Gus Chalkias challenges me to spell my name. Chalkias, who lost his vision at age 28 and now runs the demo center at the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College in midtown Manhattan, hands me an iPhone with a darkened screen. I’ll have to do it by touch and by physical memory of the letters’ location.
“Trail one finger across the screen,” he says. An automated voice barks in rapid-fire, staccato speech: Camera. Messenger. Calendar. Thursday, August 20. “Slower,” he says. Stocks. Camera. YouTube. Stocks. I’m shocked by how quickly it’s talking. I can’t keep up.
“Take one finger and swipe it right,” Chalkias advises. “Your finger’s staying on the screen too long. Keep the contact briefer.” A blip—like leveling up in a video game—tells me I’m in the right place. “The lower third of the screen is now your keyboard,” he says. “Type your name.” I find the W. Then R, T, Y, and L. Finally, E. WLIJJ is the best I can do—three minutes later—before I accidentally close the window. Gus spells “Jessica” in 8 seconds.
The demo center, a suite of charcoal cubicles filled with tactile keyboards, is a place to train blind and visually impaired users on accessible apps and add-ons. The center also hosts public events. The last one, “Love is Blind, and So Am I,” tested the accessibility of online dating sites.
Chalkias has cloudy blue eyes and tufts of blonde hair. He’s wearing an oversized purple shirt and pants with a tear over the knee. He sits with his body turned towards me and laughs conspiratorially. He’s invited me to come learn about the products that are shaping the landscape of accessible technology for Americans with visual impairments—a demographic that numbered 20.6 million in 2014, according to a survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though technology can aid blind users’ daily lives, Chalkias tells me, it still falls short when it comes to helping them navigate their worlds.
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