Social Networking for the Blind
Communication, Media and Social Networking for the Blind
As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book The Elements of Journalism defines, “Journalism’s first loyalty is to the citizens.” (page 12). With that in mind, there are a variety of communication outlets available, and while some do a very good job of providing a fair journalistic viewpoint, there are also those that do not. Various examples of media outlets include the traditional newspapers, radio and TV, plus the new social media outlets Twitter, Facebook and Blogs. But, what of the various subgroups of society who use these communication formats? Are they able to receive the same level of information, especially with all of the fast-paced changes in social networking? This paper will examine how these outlets relate to a very specific subset of our society, the seeing impaired (blind). We will explore communication outlets and some of the good tools available for the blind. Even though new social networking and technology has provided challenges in determining the journalistic content, it has kept pace, and has even improved, the opportunities for the blind to receive the information, providing a journalistic window to a very important group.
Many of us have experienced what it is like to try to move around freely while wearing a blindfold. Perhaps, when playing a game as a youngster, you bumped into many obstacles as you attempted to maneuver around the room. We are less likely to appreciate the obstacles of communicating with others, especially when it comes to using media. The blind population is a big segment of society with a necessity to be actively involved with others. There are more than 180 million blind or visually impaired individuals worldwide and more than 15 million in America (Heck). The total loss of sight is not the complete definition of blindness. “Blindness comes in a variety of degrees. Most people defined as being blind often have a measure of sight, as limited as it might be. For example, a person whose level of sight is equal to or less than 20/200 - even with corrective glasses or lenses – is considered legally blind. A person who is completely sightless is considered to be blind." (Parciello). Interfacing with society, including the use of media, just requires a different type of interface to obtain the information.
“Everyday life is made up of a broad range of social practices that recur in the routine of people’s experience. They include work, family, sociability, consumption, health, social services, security, entertainment and the construction of meaning through perceptions of the sociocultural environment.” (Castells, Fernåndez-Ardévol, Linchuan Qiu, and Sey 77). Humans are social beings, and despite disabilities, have a desire to interact. Disabled individuals may actually desire more social interactions.
We have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. These are interactive techniques of which individuals may have varying degrees of capabilities. A blind person has a diminished capability in an important sense and, therefore, compensates by becoming more proficient in the usage of their other senses. Listening and touching are very important and are relied upon for those who are blind, especially in social communication. Good examples of how these two senses are utilized in information gathering from media sources are the use of Braille (feeling) and listening to radio programs (hearing). The traditional media outlets such as newspapers, TV and radio have been converted into easily adaptable forms. Social networking requires an additional level of technology.
Utilizing the sense of touch, a tool was developed to enable the blind to make use of the most powerful method of communication, the written word. Gathering information from the written word without having someone read it provides a blind person with a great means of independence and new options. The technology of putting words onto paper that could be sensed by the blind is known as Braille. In the early 1800s, Napoleon Bonaparte, a French military leader, wanted a special code for French soldiers that would allow them to communicate at night without the use of light. The first versions of this proved too difficult for soldiers to use so the idea was dropped. Later, Louis Braille, a blind student at the National Institute for the Blind, was shown this code consisting of punched holes in paper. He was a very gifted student, and he did not like the current method of simply raising the letters on a sheet of paper. This method made the books too big and heavy and not many could afford to use these books. He made changes to the military code and found it to be a very useful way for the blind to read. “Braille generally consists of cells of six raised dots arranged in a grid of two dots horizontally by three dots vertically. The dots are conventionally numbered 1, 2 and 3 from the top of the leftward column and 4, 5 and 6 from the top of the rightward column.” (Newworldencylopedia.org).
The use of Braille opened the doors wide open for more blind people to actively and independently read written information as a media outlet. By 1960, half of the blind school-aged children in the United States were able to read using Braille. A key turning point for Braille literacy was the passage of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 that required blind children to attend public schools, which forced them to learn Braille. This improved many aspects of their lives. Employment for those who are blind who are able to read is about 90 percent; it is only 33 percent for those who do not. (The Boston Globe).
