What the Sighted Don’t See

If you believe being blind means living in a state of constant darkness, then you may be contributing to a harmful misconception.

Most Americans, as “sighted” people, have an inaccurate idea of what it means to be blind. They think of “nothing” or “total darkness,” but that’s usually the extent of their description. In reality, the term “legally blind” is a strictly legal term that determines eligibility for disability benefits. It’s a non-medical umbrella term that covers both those who are totally blind and those with low vision. “Totally blind” comes closest to most people’s idea of “blindness” — lacking in any light and form perception. However, this stereotypical view often only accounts for a minority of those who are technically “blind.” According to the American Foundation for the Blind, only 15 percent of those who are “legally blind” have total vision loss. The other 85 percent suffer from “low vision,” which generally refers to permanent vision loss that interferes with daily activities and cannot be corrected with regular glasses, contact lenses, medicine, or surgery. This means that 85 percent of those considered “legally blind” may, in fact, have some vision.

This is important because while those in the sighted community don’t understand what it’s like to be “blind,” they are still the ones responsible for accommodating the blind. However, their objectives often include projecting their own interpretations. Those who do wish to help fail to recognize that a “blind” person is just as capable as a sighted person is once they are equipped with the right tools. Those who wish to profit conveniently justify diverting time away from creating accessibility features, since they have the false impression that the blind aren’t using their products anyway. This negative feedback approach to product design leaves vision-impaired people to fend for themselves, regardless of any good intentions sighted people may have.

Jimmy Cong is a legally blind, functionally low-vision student at UC San Diego. He primarily uses a white cane to make his way around campus, although sometimes he uses echolocation to detect obstacles. As a recent Sixth College graduate who completed his double major in music composition and visual arts: digital media last fall, he is well aware that his degree choices seem unconventional for someone in his shoes. But graduating hasn’t stopped his involvement in disabled student advocacy as the ADA Access Specialist for the UCSD Office for Students with Disabilities.

“They were like, ‘A blind kid in an art class? What are we going to do about that?’,” Cong said, recalling the first time he took an art and video class before college.

Do nothing, Cong specifically requested. He didn’t want to cut corners, and he didn’t want to receive a watered-down version of a class just because of his disability.

Universities have long held different standards for sighted and vision-impaired students,  assuming that disabled students will inherently struggle more in class than their abled peers. Cong contends that this is unfair. Why should some students have to accept a less rigorous, lower-quality education when they were accepted to the same school as their sighted classmates on their own individual merit?

In a video on the OSD website titled “Steps for Universal Access in Courses,” Cong details the less condescending strategies that professors can use to make their courses more accessible. These methods include easily implementable fixes such as making course materials available online in advance so that they can be converted into accessible formats, or describing the contents of the board when pointing to them, instead of just referring to them as “this” and “that.”

The video’s message is simple and reassuring: You don’t have to change your curriculum for your blind students; they are not helpless like the stereotype suggests. You just need to be willing to work with them.  

Aside from these course tweaks and OSD resources, technological aids are available to blind and low vision students as well — some exclusively at UCSD. However, gaps still linger. For many, it’s clear that universities too often overlook their visually impaired and disabled students.

Lucas de Abreu Maia is a Ph.D. candidate in UCSD’s department of political science and has taught numerous undergraduate political science courses. Maia spent several years as a journalist in his home country of Brazil, and he currently writes a bi-weekly op-ed column for Brazilian magazine piauí.  Maia is also blind and gets around campus with the help of his guide dog. At times, though, he still has difficulty navigating UCSD’s terrain.

“I think the campus could be a lot more accessible in terms of its geographic design. This a driving campus. Paths can be very confusing for those of us who can’t see,” Maia explained.

Indeed, UCSD is made of many windy, poorly-paved asphalt and dirt paths that snake through campus.

In addition to simply navigating from class to class, it can be dangerous for visually-impaired students just to even come to campus if they’re taking the bus at Gilman Transit Center. Most major crosswalks in San Diego play an audible chime in addition to the traditional light-up signs to indicate when it is safe to cross. However, the crosswalk at Gilman and Myers — arguably one of the busiest intersections on campus — is not one of them. This means visually-impaired pedestrians are stuck relying on clues from traffic sounds and other pedestrians, or more frighteningly, making their best guess and praying that no cars come speeding through the light.

Despite these clear oversights, however, UCSD has made strides in other areas. The university recently partnered with a new technology startup called Aira to help blind and low-vision students improve their day-to-day campus life. Aira essentially connects users with a 24/7 live personal assistant to help process visual information when no accessibility options are available. For example, Cong uses Aira to read bus route numbers or see when it is safe to cross the street. UCSD is the first university in the to provide free Aira access to all visually-impaired users at its La Jolla, Scripps Institute of Oceanography, and Hillcrest campuses.

Other technological aids work to level the playing field between sighted and blind students in class. Cong demonstrated the usage of BrailleSense Polaris, an accessibility device that runs Android OS and has a keyboard that can type and output Braille. Polaris makes it possible for the user to quickly take notes, open Word or PDF documents, use accessible Android apps, and more, all in Braille. And for quick notes, he uses a device called a slate and stylus which enables him to create the raised Braille dots on paper instantly.

