In honour of Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) on May 17, we’re celebrating how smart technology can level the playing field for people with disabilities when it is designed with access in mind.

Thomas Bryan, who advises on new and emerging technology for the Blind Foundation, also happens to be blind. He uses assistive technology such as a screen reader, voiceover app and a Braille display, to use devices like his iPhone and computer.

He says those who consider access upfront have done an excellent job, but there is work to do to ensure access needs are considered by default.

“What I do find difficult, is when developers release an app that I can’t use, and it’s not because they’ve gone out of their way to create barriers or exclude some users, it is because they haven’t been aware, or taken into account, what needs to go into designing an app to make it accessible for all.

“If it is built to be accessible from the ground up then it could be used by anyone using assistive technology. We want all devices to be born accessible – that’s good for everyone: the product developer, the company selling devices and most importantly, the customer.”

Bryan is the Blind Foundation representative working with the developers of BlindSquare, an international initiative, to support its implementation in New Zealand. BlindSquare is an iOS app, used in 160 countries, that describes the environment for people who are blind or have low vision as they travel.

The app relies on location and description information triggered by Bluetooth beacons which are about the size of a matchbox, and placed in areas supported by the app.

In partnership with BlindSquare, the Blind Foundation is pleased to share that a free BlindSquare “EVENT” app will be available from tomorrow on iTunes. It will give travelers free use of the app for seven days after arriving in airports in major destinations in Canada, the United States of America and New Zealand – totaling more than 100 destinations.

Returning to any BlindSquare enabled airports, resets the seven-day provision and users receive the benefits when stepping outside. Other BlindSquare sponsors include Canadian National Institute for the Blind (CNIB) and Bank of America.

“This initiative is really exciting because it means that myself and other people who are blind or have low vision can travel more independently and be more aware of their surroundings. It is now easier than ever for blind and low vision travelers to move about the globe,” says Bryan.

The Blind Foundation provides specialist accessible formats and technology services, and is proud to be driving a number of technology projects that place accessibility at the forefront and demonstrate to the technology industry that innovation incorporating access needs enriches solutions, rather than detracts from them.

These projects include a partnership with developers Sonnar Interactive, which was recently recognised with a 2018 Google Play nomination in Best Accessible Experience for the Audio Game Hub app. The Blind Foundation and Sonnar Interactive’s focus is on developing custom solutions using artificial intelligence and smart speakers such as Amazon’s Alexa.

The Blind Foundation is also setting up a dedicated room, with support from Dr Marjorie Barclay Charitable Trust, at its Dunedin office to demonstrate the possibilities of a smart home for people who have low vision or are blind.

“I think education and awareness are key to making home appliances or smart technologies more useable for all of us. Usually if you get it right for disabled people, then you can get it right for everyone,” says Bryan.

Listen to the full interview with Thomas.