From voice output to new apps, technology helps blind, visually impaired find independence | News

From voice output to new apps, technology helps blind, visually impaired find independence | News

“Hey Siri, send a message to Karae. Hi comma new line, I received your message last night comma and am looking forward to seeing you at the horse show today period new line see you there comma John.”

Instead of typing on his phone’s keyboard, John Glass speaks out every word to send a text message. Glass hasn’t let being blind from birth stop him from performing everyday tasks.

“Being blind has just become a normal way of life for me,” Glass said. “For people who are blind or visually impaired, one of the biggest breakthroughs in the past couple years is being able to use smartphones with voice output. We are still able to utilize devices that everyone uses.”

Glass has been helping others in the same or similar situation as director of assistive technology at the Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired. The Palo Alto-based organization is working to change the way it helps its clients by focusing on technology accessibility, particularly with artificial intelligence, because of its growing role in society, according to Executive Director Karae Lisle.

As more advanced tools emerge to help the blind and visually impaired, the Vista Center is bringing back its annual tech conference this Saturday under a new name: the Vista Technology Education Conference. Now in its third year, the event will feature representatives from technology companies in the region and vendors showcasing more assistive technology for attendees to try out.

“I believe there is a big pivot with technology and disabilities in general,” said Lisle, who started leading the Vista Center in January. Formed in 1936, the Vista Center has five main programs, each tailored to the client’s needs: safe and healthy living, low vision, children and youth, technology and community.

There are currently three Vista Center sites: Palo Alto, Santa Cruz and San Jose, its newest location. In 2018, the Vista Center merged with the Santa Clara Valley Blind Center which was renamed Vista Center, San Jose, and retained its Palo Alto headquarters.

“We see the world opening up about diversity and inclusion. In that vein, I believe that innovative companies need to know that diversity also includes people with disabilities,” she said.

Lisle, who has an MBA from Harvard Business School and previously worked with startups, also hopes to utilize her background in technology at the nonprofit to increase accessibility for its clients.

One service that the Vista Center has introduced to its clients is Be My Eyes, an app in which users are able to video call a volunteer when they visual assistance to help solve their problem.

“Now with these apps, people who are blind or visually impaired can go to any destination they want such as the mall and ask where Macy’s or Nordstrom is,” Lisle said. “They are able to have these tools right in their pocket — literally.”

Of the technological advances that have been made on smartphones, voice output has made the biggest impact on the Vista Center’s clients, according to Alice Turner, director of community services. Turner, who also is visually impaired, added that the center shows clients how to use various technology tools, such as screen readers that essentially help them live without sight.

“We teach our clients how to use screen readers on phones, which allows the icons and text to speak, giving full access to people who are blind and visually impaired,” Turner said. “Apple has done an extremely good job because they implemented a screen reader called VoiceOver that is built in on all of their devices. Siri is also really nice because you are able to speak to it.”

To foster independence in children who are blind or visually impaired, the Vista Center also runs a program called Vista Voyagers. The group goes on monthly trips that are both educational and recreational, according to Bethany Small, the center’s director of youth services. It recently made two visits to Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, where the Voyagers were able to try out accessibility apps such as Lookout and Google Lens, services that identify, read and locate objects or texts.

“We were also able to listen to two Google employees who were visually impaired talk about their stories,” Small said. “The unemployment rate is very high for people with visual impairments, around 60%, so we want to work to change that through the Vista Voyagers. It is important for them to meet other successful adults with visual impairments because they start to realize that no matter what your background, you can get your dream job.”

Turner echoed Small’s sentiments and stressed the importance of how people with vision loss should not treat it as the end, but instead, the beginning of a new chapter.

“People who are blind or visually impaired have the same goals and desires as everyone else,” Turner said. “At the Vista Center, we just help them learn how to do it differently with various tools so they can become integrated in their family, community and job. I always tell our clients that we have experts so they should not try to do it all themselves. It’s not an overnight process.”

Saturday’s conference will also feature panels covering topics such as artificial intelligence, employment and autonomous cars.

In the past, the conference was designed to be a consumer conference with a focus on introducing clients to different tools for blind people, Lisle said. This year, she hopes that by expanding the conference and hosting panels with people who work in the accessibility departments of technology companies, the Vista Center can help spark conversations about creating more assistive technology.

“We are planning on bringing in big technology companies such as Google, Amazon and Netflix,” Lisle said. “I believe this is a great time for the Vista Center to become a thought leader in working with tech companies to include all forms of the community.”

The conference will be held this Saturday, Sept. 28, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m at the University of California, Santa Cruz Silicon Valley Campus in Santa Clara. For more information, visit

Daniel Li is a former intern for the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online.

Follow the Palo Alto Weekly/Palo Alto Online on Twitter @PaloAltoWeekly and Facebook for breaking news, local events, photos, videos and more.

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