Joseph Lee listens as a mechanical voice races through an indecipherable series of words and phrases. Lee is blind and works as a volunteer at Second Sense, a Chicago-based nonprofit that helps people with vision loss navigate the world. He specializes in helping people learn to use assistive technology like screen readers. “I can slow it down,” he says. “I just have it on fast so it doesn’t take as long.” He says you get accustomed to the fast speech output. As soon as he slows it down the names of buttons become apparent. It’s reading the navigation. Lee browses the website, pausing as the screen reader struggles to recognize a pop-up window. “The software isn’t the greatest,” he says. “I actually use my iPhone most of the time instead.” Lee is talking about a popular screen reader used with Windows software. Screen readers are how most blind and visually impaired access the internet. This particular one provides braille and speech output, but, according to Lee, has a lot of bugs. Apple has built voice over technology into its operating systems, which means it works better with the applications. Most people in the visually impaired community do a lot of their internet surfing and emailing on their iPhones. “It’s just faster,” Lee says. It’s also cheaper. Screen reading software for Windows averages US$1,000, which can be out of reach for many. It turns out, much of the assistive technology available to help the visually impaired integrate into society is too expensive for those who need it. They have to rely on aid from government services or money from charitable organizations. “I wish a lot more things in the world were readily accessible, and we didn’t have to rely on software to get them,” says Lee. There are plenty of assistive technology devices available, all with different degrees of usefulness. But most people need training to learn how to use the devices, and it costs money to get the training. Even if the services are free, people need to pay for transportation to get the services. And that can add up. Lee wasn’t a great student in high school, he says, but there was a tool that could have made it a lot easier for him to follow along in class. A BrailleNote device, enables those with vision impairment to take searchable notes, convert textbooks to braille, and translate text to speech. The ability to convert to braille is especially helpful for those who have been blind since birth. “I learn better when I read something in braille versus just hearing it read aloud,” says Lee, who has been blind since he was 2 years old. He’s also faster typing on a braille keyboard versus the standard QWERTY. Unfortunately, Lee couldn’t afford the BrailleNote, but a teacher told him about Lions and he wrote to them for help. He didn’t get the money, but it was the first time he learned of what they offer. He now wishes more people knew what Lions do. Assistive technology only makes the world more accessible if those who need it can actually access it. And this is how Lions can truly help. This is how Lions can, as Helen Keller said, “help make life more worth living for the blind everywhere.”
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