For computer accessibility, visually-impaired students have a handful of options, some more intuitive than others.

“I use Apple’s native screen reader, VoiceOver. It comes pre-installed on Mac and iPhone. One just has to activate it,” Maia said.

Maia has also used PC screen readers such as NonVisual Desktop Access and Job Access with Speech. But he notes that Windows notably trails Mac in terms of built-in accessibility design. While these and many other accessibility programs are available for PC systems, the effort required to install them is cumbersome even for the non-visually impaired.

“Every Mac has Zoom built in. Windows sucks in terms of accessibility,” Cong said. This speaks to a larger industry issue where accessibility features are treated as an afterthought, an issue for a neglected minority to grapple with, rather than a necessity in order to cover companies’ whole user base. It’s not just universities that overlook the needs of the visually impaired, but companies as well. Microsoft, for example, found it wholly unnecessary to invest in accessibility focus group testing or release updates addressing these problems, despite knowing that certain users would need them.

At a glance, it seems the obvious solution is, why not try another product? Unfortunately, the monopolization of big tech means everyone has just one viable option.

And what we found is that much of the industry standard digital media software consistently overlooks the needs of the visually-impaired. This poses a frustrating challenge for Cong, as a music composition and visual arts: digital media graduate.

“The reason I use Serato DJ Pro even though it’s not accessible at all is that it’s used in the industry and it’s not going to flake out on you. It would be easy to make it accessible because [the program] is just a list of songs; it doesn’t require vision at all.”

Opting for non-industry standard software instead means inviting potential bugs and troubleshooting issues as well as a significant hiring disadvantage. Colleagues unfamiliar with the software would not be able to help Cong if any problems arose, and employers are less than thrilled about hiring someone who would require them to implement a whole new software system that no other employees use. Cong calls this sighted-users-only product design mentality “separate but equal” — “It’s equal because you can use it, but it’s still a separate program.”

Separate but equal, as history would tell us, is never a good idea.

Sometimes, visually-impaired users are forced to forgo the industry standard in favor of something that’s actually usable. Last year, Cong chose to move away from the film-editing industry standard of Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Pro in favor of Apple’s highly accessible but less popular editing software, Final Cut Pro. While editing is exponentially quicker and much less of a headache, his work is now incompatible with the bulk of film editors’. And in music composition, a separate but equal option is not even available — there is currently no accessible music notation software used by major industry players.

Cong has reached out to many software developers about the prospect of implementing accessibility features in their products. The most common, and disheartening, response he receives: “Because disability falls within one percent of the user base, we aren’t interested in making this a priority at the moment.”

Cong hopes to pursue a Ph.D. in accessibility where he can conduct research on creating accessible music notation software, in the hopes that he and others like him can score films in the future.

And that’s the current “industry standard” for the visually-impaired — creating their own solutions to achieve a level-playing field in their careers.

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Cong’s determination and skill is comforting and inspiring, but also a stark reminder of how many large companies have the resources for a solution but choose to sweep it under the rug instead.

I wanted to know if UCSD was sending its students out into the world ready to remedy these institutional problems. This school has taken clear steps to provide the best resources to its own disabled students, but what about for future disabled people everywhere? Does a UCSD education challenge students to become creators and innovators who consider the experiences of minorities?

“In my design classes they give you a target audience that you’re designing for. We haven’t done anything about accessibility for vision disabilities yet,” said Jordynn Bartolome, a Sixth College senior studying design and interaction in the department of cognitive science.

However, the foundations for thoughtful design are there — “The only example I can think of is one class where we had to design an app for the elderly, so we had to think about the type of accessibility issues they experience because they’re different from someone who’s our age.”

“The biggest idea in my major is, ‘You are not the user.’ Your goal shouldn’t be to create what’s easier for you, but what would be more advantageous for the user,” Bartolome said.

Many of the same features that make products more user-friendly for the elderly would also be similarly beneficial for the visually-impaired. Yet the former is far more likely to be implemented.

When asked what she thought might be an explanation for this disparity, Bartolome ventured:

“A lot of people think using software or technology is a visual domain, so blind or visually-impaired people aren’t the target demographic. I think people just aren’t considering it.”

And now we’ve finally traveled full circle. Lack of accessibility comes from, at its core, a lack of understanding. While it may be true that those who are totally blind, or lacking in any sight, may have less of an interest in visual technology, there is still the 85 percent of the visually-impaired community that can use visual software and deserve to be recognized as users.

One company told Cong that the accessibility issues he experienced may be on Apple’s end. “I can literally link you to Apple’s website right now where it tells developers how to make things accessible,” he fired back. They did not respond.

The solutions are already out there, but no one’s come looking for them.

I’d like to thank Jimmy Cong and Lucas de Abreu Maia for sharing their valuable insights and experience with me. Learn more about Jimmy’s music at jimmycong.com and Lucas’ research and reporting at lucasamaia.com.

Photo courtesy of UC San Diego News.

6 thoughts on “What the Sighted Don’t See

  1. Great article yes we need to educate people about term legally blind since it is usually low vision people that are defined this way. Thanks for spreading knowledge and increasing technology.

  2. A very impressive work of reporting. Congrats Caitlin Lou! I’ve been in the accessibility field for a long time and have rarely seen such good coverage of the issues.

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