Let’s Be Smart About This SmartCane

I appear to be on a smart cane jag today. I saw this one on the news, and good lord, getting the video clip to replay was a giant pain in the neck. If you want to get it to play, maximize your screen, I think, then go down to the h1 that says video player, I think, and then tab around and some buttons should appear. Then left click play. If it changes to pause and nothing is playing, tab over to the volume button and left click it. Then hit the rewind button to catch what you missed. I think that *should* work. Yuck!
Although this isn’t as recent, this old video should give you the gist of things without going through all that garbage.

Let me start off by saying that Riya Karumanchi is going to go far in whatever she does. She has the determination to try and build a technology, she started from only an idea, she has pitched her idea countless times, sought out contacts and gone from idea to developing a team and a plan and she’s 15. That’s awesome! But, I think the idea could use some tweaking because I don’t know how well-received it might be in its current form. It has potential, don’t get me wrong, but maybe it could benefit from some reshaping.

Riya, if you’re reading this, just so you know where I’m coming from, I myself am blind and have been blind since birth. Until I was 28, I used a cane, but now, I “rely on” a guide dog as you put it in your news story, but the reason I use a guide dog is not solely for the benefit of avoiding overhead obstacles. She allows me to move a lot faster than I ever could with a cane. A cane with technology in it is still a cane, and I will still be moving it about to encounter things. Yours might find things a little faster because of the sensors, but I still think I would move a lot slower than I do with the dog. I would absolutely love to be proven wrong, but that is my suspicion.

Let’s start off with the good things. A cane with the ability to detect overhead obstacles sounds like a pretty darn good idea. That is the one area where the poor cane does not do well. Also, putting some vibratory feedback in a cane handle that is linked to GPS might be handy, especially in noisy areas. Nothing wrong with that. I also saw in that other video that you thought about having an emergency button. You know what? That might not be such a bad idea either…as long as it doesn’t get triggered all the time by holding the cane. I don’t want to be the first one to pocket call 911 with my cane. *grin*.

I know you have incredibly high hopes, and high hopes are wonderful things, but I doubt your cane will replace caregivers. If a person is in need of a caregiver, they have not figured out how to travel independently because there are other things going on. Either they have just gone blind, or there are secondary disabilities, or maybe they simply haven’t been given the skills to travel on their own. Handing them a piece of technology will not fix this because they don’t know how to fill in the inevitable gaps that there will be. Problem-solving can only be taught by training and experience. I understand the desire to fix a problem with a piece of technology. I am guilty of this time and time again with my own relatives. I wanted to get my grandma an Amazon Echo because it would allow her to get the news and the weather and perhaps it could read books to her. But I forgot that the way of talking to these things isn’t something a senior is used to, and she already is having enough problems that adding something else to learn won’t help, and it won’t feel intuitive to her like we think it will. There are a lot of us that don’t have or need caregivers, and the ones that do don’t have them solely because of blindness.

There is something you need to take into consideration about GPS. It rarely takes you directly to the door of a business anymore. Many businesses are in plazas set back from the street. I would love to take your cane and have it help me find the Shoeper Store on Fairway Road in Kitchener, for example. My GPS always gets me close, but it’s the last mile, or last few feet, where I inevitably need to ask for directions. So, because I’m a hope-dasher all over the place, I have to say I doubt your cane will remove the need to ask for directions either. GPS’s level of precision is fine for people who can look around and see where the building is, but for people who can’t, it always leaves us with a wee smidge of guesswork at the end. I still love GPS, but I’ve never had it take me directly to the door. Also, a lot of us don’t have standalone GPS devices anymore. Much of that has been taken care of by apps on our phones. Maybe there are folks who don’t have a smartphone who might have a GPS device, but I’m not sure how big a chunk that is, simply because, as you say in the one video, the standalone devices are really expensive. Just to put it into perspective, I’m on a mailing list for one of the major makers of these devices from when I got one second-hand nearly a decade ago, and I haven’t heard a peep out of the list for a year or two. There have been no new members and anyone who might still be there never says anything. I think that speaks volumes.

I think you need to accept that your device will only offer another choice. It will never replace everything that’s out there. Others have had similar aspirations, and I don’t think they have succeeded. A stick has been a stick since 1921 because it works. It is less about the stick or the dog and more about the person with the skills to interpret the feedback they’re getting and navigate accordingly, and they’ll still need those skills to operate your device. I’m not trying to slag your friend’s grandmother who was knocking her head and shoulders on things, but I would venture a guess that she was still learning about this blindness thing. Most of us don’t walk around tripping on stuff. We occasionally bump into something, even people who can see occasionally bump into something, but if we have learned some skills, we usually don’t end up covered in bruises. If we’re new to the whole blindness thing, what we need, as I’ve said before, is training and practice, not another piece of tech.

Also I have a question. Your older video referenced putting braille into the cane. Are you still considering doing that? I’m worried that having scrolling braille in my cane would serve as more of a distraction than a help. Navigating is hard enough as it is. There are many inputs happening already. I don’t know if I would find another to be beneficial.

I’m glad you’re involving users now for feedback, but I wish you had involved folks who are blind and have low vision of several different levels of ability at the development phase rather than waiting to get our feedback at the testing phase. There is a saying in the disability community. “Nothing about us without us,” and it is so very important. I know you’re just learning this, but I hope that maybe it will help you in the future. This story might illustrate what I mean. I am not saying you haven’t done research and I’m not saying you have no clue. All I’m saying is it’s good to get as many inputs from actual potential users as possible as early as possible. If you did, and the news helpfully cut that whole piece out, I’ll take back this paragraph.

And please, I’m down on my knees, begging you to stop saying we “rely on” our guide dogs and canes. I know it probably sounds like I’m playing with semantics here, but that phrasing is demeaning. It’s the difference between saying someone is confined to a wheelchair versus them using a wheelchair. We use our guide dogs and canes and we’ll use your device. You use a computer to do your research and reach out to people. Would you say you rely on it? Probably not, even though you do. It changes the whole tone of what you’re saying. Here’s a page full of stuff about ableist language and some less than awesome words to mull over. I admit that some of this stuff is kind of confusing and brain-twisting. The bottom line is try and leave the people who you are trying to help with as much dignity as possible.

The last point I’m worried about is the price point. $500 is quite steep for the average consumer of this stuff. I know you referenced $50000 for a guide dog, but a lot of that is breeding and training cost, and that is paid for by the schools’ donors and isn’t directly carried by the guide dog users themselves. Also, some people receive assistance in paying for the regular $40 white canes. I bet your intention is to get this onto something equivalent to the Assistive Devices Program, but at least here in Ontario, the program is pretty tight with what it approves, so it may be an uphill climb. But beside the point, you may not want to rely on agencies to set your market value. If they don’t bite, frankly, you’ll be screwed.

I’m not trying to smash your hopes and dreams. I just worry that you may end up getting discouraged if you don’t tweak a few things. This thing has potential, but it cannot replace training and experience or be an all-encompassing solution.

Feel free to shoot me an email or comment if you want to talk more. Seriously. And, good luck with everything. You are going to do awesome things.

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