It’s all about perspectives

For those who know me, you’ll inevitably have seen how I will shamelessly sacrifice myself for a good joke. Well, that content is more suited to Facebook, but nevertheless. I happened upon an NY Times Opinion piece Entitled: “How to really see a blind person”. It was well-written and did have some interesting content, but what hit me was how when I started comparing notes and wondering how I would react in the situations he describes, I realized
our experiences were so different simply because of perspective.
For example, For him, going through an airport is a nightmare. For me, it’s a chance to meet new people and
crack jokes with staff and security. For him, blindness is an obstacle, for me, it’s an ice breaker.


Don’t get me wrong, there are days where I have pity parties, but again, it’s all perspective. There is no correct way to deal with blindness and we all cope differently. I guess I’m simply saying that I appreciate who I have become and enjoy laughing at myself. Being blind can be a regular sitcom, if you have the right perspective.



How To Really See A Blind Person



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A True Accessibility Win

Accessibility has always been a challenge for people with disabilities. I’m fortunate to live in the City of Toronto where I have the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act, AODA. Enacted in 2005, it is supposed to enhance accessibility within our province and make Ontario fully accessible by 2025.
But now, there’s also whispers of a proposed federal accessibility guideline similar to the Americans with Disabilities Act, which possibly could make things easier for all Canadians with disabilities; not just key provinces.

Even though the act has made things easier for a person with a disability, in Ontario, there are still numerous physical and discriminatory challenges that frequently happen. Take for example riding transit. For a person with a mobile disability, not all subways are wheelchair accessible. The ones that are accessible may have issues such as broken-down elevators or elevators that are in perpetual repair. There’s one at Kennedy station for example that has been down since October and the wait for it to be back in service keeps being extended. See this story: Elevator down for Repairs

Snow proves to be quite the challenge as well. If sidewalks aren’t cleared after major storms, (which happens), this means anybody using mobility devices are stranded.
I recently had to reach out to my city representative, as it had been more than 72 hours and the sidewalks had still not been ploughed which could be deemed a safety issue for everyone. Things seem to have improved since then. For information on sidewalk clearing in Toronto, read this story: It snowed. Now who has to do the shoveling?

As a blind person, I frequently encounter discrimination when using taxis or ride share services. The most recent situation was last Tuesday morning when an Uber Assist driver stated he had dog allergies and drove away. To his credit, he did order another car for me, but that’s beside the point. If you’re going to drive for Uber Assist, you are going to encounter dogs. I gather the one hour online training had not sunk in with this particular driver. I reached out to both Uber and Uber Canada on Twitter, but they have not responded as of this writing. Turns out this is not an isolated issue either. See this story: UberAssist driver fined for denying ride to Paralympian

Okay, but what about the accessibility win you ask? Well, this is exciting, for me anyway. I frequently use the Kennedy subway station. Currently, there is a lot of construction around that area due to the Eglinton Crosstown project. Pedestrian traffic has been affected and rerouted via a lighted intersection. This is all fine and dandy, but the lighted intersection did not have audible pedestrian signals. Most of the time, this isn’t an issue, as I can read traffic fairly well. But this particular intersection has 2 bus turning lanes, pass through traffic for the parking lot and passenger drop off area; so yeah, pretty busy and confusing.

Addressing this issue proved to be more challenging than I first had thought. The transit folks said it wasn’t their issue, since the intersection is owned by the city, even though it’s on transit property. Turns out this was true, as what I thought was a driveway is actually a street. So off I go to bug the city about the intersection. They stated they could fix it within 4 hours. I was ecstatic. It was short-lived however, as I got a callback to inform me that a 4 hour turn-around is for a broken or defective traffic light. In order to have an accessibility assessment for this crossing, a request would have to be created and this would take a minimum of 9 months for it to be acted upon. I put in the request, without too much hope. Four hours to 9 months for a solution is pretty disheartening.

A few days later, I figured it was time to try a new tactic.
I decided to approach the Crosstown folks and my local city representative… and this is where the magic begins. I explained the situation via a well-worded email. The response was swift, (under an hour), and audible pedestrian signals were installed by end of day! That sort of thing is unheard of in Toronto. It’s been my experience that to install an audible signal on an existing traffic light location, it takes up to 3 years for it to happen. The last 3 requests that I have made through the city were installed after I moved away from the areas and that defeats the purpose; although I’m sure other people benefit from them.