In order to provide this segment of society with tools for media outlets and other important social interactions, agencies have been developed to assist the blind. One of the primary groups is the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) formed in 1940. This organization works to improve opportunities for the blind in all 50 states. Providing education, special equipment, support groups and evaluation of new technologies are just a few of the services provided. Radio broadcasts through NFB provide information for the blind and also provide a key media resource. NFB provides phone services 24/7 simply by calling the 1-800 numbers as the sense of hearing plays a large role in aiding the blind. Other groups which also support technology for the blind include the American Council for the Blind and the American Foundation for the Blind.
The U.S. government has also added its support with communication tools providing access for everyone, no matter what the disability. In 1990, an Act was passed by the government to help ensure this, “The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The ADA includes several provisions on behalf of people with disabilities.” (Paciello 30). The Act covers everything from employment opportunities to education steering the rest of society toward providing good media sources and technologies for the blind. The ADA will also “ensure that all electronic and information technology that is acquired or used must allow equal access for federal employees with and without disabilities, unless an undue burden would be imposed on the agency.” (Heck). This also paves the way for employees outside the government. The ADA helps bring resources to many subgroups in society that may have been forgotten in the past. There are different ways the government delivers this information, with technology being one of the more popular ways. “With the federal government’s declaration of accessibility standards in Section 508, the electronic and information technology industry has been forced to sit up and take notice of the needs of the disabled population (Bick, 2000).” (Heck).
Even with the government programs and independent agencies, some still do not believe enough is being done to help the disabled. “Mobile communication technologies may open up options for people with limited mobility as a result of disability. Although there is anecdotal evidence of the utility of mobile communication to people with disabilities, at present the extent to which these technologies are accessible to the wider disabled community appears to be limited as a result of technical and design issues.” (Castells, Fernåndez-Ardévol, Linchuan Qiu, and Sey 106). This can be disputed as we review some of the additional work that has been done to aid the blind in the technological breakthroughs.
Utilizing radio, phone and Braille are the most common ways to receive information. Even though these did provide the vision impaired society with some media resources, the computer age has opened up a whole new range of an accessibility link to the media. Interaction with society has shifted into high gear with personal computers and it is good to see the vision impaired segment of society is no different. Computer innovations in software and special devices have enhanced the use of hearing and seeing for social media communication.
Technological innovations include screen readers, a software application that will identify and interpret what is being displayed on the computer screen. It feeds back information with synthesized speech, a computer voice. It also can provide the information for touch by providing a Braille output. These innovations provide the blind with a window into the computer age.
A computer software technique called optical character recognition (OCR) scans printed words and translates them into computer data. This data can then be printed in Braille or output as synthesized speech. This opens up a great number of opportunities for those wanting to get media from the printed word. All of these innovations require the right interfaces for easy use.
A quick research on the internet shows countless new interface tools for the blind. A list provided by the magazine Disabled World includes more than a half dozen free screen reader software packages, such as Orca and Spoken Web. The magazine also lists almost twenty commercially available screen readers including Window Eyes, Simply Talker and the most popular screen reader software, JAWS. The web site for this magazine, Disabled-World.com, provides many services and information for the blind as well as other disabled members of society.
One of the most innovated software used worldwide is JAWS - Job Access for Windows. “JAWS is a screen reader, a software program for visually impaired users.” (Free Dictionary). In the mid-1980s, a group working with a company called Freedom Scientific, created this special software program that can be downloaded to your computer and will recognize whatever is on your computer screen. This kind of tool is endorsed by groups for the blind. “AFB evaluated these sites to see if a blind computer user, with basic screen reader skills, could independently register, create a standard profile, post photos and interact with other group members.” (AFB: American Foundation for the Blind). Through innovations such as JAWS, the blind are able to use a variety of resources as well as being able to communicate equally with the rest of society.
Advancements in technology made by early innovators paved the way for other companies, such as Sensory Solutions and NanoPac, to provide a number of different products to help support the seeing impaired. These products include JAWS and Windows Eyes for synthesized speech from the computer. OpenBook, Pearl and SARA are popular software packages for converting printed material to speech through OCR. OBR (Optical Braille Recognition) reads Braille printed material into the computer that can be read back through synthesized speech. ViewPlusBraille provides a special tool that prints out the computer screen information in Braille instead of voice – feeling instead of hearing. These are fascinating tools for the blind.
