This past Sunday my family and I accompanied some friends to Disney World. Living in Orlando, I guess it's not as big of a deal as it would be for the common tourist. I myself have always found it more or less enjoyable, something to do with the kids anyway. Last weekend I decided to satisfy my curiosity about a new audio description device that I had heard about somewhere, and while looking over the Disney website I was reminded of its existence once again. WOW! At the risk of sounding totally cliché, it's like I stepped into a whole new realm.
I have always known Disney to take a special approach to all its guests. I mean, they're in the business of making dreams come true, right? I have never encountered issues with accessing any of the attractions. My guide dog has always been welcomed. In fact, Hurley was riding around with my Son and me in one of their go karts on this trip, with no one batting an eye, but I have to confess this past weekend totally rocked my view of Disney's effort to make their park a universal experience.
The device with no real name is offered free for the duration of your visit with a refundable $25 deposit. It is a 7.2-ounce handheld computer with over the ear headphones. It provides an interactive audio and visual menu that allows you to choose the type of information you would like to receive about outdoor areas – from a description of your surroundings to information about nearby attractions, restaurants, and entertainment. It gives audio descriptions for key visual elements like action and scenery. I've never experienced the Carousel of Progress in quite that level of vivid detail before. The device features assistive listening for persons with mild to moderate hearing loss. The unit even features captions for various audio and dialog. While we were only able to visit the Magic Kingdom this time, the system is available for all four Disney parks in Orlando. One of the things I'm looking forward to in a future visit is going to the Animal Kingdom and using the handheld captioning feature to learn more about the animals my family and I are visiting. I think it will be great to offer my children information about the animals with the same ease as any tour guide. I can’t even begin to describe the feeling of joy I experienced being able to talk to my children about the amazing workmanship and attention to detail on attractions like “It’s A Small World” and others, and how I was able to connect with them and share my own experiences as a child at Disney. I can’t express how great it was to be able to use this technology to “see” the park like they did.
The technology is so sophisticated that at any point it would have been possible for me to venture out on my own and never feel at a loss as to where I was headed. Now, before you ask, no, the user does not get directions as to whether the facility is to your left, right, ahead or behind, but I attribute this to the early stages of any product development and the lack of pinpoint GPS accuracy that is absent in all mainstream orientation tools. Perhaps Google’s local map technology may help with this in the future?
As you may know, Disney does not believe in wasted real estate. Their idea of roller coasters consists of packed adventures that are just as capable of being heart-pounding as they are visually enthralling. Before, it was enough for me to bask in the delighted screams of my children and feel good that they were having fun. With my handheld device, however, I was plugged into an instant feed of information that allowed me to perceive the rides from a more highly involved angle. We're not just talking front row seat here. We're talking front and center detailed audio descriptions of costumes, props, settings and background scenery. The closest comparison to the experience I can think of is descriptive video. In 2001 I was brought to tears while experiencing “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” on DVD with my family without anyone having to tell me what was going on. As unforgetable as that day was, the problem is that video description is still quite two-dimensional. There is something completely different about a multisensory experience being aided by a voice telling you exactly what you are passing. You’ll hear details about the attraction that will in all likelihood escape the notice of even those who can see. There's just too much competing for visual attention that the average guest will not be able to take it all in.
Like Serotek’s System Access to Go in 2008, Disney’s handheld device received the American Foundation for the Blind's prestigious Access Award in 2011. I now know firsthand that the recognition was well-deserved. As AFB's President and CEO Carl R. Augusto noted, "“Too often, swift advances in technology bring the rewards of convenience and entertainment to an eager world while inadvertently leaving those who are visually impaired behind.” I can testify that as far as I can tell, Disney has made people with disabilities a fully integrated part of their customer base.
Visiting the Disney World Resort prompted me to think about a couple things:
First, it occurs to me that as blind consumers, we spend so much time fighting for equal access that we too often forget to really praise the innovations of those companies that are doing it right. Apple may have needed the threat of litigation to make accessibility a higher priority, but unlike most companies, Apple rose to the challenge in such a way as to make accessibility one more selling point of their core functionality and blind people just one more highlight of their TV commercials. Olympus is another company that continues to make something as simple as voice guidance a key feature of their products to make them enjoyable for a wider segment of their customer base. So I wonder, why is it that our social networks buzz when there are critiques and gripes about the lack of accessibility in this or that product or service, but no one says a thing about achievements that are better than anything we could have hoped for? I mean, I expect to be treated as an equal by product and service providers but, as we all know, that isn’t true for the most part. So, when a company does do something right for us, shouldn’t we really let them and others in our community know?
Don’t get me wrong. I would never suggest we lay down our arms and stop asking for equal access. In fact, I am a big promoter of using Yelp, Twitter, Facebook and other mainstream channels to express our opinions of restaurants that do not have Braille menus, retailers that do not produce eReaders that speak out of the box and facilities that think adding a wheelchair ramp is enough to make a place accessible. Just this morning one of my reviews on Yelp was blasted via email throughout Orlando. People will now be able to read the opinions of a fellow foody who just happens to be blind. Perhaps other restaurant owners will see my reviews that not only talk about the quality of food and customer service but also cover things like, did they freak out about my guide dog or did they have Braille menus. What I am saying is that whether we are praising a product or damning it, we need to break out of our blindness bubble of list-serves, forums, and chatroom communities and take our comments to the general public where their impacts are more likely to be felt by the parties responsible. We need to write product reviews. We need to send e-mails, and far be it from me to suggest we do something so outdated as picking up the phone to talk to a company about our experience with their product or service. And don’t tell me that you’re just one person and your voice doesn’t matter. That’s simply not true. When you combine individual voices they become a crowd.
Every voice counts, and if we are going to gripe loudly then we need to selibrate just as loudly when a company gets it right. Our feedback should not be limited to those aspects of life that have a direct bearing on our blindness either. We need to participate as consumers to be taken seriously as consumers. If you think about it, Apple and Disney must have spent millions of dollars on research and development and implementation to make their experience more than just accessible. Universal design is creating an experience that is simultaneously enjoyable to all, as opposed to creating a hierarchy of access to the same encounter. The least we could do is say "thank you" with our wallets, our reviews, and continued encouragement to make it better. I have a feeling that such encouragement would prompt more companies to use the secret sauce of their success to create some accommodations that are out of this world.
Second, taking a little of my own advice, I call upon all companies to rise to Disney's standard. My dollars as a blind consumer are every bit as important as the dollars of my sighted neighbor. It is not enough to add a layer of accessibility to your products and services because a law directs you to. I am using my hard-earned money to pay for the same privileges as my sighted peers, and those privileges include my walking into your restaurants and ordering from Braille menus just like all your other customers. Asking your wait staff to read the menus to me is not being hospitable. It is being patronizing. We deserve better. Just as Apple now depicts blind people actively using their mobile technology, Disney ought to consider showing blind people enjoying the same facilities as anyone else, because the same marketing strategies that feed the bottom line can go a long way toward changing public misconceptions.
The landscape for blind people has not changed all that much in the ten years I've been involved with Serotek. What has changed is my attitude and my approach to these types of consumer challenges. I've decided I can either choose to look forlornly at the world I wish I could enjoy and get angry, or I can shatter the dividing line and be an active participant in that world. I hope for the sake of our collective progress that you will join me. So, when are you going to right a review? When are you going to call that company that has gone the extra mile and thank them or express your frustration with the lack of accessibility in a product or service? In short, are you going to have a little faith? Even though every time you ask for accessibility you may not get it, you have to continue to believe that there will be companies, like those I have covered in this post, who will heed your cry for equal access and amaze us all with the outcome.