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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Apple Kicks Blind Guy - "Siri-ously" Featured

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A BIG company, a blind man, and a promise of hope, betrayed.

The story begins with a recommendation I made to a visually impaired friend; that he look into the iPhone, as it had some technology that could get him connected, and it ends with Apple kicking a blind guy.

On November 3, 2011, the Apple flagship store on 14th Street in Manhattan, held a workshop called "Accessibility out of the Box." The workshop promised "... innovative solutions for people with disabilities, allowing them to access [Apple Products]...[and to] learn about accessibility features such as screen magnification, VoiceOver, Mouse Keys, and more ..."

That same afternoon, I received a call from from the 3rd floor workshop room of that store, and listened to my hopeful friend describe the scene.  Phil tells me, "this place is amazing, I've never seen a retail outlet like this, there are hundreds of people here, and the space is amazing. I'm so psyched to get an iPhone and be able to use it."  I was psyched for him.

He told me that there were disabled people lined up outside the store for hours waiting to get into the workshop. He estimated that the attendees were about 30% hearing impaired, 30% percent mobile impaired, and 30% visually impaired. I asked him to call me after the presentation," and wished him good luck.

I could never have guessed the content of the next phone call that I received from him. Phil says, noticeably upset, "...you're not going to believe what just happened... I cant believe it...

This place is ridiculous... 

In order to appreciate the magnitude of what came next, its important to understand a little about my friend Phil.  Being a childhood friend, I witnessed his slow and unfortunate loss of sight.  Diagnosed with a severe form of macular degeneration. He has virtually watched his sight wither away since High School. Phil described it to me this way. Its like only having peripheral vision. The center portion of your site is like a black hole, you can only see around the edges. And little by little the black hole gets bigger and bigger.

Turning into Oncoming Traffic

Declared legally blind during High School, after making a left turn into oncoming traffic, (as the passenger I was lucky enough to survive).  Phil spent many years hiding his sight problem, and used his disability as a motivational engine that drove him to an early financial success. He no longer drove, and while I was in College, Phil was being awarded the salesman of the month award, at our hometown Mitsubishi dealership.

Lemons to Lemonade

At age 19 and legally blind, he sold more cars, month after month, than 40-year-old top guys on the lot. However, the negative side of his secret began to catch up with him. Since it wasn't readily apparent that he was blind, and he hid this fact, people often incorrectly viewed his actions as careless, or inconsiderate.  Eventually his career began to tumble, but with the relative small fortune he had amassed, he was determined to seek the best treatment for his eyesight he could find. But to do so, he first had to get over a huge emotional hurtle, and start sharing the fact that he was impaired. I don't know how he accomplished this, but in doing so, many aspects of his life improved, as people were able to identify with him much better. His prognosis from the Doctors was not as positive.

Seeking Hope

He sought out doctors around the world who gave promise to the idea that something could be done for him. Unfortunately, one by one, each individual specialist crushed his hopes of remaining sighted, with direct and, from his point of view, callous descriptions of how there was no chance he would remain sighted and that his conditions was hopeless.

Its natural that this would be a step that he needed to go through - looking into every option. I would have done the same, but the outcome being what it was, did more to harm his mental state than good.

He explored every option, engaged in a multitude on useless therapies, including a super expensive vitamin regiment, and after exhausting every option, he was left close to broke, and unable to come to terms to the reality that there was no hope for his sight. Needles to say this was a difficult time for him. I did my best to support him, but he was in a bad place.

Hope Lost

Concerned about him, I investigated and found programs like "zoom text" that enabled him to get on the computer and do some basic email. Empowering him this way helped him emotionally a great deal. It was a way for him to keep in touch and keep up with the times. This helped. For a window of time, he was connected, and feeling good about it.  As technology progressed, and his eyesight further deteriorated, he began to lose his knack for zoom text and seemed headed for a problem. We moved in and out of touch for several years, partially due to his disconnection from the grid. He had fallen into tough times in the years following the specialists diagnosis's, and his loss of hope.

Overcoming Odds

When I reconnected with him, several years later, amazingly he was back on his feet, and enrolled, in a Federal program set up to help create employment for the disabled.  Almost every coffee stand and concession in Federal buildings are run by a visually impaired owner. The businesses for the impaired applicants are subsidized by the government, giving them exclusive sales position in Federal buildings, and other benefits, but in order to be awarded one of these positions, the applicant must undergo a rigorous training program. The details of which are intense and beyond our scope. But after 2 years of training, struggles and efforts, my good friend Phil, was awarded a concession in a prime government building.  If you've been to that building, you surely know him.  His open and compelling rapport instantly connects with everyone he meets.

By this point almost pitch bind (Phil's term derived from pitch black). He transitioned from training, into a real world business, and in typical Phil fashion, he tripled the sales figures of the previous owners in the first 3 months. His supervisors and trainers, were instant fans when they saw his sales figures.

