Empowering the Blind Community Through Accessible Technology Education: Maryland’s Visionary Approach

Julie Slivka | UMD Extension - February 3, 2024

A Marylanders Online project, led by the UMD Extension and the INFO College

Photo of a woman using voice accessibility technology on a smart phone

In 2023, Marylanders Online joined forces with Maryland Accessible Telecommunications (MAT) to address the unique digital equity challenges faced by individuals with low vision and blindness. The collaboration led to the development of a virtual training series called “Talk Text and Train”, a groundbreaking, multi-month project that marks a significant milestone in the integration of digital equity practices in Maryland.

The Talk Text and Train (TTT) series consisted of 19 training sessions held bi-weekly between October 2023 and January 2024. Each session was facilitated by representatives from well-known accessible technology (AT) device providers, including Hable, RealSam Pocket, Apple, Google, BlindShell USA, and RAZ Mobility. The sessions provided an in-depth overview of their accessible products and were designed to be accessible to an audience of trainers and volunteers with low vision or blindness (LVB). This train-the-trainer series equipped participants with the practical experience needed to help other members of the LVB community use AT devices effectively. As a direct outcome, thirty participants obtained certification to instruct others in the use of the AT devices. Maryland Department of Rehabilitation Services (DORS) has also since committed to certifying TTT attendees in recognition of the program’s value to the LVB community.

Understanding Digital Inequity in the Blind Community

In the United States, approximately six million Americans have vision loss and one million are blind; two billion identify as having low vision or blindness around the world. The blind community remains one of the most overlooked and underserved demographics and frequently grapples with compounding digital literacy and inequity issues that fall in the shadow of the greater digital divide. These challenges range from the inaccessible design of apps and websites to the inability to fully participate in the digital world that holds many social, educational, healthcare, and other resources that help improve well-being and independence.

The certification offered by Maryland DORS and the TTT program not only acknowledges participants’ skills but also creates employment opportunities. This is a notable outcome given the 70% unemployment rate within the blind community. The UME Digital Navigation Program Manager, Vishnupriya Desai, expressed her aspirations for this project to extend beyond the borders of Maryland,

“We all need to work to ensure that our programming is inclusive of all people with all abilities – that is digital equity. It should be a standard process for all programs and services across the board.” – Vishnupriya Desai, Digital Navigation Program Manager

From One-Day Session to Multi-Month Series

Playing a big part in this project was Marylanders Online, a University of Maryland Extension (UME) initiative in partnership with the College of Information Studies (INFO), which works to bring digital equity to Marylanders by providing digital literacy and inclusion resources. TTT coordination support was provided by Maryland Accessible Telecommunications, a program administered by Telecommunications Access of Maryland with the Maryland Department of Disabilities which provides assistive telecommunications equipment to qualified applicants who have difficulty using a standard telephone. Together, MAT and UME developed the training program, bringing in live CART captioners and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters to each virtual session to ensure they were accessible to all participants. These videos and their corresponding transcripts were then uploaded to YouTube for later reference by participants.

UME Marylanders Online and MAT’s partnership began in May 2023 and continued to build momentum through the year. By September of 2023, MAT offered an in-person Talk Text and Train kick-off event at the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore City. Here, Marylanders Online provided an Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP) training to an audience of approximately forty trainers who were visually or hearing impaired. AT vendors were also available to provide an overview of their accessible telecommunication devices.

At the September 2023 ACP event, MAT distributed complimentary kits containing AT devices to the trainers. These kits included AT devices from BlindShell Classic 2, Hable One, iPhone 14, Mini Vision 2, RAZ Memory Cell Phone, the Google Pixel 6a, and the Smart Vision 3. Following the kick-off event, trainers participated in a bi-weekly virtual session for a deep dive into each of the devices over the next three months. Attendees also learned about resources from nPower, Comcast Xfinity, the National Federation of the Blind, and Maryland DORS as resources for the LVB communities they serve.

Before the TTT series, only 51% of participants were familiar with the devices. After completing the training, 85% of participants stated that they would be able to master the device with additional sessions. Even more promising – survey respondents scored the training series an average of 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Looking Towards the Future

The ability to access and use the internet presents a world of services. In today’s society it is more vital than ever to have access to – and the skills to use – digital devices and the internet. Equipping LVB individuals with the tools and knowledge to use accessible technology helps them build autonomy, maintain social relationships, gain employment, and take charge of their healthcare.

Jane Hager, MAT Specialist with Telecommunications Access of Maryland, served as the central coordinator for the TTT series, collaborating closely with the UME Marylanders Online team, vendors, and participants. Hager reiterated Desai’s remarks about the TTT series stating,

“This kind of initiative is not being done in other places throughout the country. We can be a model to others looking to develop accessible, sustainable, and replicable programming for the LVB community.” – Jane Hager, MAT Specialist

To add to TTT’s success story, participants completing the certification will be eligible to become independent contractors with Maryland’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services (DORS) at a rate of $60/hour plus mileage for travel. These individuals will be teaching their peers the skills to utilize the device features enhancing their connection, independence, and safety. While the future of the Talk Text and Train series is still being explored, the National Federation of the Blind, the Foundation for Fighting Blindness, and Blindshell USA – a local Maryland company with a national impact – may play a key role in the future of this project.

In a world where the blind community is often overlooked, Maryland’s pioneering efforts shine as a beacon of hope, proving that through collaboration, training, and accessibility, the digital divide can be bridged. “I hope other organizations can learn from this partnership and recognize that individuals who have low vision or are blind do not need to be treated in silos. By instilling a constant, conscious awareness around accessibility in the work we do, we can accommodate people’s needs and provide them with the tools and resources for bettering wellbeing,” states Desai.

To view the recordings of the Talk Text Train series, visit the TTT playlist on UME’s YouTube channel.

The original article was published by the UMD Extension.