that in order for people with vision loss to use computers, they must understand its workings in much more depth than someone who’s fully sighted. Whereas a sighted person can simply click an icon, for example, someone with low or no vision must “learn what those icons are and where they are and how they really work, because we use the keyboard commands instead of the mouse,” Abramson points out. Thus a computer instructor for the blind must be even more knowledgeable than a computer instructor for the sighted. For now, “there’s no formal training for people to do what I do—sit down and dig into the visually impaired person’s abilities, needs, desires and skill level, and make sure that they’re getting what they need,” she says. “I think the AFB is right. There’s a great need for this. We could have a lot more visually impaired people employed.” Luke Scriven doesn’t quit easily. As an assistive technology specialist at the Chicago Lighthouse, he teaches those with sight loss to use computers. And while his students face many potential obstacles—complex software, low confidence, general discomfort with technology—computer literacy is just too crucial a skill for him to give up on any student. Even one as challenging as William. “William [name changed] was a veteran,” Scriven recalls, “and as well as having vision issues, he had a bad memory.” Scriven introduced William to CDesk, a computer program for the visually impaired. But at first, it seemed too difficult to master. “He’d try to use speech recognition commands, but he’d forget the commands, or he wouldn’t speak very clearly,” Scriven says. Then Scriven showed his student computer games such as hangman and solitaire. “I showed William how to play them, and he completely took off on them,” he remembers. “He actually learned how to navigate CDesk so he could get to these games, and he learned where the keys were on the keyboard. He’d call me up all the time and tell me his high scores. It kept his mind active, and it helped him learn how to use the computer. By the time I finished my training with him, he could do word processing and use email.” And there was a bonus: “The veterans here all share their email addresses and send each other inspirational stories or jokes, so he was able to participate in that community.” It’s people like William LCIF aims to ultimately help through its grant to the AFB. Of course, this is far from the first time that LCIF has supported a large-scale program aimed at those with vision loss. In 1990, it launched Sight-First, which initially provided funding for programs that addressed the leading causes of preventable and reversible blindness. “We devoted a tremendous amount of resources to cataract surgeries, pills to ward off certain tropical eye diseases, training of eye care personnel and building and equipping eye hospitals—all designed to reduce the number of people who were blind or visually impaired,” says Philip Albano, LCIF Sight Programs department manager. Now SightFirst has expanded its mission to include programs for the blind or irreversibly visually impaired. “That set the stage, so when AFB came to us seeking interest in and support for their technology and training awareness program, we were in a position to fund it,” Albano says. “AFB is a well-known advocate for the blind, and the goal of AFB and the goals of Lions are naturally in alignment.” “We want to develop a testable training strategy that we replicate,” Schroeder says. “At the end of the year, we hope we’ll have something that’s been proven to be useful, and that we can show that we’re capable of growing with additional funding. It’s a huge undertaking. We’re a relatively small organization trying to tackle a big mission across a lot of areas. But it’s hard to overstate the importance of access to technology for people who are blind. Sometimes I bristle when people say, ‘Technology’s only part of the answer.’ Yes, but it’s a huge part of the answer.”
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