Don Heath, faculty instructor for the UW Bachelor of Science in Applied Computing online degree program and assistant professor of Information Systems at UW-Oshkosh College of Business, has focused much of his recent research on how mobile assistive technology (MAT) can help workers with visual disabilities. Together, a smartphone, built-in screen reader, enabling apps, and internet connectivity comprise a MAT bundle that affords the blind with new and powerful ways to independently interact with their environment. Currently, more than 150 enabling apps are available to smartphone users, and powerhouses such as Microsoft, Toyota, and Apple have unveiled new ways MAT technology can provide opportunities for the blind to live and work.
While technological advancements are abundant in the MAT field, there is still one big barrier that continues to hold the blind back from workplace success and inclusion: misinformed stereotypes regarding their technology-enabled capabilities. By focusing on all of these elements in his research, Professor Heath investigates the potential of MAT smartphone app usage in the workplace. The following is a brief overview of his findings and what he hopes for the future:
What was your motivation to dive into this research area?
There is a high incidence of early onset adult macular degeneration in my family, and it took the vision from my grandmother and my uncle. It is affecting my mother, and I also have the genetic markers for this condition.
Two of my best friends are blind researchers. One of them has a Ph.D. in information systems and teaches database to sighted users. And so, he breaks a lot of the stereotypes regarding perception of what a blind person can do.
I’ve found that visually disabled people, especially those born without sight, consider the new capabilities afforded by MAT empowering. They’re excited about what they can do. Blind people are just like everyone else, with the same motivations and flaws. And so, the idea that they can be better included in the world with simple modifications to the way they interface with technology is profound.
Can you explain how MAT technology through smartphone apps can positively impact a blind worker’s job?
One of the blind workers we followed in our research worked on a production line, and some of the machines that she used had printed step-by-step instructions. Typically, she would learn those instructions with the help of a sighted manager reading them to her over and over until she had them memorized. For a blind person, that dependence can feel like inadequacy. Additionally, sighted managers would sometimes grow impatient when re-describing a particular set of instructions.
When blind or visually disabled individuals use MAT smartphone app technology, they can read text on the fly because they have optical character recognition (OCR) capabilities right in their pocket, helping them recognize things in their environment. They can understand the visual aspects of their surroundings, know if a light is on in a room, or if the blinds are open, and much more.
In our research with the worker we followed, the MAT smartphone app read the machine’s instructions and she saved the text to her phone, allowing her to play it back anytime she wanted without any help. She didn’t need anyone else in order to do her job, and that was empowering. It’s easy for people with sight to be unaware of how much they benefit from visual ability. This technology helps bring those things to light and helps visually disabled people interact with the sighted workplace.
What are the big questions that need to be answered in order to integrate MAT smartphones/apps usage in the workplace?
We must ask: How do you convince hiring managers or training managers that this technology is transformational and redefines this disability as they understand it? How do you break managers’ and gatekeepers’ inherent stereotyping of workers with visual disabilities? Also, how do you mainstream education about these technologies to current students and future leaders in the IT and applied computing fields?
People who have different abilities need to know what’s available to them, and they need to have the agency to use the technology. However, it’s not enough that they know what’s available. They also require a receptive audience on the other side of the desk that is interested in their technology-enabled capabilities — not their disabilities. The first step to answering these challenges is helping build positive awareness around these MAT smartphone apps through more research and examples in workplace settings.
What are the main takeaways from your research?
We all rely on technology to participate in the world, and we live in an information economy — a society that’s driven by information exchange and connectivity. The challenge of our technology-reliant lives is finding a way to unlock social inclusion for people with disabilities by allowing them to interact with technology differently. Fortunately, some big names such as Toyota and Microsoft have recognized this need for inclusion and have begun to solve the interface challenge. Now, the new challenge is making these solutions available, accessible, and more widely accepted in a broader social context.
Managers’ lack of awareness and misperceptions of blind people’s capabilities are believed to be the major cause for low workplace inclusion of blind individuals. This stems from uncertainty about the costs of necessary accommodations for such workers and the uninformed idea that they will likely need some sighted assistance to perform most jobs.
It’s fairly well-documented in the research that people hold a disability stereotype. This stereotype is a sort of mental shorthand that tells them what they think a person with a certain disability is able to do and how that person might perform in his or her workplace.
Reliance on disability stereotypes often gets in the way of understanding what is possible. Like most of us, the people who are the gatekeepers in organizations tend to have preconceived notions about the capabilities of people with different abilities. They see disability first, rather than the ability of the worker. However, technology is redefining what it means to be visually disabled.
At the end of the day, what do you hope will come out of your research?
I hope employers, hiring managers, educators, students, and everyday individuals can better understand the true technology-enabled potential of blind people who are applying for jobs or trying to join organizations. After this research, I hope you might have a different view of their ability. And that’s really the goal — to recognize the technology itself, increase its acceptance, and advance its use in the workplace.
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What can current or prospective applied computing students consider and implement from your research?
There are 7.6 million people with visual disabilities in the U.S., and of those, nearly 4 million are working-aged adults. If applied computing current or prospective students are interested in developing mobile platform MAT applications to help blind workers and break through stereotypes, now is a great time to start. In doing so, they literally have the power to transform lives.
The UW Bachelor of Science in Applied Computing online degree program offers programming and software engineering courses that prepare students to become the next leaders in MAT and other technology-driven advancements. Want to learn more about how an applied computing degree can help you transform lives? Reach out to an enrollment advisor by calling 608-800-6762 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.