As mentioned earlier, new technological tools are driven by computers. From a social networking and media standpoint, this is strongly influenced by the usage of the internet. The internet is a fast and easy resource in which to find information, communicate and perform daily activities. “Technology for the blind (assistive technology) has provided a means for blind and visually impaired computer users to access the World Wide Web through the use of screen access software which include: screen magnification software, screen reader programs and Braille technology.” (Heck). This also includes using internet with mobile phones. “People with disabilities, for example have been found to be more interested than the general public using Internet-enabled mobile phones (mainly for directory service) and in mobile commerce (Coutts 2002).” (Castells, Fernåndez-Ardévol, Linchuan Qiu, and Sey 104). Having the same accessibility to use these services like the sighted, has increased sociability through the stream of social media.
Social media is shaping our society within which we live. “We don’t have a choice on whether we DO social media; the question is how well we DO it.” (Erik Qualman, Socialnomics). Having information at our fingertips through the use of computers, personal digital assistants (PDAs), cellular phones, etc. is shaping social media impact. “Social media didn’t start with computers, it was born on “line” - on the phone...These early social media explorers built “boxes”...homemade electronic devices that could generate tones allowing them to make free calls and get access to the experimental back end of the telephone system. 1950s.” (Borders). The telephone and newspaper changed the way society communicated in the past. Even though these outlets still exist, with the help of technology, there are endless other ways to get information. We all have an interest in what’s happening not only in our own backyard, but also, world news. Social networking is one way to get that information while giving us an inside look as it is happening, allowing us to comment and connect to others. This is no different for the blind. “There is a transformation of sociability in the network society, as has been shown in studies of the Social uses of the Internet...which leads to the construction of a peer group through networked sociability. The culture of individualism does not lead to isolation, but it changes the patterns of sociability in terms of increasingly selective and self-directed contact. Thus, the new trend is the emergence of networked sociability.” (Castells, Fernåndez-Ardévol, Linchuan Qiu, and Sey 143-144). This is why the technological tools, government assistance and agencies for the blind are even more important than ever to assist the blind in social networking. Through experiences, they too, will be able to share with each other the obstacles that they are living with and how they are able to adapt. “Networked sociability leads both to an individual-centered network, specific to the individual, and to peer-group formation, when the network becomes the context of behavior for its participants.” (Castells, Fernåndez-Ardévol, Linchuan Qiu, and Sey 144).
Facebook, Twitter and blogging are the most common social networking outlets of today’s society, including for the blind. Newspapers, radio stations and TV networks are all using these social networking groups to get feedback about the information that they are releasing to the public. As a valued member of society, the social networking of the seeing impaired helps create relationships that can be shared through the media. Having these relationships will help form a social connection at the same level as the rest of society. The new technologies covered earlier have improved the equality of this socialization.
Twitter is just one of many social media outlets that allow lightning speed communication. Twitter is one of the more popular methods of social networking. It takes 140 characters of text to create what’s called a Tweet. A more lengthy form is called blogging. As of 2010, there were more than 175 million registered users on Twitter and over 95 million tweets a day (Twitter.com). “Twitter is social messaging. With the ability to follow people and have followers, and the ability to interact with Twitter on your cell phone, Twitter has become the perfect social messaging tool…Twitter is a great tool for quickly communicating a message to a group of people.” (Nations). Using software tools such as JAWS with your phone or computer has made Twitter a popular networking tool for the blind. “Many popular organizations for the blind use Twitter to update their users on the latest happenings.” (Meddaugh). AFB’s Twitter account is a simple way to keep up with the latest happenings on AFB news. Twitter not only provides information on what people are doing, but also on the current news around the neighborhood or the world. Twitter is rapidly changing the way we communicate and has accessibility options for the blind and visually impaired computer users to be part of the revolution. More than just a fad, it is quickly becoming a necessary lifestyle tool to stay ahead in business and be a part of the social scene. (Meddaugh). The ABF continues to support tools such as Twitter. Accessible Twitter is a 2011 Access Award winner. “Accessible Twitter, created by Dennis Lembree, is an alternative version of the popular online social network. The website corrects the inaccessibility of the original Twitter.com design. Twitter users can go to the Accessible Twitter site, log in with their usual Twitter account details and find the same core functions and features, but with many enhancements, including optimization for screen reader use, full keyboard accessibility and support for older browsers and even text-only browsers.” (PRNews - American Foundation for the Blind Announces 2011 Access Award Winners - AFB - American Foundation for the Blind). Another popular tool used more with a computer is blogging. Unlike Twitter, blogging does not restrict the user to 140 characters allowing more room to express opinions on anything from daily activities to political viewpoints. It is great to see such powerful tools available for the blind.
