Santa Barbara Braille Institute helps students use assistive technology in everyday life
By PAUL GONZALEZ
NEWS-PRESS STAFF WRITER
A group of students spent Wednesday afternoon sitting around a black, mesh-covered pod, asking questions like “How do I make spaghetti?”, “What’s the time?” and “What’s the relative humidity today?”
The scene wasn’t pulled from a Star Trek episode or the latest science fiction blockbuster. It took place at Santa Barbara Braille Institute’s Ask Siri class.
Literacy Services Coordinator Elena Garcia explained that the futuristic-looking pod is called an Apple HomePod. Users can pair their phone to their HomePod and access Apple’s Siri voice assistant from over 20 feet away.
“For now the Apple products have the best accessibility, but Android is catching up in due time,” observed class attendee Greg Benavidez, who added the popularity of Apple’s ecosystem makes finding useful apps and services easier. Mr. Benavidez admitted that Google Maps edges out Apple’s map service because it’s turn-by-turn directions are available in voiceover mode and are generally more accurate.
“I was scared of it. Everybody said get an iPhone and I said, ‘No I can use this little flip phone.’ Finally someone said, ‘If you get one, I guarantee Greg can get you to use it.’ So I put him to the challenge,” recalled Lisa Moore, who started coming up from Ventura to attend the Santa Barbara Braille Institute two years ago. She attended the Orange County Braille Institute for 12 years before her move to Ventura.
“My husband got me here. I was having trouble with mobility and we happened to get a brochure from Braille Institute. I basically started coming because I wanted to learn mobility, but when you get here there’s so many other things you learn. If it weren’t for Braille, I would probably be home listening to the television,” said Ms. Moore, who explained it took her years to finally accept that she needed a community to teach her how to live with her vision impairment.
“I didn’t want to believe that I was really blind. I didn’t want to be here. I started at the other Braille and the first three weeks I went I cried all the way home. I didn’t want to acknowledge I needed to be there. But then I got to know the people there and it really helped me.”
She added that Braille Institute staff will help students set up their electronic devices, and Apple provides free ADA accessibility technical support in store and over the phone. That technical support has allowed Ms. Moore to read again and to text and Facetime her children who scattered from Albuquerque, New Mexico, to the East Coast.
Tom Duer said technology has kept pace with his vision loss over the last 10 years. “My condition is degenerative, but as I lose an ability to communicate, they get replaced by technology. My phone has allowed me to talk to people, access the library, order digital books, listen to podcasts. It’s filled a big void left by my vision,” said Mr. Duer.
Santa Barbara Braille Institute Executive Director Susan Cass said the institute choose to highlight technology in January to help those who may have trouble using electronic gifts they received over the holidays.
Braille Institute Centers throughout the state offered free technology workshops in January on topics including learning how to navigate iPhones and Android Phones, learning technology with low or no vision and how to use voice-activated assistants.
The workshops are taught by Braille Institute instructors, many of whom are blind or visually impaired.
Ms. Cass said the Santa Barbara Braille Institute also offers one-on-one technical support by appointment.
“If they got their phone and they don’t even know how to turn it on, we’re gonna help through every step they need to make it a usable technology for them,” said Ms. Cass, who explained that the institute has shifted to more individualized technology support over the last two years
“Each individual has their own needs and wants for their own personal uses. Someone might just be losing their vision, or someone might have very little vision and their needs will be quite different.”
For more information on the Santa Barbara Braille Institute’s free services and classes visit www.brailleinstitute.org/santabarbara.