Let's come together for 'Liberation technology'

Posted on Saturday 25th August, 2012

Phillip Connolly is an old school friend of mine who has always seen things from a different perspective.  He is a firm believer in the idea that disabled people's resilience is a vast reservoir of unused potential - and the key to achieving equality.  In the first of two blog posts he discusses his notion of 'liberation technology' as a new way of dismantling the barriers that confine people with disabilities. 

Our 21st century is now in its teens, a period normally characterised by adventure, risk, personal development and yes growing pains too.  In technology its inheritance was the e-generation of e-commerce most memorably marked by ebay.  Its childhood was the o-generation of open systems most memorably signalled by open source software.  The letter of our teens could well be l - l for liberation.  That is liberation from poverty and the isolation that comes from being outside of the margins of society that have been set by other people.  In the liberation generation we will move from products for mainstream markets that are adapted for blind people, on to technologies customised for and initiated by them.  And of course it has to be affordable; can we knock at least one zero off the price? It is first worth tracing this journey through some of the products and the possibilities they now offer for communication, mobility, navigation, shopping and work. 

Indian engineers working under licence from the University of Pennsylvania have modified Microsoft's Kinect, a motion sensing input device for the Xbox 360 video game console and mounted it on a belt so that blind people can navigate in the street.  The belt's (called a viSparsh, an Hindi word meaning touch) sensor is able to detect obstacles in front of the walker and transmit this information via vibrations to the person, the vibrations increase in intensity as the person gets nearer to the object.  The noteworthy message is that the technology for liberation is almost always here but simply needs reapplying. 

modified Kinect
Of course many blind people really want to do more than simply walk.  My uncle Tom, a well known blind resident of Morecambe until his recent death from old age used to like sitting in a car and revving up the engine.  Could it be that the generation of blind people who come after Tom might even be able to drive? Google's robotic self-drive Toyota Prius has chauffeured a blind man to a taco Bell and dry cleaners.  The self-drive car has sensors that detect the presence, speed and direction of other cars and brake accordingly and drives following a computer map of the route.  The great news is that the highway authorities haven't baulked at the development.  In early 2012 the State of Nevada became the first state authority to create regulations for companies testing self-drive cars on public roads. 

Google's self driving Toyota Prius
Of course customising technology for blind people is being made easier through applications - apps for mobile phone technology.  Mario Romero a post doctoral researcher at Georgia Institute of Technology has co-developed an app called "Braille Touch that could help blind people to send text messages and type emails on touch-screen smart phones without the need for expensive and extra equipment.  To use the app people hold their phones with the screen facing away from them and punch combinations of touch screen buttons to form characters.  The screen speaks a letter after it's been registered so that there is no need to see the screen.  The real breakthrough may be that sighted people may come to use a touch screen Braille keyboard in preference to an ordinary key board because Braille is faster.  Sighted people could be liberated to use their eyes for other things whilst blind people are liberated from paying for expensive bolt-ons. 

The increasing interface with machines to obtain services has opened up a digital divide whereby people with sight loss increasingly risk being left behind.  However smart card technology can also close the gap too.  The SNAPI - special needs application programme interface - project has been developing a smart card that can carry people's access requirements so that when the smartcard is inserted into a self service terminus the terminus changes to meet their access requirements, for example a screen changes to the person's preferred font size or colour contrast.  There are potentially vast numbers of possible uses for the smartcard from extending the time it takes to get yourself and your guide dog through a ticket barrier at a train station to obtaining the access features on a PC if your company operates a hot desking policy. 

True liberation however comes with the power to initiate.  People with sight loss are as creative as anyone else and all inventions start as ideas in the mind.  Now the web is making it easier for people with an idea to form collaborations with other people with technical skills or even the patrons to pay for it to happen.  Kickstarter is the world's largest funding platform for creative projects and has successfully hooked enough patrons to fund close to half of the 40,000 projects that people have uploaded as video clips.  Projects are submitted at no cost and Kickstart takes a 5% fee if projects successfully attain their funding target with in addition Amazon taking a 3% to 5% credit card processing fee. 

At it is possible to register yourself as a contractor and get hired, find a collaborative partner or simply search for a job.  It is also possible to post the brief for work you need doing and find people who will offer the enterprising solutions you are looking for.  You can then pay online for the solution you want. 


Karen Jones
Karen Jones
Monday 24th July, 2017 @ 5:43 am

So, with blind people being able to text, and blind people being able to to drive, it raises the possibility that blind people could have the exceedingly dubious privilege of being able to text while driving : )

But in terms of blind drivers, there's work in progress on developing cars that blind people can drive themselves, rather than being "chauffeured" around.  For more information, see: