Challenging bias part 2: Empathizing with my blind friend

Man and woman linking arms and wearing sunglasses walking down the street
Man and woman linking arms and wearing sunglasses walking down the street
Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

I’ve talked about my journey to overcome bias in part 1.

To paraphrase that post, I have been using a mobile app, specifically SpeechNotes, to record ideas for posts on Medium while driving to and from work.

It’s been working well, but just doing that hasn’t been enough to push me towards more acceptance.

Saying that “I hate voice AI but this one thing is okay” is a bad definition of acceptance, and so I’ve been considering other thought methods to challenge my bias.

Inadvertently, I found myself thinking about my friend Ali, who had championed voice interfaces. It wasn’t because he loved what companies were doing with the technology: it was because he was blind.

My first blind friend

I remember the first time I talked with Ali. We met during grad school, and he was one of the first blind people I had interacted with. I ran into him during grad school orientation with his hands full: he had his cane in one hand, tennis ball on the end of it, and his wife on the other as she loaded his plate with the catering.

He introduced himself, and I responded with a greeting as well. My hand waved my default interaction for most people that day, only to realize that he couldn’t see it. As smooth as I could, I moved that down to shake his hand, only to realize that his hands were full.

He laughed, brushing it off: it turns out that while he was legally blind, he was able to see enough to see my awkward reaction. But I never really forgot about what that must have been like for him.

He was one of the first people I knew actively championed for voice interfaces. Once I learned his back story, it was no surprise why. He was a Persian graduate student, and life as a blind person back in his home country was tough.

Sidewalks, signs, and roads weren’t developed with blind people in mind. That meant it was very hard for him to get around: he often had to go everywhere with his wife. Also, it was very hard for him to be treated like an equal: most associated his blindness with low intelligence despite him being very smart.

In the States, it was a completely different story. He quickly became a power user of screen readers and was an amazing academic. He engaged in many research projects, such as one dedicated to alternative methods of entering sensitive information (such as ATM numbers) into phones for blind users.

It wasn’t like this technology ‘fixed his blindness’: it instead offered him another way to interact with the world. Speech recognition is one of the top technologies that may transform assistive technology.

Understanding that, as well as him, caused me to re-think my view on voice interfaces.

Empathy for the user

Empathy, according to Interaction-Design.org, “ is our ability to see the world as closely as possible through other people’s eyes, to see what they see, feel what they feel, and experience things as they do.”

I’m not blind. I don’t know all of the struggles that Ali went through from day to day. But I can understand that this technology is something that transformed my friend’s life for the better.

With him, I saw someone who struggled in a world that was not designed for him to move towards his full potential when given the opportunity through technology.

To challenge bias, try to think from someone else’s perspective.

I’ll probably never fully align with all of the cool technology that can use voice UI.

But by empathizing with my friend and why he had this passion towards this technology, I can understand its usefulness. More importantly, I can understand why this technology can be vitally important in people’s lives.

Like this story? This is part of a series that I am doing to try and combat my bias against voice UI. You can view the series here.

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