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Are people who are blind or visually impaired, their teachers and counselors set in their ways of learning and teaching so they have their eyes closed to new tools and sources of information? For the most part, yes. It is no longer the technology, which restricts our access to location information but our ability or inability to take advantage of it.
Think about the tools we have today for reading and how they have evolved to provide access to the printed word. We have braille, sighted readers, talking books, electronic text, and speech synthesizers, print scanners and the Internet. These access tools for the printed word all have benefits and all have drawbacks. None provides the level of independence and convenience afforded by 20/20 vision and good visual reading skills.
Ten percent or fewer legally blind folks use braille. The average braille reader reads under 125 words per minute compared to three times that speed for a sighted reader. Only a miniscule number of books are available in braille and the books take up 10 times more room than print books. Despite all that, braille provides a level of access, detail and independence to reading and writing that no other access tool can provide. Just think how censored blind people would be without it.
Audio cassettes are the simplest and most widely used tool for access to books for the blind and visually impaired, due largely in part to the free distribution of books and players by the Library of Congress in the United States and similar organizations in most developed countries. The modest popularity of audio books in the general market over the past ten years has broadened the availability of materials. Still, one cannot skim through cassettes affectively nor search to a particular subject. Being read to has a finite speed capacity even with speech compression techniques. And yet, we are thrilled to have the access to books the audio cassette reading tool provides and look forward to digital audio books in the near future.
The first reading machines came to the market in the early 1980s and the first computer/scanner solutions in the 1990s. Scanned books have meant that blind people could access the majority of materials, which are not available in other accessible formats. We could get the books into an electronic form so we could search for specific keywords and subjects assuming that those items had been scanned properly. Twenty years ago, a reading machine cost $35,000 and today the cost is under $1000. Ten years ago, it took 2 minutes or more to scan and read a page, now it takes 15 seconds or so for a page to be scanned once the program is loaded.
As this technology has gotten better, blind people have learned to accept the relative slowness, inaccuracy and cumbersomeness of scanning compared with how a sighted person accesses materials. A sighted person can glance at a document and know in 1 second if it is junk mail. To do this on a scanner takes 30 seconds or more and this assumes the computer is booted up and the program loaded. We put up with this inconvenience because there is no other option for accessing this information independently. Despite all this, most of us are glad to have the access, inaccuracies, slowness and all.
Unless someone has just recently lost their sight, most blind people don't even question the unavoidable process of getting information audibly from human readers or speech synthesizers. Indeed, it is best to get accustomed to the robotic speech and slowness of audible input right away. It is part of accepting that one is blind and it doesn't help one to read books by wishing to see or to lament the inconveniences of being blind any more than it helps a short person to wish they were tall or other unchangeable situations.
I was in a jungle village in Ghana helping to build a school. The whole village spent many weeks just digging out the foundation. As I hoisted bucket after bucket of dirt in the sweltering heat, I forced from my mind the thought that a bulldozer could have done the work in a couple days. We used the resources at our disposal under the circumstances and the fact is that hundreds of children have now graduated from that school and gone on to become teachers themselves.
With all the reading options now available, blind people are not censored per say. Sure, a sighted reader who must skim a text book or help a blind student do research must filter or censor printed information based upon their understanding of what the blind person wants to hear. I felt frustrated at the inability to skim books and review books for tests. I was happy when I could get a reader who could skim quickly and read me the key points in a textbook. I made the most of the options available to me by recognizing the limitations and maximizing the benefits.
In combination with braille and electronic text, a blind person today has more options than ever if they choose to use them. Access to the printed word is light years ahead of where it was when I was in graduate school a mere 22 years ago. Along with my blind friends and colleagues, I accepted the reading inconveniences and limitations we had 20 and 30 years ago and I do the same with the many access limitations we still have today. I don't dwell on the many limitations, I simply recognize what those limitations are and find the most affective means of improving my skills and using tools to access written information.
Now to the illiteracy and censorship. There is another form of print information which has been so inaccessible to blind people that most do not know what they are missing. The print I refer to is on signs, on buildings and on almost everything accept the page. This is called "location information" or "environmental information." Just as the blind person takes for granted not having this location information, the sighted person accepts signage as part of life, so much a part, that they only notice it when the street-sign is missing or obscured. For a blind person, location information has always been obscured, totally inaccessible. Blind travelers with ingenuity and excellent orientation and mobility have learned to use their memory and other senses to access a small percentage of this location information but most blind folks are used to not having location information so they literally do not know what they are missing.
