Tuesday Dec 01, 2009

Dining in the dark, and the high cost of access

Last month I was in Brussels for a bunch of meetings, and while walking to dinner from my hotel, came upon Only 4 Senses - the blind experience. They were about to open, so I hung out and met with the staff to find out that they are a periodic/episodic restaurant that serves meals in total darkness. So I signed myself and two Sun colleagues up for dinner the next evening.

Only 4 Senses in Brussels is not the only outfit that offers a "taste" of what it is like to be blind through dinner. I first heard about this kind of restaurant in Germany - "Dinner in the Dark" - and since that time read articles about similar places in Switzerland and France. In fact, a quick web search turned up one near my home - San Francisco's opaque which offers dining in the dark every Wednesday evening (perhaps time for a Sun accessibility team dinner?).

The dinner was lovely, and carefully designed to be easy for the "beginning situationaly blind diner". The food came in several courses, each on its own, easy-to-manipulate plate/bowl. If necessary, you could even dispense with the silverware, and upend several of the dishes into your mouth as if drinking from a bowl. You did have to pour your own wine if you were drinking wine, while the less challenging water came in a bottle. Wait staff was provided by Ligue Braille, a Belgian organization for blind and and low vision folks. Our server had come to Belgium from the Congo - chosen for us in part because of his English skills.

Dinning there reminded me of my first "dining in the dark" experience - in Prague just about a year ago. Flying into Prague on Czech airlines, I read an article in the in-flight magazine about Pod křídlem noci, and determined I would dine there one of the evenings of my stay. We would up roping in some 10 people, including several from Sun's NetBeans team, several from Czech Technical University, and various friends/girlfriends/spouses. Unlike Only 4 Senses, this dining experience was a bit more challenging: we sat down to a full, fancy place setting (multiple knives, forks, spoons, dessert spoon, water and wine glasses), and our meal was served on a large plate filled with all of the various dishes that we had to discover by tasting (particularly if, like me, you choose the "surprise me" menu). Before entering the "dark part" of the restaurant, all electronic device we carried that could emit any sort of light were confiscated from us (something I wish they'd done in Brussels, as we occasionally saw light from what was probably a cell phone in the distance). An interesting discovery for me was the extent to which my vision aids me in discerning wines. I asked for a "wine pairing" with my meal - so I didn't know what kind of wine it was in advance. I found I had a hard time discerning whether it was a white or red wine (being a Czech varietal grape might also have had something to do with it).

As we were enjoying our meal, I struck up a conversation with the woman who was serving us. I talked to her about our work - in open source accessibility - and asked her about computer use among the blind in the Czech Republic. What she told me was stunning - and coming from the wealthy West, maddening. She said that if she wanted an accessible computer, she would need to get a copy of the JAWS screen reader which cost 100,000 Czech koruna ($5,800 at today's exchange rates). As the average Czech salary is just over 17,000 Czech krouna/month (and 10,000 CZK/month average for the restaurant trade which she worked in), accessible computers are essentially unaffordable for the blind in the Czech Republic. She told me that to get JAWS, she would have to "beg the local city government to buy a copy", which as often as not would be denied.

Heading back to my hotel that evening, I passed by a computer store. On several big sign boards, they had posted prices for some computers. their cheapest PC with Windows XP cost 2,490 CZK. Thus in the Czech Republic, a blind person has to pay at least 40 times the cost of a computer for the software to allow her to use it!

Or... you could buy the 1,990 CZK bare-bones computer without any operating system, and install something like Ubuntu and the included Orca screen reader on it (whose minimum system requirements are more than met for 1,990 CZK) and have something that costs 20% of a month's salary of a blind waitress, instead of 10 months' salary.

...and this difference is one of the main reasons why I work in open source accessibility.


Peter Korn


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