Austin Seraphin, a 41-year-old accessibility consultant who’s been blind since birth due to a condition called retinopathy of prematurity, is combining Western medicine with herbal remedies to cope with the excruciating pain that his calcifying corneas are causing him.
His lack of sight means he just has to find other ways to adapt to his surroundings.
The approach he has to pain as a new part of his life he must tackle, is also telling of his approach to the work he does in the space of accessibility and technology.
When he felt sightseeing tours were excruciating bores for the blind he cofounded Philly Touch Tours, creating sensory tours of traditional “sight-seeing” spots and cultural institutions.
When workout apps forgot about the fact that blind people can’t see their spunky workout videos, he made an app called Eyes Free Fitness that gives rich workout descriptions for the visually impaired.
“This is where you get to see the layers of accessibility,” Seraphin said in an interview with Technical.ly. “Even though an app is accessible, it would assume that you can see the videos.”
He gets irked at stuff that’s not accessible, too. He points out the irony that in their search for independence and freedom, lots of sites in the cryptocurrency space have made inaccessible sites.
“C’mon, you cryptos!” Seraphin said. “If you write a program that gives a freedom but you don’t make it accessible, then you deny me of that freedom. That’s the thing I’ll keep hammering home.”
The plight for accessibility started long ago with Seraphin’s parents, who had to wrangle with school administrators to allow him to use a laptop while attending Strath Haven High School, a public school in Delco.
His love of technology began even before that, with the arrival of the Apple IIE at his home. What made the 1983 product a huge deal at the Seraphin home was that it was the first Apple product to feature a screen reader using synthesized speech.
“Back then it wasn’t built in like it is now,” Seraphin recalls. “It was a separate software program you had to run, but I took to it right away. I remember thinking, ‘So all I have to do is tell this computer what to do and I can make this magic box do whatever I want? Cool! Well, adults must have built this thing so naturally you could get a job doing this as an adult.’ It just all clicked right then: this is it.”
Today, Seraphin’s work as an accessibility consultant has leaned on his ability to provide unique perspective, both as a user who is blind and as a programmer. Because of his change in health he wrote in a blog post how it has affected him psychologically as well as physically.
His coming work will focus more on personal projects, like working on the intersection of open source and accessibility.
“I want to see the open source community step up,” Seraphin said. “I think there’s a lot of opportunity there because you’re not just flagging flaws for a company but you can contribute code and documentation.”
One of the misconceptions that Seraphin says sighted people have about people with visual impairments is that blind people have a basic level of independence.
“It’s so frustrating to call tech support and hear them say: ‘Do you have someone sighted who can help you?’ No, we do things ourselves, we don’t have people just doing things for us.”
The same framework of inclusivity applies to what Seraphin flags as the most important thing young developers can do to make sure they’re not building technology from an exclusive standpoint. Sure, adhering to industry standards and best practices is an important starting point, but nothing can compare to bringing actual voices with disabilities into the process.
“It’s important to include all sorts of people in your testing — or your development team, if you can,” Seraphin said. “Focus on real diversity and aim to get a cross-section of opinions. Don’t just think you know what they want.”