As I have been saying about printed materials, especially in earlier days, some access is better than no access. More power to the blind traveler who has gained access to 1 percent of the available location information. More power to he or she who gets where they want to go. No sense moaning about the 99% inaccessible location information. Just make the most of what you can access.
Consider what sighted people have to work with when they are getting around. Forget that they can drive. Sighted folks see street signs, building names, and distinct landmarks, familiar and unfamiliar settings. They can take or leave this information if and when they need it and it is a huge part of what helps them in getting around. It is not just that they can see where they are going, it is the fact that they have all this location information to guide them and to give them feedback and choices.
Orientation and mobility techniques are founded and taught based upon the blind person not having location information. Specific routes are memorized including the occasional landmark to remind the blind traveler where to turn or conclude the route. Good travelers will learn how to cut corners or explore alternatives along the general route. The exceptional blind traveler will go exploring or create their own routes but the fundamental techniques and orientation tools have been limited in the past by the lack of a blind person's independent access to ubiquitous location information.
Unawareness of location technology may be the explanation why only a few blind people and teachers are using the new electronic location information. Availability is no longer the issue. Location information is becoming accessible and few blind people, their teachers and counselors know about it. Every square foot of the earth essentially has an electronic label. As we have discovered with books, once the information is in an electronic form, blind people have a much greater opportunity to access that information. The same is true with location information.
These electronic labels begin in the form of a numeric latitude/longitude label. Every square foot on the planet has a "lat/lon." Commercial companies have been formed whose business it is to put names on those lat/lon coordinates. These companies have already built massive databases with street names, addresses, business names, points of interest, shipping lanes, underwater wrecks and the list goes on. Anything, which is stationary, is likely to be labeled.
The beauty of these commercial location databases for blind people is that there is a general consumer need and demand. Electronic textbooks or Internet newspapers would never have come about if the general market had not wanted these products. Millions of street names and business names would never have been compiled without demand from commercial customers, the driving public and tourists. And, the good news is that the market and demand are growing, as are the companies to provide this data.
With this boon in electronic data, blind people no longer need be limited to the 1% location information they previously could get. The blind traveler can now be a co-pilot in a car, not just a passive passenger. They can keep the taxi driver honest; they can enjoy hearing about the sites and businesses being passed while in a car, bus or even on foot. There is nothing more empowering for a blind person than getting around effectively and location information makes this much more possible for a lot more people.
When Louis Braille first introduced his system for reading tactually in the early 1800s, the head master banned the students from using it. They had a way of reading. He asked, why invent a whole new system when the old way worked? A hundred and seventy-five years later, braille is a way of life for literate blind people. It took many years for the cassette to displace the talking book record and it will take that much longer for the digital book to replace the cassette. It took 10 to 20 years for reading machines to be widely accepted. We get used to accomplishing things in a certain way and are reluctant to move outside our comfort zone.
In this era of many technologies, it is easy to become cynical about technical solutions, which may be born today and gone tomorrow. Location Information may be in its infancy but it is here to stay, at least for sighted people it is. Blind people and professionals in the field of blindness can continue to ignore the independence gained through location literacy or they can open their eyes to its benefits along with its limitations. Sure it is a hassle to use, just as scanners and braille displays are for reading, but the benefits provide valuable orientation and navigation information. The data content and hardware will only continue to get smaller and cheaper and more convenient. Those who choose to deal with the limitations now will reap the benefits now. Those who wait will delay their skill development and opportunities.
To raise the awareness of location information and its tremendous benefits involves fundamental change not simply the introduction of a product. Learning new software or hardware is the easier part, the real challenge is in opening up to new ways of thinking, new ways of teaching and getting around. Orientation and Mobility university teaching programs must incorporate location information into their O&M curriculum. Agencies can begin by exposing their clientele to the location information technologies. Most of all, blind people must look out for themselves by leaving their comfort zones to become literate about the world that surrounds them.
With some persistence and exploration, the world can be at one's fingertips. A blind person can literally see for themselves the signs, landmarks and points of interest that surround them through braille or verbal announcements from the millions of electronic labels which will some day be trillions. Reading books as well as reading signs are powerful information sources and we must work together, firstly to recognize the importance of location information, and secondly to start teaching and accessing it. I hope this will get us to widespread location literacy among blind people some day. Certainly the evolution of accessible location information from the first iteration on the laptop to the newest version for the BrailleNote and VoiceNote personal data assistant.
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