How Technology Is Besting My Blindness
I was hurtling through Shanghai in a cigarette-scented taxi, not quite sure where I was headed. Cab jaunts through unfamiliar places can be a bit stressful for anybody. You feel vulnerable and too dependent on a driver you don’t know and can’t necessarily trust. But for me, such trips in rickety taxis rattle my nerves even more than my spine—because I’m almost blind.
I have a genetic condition called retinitis pigmentosa, which is causing my sight to deteriorate over time until there will be little, or possibly nothing, left. Even now I can’t see in the dark and have almost no peripheral vision. As my taxi sped through Shanghai, I couldn’t read the street signs or building numbers. After the sun began to set, it became difficult to tell one street from the next. And I couldn’t read the taxi meter. I’ve gotten ripped off before by unscrupulous cabbies, and I prefer not to rely on them to tell me how much I owe.
So that night I experimented with some technology. I have an app on my iPad that transforms the camera into a powerful magnifier. I use it mainly to read small text on business cards and restaurant menus. Could it help me see the taxi meter, all the way from the back seat? I aimed the iPad at where I thought the meter might be, tapped on the app, and zoomed in. There was the fare—bright, large, and clear enough on my screen to read. Disaster averted.
Advancing technology rescues me again and again, and on matters much more critical than a taxi ride. I’m writing this essay on a PC I’ve customized to enlarge icons and fonts, letting me write and work as efficiently as I could if I were fully sighted. Thanks to the revolution of digital media, I can read newspapers and magazines on devices that allow me to fine-tune the size of the text and brightness of the screen so I digest information as quickly as ever. Economists’ reports and academic papers arrive in my in-box as easy-to-adjust PDFs. Simply, emerging technology has given me the opportunity to maintain my productivity, even as my disability has grown worse.
That means a lot, not only for me but also for the entire global economy. Too often, managers discriminate against disabled workers, fearing they’re less productive, more trouble, and more expensive. Studies have shown those concerns are unfounded, but the stigma and its consequences remain very real. The unemployment rate among the disabled in the U.S. was twice that of regular workers in 2015.
Technology should help end such bias. There’s no need to spend money on special equipment or other aids for me to perform well. The same computers and gadgets my colleagues use allow me to be as productive. These innovations are giving millions of disabled workers an opportunity to contribute economically in ways that were much more difficult only a few years ago. In aging societies, where businesspeople are scrambling for talent and policymakers are seeking fresh workers, the boost technology gives the disabled is good for growth, corporate profits, and household income.
There have always been magnifiers and other aids to help people like me read. But they’ve become more efficient and easier to use. For instance, I have a nifty little machine for printed material that projects the text onto a small screen. It’s very useful, but I can’t imagine sitting on a long flight and holding the device over a book. With a Kindle iPad app, I can read e-books as comfortably and quickly as any other passenger.
I could never have foreseen how technological breakthroughs would change my life. When I was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at age 14, such gadgetry was still confined to Star Trek episodes. My parents were seriously concerned that my deteriorating sight would hamper my ambitions. The eye doctor who first discovered my condition advised me, rather heartlessly, to choose a job that didn’t require eyesight.
But what exactly was that career? Pilot or surgeon was probably not an option. But in 1983, when we were using stamps, telephone answering machines, and bank tellers, it was impossible to know what I would and would not be able to do 20 or 30 years down the road.
I just ignored the entire matter and determined to live my life as if my eye problem didn’t exist. I pursued my dream of becoming a foreign correspondent and flew off to Asia. Because my vision was deteriorating slowly, it didn’t affect my work very much. I didn’t bother with what the future might bring.
That changed, quite suddenly, in Singapore in 2000. At a restaurant where I had to visit several counters to order food, I struggled much more than usual to read menus and find my way through the dim light and crowds. By the time I got back to my table, I was disoriented and, for the first time, distressed about my sight. In that moment, I woke to the reality that life would get only more challenging, my world more confining. The incident sparked a personal crisis. I decided I’d made a terrible mistake. No matter how much I denied it, I was different from everybody else. I was wasting time with my remaining eyesight—time I’d never recover. I asked my editors for a three-month sabbatical and traveled through Central Asia. I considered writing a memoir called Final Journey.
Today my outlook has brightened. Sure, my night vision has all but evaporated, and I can barely recognize my wife from 6 feet away. But I’m still writing, still traveling, and still reporting stories across Asia. And once again, I don’t worry too much about what might come.
My renewed optimism is, in part, a result of all this innovation. Struggling in that restaurant, I could never have anticipated how changing technology would help me overcome my disability. And that’s likely to continue. Voice-recognition software has advanced so that people who are completely blind can use computers with great efficiency. Even more, scientific advances offer hope I won’t go blind at all. Although there’s currently no cure or treatment for retinitis pigmentosa, stem cell research raises the possibility that my vision’s deterioration can be halted—perhaps even reversed.
Unfortunately, the world hasn’t yet adjusted to how the disabled use these technologies to get by. Airlines in China still force passengers to shut off their gadgets 30 minutes before landing, leaving me sitting idly without my e-books. Last month my wife and I visited the Sistine Chapel, where for me, the famed ceiling paintings might as well have been on Jupiter. I took out my iPad magnifier, only to get swarmed by security barking that photos were not allowed. Explanations fell on deaf ears. One guard even mocked us as dramatic fakers. “It is inconvenient for me and my colleagues,” he said of the iPad. “I’m sorry my husband’s blindness is inconvenient for you,” my wife shot back. “It is much more inconvenient for him!”
Yet I’m also fully aware of what life would be like without technology. I was in Kenya to write a profile of a blind marathon runner, Henry Wanyoike, when he took me to the school for the blind where he learned to function after a stroke robbed him of sight. Wanyoike credits the place for saving his life. I found it depressing. The highly regarded school teaches the blind old-fashioned skills, like knitting or basic carpentry. In a country where opportunities are scarce for anybody, becoming an independent craftsman is the only way the disabled can support themselves. Entering a classroom was like stepping back in time. Watching students on benches cobbling together leather shoes with archaic tools, I realized that the only real difference between me and these people was the technology I had and they didn’t.
Looking back at that experience, however, I have reason to hope. As new technologies become more widespread and accessible, so many disabled who find the doors of opportunity locked will be able to break them down. We spend a lot of time worrying about how robots and other technologies threaten the world’s workers. What gets less attention is how many people can lead a more economically productive life because of such technology. And for the future? Who knows how my iPad will save me the next time I’m in Shanghai.