Recently, @ on twitter brought to my attention #GetOnlineWeek, which is a long running campaign managed by the Tinder Foundation. The campaign runs between the 17th and the 23rd of October, it’s aim to help people discover the benefits of being online. This year the campaign is celebrating it’s 10 year anniversary, giving me the ideal opportunity to talk about how technology has helped me get and stay online.
My aim is to bring out a series of blog posts on how me and my family use the internet throughout October. Although as my plans tend to go awry, like the best laid plans of mice and men, I wanted to at least release this post looking at an overview of my journey to getting online, a brief mention of some of the devices I use to get online and what I do while connected.
My Journey To The Internet.
As you may or may not be aware, I am a legally blind 29 year old, from the UK, suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa. This can have some limiting effects on certain aspects of my life. Thankfully however, having embraced technology from an early age, I have been able to stay up to date with the benefits it can provide to someone like me.
When I first got online, nearly two decades ago, there was only one option available to everyone, that was to get your hands on a PC, be it Windows or Mac. Personally I went down the Windows rout. Nagging my mum year after year, in a forlorn hope that she may crack and buy me a computer, one summer, shortly before starting high school, a delivery lorry pulled up at the front of our house unexpectedly. Out came box after box, each one containing a piece to the puzzle that would keep me entertained for years to come.
Unpacking each box, me and my brother made an event of connecting each grey box together. We strung cables from the monitor to the base unit, then went in the mouse and keyboard, finally the printer and speakers. Thankfully all the cables were colour coordinated or it may have taken us a lot longer to figure things out, neither one of us having done it before, let alone used one. in hope that when we turned the power on it would all work.
After a huge amount of hugs and kisses in thanks to my mum and promises made that it would only be used for school work, I switched on that Packard Bell PC, marking the first steps on my journey to the internet.
How things have changed, with the ubiquity of smart phones, tablets, smart TV’s and the plethora of other connected devices, there is a bewildering number of ways you can get online today.
After years of waiting for it to make it’s journey across the Atlantic and become readily available in the UK. Our family recently took delivery of the newest member to our connected household, the Amazon Echo. Yet another way our family is making use of the technology and internet combination, making our lives easier and more full filled.
Not only the number of devices we use to get online have increased , but the means in which those devices talk to each other, the internet, has also increased in availability and speed, while reducing in price for the most part.
When I first got online, broadband was still in it’s infancy and the majority of people were still accessing the world wide web via a dial up connection. Now, mobile internet access and broadband internet access have reached a parity in a lot of areas of the country, making dial up pretty much a non entity, thank goodness.
My download speed has increased from 56 kbps back in the Packard Bell era of my computing history, to (up to!) an astonishing 150 mbps today, although as the graphic above shows, 108.81 mbps is the best I could achieve here . In addition to this speed increase, the cost of that access has fallen.
I touched on mobile internet a little earlier. This has possibly been one of the biggest changes in technology in recent years. It’s untethered people from their desktops and enabled people to stay connected no matter where they are.
Mobile phones had only just become a thing as I started to lose my sight as a child, I along with the rest of the world had no idea how fast and how far mobile technology would come. But I do know that technology, the internet in particular has played a huge part in my life. I can only see the impact of it growing as I embrace its potential.
But you’re blind, you can’t see to use mainstream technology.
Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. There may still be devices that haven’t picked up the accessibility baton and hammered their devices into shape with it. However, you’ll be surprised just how many mainstream devices have accessibility features baked into them from the get go.
While the hardware manufacturers and infrastructure companies innovated, accessibility advocates and engineers didn’t sit on their hands, oh no, they were hard at work too. macOS, Windows, iOS and not forgetting Android, the four operating systems that most major consumer devices are based, all have accessibility features installed by default.
There are also devices like the Amazon Echo, that do away with the screen all together. Once the device is configured, which requires the use of a smart phone, either iOS or Android based, the device is accessed entirely via verbal commands. This enables you to access streaming music services like Amazon Prime Music and Spotify. manage your calendar and a myriad of other functions that are constantly being expanded via the Amazon Skills API. This device levels the accessibility playing field massively, perhaps due to a lucky accident, but the end result is still the same.
My 6 year old son did over estimate the echo’s capabilities a little however, with his first voice command being “Alexa, make me a snack”. If the 10 inch cylindrical form of the Amazon echo had a face, it would have had a look of bewilderment painted on it, as it thought about how it would complete this task. Little did we know, the Echo is capable of ordering take away meals, via ‘Just Eat‘, so his request isn’t as far fetched as it may have first sounded to me and his mum, as we rolled around laughing.
This thing can also make phone calls.
I’d be lost without my PC and I love the new technology that comes onto the market like the echo, however, this past 5 years or so I’ve come to rely a lot on my smart phone. After years of struggling with a magnifying glass to try and read text messages and navigate through phone menus, when I reach 16 years old it came to the point where I just couldn’t manage it any more and my use of mobile devices just stopped.
Then came the smart phone revolution, triggered in part by the original iPhone. As usual, I was a little slow on the uptake. I jumped on board with the Samsung Galaxy S3, when I realised just how accessible the devices have become. Since then things have just got better and better. Now, I’m using the Samsung Galaxy S6 and I wouldn’t be without it.
