Aug 11, 2020

Innovating for disability, because you have to

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A deafblind law student paired a Bluetooth keyboard to her Braille computer to make it easier to communicate with others. But Braille technology updates are few and far between.

This week, we’re using the 30th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act to talk about technology and accessibility. Today, we’re looking at assistive technology, which aids people with disabilities in navigating school, work and everyday interactions.

I spoke with disability rights advocate Haben Girma, author of “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.” We relied on some of her personal tech to conduct our interview. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Haben Girma's new book cover, "Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law."
The cover of “Haben: The Deafblind Woman Who Conquered Harvard Law.” (Photo courtesy Twelve)

Haben Girma: I’m deafblind and access information best through Braille, through my fingers, so I’m always looking for tech solutions that are touch-based. The specific device I’m using is called a BrailleNote, made by a company called HumanWare. It’s a computer where, instead of a visual display, there’s a tactile display. There is a field where pins can pop up to form different letters. Different patterns of the pins make different Braille letters, and I run my fingers over the pins, identify the letters quickly, and then I know what’s said. Gordon is here listening in to the call and typing whatever he hears. [His keyboard is] connected to my Braille computer. So, as you speak, he’s typing, I’m reading the words in Braille and then responding back with my own voice.

Kimberly Adams: That’s an amazing system. I understand you had a role in creating it. Can you tell me that story?

Girma: In 2010, the BrailleNote, the Braille computer that I’m using right now, came out, and it was the first one with Bluetooth support. That sparked the idea of connecting the Braille computer with an external Bluetooth keyboard. And that way, when I meet someone, I could hand them the keyboard and tell them to just type their words, then I would read in Braille and respond by voice. I started using this at Harvard Law School. And in my book, I talk about the experience of using it for the first time with classmates, with potential employers. Some people acted like it was really weird, but then others immediately understood because most people these days type emails, [are] texting, especially millennials, really understood and were able to connect with me.

Adams: How often do you or others who are disabled have to come up with technology solutions on your own just simply because they don’t exist yet?

Girma: Disabled people constantly have to come up with our own solutions. Most things in this world are designed for nondisabled white men who are right-handed. Most designs [are] for a very limited segment of our population, and everyone outside of that has to be creative and thoughtful and come up with solutions, especially disabled people.

Adams: How has the technology evolved since you were in law school?

Girma: You know what? Braille technology is not evolving very much, and it’s extremely frustrating. I’m using 10-year-old technology. In some ways, it’s 30-years-old technology, and I wish more companies would step into this space and develop more Braille technology. Tap into haptics. There’s an incredible market of blind, disabled people who want to be able to access information through touch. And some mainstream companies are taking this up. We are getting more cellphones with haptic capabilities or smartwatches with haptic capabilities. And we want to see more of this. And digital Braille is really expensive right now. We want to reduce that cost so that blind people all over the world, especially [in] developing countries, can get access to Braille computers. And if we can make Braille affordable, that would be the “Holy Braille.”

Adams: That’s pretty wild, when you said that the technology is 10 or 30 years old. You barely have a phone that lasts three to five years at this point, if that.

Girma: (Laughs) The technology is very sturdy. I appreciate that. It has lasted quite a few drops.

Adams: Your legal and your advocacy work has focused a lot on technology. What other products are being developed now that you think are the most exciting or promising for deafblind people or for other members of the disabled community?

Girma: I’m really excited about self-driving cars. Imagine the freedom, the independence. I was talking to someone who works at one of these companies, and he said, “We’re a few years from releasing the car. Maybe 10 years from now we’ll think about disability access.” That’s not how it works. You need to design disability access now, not later. It’s harder and more expensive to try to design disability access later.

Adams: Using the example of self-driving cars, what sorts of things that maybe aren’t in that technology now do you think should be included to make that technology more accessible?

Girma: For self-driving cars, we want to make sure wheelchair users can easily get in and out of the cars independently. The design of the doors, the design of the seats, the flexibility to move seats in and out, the option to control the car with your hands through assistive devices like switch control, Braille computers. There should be multiple options to access the information.

Adams: We’re in the midst of this deadly pandemic and lots of different groups that already were facing disadvantages in the workforce are feeling it even more keenly now. How can technology help people with disabilities stay in the workforce during the pandemic?

Girma: Technology is a collection of the biases of the developers. So it’s really about the developers taking the time to imagine people different from themselves using their technology. The pandemic has increased preexisting barriers. Before the pandemic, there were lots of videos online with no captioning. After the pandemic, there are still lots of videos online with no captioning, lack of transcripts, image descriptions, all of these things were a problem before the pandemic. And now that we’re relying on the internet more than before, we’re experiencing those barriers at a greater level.

Adams: If the people listening to this could, after hearing your voice, do one thing differently in their day-to-day lives to create a more accessible world, what would that thing be?

Girma: Encourage your organizations to increase hiring of disabled people. If our workplaces were diverse, especially tech companies, if tech companies were more diverse, and had disabled engineers and designers working there, our products would be so much better.

Also watching:

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The Wall Street Journal is reporting that Twitter has had “preliminary talks” about combining with TikTok. Microsoft is already in talks to buy some parts of the video-sharing app. The Trump administration said TikTok must find a buyer for its U.S. operations by mid-September and plans to ban people in the U.S. from working with the app’s parent company, ByteDance. Also, TikTok on Monday selected the first batch of users the company will pay for their viral videos. The money for the group of 19 will come out of the TikTok Creator Fund, which is about $200 million now. But the company said the fund will grow to $1 billion over the next three years. There are chefs, makeup artists and cute kids, of course, but also a myth-busting doctor — which, to be honest, we all need more of just now.

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