Just prior to the release of Apples iPhone 4S with Siri, I did some internet research on accessibility,  and I came across promising features that were reported to be available on the iPhone.  I called Phil and related all the amazing technologies I had read about that were built into the phone. It seemed like zoom text times ten!

Siri-ous Confusion

He was very enthusiastic about it and agree to give it a try.  At this point, Apple released iPhone 4S, and a wrench was thrown into this plan. A wrench called Siri.  Although it seems like the release of a technology that promises "Accessibility out of the box", would be a good thing, it turned out to be a huge obstruction. The actually useful accessibility options on the iPhone (if there are any) had been overshadowed by the hype and coolness of the just released Siri technology.

Apple Show of Horrors

On the phone from the workshop, Phil continued to relate to me, the Apple show of horrors, "The place was filled with hundreds of disabled people, all wanting to find out how this new phone could help them. I was psyched. Then the first speaker came up. It was a woman from Apple who was trying to do a power point presentation. I say "trying" because what was actually unfolding was closer to a train wreck than a presentation. The slides kept coming up wrong, the presenter stumbled, mumbled repeatedly apologizing and eventually gave up on the slides and attempted to wing it, and it was a bigger disaster. I'm thinking, I given presentations before, and this is the worst presentation I could even imagine. In addition, with over 30% of the attendees being deaf, the Apple team was unable get the teleprompter to work, so a large portion of the audience had to sit there without gaining a single piece of information. It was terrible, and it got worse..."

When the iPhone first came out, Phil was fascinated by it.  However, he believed there was no way he could use it. The screen was just too small. The way he had been getting by for the last 20 years was by use of a traditional cell phone. In case you don't remember, they used to have buttons you can feel.  It had become a standard on cell phones for the center key to be raised, and that became the "Home" position from which a blind person could derive all the other keys from. This was Phil's only remaining connection to the world. I couldn't text him, couldn't email him, only call him leave a voicemail, and wait. Normal 10 years ago, but  quite frustrating today.

Back at the show, Phil tells me, " Next up was an blind woman who was relating how happy she was that Apple had helped her.  I was starting to get excited to think that she was about to explain how she used some of the features.  But, she went on to tell of how difficult it was for her growing up blind, and how awesome and amazing it was that Apple helped her out so much, and that she has a life now, and is so grateful to Apple for this.. I'm thinking, 'wait a minute, HOW? your saying that Apple added all this great help to your life, but your now saying how, in what form, and how can I gain that benefit.' I'm not a callous person, I respect other people's problems, but honestly, I'm really not interested in someone else's sob story. I have my own story, and I'm not here to parade that around.  I took off work, and came down here, waited the 3 hours, and now I want to know how the phone can help me. How it can be used. This person was just saying how great it is, without explaining anything. Never once did she say HOW it helped her. I was getting more and more frustrated."

The Amazing Siri

The Siri technology that was getting all the hype, was actually purchased from a non-profit company called Stanford Research Institute, or SRI, and had been considered an experimental voice recognition/artificial intelligence technology with amazing potential.  Apple itself admits this is a technology, still in "beta,"  yet it sees fit to take full advantage of every advertising opportunity it presents (more on this later).

You can ask Siri a question without any context and it will give you an answer. The example in the promos shows a person asking, Where is Paris? and the phone responds, Paris is in France." Very cool. This technology shows great potential, but I'm not sure that it can actually help people with disabilities.

It was during this recent buzz behind Siri, that my friend entered the Apple store for the first time, seeking information about this technology that his friend (me) told him about. In asking about the accessibility options on the iPhone, he was immediately pitched on the amazing capabilities of Apple and its new technology, Siri. He was told that it could change his life, that he can use an iPhone, that he can be back in communication with the rest of the world, and all because of this amazing technology, and the goodwill of Apple, Inc.

The spokesperson he met turned out to be a paid Apple representative, who was completely deaf. He spoke with a strong non-hearing accent.  He was helpful and compelling, and told Phil, that he should enroll in the accessibility workshop next week, to find out all about how Siri can help him. Phil was excited. He was ready to buy this phone, and thrilled with the idea that he could be back in connection with the rest of the world. He signed up for the class and awaited the day with baited breath.

Next in Show

Phil continued on the phone, "Then, the next speaker was the Apple representative who originally told me about the class.  I liked the guy and I was excited to hear what he had to say...but,  It was bad.  It was another half hour of saying what a tough time he had in life, and how great Apple was for helping him. Never! not once, did he even get close to saying how Apple helped him, never mind how it might help people in the audience! Sitting through 30 minutes of this sobby, Apple-stroking nonsense,  served up my a person who can not hear themselves speak, was one of the most difficult half hours of my life. I mean him no disrespect, he is a great person, but all I wanted to know was, 'how can this thing help me. Can I send email with it? Can I send a text message, can I communicate with my friends on Facebook?' but instead I'm listening to another person talking about how difficult his life was before Apple, and how great it was now, without any explanation. I was livid.

