Antonio Sanjurjo (75 years old) has taken three buses to get from his home, in Boadilla del Monte (Madrid), to the Territorial Delegation of ONCE, in the center of the capital. He has had less than 10% vision in his left eye for three years, with his right eye long since gone. With practice and a mobile app that tells him bus times by voice, he has mastered this route. Today he has another class with Elena Almazán, his instructor in typhlotechnology, who is teaching him how to get even more out of his mobile phone through the screen reader that smart devices already have built-in as standard.
Both take a seat in one of the classrooms on the fifth floor of the ONCE building, the place where those who have lost vision below 10% join the organization free of charge and learn to adapt to their new life; According to ONCE data, some 3,000 people annually –mainly over 60 years old–. First, they are given a psychological service, which is fundamental to accepting their disability, and then they are instructed in fundamental aspects such as mobility around the city or the use of typhlotechnology (from the Greek typhuswhich means blind) or adapted technology.
“If it is already difficult for anyone to live without technology, in the case of those who suffer from visual impairment, it is what makes the difference between being autonomous or constantly depending on others,” explains Elena Almazán. She is one of the many tiflotecnologia instructors that ONCE has in all the Spanish provinces, the “tiflos”, as her students affectionately call them. Its mission is to teach blind people to get along with typhlotechnology, either through keyboard shortcuts on the computer that allow them to navigate web pages and the rest of the device, or with smart and touch devices, with dozens of gestures of one, two, three and four fingers – five, even, in the case of tablets.
“Remember, Antonio, that with a long touch of two fingers, you silence the screen reader. Now, do you remember how we used to go back to the applications menu?”, he tells his student. In this class, Antonio is learning how to download audiobooks from the ONCE library, which has more than 70,000 titles. “I am an unrepentant reader”, he laughs, “and this was what I was most excited to learn”.
Typhlotechnology classes for adults are individual. “Each person has a different level of learning and different needs,” explains Almazán, who adds that it also depends on the use they are going to make of the technology, to work or study, for example. “Age and previous experience with technology play a role. For older people it may cost a little more, although there is everything. On the other hand, in younger people much more dexterity is noticeable, ”says the instructor.
For the little ones, the introduction to the use of these adapted technologies is carried out collectively in the Educational Resource Centers of ONCE, in which they are provided with everything they need so that “they can be one more in the classroom of their school” . Asier Vázquez (40 years old, Bilbao) remembers how his “tiflo” taught him to get along with the technology that was available almost three decades ago. Although he was born with poor vision, until the age of 12 he could read with enlarged print. In adolescence he completely stopped seeing. “When you don’t see anything is when you realize that technology is essential for practically everything,” says Vázquez in a telephone conversation. “When I was little, there were things that made our lives a lot easier, like typewriters, braille notetakers, cassette tapes on which someone recorded our texts…”, he recalls, “but nothing to do with what we have today, it’s amazing how everything has evolved since then.”
How is technology adapted for people with visual impairments?
Elena Almazán has been working as a typhlotechnology instructor since 1993 and, in her opinion, the biggest technological revolution for visually impaired people has been screen readers and smartphones. “The most important thing is that they are already integrated, regardless of the operating system. In the past you had to buy a computer and, apart from that, the screen reader”, she explains.
Although technological innovation has been perfecting these programs, there are always models and versions that respond better than others. ONCE lends its members one of the most advanced screen readers currently, Jaws, free of charge, which is used for both home and work positions, and whose market price is around 1,000 euros. In the same way, when an ONCE member begins to work in a company that uses a specific computer program that does not have a typhotechnological option, the organization’s technical staff adapts it.
In a digital world like today’s, it is necessary to guarantee universal access to technology. “The problem is that innovation does not always take into account people with visual disabilities,” says José María Ortiz, head of the Department of Consulting and Innovation at the ONCE Center for Tiflotechnology and Innovation (CTI), a benchmark laboratory in Spain. and in the world –some technicians have collaborated with technological giants such as Microsoft–, located in Vallecas.
At the CTI, they work to reverse this situation and adapt the technology: “Sometimes they are very simple solutions, but they represent a tremendous change for the autonomy of blind people,” says Ortiz, who gives the example of ceramic hobs. “How can a blind person cook if the buttons are tactile? It’s quite complicated.” The CTI has created a template in relief from 3D printing and adapted to different models of glass-ceramic that allows the buttons to be located by touch.
Universal access to the Internet, a pending issue
The ONCE innovation center also collaborates with companies to develop other tiflotechnological solutions and evaluates the accessibility of websites and mobile applications at the request of its members. “Among them, there are usually some of the most popular and useful ones, such as Amazon,” explains Ortiz. The CTI sends the results of its evaluation to the companies so that they can improve their accessibility if necessary.
In the case of web pages, Asier Vázquez already knows which ones he can easily access and navigate, and which ones he can’t: “There are some that I don’t even try because they’ve already told me that it’s a headache or it’s directly impossible, and I prefer to save myself the effort and the anger”, he says. Since 1999, the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium, a committee that implements uniform technologies in the use and development of the Internet) has published recommendations to make web pages accessible to all people, including those with some type of visual or hearing disability.
These web accessibility guidelines have been modified with the development of the Internet and included in international and national legislation, as explained by Sergio Luján, professor of Computer Languages and Systems at the University of Alicante. In Spain, the legislation dates back to the beginning of the 21st century and obliges Public Administrations to guarantee a minimum level of web accessibility, and subsequent revisions have also included private basic supply entities.
“These web pages must guarantee the second level of these guidelines –one of the three that exist– according to different criteria”, explains Luján. “For example, that every image has a textual alternative so that the screen reader can describe it to a visually impaired person. In the same way, the videos that a website contains must always show subtitles for deaf people. You also have to take into account the contrast, the size of the letters and the icons…”, sums up Luján.
However, there are still websites, such as the official website of Moncloa or that of Renfe Viajeros, among other examples, that do not guarantee the accessibility guidelines according to the legislation. As Vázquez adds, another recurring problem is that many pages are only accessible on the main screen, but not on the rest. “It’s like putting a ramp to access a building and then everything inside is full of stairs,” he claims. Although there is a sanctioning system for the lack of web accessibility, “not many people report it because it has to start from a particular initiative and that implies knowledge on the subject and a lot of effort,” explains Luján.
A 2018 European Union directive incorporated the need to contemplate these guidelines for web pages in their mobile versions, as well as applications, but, as Luján indicates, the updates to these technological accessibility guidelines and their transpositions into legislation countries are too far behind compared to how fast technologies are evolving. “The Radar Covid app, without going any further, had many accessibility problems,” the University of Alicante professor gives as an example.
In Spain there are almost a million people who suffer from some kind of visual disability, according to the latest Survey on Disability, Personal Autonomy and Dependency Situations, published by the National Institute of Statistics (INE) more than a decade ago. Of these, more than 70,000 have visual impairment below 10%, as pointed out by ONCE. Guaranteeing universal access is not costly if the web design or the development of mobile applications were originally carried out taking these guidelines into account, as Luján explains. For this to happen, “more awareness is needed”, especially in this race to digitize the economy. “In the political sphere they keep repeating that digitization should not leave anyone behind, but if these aspects are not worked on and the legislation is updated so that it is also applied to the entire private sphere, it will happen, unfortunately” , he concludes.
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