Anyway, all this to say a simple thank you to the folks at MetroLinx working on the CrossTown project and also the construction team that installed the audible signals. It’s because of your swift response and actions that myself and others are now able to safely cross a very busy intersection. This is a true example of how accessibility can be quickly implemented when we all work together. Hopefully, the city of Toronto could learn from this example and expediate the installation of audible traffic signals. Why not just make it a standard that all new traffic signals include the audible feature!

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Employment for People With Disabilities

For most of who read this, you may already know that I am a blind individual. For those who don’t, surprise! It’s not something I hide, nor can I; what with my cute black lab guide dog. But, when it comes to life’s challenges, such as applying for a job, or even finding a life partner, divulging that I had a disability was never the first thing on my mind. For me, being blind has always been of a lesser concern. It’s not to say that I haven’t confronted adversity, or have been denied experiences because someone else deemed it to be too difficult, or dangerous for me. Anybody who visits my work cubicle and sees my skydiving certificate will realize that there is more to Martin than just being blind.

As for job interviews and the like, my parents have always told me to “show people your best side.” I guess what they meant by that was to show your potential employer your virtues and don’t be shy to sell yourself. It also doesn’t hurt that I bring all of my access technology to all interviews and demo their benefits. This in turn, breaks down the possible barriers that an employer might have and they can evaluate you as they would any other candidate. Despite all of my efforts, there have been some disappointing interviews where my disability became an issue, but I figure, it’s their loss, not mine.

With this preamble, I present to you an interesting entry of a woman dealing with a physical disability and her own experiences when applying for a job.
Employment for People With Disabilities is Dire

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When we design for disability, we all benefit

While recently trolling my social media accounts, I came upon this great Ted Talk.  For those who have worked with me, you’ll know that I’m all about accessibility and usability.  But hearing from me all the time about such topics rather gets old.  I figured I’d share this particular talk from Elise Roy.  Her experiences are quite different from mine, as she was diagnosed as being profoundly deaf at an early age.  However, like me, she has accepted her disability and has found clever solutions to everyday problems.  So check this TedTalk out.  It’s very much worth the time.


Elise Roy: When we design for disability, we all benefit. TED Talk



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Necessity Is The Mother Of Invention

Being the techno-geek and gadget-hoarder that I fully admit to, the following article rings true for me in so many ways. One of my side-hobbies is to offer my consultative services to various individuals/inventors, so as to comment on their products and/or devices that they are designing for the blind population throughout the world. Admittedly, some things that I evaluate are pretty amazing, while others? Well, read the article and you’ll find a few examples of badly researched ideas.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad inventors and developers are out there, thinking out of the box, trying to help with the challenges that blind people encounter from a day to day basis. But, it’s important to ask your target audience, what are the challenges and how could we better address them. And what’s the deal with all of these vibrating way-finding devices anyway? Everything from vibrating shoes, belts, bracelets and even a wearable clip. The premise is similar in all these devices: get close to an object and the product will vibrate, alerting you to an obstacle. Admittedly, this would be great for finding the end of a Tim Hortons lineup, but I digress. Of course, these aren’t stand-alone solutions, they are an augmentative way-finding product. So I shouldn’t be too hard on them.

At any rate, I could wax on this topic Ad nauseam, but figure you’ll get more out of that blog entry I referred to above. Besides, it has a catchy name; catchier than mine anyway.
Blind Eye for the Sighted Guy

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Access For All and my involvement

Recently, I had the opportunity to participate in a PSA for the Rick Hansen Foundation.  Its slogan was Access For All.  But besides the PSA, they also did a blog interview on yours truly.  You can find both the interview and the PSA by following this link:


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Happy Global Accessibility Awareness Day!

What is this you say? Glad you asked.  Global Accessibility Awareness Day is celebrated on the 3rd Thursday of May.  In its 5th year of existence, its goal is still to bring awareness and educate the technology community on how to make all things accessible.