I was doing the best I could to hold back my frustrations when, the next speaker came up. He was an Apple rep who was clearly a great communicator, a total pro, and I started to feel relieved.  He played some videos that showed how amazing Siri was, and I started to get excited. But the videos were the same as the press release YouTube videos. Nothing useful. When he began to speak after the videos? --I had just about had it. You have to remember, that I'm blind, so I'm sitting there the whole time fuming, but not having any visual reference... He went on to say. ' in the future, we will be adding to the capabilities..."

-- that was it...

... he's saying in the future??? What about right now??? The reason were all sitting here!!! I could not take it any longer... I stood up from my chair, trying to remain as composed as I could, and I very calmly stated..." with all due respect, I don't care about any of these stories. While they are very nice, I just want to know: Can anybody tell me how I can send an email? How can I make a phone call? How I can text somebody? I'm blind, and I run a business, and I took off of work to come down here to find out about how this phone can help me, and all your telling me is how great it is, but not explaining HOW I can use it.  I'm sorry, but I don't give a rat's ass about your life stories, I got my own problems.  What I'd really like to know is:  How can I use this to send and email? to text somebody, to go on the internet, Is there anybody here who can answer that for me?

The audience had become animated, and some even began to cheer. Admittedly I was upset, but they could have at least made some attempt to answer me.  By any standards it was a legitimate question, in spite of the rats ass mention.  I'm thinking, --I'm blind, you invited me down hear to learn about how your product can help me, so far you haven't said a thing about that, and instead created some kind of sympathy parade, can you please tell me how this phone can help me...

At that point two apple representatives, quickly escorted me out of the building. Next thing, I was on the street, alone and upset."

That's how the blind guy got kicked out of the Apple store.

I probably dont need to describe how difficult life can be for someone who cant see. Unlike Apple, I assume we are all intelligent enough to understand that this type of disability just sucks. Its certainly a fact that doesn't need to be included in a marketing message. It's clear we all know what the problem is, why dont you tell us about the solution. What I can tell you about my friend Phil, is that he is one of the hardest working people I know. He passed the Series 7 Exam for financial services at at age 34, through the use of a closed circuit device that magnifies text from a book.  When you meet him, you instantly like him, and even now he doesn't appear to be blind.

There are many different ways a presenter could have handled this situation. Had Phil been a little crass, sure, but his query was legitimate, and echoed the frustrations of many in the crowd. If you're a public speaker, you should be prepared to deal with such an outburst. He was not yelling fire in the theatre, he was asking a legitimate question, however noticeably frustrated he may have been.

It's really not that complicated. " I understand your frustration sir, but we are getting to that, or we will have someone address your individual concerns after the show, or, "good question, let me show you." Those are just a few of the professional, and respectful options, other than kicking the blind guy out of the Apple store!

They could easily make more money by simply adding a new color to the iPhone.

Before I finnish slamming Apple, I have to take a moment to commend them for the their intentions in the area of accessibility. The word accessibility is a big one. Essentially Apple is adding functionality to it's mobile products, so that people with disabilities can use them. Its a helpful and philanthropic move that has been largely missing for existing technology products. (Likely because this in not necessarily the most profitable niche). Which is especially why Apple should be commended for this initiative.

The thing is, if you're going to enter into a specific market niche like this one, you also need to pay attention the the specifics of that niche. Its one thing to spread a lot of hype, about a small little white product that plays music, or a high tech phone. These are items that lend themselves to hype.

But this approach becomes a problem when applied to a serious subject such as providing services for the disabled.  You are promising hope to many people who have suffered greatly in their lives.  I really hope that Apple's products can deliver on that promise.   The new Ads show sighted people using Siri and sending verbal text messages flawlessly. Will it really work that well when someone who needs that technology uses it, or is that just a fancy simulation?  Will Apple release information to help train disabled people how to use these technologies, or host actual training workshops?  I hope so.

Message to Apple:

If your going to promise hope to the disabled community, you have to be sure to show how you are going to deliver that, very quickly. This isn't an area for hype, or glossing over the details.  If no one else is demonstrating how to use this technology, you need to do so, or you are in danger of having your goodwill intention backfire. If your going to offer hope, please deliver.

Call Out

I think Apple owes my friend Phil an apology, and owes the rest of the disabled community, some answers.  Agree or disagree?

Please share this.



Read 439606 times Last modified on Wednesday, 07 December 2011 19:49
John Cirabisi

Hobbies include: Building bridges, creating synergy, and examining all-things-media. Oh, and crochet.

