Week Two : Casual Conversations #1

Today I met with Dr Rachel Menzies to discuss accessibility issues and the challenges presented by being blind. We talked about smart homes enabling people with disabilities to live independently while also providing unintrusive monitoring of their daily activities for the reassurance of relatives thousands of miles away; and the poor experience offered by audio description on television shows. We talked about how visual Facebook and other social media sites are, and she raised the issue of remembering state changes of a page for a person who can’t compare what a page looks like now versus ten minutes ago.

What was most interesting about the conversation however, was that Rachel explained some of the problems of sight loss through a series of stories about people she knows. Rather than simply pointing out that ordering food in a restaurant is difficult for a blind person, she told me a story about a man who visits the same restaurant whenever he wants to go out to eat; this is because he remembers his way around it and knows the menu. Additionally, the staff know him and are aware of his blindness. If he has to visit an unfamiliar place he finds a pub and orders a steak pie – because he’s confident that a pub will offer such a traditional item. He has never been anywhere that have offered him a braille menu. This storytelling helped me to consider the implications of not being able to read a menu beyond the moment of actually being in a restaurant and having to order something. For this individual, it has led to a habit of regularly returning to the same place so he can both eat out and maintain his independence through not requiring a sighted companion to read the menu for him.

Rachel also described a blind football fanatic who has visited almost every stadium in Scotland. While he is unable to see the colours worn by the fans, he has a clear sense of their group identity – team x has loud fans, team y has very organised supporters – from their audible behaviour throughout matches. Sometimes he has a sighted companion relate the action on the pitch to him, sometimes he listens to radio commentary. Sometimes he just listens to the crowd and knows from their reactions broadly what is happening at the time. Remarkably, he can also discern basic characteristics of the stadium in which he is sitting; he can tell, for instance, the approximate size of the stadium and whether or not it has a roof.

This suggests an interesting experiment for me to try on myself. If I wear a blindfold and visit an unfamiliar place, what impression would I have of that place? I already want to explore accessible games and the experience of using social media via a screen reader, but perhaps I should widen my experimentation to include non-digital experiences.

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