Last week, I visited the offices of Work For You here in Malmö. Work For You is a company that helps disabled people find employment – specifically, visually impaired people. They provide training, job consulting, and equipment for their visually impaired clients, or “participants.” Work For You then matches its participants with a job at a company in Malmö, having formed relationships with various companies over the years. Work For You has offices in other cities in Sweden, and not all offices focus on visual impairment. The Malmö office is fairly small, with fewer than 10 employees.
I spoke with two people there, Jens and Reine. Reine himself is visually impaired, which makes him uniquely qualified to work as a job consultant at Work For You. He told me that he sees about 3% of what a person with full vision sees, and he works with a guide dog named Timmy. I asked Reine about the process of getting a guide dog in Sweden.
“I’m 36 years old now, and I have been visually impaired since I was born,” he said. “I have always had the same sight, or loss of sight. So for me, it’s no big deal to be visually impaired.” Since Reine has never experienced more than 3% of total vision, his vision impairment is simply his vision and a part of normal life for him. He has used a cane for most of his life and only got the guide dog a few years ago. His wife, however, is almost totally blind and has had a guide dog for about a decade. Reine found himself enjoying walks with his wife and her guide dog so much that he eventually decided to get one.
“I can walk with my white cane and I can walk together with some friends, but when I have my guide dog, I can walk much faster, and I can relax because I don’t need to always worry ‘is there something there?’ I’m more relaxed and I’m faster when I walk with a guide dog. So after a couple of years, …I made contact with the guide dog distributers.” When you get a guide dog in Sweden, you first attend a seminary about having a guide dog and go for a test walk with one of the dogs. “I knew a lot about it because of my wife, but it’s another thing when you walk with a guide dog by yourself,” said Reine. “You get a special feeling. From that day, I decided that I would have a guide dog too. I have never regretted it. I think I will always have a guide dog. It means very much for my orientation and my capability to walk around more independently. So this is one kind of accessible help – it’s not technology, but it means very much to these people who have guide dogs.”
Reine described this accessible help with the Swedish word hjälpmedel, which essentially means ‘assistive tools/technology’ in English.
Other than his guide dog, Reine’s main assistive tool is his iPhone. Apple has many built-in accessibility options, the most important of which is VoiceOver. VoiceOver is a screen reader application available for MacBooks and iPhones, which reads aloud all the words and options on a screen. Users can also interact with VoiceOver by swiping and tapping on the iPhone screen, or using the arrow keys on a laptop, in order to read about the next thing or choose an option. This way, you can completely control and interact with your device, all without ever seeing the screen. Reine uses this feature every day to interact with his phone. He uses it to hear the news, check the weather, and even text – VoiceOver can help you type messages by reading the keyboard characters aloud to you (note that this is different from voice control, when you ask Siri to send a text and she translates your voice into words).
Reine has the VoiceOver voice set to a fast speed and is able to open the apps he wants very quickly. “This is something I use very much, and it’s very useful for me because it helps me to stay connected to people and it helps me to orientate. I have some GPS applications.” If Reine is hungry, for example, he tells Siri he’s hungry and she suggests nearby restaurants for him to go to. Then, using VoiceOver and a mapping app, he can get to a restaurant by himself. Having access to a calendar is also very helpful. “The calendar is a very big thing for me because before the smartphones, it was very complicated for me to organize my life,” Reine described. “I needed to write [events and reminders] down in Braille and then I needed tools with me to do that. Now I have everything in this little device, so this is one thing that has made a revolution in my life, and in many disabled people’s lives.”
At Work For You, screen reader applications are one of the most important technology aids. When visually impaired people come to them for help getting employed, Work For You makes sure that they know how to use a computer. Apple’s VoiceOver and the PC equivalent, JAWS (made by US company Freedom Scientific), are screen-reading accessibility applications that have been around for years. Visually impaired people can learn to use these applications at Work For You.
Perhaps even more important and ubiquitous assistive devices than screen reader applications at Work For You are magnifiers. Most visually impaired people are not totally blind; however, they can only read words at high levels of magnification and in high contrast. This is an easily solvable problem on computers using the application ZoomText, which can magnify the text on any Windows computer. One version of ZoomText comes with a built-in screen reader, too. For any other type of text someone might encounter, Work For You provides a magnification camera that can be positioned in many ways and pointed at objects or labels, which are then displayed at a high magnification level on a high-resolution monitor.
So by equipping participants with magnifying cameras and computers with screen readers and text magnification software installed, Work For You is able to prepare many visually impaired people to enter the work force. For example, they have three visually impaired people working in grocery stores right now. With the aid of the technology they have been trained to use, these three participants are able to work cash registers and restock groceries on the shelves. Though they need to use a magnifying camera to read the labels on the shelves and figure out what should be there, they are able to complete their jobs independently. Also, the cost of equipment is no obstacle; Work For You provides computers, cameras, and the VoiceOver and JAWS software for free to anyone who is at least 70% blind. (If someone can see more than 30%, they can still get the software for free but not the hardware).
Reine mentioned that most visually impaired people who come to Work For You have already encountered these products before they arrive. “They go to a medical place, like a center for the visually impaired, and they get to learn these programs if they need them,” he said. However, while most people have heard about these products, they don’t necessarily know how to use them, and they know more about the magnification functions than the screen-reader functions. “Then we train them to use these when they’re writing in Word, for example. In Sweden, most of these kind of things, like accessibilities for computers, and guide dogs, and things like that, it’s financed by the state or by the public. It’s free for everyone.” The only thing he had to pay for, said Reine, was his iPhone.
Work For You also makes an effort to personalize the technology by figuring out what will help the participant best in the work they want to do. Jens described, “we do the research beforehand to see what they’ll do here. See the tasks you’ll do. Then we look at what will help them to do this, with the special equipment…it can be a camera, for example, if you work in a shop where you sell groceries and stuff like that, and there are these small barcodes, but you can’t read the numbers.” There are many variations in the magnification and screen-reading technologies available, so Work For You must consider what is the best solution for a participant.
(I spoke with Jens and Reine for a long time, so I’ve decided to write about Work For You in multiple, shorter posts. Part 2 is coming soon!).