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  • Comment Link Administrator Monday, 25 March 2013 22:09 posted by Administrator

    A Final Farewell to Phil

    Recap: My close friend Phil suffers from a rare form of macular degeneration that has been causing his sight to deteriorate progressively since High School. After a frustrating experience with Apple retailers, he was left out of communications, and out of sorts. A reader by the name of Graham, who has been sightless all his life, pointed out that it is local support groups that Phil should be turning to for help with electronic communications, and not big companies like Apple. He suggested I contact a local blind association.

    I took Graham's advice, and researched associations for the blind in the NY area, and found several that could have helped Phil. I made these suggestions to Phil, as well as helped him find counseling, but his response was vague and inconsistent.

    Months after his visit to Apple, Phil was hit by a bicycle and physically recovered. Later his body was found passed away in his apt on Christmas day 2012. The cause of death is unknown, as the autopsy report has still not been completed. When I spoke to him on Christmas Eve, he was coherent, and confirmed plans for me to pick him up on Christmas morning for a visit. That was the last time I spoke with Phil.

    Having been sighted all his life, the prospect of losing vision, and needing a walking stick, was beyond his ability to cope. I could speculate, that this was inevitably his undoing, but the part of me that refuses to give up on human nature, will always wonder if just a little more compassion from his fellow man could have made a difference. I don't know the answer to this, I only know that I myself tried my best.

    Clearly this was not Apple's, or any other entities fault, except perhaps God, who somehow must of had his reasons. But would it have been so unfair, so uneven, so terrible, if he was treated with a little extra compassion, during his 44 years on this earth? I do not know.

    I take solace in the words spoken by his minister as we held service in his honor. "Philip is now free from suffering. He no longer has to struggle with the difficulties of competing in a career in a sighted world. He no longer has to worry about his macular degeneration, or his fear of sightlessness. Phil's soul now rests in eternal peace."

  • Comment Link John Cirabisi Wednesday, 30 November 2011 11:26 posted by John Cirabisi


    Thank you for the insightful commentary. The word slander implies I am reporting something false, or untrue. I stand by my report of the event as being factual, and therefore by definition, not slanderous.

    Your opinion that the responsibility lies outside the manufacturer for proving/providing usefulness from its product is certainly a valid one.

    However, in this case, Apple's marketing is promising things that the company is benefiting from, so I believe they do have a responsibility to back up that promise.

    Remember Phil was invited to an "Accessibility workshop {to] learn about accessibility features such as screen magnification, VoiceOver, Mouse Keys, and more ..." I think its pretty reasonable to expect that you are going to learn a little about how to use those features.

    At least they could provide a channel to the information, or point him to a local blind association that provides these services, as you mentioned. (is there one, really? I'd love it if you could share). Certainly not kick him out of store!

    Point taken, the responsibility isn't entirely on Apple, but their current position is so far from reasonable/helpful/decent, they need to be called out on it.

  • Comment Link Graham Wednesday, 30 November 2011 03:41 posted by Graham

    As I am a legally blind person myself, I believe the above scenario to be totally unfair on two counts and for both parties:

    - The fact that Phil was kicked out, and
    - The fact that the entire Apple cooperation is being slandered for it.

    Obviously its retail operation needs to be addressed here, not the company as a whole.

    Moreover, how can someone who is totally deaf assist a blind person? The two conditions are totally different from one another, they pose different problems and both command different needs in addressing day to day life.

    I have lived with legal blindness my entire life and it is hard earned wisdom that has told me that responsibility lies with disability support networks, rather than product manufacturers and retailers. Ask your local blind association about information regarding such workshops, for it is they who have the expertise to assist you.

  • Comment Link John Cirabisi Monday, 28 November 2011 11:43 posted by John Cirabisi

    Spoke with Phil, planing to set up desktop PC with zoom text as in prior successful configuration.

  • Comment Link John Cirabisi Friday, 18 November 2011 17:06 posted by John Cirabisi

    Submitted formal complaint into an iPhone tech support form on Apple web site. There's no option for general customer service. Began reaching out to accessibility bloggers for help distributing story.

  • Comment Link Bob c Thursday, 17 November 2011 09:46 posted by Bob c

    Unbelievable John. Nicely said. I agree they owe an apology....Let's hope something is done and something good comes from this....

  • Comment Link George F. Wednesday, 16 November 2011 23:48 posted by George F.

    Very well thought out. Hope Apple takes steps to remedy.

  • Comment Link John Cirabisi Wednesday, 16 November 2011 22:02 posted by John Cirabisi

    I spent a couple of hours on Apple web site tonight, searching for a channel to give this feedback through. I spoke to several automated representatives, who were unable to categorize my concern. Will try again tomorrow.

  • Comment Link Administrator Wednesday, 16 November 2011 01:14 posted by Administrator

    If you made it this far. Kudos! Why not support the cause and, share this with your friends, and perhaps leave a comment. OMC Welcomes your input and encourages all participation.


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