When I venture out from my home as a blind person, it can feel like going into a battle zone. Navigating a safe path around obstacles and unpredictable barriers and maintaining my dignity is like taking a merry waltz through a mine-field. At any moment, the ground can shift beneath my feet, the white cane may sweep a path straight into a hole and not for one moment can my thoughts become caught up in the whirlwind of commuter activity.

Gaining access to the many places I need to tread safely with my white cane is not only dependent on my own emotional and physical well-being but it is also the result of persistent and tenacious efforts by many advocates defending our right to make our world an accessible place to live. My eyesight may have faded many years ago but my vision is clearly focused on retaining as much independence as possible.

Accessibility is creating an opportunity by innovative thinking and design, an open and equal entry to services, a means of participating without creating barriers, thus enabling people of all ‘disabilities’ to be included in every aspect of life.

In many Western countries, legislation exists so that venues carry the international recognized symbol for accessibility for persons with a disability by displaying a person in a wheelchair on a blue background. Also, we are fortunate throughout Australia to have a variety of structures in place to aid independent mobility for the blind and visually-impaired, such as audible lights, tactile markers set into pavements and within buildings, as well as audible announcements in lifts and on public transport.

From personal experience, however, placing people under a general umbrella like ‘disabled’ can create other dilemmas: what is considered to be an innovative approach to assist the blind can be a hindrance or an annoyance for those using a wheelchair. Different disabilities have very different requirements. Under the umbrella of disability, we are including those with a hearing impairment, a visual impairment, a mobility impairment, a learning disability and a mental impairment.

It may seem that there is a whole lot of accessing going on out there, with accessible tourism, accessible sports, accessible toilets and accessible technology, yet we are still striving to find ways to be included in mainstream activities.

Mobility requirements can fluctuate on a daily basis depending on varying circumstances such as natural sunlight or diffused lighting. This means a blind or visually-impaired person has to explain their needs frequently, even to family and friends.

Most people, for example, are perplexed by the fact that a person like myself has partial sight yet I am classified as being ‘legally blind’. It is extremely common for a ‘blind’ person to retain some residual vision, even if it means they can only detect shadows. Being blind is an ever-changing challenge in an ever-shifting environment while expending constant emotional effort to remain as good humoured as possible. 

The Call for Advocacy

Less than one hundred years ago, our nation was not so kind to the blind. In fact, most blind children and adults were kept out of sight and shut away in asylums due to the fear of the general public, who openly considered it better to be cast into one’s grave than to carry the stigma of being blind. Such a communal phobia only served to keep established social attitudes safely locked away in a box.

One of our most outspoken advocates for change in the twentieth century who felt the strong call to action was Miss Tilly Aston (1873 – 1947). Born in the Victorian township of Carisbrook, she experienced total loss of sight by age seven but nevertheless went on to secure many revolutionary changes which ensured equality for her ‘blind brotherhood’.

She was the first blind teacher in our country, a published poet and author, an entrepreneur and visionary (and she is my heroine!). Tilly Aston was instrumental in founding the first Braille library of Victoria. She was a founding member of the Association for the Advancement of the Blind (AAB), which is now Vision Australia.

She used her eloquent communication skills and tenacious spirit to petition politicians to bring about better conditions in public transport for the blind, free postage for large print material, improved living conditions for the elderly as well as so many other benefits we enjoy today as a result of her tireless advocation for change. Miss Aston cleared a path through the dark ages into the light of a progressive Melbourne.

Vision Australia has grown into a nationally recognised organisation which supports, funds and promotes all aspects of accessible living. Blind Citizens Australia (BCA) is another organisation which works actively to secure accessible living standards and to champion every aspect of equality for their members. Hundreds of devoted people within these two organisations alone, each play an invaluable role in the art of advocacy, enabling people like myself to participate more fully and thus enjoy an inclusive lifestyle among a sighted community. 

A Touch of Technology

Technology today plays a vital role in opening doors to opportunities we could not have experienced before. Gone are the days when all we had available at our fingertips was the option to learn Braille. Today, we have additional modifications in the way of assistive technology, such as magnifying devices (CCTV), computer software, voice-operated phones and innumerable applications like i-Pads and tablets which have all become partners in accessibility.

Ironically, technology has become so advanced that the problem is not so much a lack of access but an overwhelming sense of choice. As a person dependent on software for the blind, the challenge for me is keeping up with smart phone apps, updates and innovative gadgets especially designed for the blind.

Trainers at Vision Australia first introduced me to a computer software program called JAWS (Job Access With Speech). It is a screen-reading program with an electronic synthesized voice. JAWS enables me to do most sighted tasks without using a mouse or having to see the screen. I have adapted to this technology by sharpening auditory attention to detail and adopting a new love for working with a robotic chatterbox.

My relationship with JAWS is like a marriage. We work best when we are ‘on the ‘same page’ and can be kind to each other’s shortcomings: with patience, a commitment to problem solving, and a devotion to gaining web accessibility is our combined goal.

In order for blind and visually-impaired computer users to be given equal online accessibility, website design and reading accessibility are required by law. One of the first online initiatives is known as the Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI). It is a set of specific guidelines which web developers can code into a website, thus converting all text, graphics, form fields, links and downloads to be accessible to people with varying skills and abilities.

With technology having made huge strides forward in advancing accessible living for those classified under the combined umbrella of a disability, our shared vision as advocates and collaborators will ensure the continued momentum for accessible living. This gives my companion JAWS and me great excitement for an even more inclusive future!

Maribel Steel is an author, online content writer, mentor and inspirational speaker. She lives in Melbourne and is legally blind with Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP). She is also a peer advisor with VisionAware (USA). She has been published in several print journals in Australia and has contributed over forty guest posts for overseas blogs.

Web: www.maribelsteel.com

Life blog: www.gatewaytoblindness.blogspot.com

Travel-blog: www.touchinglandscapes.com