When I look back at the advances that have been made in accessibility over the years, it still amazes me.  I remember when the first automated teller machines were coming out in early 90s.  By then, the computers I used spoke to me via specialized programs with hardware-based text-to-speech.  They sounded terrible by the way, but they got the job done.
So why couldn’t the teller machines speak as well?  Why did it take so long?  I think it’s partly because speech technology wasn’t robust enough at the time and had to mature in order for it to be financially feasible.   Also, banks needed to be made aware that a portion of their clientele was not able to access their machines on their own.  The last piece was for the banks to require bank machine manufactures to implement accessibility into their design.  I’m sure legislation played a big part into getting things done, but the fact remains that I can now do my own banking like everybody else.  I can go to virtually any teller machine and voila, an ear phone jack. Plug in and I’m off to the races.
That’s what it essentially boils down to.  Most of the time, small modifications and enhancements enable a person with disability their independence.

Over the years, in my career which has turned out to be all about accessibility, I find myself spending a lot of time convincing people about the virtues of accessibility.  People tend to think that, I am requesting changes to web pages, work processes, document enhancements and the like only to benefit me; because I’m the blind guy.  The trick is to get individuals to see the bigger picture.  Accessibility doesn’t just affect a few token individuals.  The benefits can enhance all of our experiences.  One last story, only because I think it’s a great example of accessibility and usability success.  There was a web site here at work that many people accessed frequently.  I was one of those people.  The page had been coded using JAVA applets and other magic tricks.  Out of a lot of guess work and determination, I was finally able to access what I needed from that site, but suffice it to say that the experience was not fun at all.  I therefore slated this site as an accessibility fail and started discussing alternatives with my colleagues.  It turns out that I wasn’t the only one having issues with the site.  Because of the way things were coded on the page, it was only accessible via computer-based browsers; no mobile devices and/or tablets.  Jump forward 6 months…  After a few meetings, some beta-testing work from yours truly, and we have a fully accessible site, WCAG 2.0 Level AA and it’s also usable from mobile and tablets.  Everybody wins!

So, pause on this day and take an opportunity to think about accessibility for all.
Visit the GAAD website for further info:

Global Accessibility Awareness Day

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Guidelines For Document Accessibility

One of the many things I do in my day-to-day tasks is to help my work colleagues learn how to create more accessible digital content. IE, Word documents, PowerPoint Presentations, Excel Spreadsheets, PDFs; you get the idea. Perhaps, what many of you may not know is that there is a document accessibility guideline out there called Clear Print. You can find more info on the Clear Print guideline in
this PDF document.

Following these guidelines will indeed generate a more readable document, but if best practices for an accessible document aren’t known by the author, then accessibility might still be an issue.

I’d like to point the reader to an essential document accessibility tool from our friends at Vision Australia. It’s a free Microsoft Word add-on that will add an accessibility toolbar to the ribbon. It does neat things like when you add an image to your document via the toolbar, it will direct you to add alt text. Alt text is an image description which access technology relies on to share information about the image to its user. You can also choose headings, paragraph styles, lists and even a table creation feature that steps you through a process which enhances the table’s accessibility. But, instead of me singing its praises, why not try it out for yourself. I’ve unleashed it on 2 of my work colleagues and they’ve enjoyed the ease of use and how it groups all that is accessibility under 1 toolbar. You can check it out here:

Document Accessibility Toolbar
Now, if only they could come up with toolbars for other Microsoft products.

Finally, always remember to run the Accessibility checker found under the file menu, Info Tab. It will give you pointers on what may be an accessibility issue within your document.

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Update on Facebook’s Automatic Alternative Text Feature

In my previous post, I extolled upon Facebook’s new image recognition and description feature.  Turns out it’s a service that works automagically and I didn’t need to download anything.  Now, either my contacts take really bad pictures, or Facebook’s generated descriptions leave much to be desired.  For
example, a typical description would look like this:

May contain 2 people, indoor, shoes and text.

I shouldn’t be too critical, as this is definitely a work in progress, but there’s definitely room for improvement.  For instance, if the engine is capable of detecting text within the image, why not run character recognition on it and give the results to the user.

