As a blind kid, I never imagined that technology would one day threaten to block my participation in the world. When I first heard the words “that’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” on the radio, I knew that if technology could send man to the moon, then it could also always make it possible for me to do the things I wanted to do to fully participate in society.
This has been true, but only to some degree.
There are life changing examples of technology, such as GPS and screen reading software that have opened up the world for me, and other people who are blind or have low vision, in ways that were never available to previous generations.
Despite these developments, I have spent most of my adult life advocating for technology and information to be made accessible. In 2000, I successfully complained to the Australian Human Rights Commission about the inaccessibility of the Sydney Olympic Games website, and won. I was convinced that shining a spotlight on those who broke the law would change things for the better. To my disappointment the organisers chose to ignore the ruling. As the website was not made accessible I, and my children, missed certain events.
Since the turn of the century, not much has changed. In 2016, 37 per cent of complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were lodged under the Disability Discrimination Act. It’s no surprise to me that 33 per cent of these complaints related to being unable to access goods, services and facilities.
Today is the sixth anniversary of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, an international event that aims to get people talking, thinking and learning about digital accessibility and users with different abilities.
As a society, we are switched on 24/7, and technology impacts on every aspect of our lives. We have a collective responsibility to ensure that the next technological advances do not reverse earlier achievements that so dramatically improved the blindness and low vision community’s access to the world.
If someone had said to me when I was a teenager, “there are going to be these things called touchscreens, and they’ll be everywhere, and they’re going to replace buttons and knobs and dials”, I would probably have thought, “wow, how groovy. I’ll be able to use them. Touch is something I can do as a blind person”.
The naïve optimism of youth!
Touchscreens are everywhere. Look around your home, your workplace and other locations you frequent. It’s likely that there are touchscreens on most of your kitchen and household appliances, on the fitness equipment at your gym, and on the payment device at your favourite cafe. The list is endless.
And the issue is that while I can touch the screen there's nothing that tells me what I'm touching or what happens on the screen when I do.
Here’s what I mean. There’s a small dry cleaning boutique in walking distance of my home. They have a lockable box on the outside of their shop so clothes can be collected after the shop has closed. The box is unlocked by entering a PIN on a touchscreen. I know when my dry cleaning is ready for collection because they send me a text message on my iPhone, which I can read, because Apple has made the iPhone's touchscreen interface accessible. Unfortunately, the box’s touchscreen interface is not accessible and I have to wait till the shop opens in the morning to collect my dry cleaning.
We have reached a ‘tipping point’ where touchscreens are proliferating at an unprecedented rate, and we'll soon be living in a post-buttons-and-knobs world.
Unless designers, developers and manufacturers start including accessibility as a priority — and policy makers and legislators enforce this — then those of us who are blind or have low vision will be locked out of everyday life. We will struggle to do the most basic things like cooking on an electrical cooktop, cooling our homes in summer, and making financial transactions with confidence.
As our national leaders, government must take urgent action to give people who are blind or have low vision access to life, for life, otherwise, instead of surfing the technological waves, we will be drowned by them.
Bruce Maguire is Lead Policy Advisor at Vision Australia.