We live in a highly digital society. Most of us are constantly using our phones, laptops, computers, and tablets. We use these devices to learn, to play games, to do work, to read, and to communicate and interact with each other.
Absolutely! People who are blind and visually impaired can, and do, use computers, phones, and other electronic devices just as much as sighted people. People who are blind just have different ways of accessing these devices. Blind people use what's called assistive technology, including screen readers, refreshable braille displays, and digital screen magnification to interact with high-tech products.
Assistive technology is any hardware or software used by people with disabilities to access computers, phones, tablets, and printed materials. There are many types of assistive technology, and different disabilities require different technologies.
How would you use a computer if you could not see the cursor on the screen or the screen itself? Desktop and laptop computers use screen readers. Software products, such as JAWS® (Job Access With Speech) for Windows and NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access), allow users who are blind and visually impaired to navigate the computer and access most of its functions. Instead of using a mouse to navigate around the screen, people who are blind use a system of key commands to get to where they need to go.
Screen readers can give audio feedback, or they can be connected to refreshable braille displays. Refreshable braille is an electronic way of reading braille. Pins on a device pop up and can be read with a finger like hardcopy braille. Once the person is done reading a line, the pins go down and pop up again with the next line in the text. Refreshable braille displays are especially helpful for people who are deaf and blind and cannot use text-to-speech output.
Imagine not being able to see the screen of your phone. How would you text your friends? Use apps? Call someone? People who are blind also use screen readers on touch screen phones and tablets. This kind of software reads aloud all the text on the screen, including navigation buttons. Android devices use an app called Talkback. Apple iOS devices use built-in software known as VoiceOver, which uses text-to-speech output. Text-to-speech is essentially a synthesized voice that communicates what is on the screen.
There are many hand maneuvers, called "gestures," used to do various tasks on a phone or tablet. For instance, using VoiceOver, tapping three times on the screen gives you an audible indication of where you are on a page. Tapping twice anywhere on the screen selects the link or item highlighted by the cursor.
Students who are blind use assistive technology in the classroom to follow along with their peers and do homework. Students who are visually impaired and have some usable vision can use an electronic magnifier to view what the teacher is writing on the board. Students who are blind use refreshable braille displays to silently read an e-book. Electronic notetakers are used to write down notes in a class or to do research for a paper using the Internet. Textbooks can be read in hardcopy braille, large print, refreshable braille, or audio format, according to the student's abilities and preference.
These are just a few of the ways in which students and adults who are blind and visually impaired use computers, phones, tablets, and other technology. Advances in assistive technology have made it increasingly more possible for people who are blind and visually impaired to learn, compete, and communicate on an equal playing field with their sighted peers. Because of this increasing ease of accessing information and communicating, many people who are blind are more attached to their electronic devices than sighted people.