Furthermore, if the engine recognizes people, why not tell me that they are smiling, what they might be wearing, (or not wearing for that matter).

Don’t get me wrong, it’s really neat technology, I guess I thought there would be more to it. I’m sure, given a bit of time and this particular Facebook Accessibility feature will shine.

But, enough about that.  I was recently forwarded this article from the Huffington Post about the current state of web accessibility.  It’s definitely an interesting read;

Facebook’s new blind-friendly feature puts a small dent in a big problem. Huffington Post

April 6, 2016 By Casey Williams

For the blind, navigating the digital world can be as tricky as moving through the physical one. Some companies have tried to make their sites easier for the world’s 39 million blind people to use. Facebook, for instance, just introduced a new image-recognition
feature that lets blind users “see” photos on the site.

But blind advocates say fixes like Facebook’s don’t solve the biggest obstacles blind people face online.

“We think it’s pretty cool,” Mark Riccobono, the president of the National Federation of the Blind, told The Huffington Post. “But we get concerned about flashy technology.”

“For the average blind person, it’s not whether they know something is in a photo or not that determines whether they can do online banking, pay their bills or buy groceries,” said Riccobono, who is blind.

Even as the Internet becomes an increasingly necessary feature of modern life, much of the web is difficult for blind people to use effectively.

A range of technologies exist to help blind people navigate the web. Braille keyboards and text-to-speech programs convert text to audio, which allows blind people to consume information on the web aurally. The devices can also transform speech into text, which allows blind people to “type.” These devices often work well with thoughtfully designed websites. But they hit snags when sites have elements that aren’t clearly labeled or are incompatible with keyboard shortcuts, which blind people rely on.

“Websites that have been designed from the beginning with accessibility in mind are easy for blind people to use – they’re easy to navigate, you can jump around pretty effectively and get information as effectively as a sighted person,” Riccobono said. But, he said, many sites still have “artificial barriers” that make performing basic online tasks difficult for blind users.

One of the biggest barriers is unclear labeling. In order to describe what’s on a given webpage, text-to-speech programs comb through the source code for labels that describe the page’s elements. They then say those labels aloud. If elements aren’t clearly labeled in the source code – if a checkout button, say, is just labeled “image” – it can make navigating the page very frustrating for users who rely on spoken descriptions to move around the site.

“If I go on an e-commerce website and put stuff in my cart, but get to the payment screen and have trouble because the checkout button’s not labeled – that’s a high degree of frustration,” Riccobono said.

Web developers can use accessibility guidelines for blind users when designing their websites. But even when they refer to those guidelines, web companies don’t always do a good job implementing them, Riccobono said.

“If you don’t test [your code] for accessibility, and a problem arises and it’s not dealt with, then the code gets launched anyway,” he said. Once finalized, it can be difficult to retrofit websites to improve accessibility.

Blind advocates have urged the Obama administration to update the Americans with Disabilities Act to include explicit standards for web accessibility for blind users. While President Barack Obama initially seemed amenable to the standards – in 2010, he named them among “the most important updates to the ADA since its original enactment” – last year his administration quietly postponed consideration of new web accessibility standards until 2018.

For Riccobono, updating the ADA is a necessary step toward equal access for the blind.

“We need to do in the digital world the same thing we’ve done in the physical world,” he said. “The lack of standards makes it very difficult for businesses to understand when they’ve met a high standard of accessibility.”

Reproduced from:

Facebook’s new blind-friendly feature puts a small dent in a big problem



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Facebook makes images accessible to all!

Recently, Facebook has been scoring big time on the accessibility front.  Turns out that my FB contacts will no longer have to explain their posted images to me; well not as much anyway.  Why just yesterday, I was chastising my cousin for forgetting to describe his most recent posted picture.  The Facebook accessibility team has been developing an image recognition algorithm which attempts to decipher the image and insert a canned description in order for us blind folks to also partake in FB fun.  I haven’t tried it yet, as it’s not on the Canadian appstore yet, but I’m sure it’ll be pretty neat.
You can read more on this endeavor and see it in action at TechCrunch: Facebook’s tool to help the blind “see” images just launched for iOS


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