Accessing email, twitter and streaming content in the same way a sighted person would, my mobile experience is a world away from what it used to be. And on the occasion I need to make a phone call, it handles that pretty well too.
Some mainstream technology is difficult to access.
That doesn’t mean I had to give up and spend the rest of my life offline. There are hundreds, if not thousands of products out there, specifically designed to make accessing technology easier. These either adapt mainstream technology to make it accessible or give you an alternative device with similar features to off the shelf products, in an accessible form-factor.
These products include third party screen magnification and screen reader software, an example of this is Dolphin’s Supernova, a product I am familiar with and used to use during my time at college. Since then, they have continued to advance it’s capabilities and it now boasts a complete suite of accessibility features that is drawing my attention.
Software adaptations aren’t limited to desktop and laptop devices however, companies like Synaptic Software provide a software package designed for android devices that simplifies the user interface and makes it easier to access for people with visual impairments. You can also buy devices with this software pre-installed.
As far as my smart phone goes, I am happy, for the most part, with the built in accessibility features provided by the Android operating system. Features I expand upon via the use of third party apps like ‘Tap Tap See.
If software adaptations don’t go far enough, there are several peripherals you can buy to increase the accessibility of your device. These range widely from high contrast keyboards to braille displays that can help you access your smart phone or PC, a lot of which can be found on the RNIB Online Shop.
As my vision is so reduced, combined with the fact I am a touch typist, high contrast keyboards are of little use to me, a braille display is a product I would consider adding to my arsenal in the future however.
But I’m not like you, I’m new to technology .
That’s OK, no one expects you to turn on a device and instantly know how to access it and get the most from it. That’s why there are governmental projects and charitable organisations out there to help you get started. An example of this would be the RNIB’s Online Today Initiative , put in place to help those with sight loss access and get the most from their technology.
Take a look at the video below produced by RNIB, where Andrew gives a brief look at what he does while online and the advantages being online offers. He also gives an overview on how the RNIB‘s Online Today team can help you if you suffer from sensory loss.
I know it’s often easy for someone like me who has surrounded themselves with technology and the internet, to underestimate how difficult it can be to take that first step. However people like Andrew, along with the other staff members and volunteers at RNIB have the training and experience to guide you through the process, so that you can take those first steps together.
Technology opened the door to other interests.
The pure love of technology is what got me lusting after a connected life style all those years ago. Although I knew nothing about it, something about computers and technology attracted my introverted personality.
Technology doesn’t have to be the reason you get online though, technology can just be a tool enabling you to stay connected with friends and family, or maybe even make new friends. Endless amounts of information is just a question away when your connected to the internet too. Hours of entertainment can be had, either through online video streaming services, games or audio books.
Speaking of audio books, the RNIB has recently made their “Talking Books” service free of charge, so you can now access thousands of audio books online, either on your PC or mobile using the Overdrive app. This is another service I make good use of.
If instant information or entertainment isn’t what you’re after and you want a bit of retail therapy, don’t worry, the internet has you well covered on that front. Providing you access to more products than you could ever hope to find on the high street, you’ll run out of money long before you run out of shiny new things to buy online.
Having long forgotten the promises I made to my mum, that my computer would only be used for school work. Chat rooms were the initial draw that got me draping a telephone cable across the living room floor to my pc and waiting for my computer to dial up all those years ago.
Once I grew up (depending on who you ask, some would argue that still hasn’t happened.) and gained access to a little bit of money, online shopping soon became the major draw for me. Having instant access to all the latest reviews and price comparisons on all the latest technology, it’s a veritable wonderland for someone like me. If only the supply of money could keep up with my growing wish list.
Shopping aside, another huge benefit of being online for me, that I have started making use of within the last year or so is Twitter, having known about it and Facebook for years, as has everyone I imagine, I was a little slow on the up take though, the shy introvert inside preventing me from taking advantage of these platforms obvious benefits. that has enabled me to stay connected with friends and family. It has also enabled me to make lots of new friends with similar interest to me. Being on Twitter also exposes me to information that I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise and let’s me get involved in conversations relevant to me.
As my blog’s name alludes to, you won’t be surprised that gaming has also historically taken up a huge proportion of my time online. As my eye sight has deteriorated, the type of games I play has started to change, you’ll be surprised how many of these games are becoming accessible to the blind though, with audio and text based games taking the forefront.
But regardless of your interests, no matter how niche you think it may be, I can almost guarantee it, within seconds of being online, you’ll find other people just like you and a host of information or entertainment based around it.
So what are you waiting for?
The fact you’re here reading this blog post shows you’re already online and have doubtlessly fallen in love with the benefits of it, but If you find yourself using excuses as to why you don’t get online more or embrace technology, take a few minutes to think of all the benefits you’re missing out on.
More to the point, if you have family members who are visually impaired that don’t currently get online, take some time to talk to them about their interests and how getting online may benefit them. There’s very few reasons why you can’t get #OnlineToday.
As always, please share this post using the social media links provided and feel free to leave a comment. Share with me how you use technology and the internet. I want to hear your stories on how you might use them both to further your hobbies and interests or how you use them to simplify your day to day life. You can also contact me on Facebook and Twitter. And if you are on those social networks, please feel free to join the conversation by adding #onlinetoday or #GetOnlineWeek to your posts.