After training as a clinical support worker, US-based blogger Ro O’Shay was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2006, before losing her sight in 2008. Since then, the internet and new communications technologies have gradually become a lifeline for her, and she is now a keen writer and technology-user. Tristan Parker talks to her about her passion for technology.
TP: Please give us some background on yourself.
ROS: I grew up sighted in Arizona, without the kinds of technology young people grow up with today. I lived at home and went to college and eventually decided on phlebotomy [the process of collecting blood from patients for examination] as a career. In 2006 my right eye went blind and I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The internet and my PC quickly became my link to the world as I adjusted to suddenly being disabled. I became a moderator on a mental health forum and that was a huge sense of pride and accomplishment for me. When I suddenly became completely blind in 2008, all that was taken from me.
TP: How do you use technology and how does it benefit you?
ROS: I was without technology for eight months when a friend gave me an iPod nano. It had spoken menus! I called Apple, wondering what else they might have. It was explained to me that all their computers had built-in screen readers. I had heard about screen readers for Windows but the cost made me ill. I went to the Apple store and was able to log in and post on the mental health forum using the Mac screen reader, Voiceover. I could just afford the least expensive MacBook and began to painstakingly teach myself how to use it.
TP: Do you use other technologies – online tools, screen-readers, anything else?
ROS: I have an iPhone 4 that, next to my MacBook, is the most important piece of technology in my life. I have a typing app called Fleksy that really made using my iPhone all the easier and I have since gotten an app that scans and reads text, an app that scans barcodes and gives me product information, I am able to access my bank account with an app, I can listen to baseball games when I’m out of the house, I have a GPS app that helps me know where I am – the list goes on.
I’m able to read books with iBooks and I keep audio books with me as well, and the calendar app has been a lifesaver. Just about every app that comes with an iPhone is accessible and even most third party apps are. App developers are becoming more and more familiar with Voiceover on all iDevices and a lot of them are receptive when the blind and low vision users have suggestions for accessibility.
TP: You seem a very prolific writer on your blog. Is this one of your main activities when you’re online?
ROS: Blogging used to be one of my main activities online. I started my blog after I decided to begin the journey of getting a guide dog and that was just another way I began meeting people. I met one of the close friends I mentioned earlier because of the blog.
I found other blogs written by people who had lost their vision later in life and it helped me feel connected and find others like me. I was also helping people without even knowing it, and I had this entire fellowship of blind and low-vision people grow up around me, as well as puppy raisers and other dog people who helped me prepare for my life with a guide dog. My blog is very important to me and I recently had to move it to WordPress because Blogger made some changes that deeply impacted accessibility negatively. I was resistant to the move but am now grateful for it.
While my blog is still active I spend most of my online time on Twitter using an accessible Mac client called YoruFukurou. It has become another hugely important window to the world for me. Twitter leads me to websites I want to read and my blog friends link their new posts there. It has become a sort of one-stop-shop for the internet, putting all my interests into one easy-to-access place. One of my fears is that Twitter will change things so that my client will no longer work and then Twitter will not be nearly as easy to use as it is now.
TP: What are the main usability aspects you look for in a computer, and on a website?
ROS: I’m spoiled since the only computer I’ve used since going blind is a Mac. If it’s not a Mac, I’m not interested. The built-in screen reader and the fact that it works so well with Mac software has me a loyal customer. When it comes to websites, I like a nice headings structure I can use to quickly “glance” at the page and get an idea of the layout. Plain text is my friend since obviously image-based content is something Voiceover can’t read to me. Image descriptions are nice and clearly labelled buttons and links are a must.
Embedded media is a problem, since Voiceover and Flash aren’t always friends, so I like direct links. YouTube is great since content plays automatically, though I don’t like content that plays automatically on a page I’m not expecting. It drowns out my screen reader and makes it difficult to navigate. Pages that are pretty for the sighted might be completely inaccessible to screen readers.
TP: Do you think that more organisations are now making their websites accessible to blind and visually impaired computer users?
ROS: Yes. I think screen reading technology information is becoming more widespread, but technology changes so incredibly quickly that one site I visit today might go through an overhaul and be completely inaccessible the next. Here in the States it is law that government sites be accessible, which is great, but those laws haven’t expanded beyond government, that I know of.
Commercial sites such as Amazon are fairly accessible now and have been open to suggestions. I use Amazon a lot, and so I worry that one day when I visit, something will suddenly have changed. Lately, I have found that restaurants pose the biggest problem, either using images for their menus or putting the menus into a jumbled PDF file. It can be infuriating but it seems to me to be rarer and rarer that I am turned away from a website due to inaccessibility.
TP: What benefits can using technology and getting online bring to people with disabilities?
ROS: The benefits are endless. For me, the biggest benefit is the fellowship. The fact that I never have to be alone is huge. I can just jump on Twitter or read blogs or carry on a conversation with someone clear across the pond over email. For me, information is secondary to the people I get to interact with. From blind friends in Canada or Texas or New York or Ireland to fellow Tampa Bay Rays baseball fans in Florida, I am never alone. The world is at my fingertips, just like it was when I could see.
Ro O’Shay’s blog, In The Center of The Roof, can be found at: www.centerroof.com .
Her Twitter profile is: @Raynaadi