Up to this point, this paper has focused on the definition of blindness in today’s society, how socialization technology has assisted the blind and the types of social networks as they apply to blind as a media outlet. To assist in understanding how successful these tools are, blog and email correspondence with blind individuals was conducted.
Alena Roberts is blind and uses a variety of social networking sites. She writes in a blog called Perspectives from a Blind Point of View, “I decided to write about what it means for me to be a young adult who is blind and to write about things that I would think the blind community would find interesting.” This alone shows the potential power of this form of media as she is able to pull together a specific segment of society and they can exchange ideas and form opinions from which they can act on. She continues to write, “As far as Twitter goes, I started finding other people with vision problems, Twitter became a whole new world for me. Twitter is great for the blind because it’s so easy. It’s also a great way to meet people from all across the world, and I have followers in numerous states and countries.” It is impressive to see that not only are these media outlets so widely reached, but that they are also easy to access for the users. “For me, Twitter is a way to bring communities together...I still haven’t met in person very many people who are blind, but I know a lot of people, thanks to social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.” (Roberts).
Another contact made to support today’s use of media for the blind was through an email from Kristina Constant. She is attending Columbia University in New York to obtain her Masters degree for Teacher of the Blind/Visually Impaired. Kristina emails, “I only can see shadows and light and dark so do not have much usable vision. I get my daily news from the radio and Newsline. Newsline is a phone service for the blind that has over three hundred daily newspapers and magazines. I call up a number and use the buttons on the phone to use the system and the news I select is read aloud. I am fluent in Braille for literary purposes and I am learning the Nemeth Code for mathematics.” As noted by Kristina, not all the media for the blind is received only by the high speed new technologies; but she does make use of some of the new resources.
Kristina is just beginning to use the new media networking. She writes, “I only have experience with Facebook. I use a screen reader called JAWS. I cannot use the regular Facebook page but use the facebook.com page as it is more accessible to the screen reader. I have friends who are blind who use Facebook and Twitter. I use Facebook to keep in touch with others. I use keyboard commands for all these functions...I do not use this for daily news as far as the world and the U.S.A., but more as a social media tool.” Kristina’s media sources come from a combination of traditional media methods such as radio, phone services, Braille and new social networking.
The previous testimonials further support the value of using media and communication tools in today’s society. The new resources provide interaction beyond earlier methods of communication for several segments of society including the blind. The new forms of media for the blind are appreciated by those who live it; it has come a long way from raised letters on paper.
After reviewing the definition of what the social group of vision impaired is, and how their heightened sense of touch and hearing provides socialization, communication and media, formats became clear. The original breakthrough came about as Braille allowed the written word to become a powerful media source. As new social media became available through technology, tools such as JAWS provided interfaces to computers. By providing screen recognition and outputting synthesized speech to the blind, the floodgates to communication and the new social media outlets Twitter and Facebook are now readily available. The printed word is also provided to the blind by new technologies such as OCR which could be converted to speech or to Braille. The new social networks such as Twitter provide an outstanding media source pulling special subgroups of society like the vision impaired together; it also provided an equal playing field for communications and media. Several agencies, such as the NFB and the American Council of the Blind, provide support and service in the arena of communications and media. Our government also assists in the equality of this important segment of society through the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. With all of the above evidence that society has kept pace with technology for the blind, the most compelling proof comes from the testimonials provided by Alena and Kristina.
I believe this information shows that the journalistic window is open and that the loyalty to the citizens, including the blind, has been kept. I hope further advancements continue for future generations so there may always be assistance to others, including as my 3-year old niece, Brooklyn, who is not only overcoming blindness, but other disabilities as well. She, too, is an important citizen!
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