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Robin Christopherson: Living IT (Technology and disabled people series)

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Damon Rose Damon Rose | 08:58 UK time, Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Robin Christopherson

Robin Christopherson, 41, can often be seen at accessibility conferences and workshops extolling the virtues of inclusive technology. Working for the UK disability tech charity AbilityNet, he has an intriguing 21st Century job title: Head of Digital Inclusion.

Born in Durham, Christopherson comes from a family with a retina inflammation disorder which has left them all visually impaired. They are thought to be the only family in the world with this condition which also renders them unable to sweat. By the time he was at university in the late 80s, Robin's sight had failed to the point where he was using a talking screenreader on his laptop to aid him in his studies.

After university, he attended a nine week residential course at a Royal National Institute of Blind People rehab centre in Torquay. His intention was to get a little more up to speed with computers but, while there, they offered him a job as an IT instructor and he remained for a further two years before it closed and he moved on to AbilityNet where he's been ever since. Robin is married with children aged nine and 11.

For Robin, technology is a passion, and working in computer accessibility has been the basis of his career. Below he answers our questions and shows his ongoing enthusiasm.

What technology do you use regularly?

I have a laptop with Windows on it but I tend to leave it in the office and use my iPhone even for things like putting presentations on screen. You can show videos and powerpoints and websites with it this way. The iPhone is accessible to me as a blind person because it has a built-in screenreader called Voiceover.

At home I have a talking microwave and scales and so on. I know a lot of people would consider it heresy but I don't feel I need to use Braille, It's an invaluable skill like touch typing, but for me it has proven quite dispensable and I'm pretty rusty with it now.

I use loads of iPhone apps. If I need to do a web search for something I just ask the famous talking assistant Siri which will either speak the info I need straight away or do a web search. I've also got a light detector app to help me tell if a lamp or monitor is still switched on, a colour identifier and VizWiz app where I can take a photo with my phone and have a volunteer somewhere telling me what a food product is. I once asked VizWiz where the @-sign on my keyboard was, it was a US keyboard and I just couldn't find it; someone texted back to tell me within seconds.

I know they've been slated by sighted users but I use the new Apple Maps on my phone to help me find my way when out and about - they're very accessible for blind people. It'll speak aloud the road you're in, if you're approaching a junction or whether the road is east to west, for instance. Also, just say to Siri "take me to Buckingham Palace" and she'll speak turn by turn instructions to get you there. You can also use the maps to get an idea of your surroundings by tracing a finger across the screen, differently toned beeps help you know if you're following the road you're interested in (doonk doonk doonk) or if you've gone off route (ping ping ping).

What technology do you wish had never been invented?

There are a lot of websites which are difficult to use with a screenreader because they've got lots of flab and padding such as "like" buttons and ads. They're obviously really useful if you can see, and if you didn't have to listen to that every time you wanted to glance at a page, they would hardly get in the way at all. Visually people ignore them, they look at the centre of the page - but for me they're in line, they're spoken aloud by my speech synthesiser as part of the flow. So, as I arrow down a page, often I hear the headline of an article, then about 30 or 40 lines of sharing widgets and ads and stuff, then the first few paragraphs of the article, then some ads, then the rest of the article - so it's just very very intrusive.

All of this gets stripped out on the mobile version of the page so I often use mobile sites on my desktop or read the "printer friendly" version which does a similar thing, though with a view to saving your ink.

Asking what I wish hadn't been invented is a difficult question to put to a technophile and I'm tempted to answer with the obvious: chemical warfare and the atom bomb. I don't tend to get annoyed by technology.

If the web was taken away from me today I would ...

Well, if I couldn't access any content online it would definitely impact me.

I don't do shopping down the high street, I haven't done that for years. eBay and Amazon are the places I tend to go to but via their apps, not websites. So, I certainly wouldn't be able to do shopping. Most of what I listen to wouldn't be available like TWiT TV and dozens of technical podcasts I subscribe to. I would be bereft without them really, that and the ability to download audio books. So all of my media consumption - shopping, news and information - make me reliant on the internet.

What has been your most adventurous feat in technology?

I'm not the kind of person who's daunted by having to get to grips with technology, I'm the opposite. I'm the sort of person who has listened to dozens of podcasts instructing me on how to use Voiceover screenreader on the Mac, even though I don't use one - it just interests me. I could probably pick up a Mac and use it right now. I just love technology.

Having to learn to use a computer with speech output in the 1980s was a significant learning curve but I wouldn't call it daunting. The things I've learnt do not feel like a major achievement. I'm just a bit sad - I like to consume everything about a product so that I know it really well. I would not want to have a smart phone without knowing every last corner of its functionality, for instance.

My family, who can't see, might call me with questions about the computer but they're often quite basic; I don't know how they perform effectively on a daily basis at that level. My mum with Jaws screenreader learns things by rote so if something changes about an app or a website she's stuck. She finds it very difficult to learn the concepts of what keystrokes do and has to re-learn it if it alters. I can apply my knowledge more flexibly.

How do you use social media?

I read tweets from lots of people interested in technology, it's fantastic for informing me on things I need to know for my job. I follow users like AppleVis which tweets recommendations for blind accessible apps. I retweet a lot of articles I'm interested in which I know is not the best way of using it but I do a lot of original posts as well, sharing articles or blogs that I've posted up on the web or interesting articles I've come across myself, all techie stufff and all very work-focused.

For Twitter I use an amazing app for the PC called The Qube; it has no visual user interface, it's free and made just for blind people who use a screenreader. I have no major interests beyond technology ... and my kids, of course. I don't use the internet very much at home, it's either work or family really.

What tech innovation would you like to see?

There are loads of technologies which are really quite mature today that hold great promise. Autonomous vehicles for example, born of the DARPA project and that then turned into driverless Google cars. They drove around the states for two years and had no accidents bar being pronged from behind once.

In Berlin there is a company who wants to setup a fleet of driverless taxis and which already have legal permissions that could eventually lead to this.

Driverless vehicles have an obvious application for many disabled people to get round independently, particularly those who are blind. But in order for it to be able to work it would need to have an inclusive interface, say, via a smart phone app which would speak back to you and have accessible controls and so on. I'm really excited about this and would be very disappointed if it wasn't coming in an accessible way in the near future. I can easily imagine an autonomous vehicle being on sale at your local car showroom in just a couple of years, the only inertia is commercial consideration really; it needs no new road infrastructure or anything. It's in the interests of the commercial and public sector to get these things on the road for safety and I imagine that if a company thinks they can sustain a taxi service and make a profit then it will surely be on sale at a price that's affordable to the average consumer. My wife drives but, should they come on sale, the next time we replace our car I'd be happy to spend an extra, say, £10,000 so I could drive it as well.

• This interview is part of a series about technology and disabled people. Follow @bbcouch on Twitter, like the Ouch BBC Facebook page or bookmark the Ouch! blog homepage to keep tabs on this series, which continues throughout November.

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