“How can you use a phone if you’re blind?”
It’s a question I get all the time, most days in fact. Today I wanted to address this question, I have done many times on my blog and in YouTube videos. Yet, here I find myself once again going over the age-old question of how people who have sight impairments use their phones.
It’s probably safe to say that we all believe we couldn’t be without our beloved mobile phones. We spend countless hours texting, posting photos on Instagram and browsing the web and if we are all honest, we all probably spend a bit too much time on our phones. I’m one of those people, but for me it goes far beyond wanting to check social media and stream videos.
Living with a severe visual impairment, my phone is my key to living an independent life. I use it for so many things from being able to read books, shop, plan journeys and to check bus times when I’m waiting at a bus stop. If I didn’t have my phone with all it’s apps and useful features living an independent life would be a distant memory.
But sadly there are those who think that visually impaired people cannot use a phone and that if they do, they are simply lying about their disability.
Last month a photo was taken of a visually impaired woman using her phone was recently shared on Facebook with the caption “If you can see what’s wrong say I see it”. The photo has now been shared 33,000 times and has received thousands of comments from people believing she is faking her disability.
This photo has since sparked a huge backlash with many people speaking up for the woman in the photo and for the sight loss community as a whole. Soon after, many visually impaired people took to social media and shared photos of themselves using their phones under the #BlindPeopleUsePhones in solidarity, myself included.
I was stunned when I first saw the photo, but sadly this kind of reaction is not uncommon for people like me. Throughout my life I have been on the receiving end of much criticism about how I “don’t look blind” and often one of the reasons for this is because I use a phone. It’s a consistent topic both online and in real life. As a blogger and YouTuber I often receive accusatory comments from people asking me how on earth I’m typing or using a phone when I can’t see.
It worries me, every time I get my phone out in public with my guide dog that someone could do the same thing to me and think its perfectly acceptable to do so. It’s a thought that’s always at the back of my mind every time I use my phone out in public and it really shouldn’t be. Even now in the wake of the news of new disability emojis with a guide dog and a long cane user emoji, people are questing why these emojis are necessary as visually impaired people can’t possibly use a phone and if they cannot see them why bother making them?
Once when I was on a train I sat down with my guide dog Unity and got my phone out to check the train times at the next station where I would be changing; as I cannot see the departure boards. I heard a group of people behind me whispering, “I thought she was supposed to be blind? How is she using a phone?”
The fact of the matter is, we live in an age where technology is the most accessible it has ever been for people like myself. Many technology companies are taking active measures to ensure their devices are accessible and many apps are being developed with disabled people in mind.
I’m an Apple user myself, because Apple devices all have accessibility features built-in to their products. Its easy enough to find them simply by going into Settings>General>Accessibility where there is a whole host of features which you can customise for your access needs. I personally use features such as Speak Selection and Speak Screen to read text back to me as well as Larger Text to enlarge the text size on my phone. I also use the Magnifier feature, which is enabled by tapping three fingers twice on the screen to enlarge it. There are plenty more features besides such as VoiceOver which enables people who cannot see the screen to use their phone with haptic gestures and audio feedback.
Other companies like Android have also developed accessibility features and many visually impaired people also use Kindles, tablets and laptops. Apps have also been developed specifically for aiding visually impaired people with things like traveling, reading print documents, distinguishing currency and even seeing photos. Many mainstream apps like Twitter, Facebook and Kindle have also been made compatible with accessibility features meaning that anyone with a visual impairment can use them.
But another misconception that this photo and accompanying caption perpetuates is the myth that all people with sight loss cannot see at all. This is of course not true and incredibly unrepresentative of the vast majority of people with sight loss. In fact, 93% of people with visual impairments have some remaining degree of vision (according to the RNIB charity). I myself still have some remaining vision that is useful to me, as do many other people living with sight loss. So people may still have enough remaining visiion to look at the screen allbeit with enlarged text or an enlarged screen for instance.
For many of us, our phones are our key to being able to perform many tasks that a sighted person might take for granted.
It is one thing to be curious about how a visually impaired person uses technology and to ask them questions. But, it is another thing entirely when someone accuses a visually impaired person of lying, just because they might not know the full story. Sight loss is a huge and diverse spectrum and each person lives with it differently.
The truth is, I’m not pulling the wool over your eyes; I’m good at living with sight loss. I’ve had a lot of practice!