Technische Universität Berlin

Succeeding as a Blind Person in a Digital World for the Sighted

In a three-part podcast, TU students examine the everyday working life of people with visual impairments

Joe’s day starts off with an unfortunate mishap. The language assistant on his smartphone has predicted sun, but instead it’s raining and Joe arrives at work soaking wet. Such misfortunes are a common occurrence for the music editor, who was born with only 4 percent vision. The series of set-backs, bad luck, and mishaps for the 26-year-old unfold like a radio play in a student podcast. In the second episode of the podcast, two TU students share what kind of assistive technologies are available to blind and visually impaired persons, providing access to a working world where computers are essential, and how these technologies work. A third episode sheds light on the history of visually impaired persons and includes an interview with Franziska Sgoff, who shares how she as a blind person manages her day and work at Microsoft. In 2019 she published the young adult novel “Wozu braucht man Jungs?” (“What do you need boys for ?”).

Sensitizing others to the topic

The project seminar that gave rise to the podcast was created on the basis of a student’s master’s thesis in ergonomics. Here five Digital Media & Technology students examined the accessible development of information and communication technologies in the digital world. A joint offer of the Division of Ergonomics and the Quality and Usability Lab under the direction of Dr. Frauke Mörike and media computer scientist Robert Spang, the seminar is an example of interdisciplinary collaboration in teaching. Robert Spang: “The podcast project provided students with an opportunity to gain practical experience in media production. In addition to the the technical aspects of recording, they also learned skills in post-production, filtering, editing, as well as with using different codecs and formats. Over the course of the project, the students learned and applied scientific methods.” For Dr. Frauke Mörike, it was important “to motivate students in technology degree programs to take a closer look at how Disabled people can be included in the digital professional world, a topic that is often overlooked. The podcast highlights the importance of the development of accessible technologies in a digitalized world. This is only possible if the people designing future technologies are sensitized to the issue of disability.” According to the Federal Statistical Office, there are 76,740 blind persons; 51,094 persons with severe vision impairment; and 452,930 people who are visually impaired in Germany as of 31 December 2019.

Making studying and teaching audible

The three podcast episodes are produced by, with and for young people and are the result of a desire to put the findings of a student’s thesis into action and provide them not only as teaching material but also as an accessible resource for the blind community. The master’s thesis, titled “Technological, social, and organizational opportunities and challenges of knowledge workers with vision impairment” was written by Ioannis Kiossis in 2019. He analyzed how visually impaired knowledge workers, such as administrative workers, teachers, IT technicians, managing directors, advisors, and public affairs managers are able to work with the help of digital technologies and how assistive technologies help them to take part in the professional world on equal footing. In his analysis, he examined which assistive technologies are available to people with a visual impairment and how helpful and user-friendly these technologies are designed.

The two sides of technology

In his master’s thesis, supervised by Frauke Mörike, Ioannis Kiossis determined that software-based assistive technologies help people who are visually impaired to compensate for their disability and be self-reliant. Such accessible technologies provide a sense of independence and freedom, enabling users to do work they otherwise would be unable to.

However, assistive technologies may also have the opposite impact. Kiossis describes his experience of observing a visually impaired teacher at work for two days. Anna faces issues using her school’s information system, a tool used for numerous tasks such as recording students’ grades. These issues are time-consuming and can only be resolved with the help of her colleagues. The problem: The software-based information system and Anna’s screenreader, which is supposed to help her use the system, are not compatible. Anna is frustrated. The technology designed to help only makes her work more difficult, it is disabling. This experience led Kiossis to understand that non-accessible technology can also create additional limitations.

A sense of dependency and lack of freedom

Kiossis also found that non-accessible technology can lead those affected to a sense of dependence and a lack of freedom and self-reliance. They not only have to rely on the help of colleagues to accomplish tasks. They must also request assistive technologies, which can be particularly challenging as a young intern or trainee with a fixed contract and who is dependent on the sympathy of their supervisor. “Asking for accommodations and the costs these involve can evoke a sense of shame,” explains Dr. Frauke Mörike. However, knowledge workers with a vision impairment would not need to negotiate their needs in the workplace with colleagues, managers, and other social actors, if the issue of accessibility were considered right from the outset when developing "mainstream” technologies such as computers and phones or software applications and programs. In Germany, this is actually legally mandated by the Ordinance on the Creation of Barrier-Free Information Technology.

 

The podcast

Amis Podcast – Introduction: Working blindly - How Digital Media & Technology students are taking a closer look at visual impairment Dr. Frauke Mörike, ergonomics researcher, shares about the student podcast project.

Amis Podcast – Episode 1: A workday in the life of Joe. 15-minute fictional radio play about a music editor with a vision impairment

Amis Podcast – Episode 2: How Joe is able to work despite his vision impairment: Students Maximilian Liebewirth and Dominik Oetting discuss a variety of assistive technologies, including those Joe uses every day.

Amis Podcast – Episode 3: Looking to the past and future: A brief historical outline on how society gradually took notice of people with visual impairment and an interview with Franziska Sgoff about her work at Microsoft and what she would like for the future.

Listen to the podcast episodes. Note: The podcast episodes are published in German.

Software-based aids for computer work

A screenreader renders written text and other content on a computer screen as speech. Reader devices use a camera to also turn text into speech. The Braille display helps blind persons to read and write on a computer. People who still have residual vision can make use of tools such as contrast enhancements, color inversion, and digital magnification. Language assistants on smartphones are also an important aid for everyday work.

Career prospects for media technologists

The two TU Berlin degree programs Media Technology and Digital Media & Technology integrate content from applied computer science and computer engineering, electrical engineering, digital media such as audio, video, and human-machine interaction as well as media communication.

The curriculum combines basic principles from mathematics, technical and practical computer science, and electrical engineering with those from video, sound, and interaction engineering, placing particular emphasis on video technology, speech and audio technology, and human-machine interaction.

Graduates are qualified for a career in media production, telecommunications, media distribution, interface design and the gaming industry, as well as media consulting.

Author: Sybille Nitsche

Passionate about creativity

Daniel Fernández speaks about his experience in the podcast project

Daniel Fernández, why did you take part in the podcast project?

I am a creative person. I’ve always produced music and videos and been an avid writer. Additionally, social commitment has played an important role in my life from a young age. In Venezuela, where I was born and raised, I worked with people with Asperger syndrome and later I gained experience in project management. The module on media production offered an opportunity for me to combine my experience of working with people with a disability, my passion for creativity, and my project management skills as well as gain further experience and skills.

What did you learn in the project?

I learned a lot about visual impairments. Not only is every person totally different, there are also completely different perspectives and ways to experience and view (both figuratively and literally) the world. I also realized once again how much potential lies in creativity. It can be used as a tool to effect social change.

What did you learn in the seminar that you can apply to your other studies?

The importance of time management. In summer semester 2020 I took only this module because I didn’t think I could handle more. If I had managed my time better though, one or two more modules would have been doable. So I will be working on that.

What did you enjoy most about the podcast project?

It was nice to see that we succeeded in creating a final product despite our different opinions and viewpoints. In the beginning, I thought “There’s no way I can work with them. I don’t understand them and they don’t get me.” However, I enjoy solving problems, so I stuck with it and over time we found our flow. In the end we achieved this sort of tacit understanding. I really enjoyed that.

Interviewer: Sibylle Nitsche