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The great disability hack

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This is a birds' eye view of a grey work table. On the table is a neatly arranged grid of different hardware and technology parts. Discernible items include the front of a camera and a tablet screen. There are metal bits, plastic bits, large and very small. There are about 60 pieces in total.

The following text comes from an email that was sent out by The Listserve, a global email lottery, on March 4, 2016.  It was written by Lisa Larges of Minneapolis, MN. 

I’m 52, and I’ve been blind all my life. I tell you my age, because, for me, as a blind person, my life has been divided in halves — the half before technology, and the half after.

A few weeks back, I was waiting at a corner for a bus. I noticed what felt to me like a temporary sign affixed to the bus stop pole. I pulled out my iPhone. I use Voiceover on my phone, a built-in feature that speaks what’s on the screen and lets me manipulate it with different gestures.

I open up an app, I choose the video mode. The app searches for text and reads it. “This stop closed, use north corner.”

Technology has opened up the world for me. I read the papers, I do my shopping and banking and a myriad of other things online; on my phone I have a barcode reader, a color identifier, a light detector, and text recognition apps. There’s an app that will connect me with a sighted volunteer for those times when I just need someone who can see something for me. Most of all, it’s opened up the world of books, in ways that just weren’t possible 20 years ago.

It’s happening like this for disabled people all over the world. People are taking hold of technology, and figuring out how to use it to do things. It’s the great disability hack, and it’s amazing.

It’s also incredibly fragile. Regularly I visit websites where the designer has introduced features that don’t work with the screen reading software I rely on. I know of blind people who have gotten hired for jobs as the best candidate, only to find that the software required to do that job isn’t compatible with screen readers. Accessibility wasn’t considered when that company made its software purchases, and so, a portion of the population was locked out from those jobs.

I just toured a beautiful new building with a great, trendy rooftop space. I noticed that there was a lip in the doorsill going out to the roof. Could a wheelchair get over that barrier? I wasn’t sure.

Technology can expand our lives, or it can shut us out.

If it’s going to be the first way, and not the second, it requires that we create a culture where accessibility is the norm.

If you don’t know about them, google the principles of universal design. To me, they read like a soaring manifesto for diversity – designing a world that considers a breadth of human needs and gives dignity to our strengths.

I was so psyched to win the listserve lottery. I love reading people’s stories and hearing what folks are passionate about.

I figure this is my chance to speak up for accessibility.

If you’re a web designer, follow the accessibility guidelines – make sure, among other things that you can interact with the site using just a keyboard. If you’re an app designer, make sure all graphics are labeled, and do an accessibility check.

If you’re an architect, check out some of the incredibly beautiful new spaces that are being created to showcase the principles of universal design. If you’re a person with hiring authority at your company, please be open to candidates with disabilities, even if you can’t imagine how you would do the job with that disability.

I love my life as a blind person. I love the ways in which the world continues to open up for people with disabilities. Most of all I love a world full of diversity and surprises. Thanks for being part of it!

Lisa Larges
Minneapolis, MN, U.S.