How digital technologies affect people with visual impairment

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SAN ANTONIO – Navigating the computer and the internet can be a challenge for the blind, but it's far from impossible. 

Michael Guajardo works at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Vision Impaired where a team of employees helps people navigate online. 

"I was starting to see everything kind of in a yellowish hue. I didn't really think anything of it. I mean, I was nine at the time, and I take nothing seriously, you know. And it concerned my parents, of course," Guajardo said. 

Guajardo's life changed forever when he was 9 years old. 

"They were doing all kinds of tests on me, and that's when they were able to diagnose that, that I had RP, retinitis pigmentosa," Guajardo said. 

He said he slowly began to lose his vision. His challenges were different than those of the other kids at school. 

"Getting around in crowded hallways, trying to fit in with everybody in high school, I mean, in high school, you're already dealing with being self-conscious about everything, and then being judged. And I hid the fact that I was blind. Nobody knew that I was completely blind," Guajardo said. 

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The obstacles didn't stop Guajardo. They only pushed him more. He attended Texas A&M University Kingsville. 

"The technology wasn't where it is now, but there was still assistive technology at the time," Guajardo said. 

Guajardo earned a degree in computer information systems and started a job at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Vision Impaired. 

"Since we all have dealt with vision loss, I feel like we're all able to kind of tell our story about what we had to do in order to be successful -- going through school, finding work or just day-to-day life. We feel like we're able to tell that story and it would be an encouragement to people," Guajardo said. 

Guajardo is the supervisor in the assistive technology department. He teaches people how to use certain programs, including text-speech or word prediction. 

"I could go into Excel, put together a spreadsheet and, as I'm moving through the document, it's going to be able to read things back to me. And that's important, because, if I can't see it then I need that speech output," Guajardo said. 

Guajardo said that from transportation to paying his bills online, technology is helping him. 

"I can either do it on my phone or I can do it on the computer -- very convenient," he said. 

The San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Vision Impaired said that in 2018, there were about 50,000 blind or visually impaired people in Bexar County. 

Technology has improved over the years, but websites are lagging behind. With the popularity of online shopping and online food ordering, advocates for visually impaired people said websites need to accommodate everyone. 

Currently, government websites are the only sites required to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. 

The number of federal website accessibility lawsuits nearly tripled last year, according to a Chicago law firm that tracks the lawsuits. 

"If they're not using the right color scheme, if they are using really weird colors and where it doesn't have enough contrast and they might struggle with that, then you would have somebody who is completely blind, who relies on speech to access the computer and it reads everything to you. If those websites are not set up correctly, following accessibility standards, it's going to be very hard to navigate," Guajardo said. 

Things could be changing for private companies. Earlier this year, pizza giant Domino's asked the U.S. Supreme Court to deny a lawsuit by a blind man who said Domino's website and app don't comply with the ADA. Since the law was written in 1990, it doesn't specifically spell out requirements for websites or apps. But it requires public places to make visual materials available to people with vision impairments. The Supreme Court sided with the blind man. 

Advocates said companies that choose to not make their sites fully accessible are losing. 

"People who are blind, you know, they make a great living out there. You know, they're doctors. They're lawyers. They want to spend money. So, if you don't have your web site accessible for a little online shopping, you really are missing the boat on that aspect, also," said Nancy Lipton, director of public relations and events at the San Antonio Lighthouse for the Blind and Vision Impaired. 

Guajardo said he hopes all websites can become fully accessible one day. In the meantime, he has many goals on his mind. He said he wants to finish his master's degree in communication and wants to write a book. He said people who are visually impaired shouldn't let that stop them. 

"It's definitely not the end of the world. I know it's a cliche, but it really isn't, epecially in 2019, with all the technology and the resources that are available," Guajardo said. 

More resources:

Web accessibility guidelines

Web Accessibility Initiative

Proposed ADA Standards for Accessible Design


About the Authors:

Tiffany Huertas is known for her in-depth storytelling and her involvement with the community.