New to Being Blind: How Lenovo’s Accessibility Features Help Overcome Vision Loss
Lenovo’s Product Diversity Office was formed in 2020 to ensure that Lenovo’s emerging technologies work for people of all backgrounds and abilities. While the team works to eliminate bias, they also look for improvements that provide a competitive user experience for people with disabilities. “At every meeting, I emphasize that it’s the responsibility of all Lenovo employees to consider the perspectives of our diverse customer base whenever we evaluate a product or make a design recommendation,” shared Ada Lopez, Manager of the Product Diversity Office (PDO). “We don’t always have users testing product accessibility in person with us, but the consideration of our users’ diverse abilities and needs is ever-present.”
The team recently heard from one such user, Brent Skinner, a software engineer who has faced a lifetime battle with progressively worsening visual impairment (VI).
Brent’s vision challenges began early. “I had my first pair of glasses when I was nine months old,” he says. “My eyes weren’t focusing properly so the doctors used prisms to precisely direct the light onto my retinas.” When asked how his parents managed to keep a pair of unwieldy goggles on their baby, Skinner jokes, “I couldn’t talk at that stage, but I provided my parents with a lot of informative and unignorable user feedback: I screamed and cried every time they took the glasses off.”
Doctors eventually diagnosed Brent with retinitis pigmentosa, a degenerative disease that has slowly but inexorably eroded his ability to see. “I have blind spots that my brain fills in,” he says. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t fill them in with what’s actually there. I used to tell people that I could see a paper clip across the room, but I might trip over an elephant if I tried to walk over and pick it up.”
During the early stages of his 34-year career with Kodak and its subsidiaries, the impact of the disease was minimal. “My eyes were getting worse, but it was happening so slowly that I just kept making small adaptations,” he says. Indeed, his decision to begin using a Lenovo Yoga 730 instead of his prior PC was motivated by the need for better accessibility.
“First, the Yoga’s touch screen was a huge help,” he says. “On the other PC I was having a hard time locating the cursor or the pointer. That may not seem like a big issue to sighted users but finding that thin blinking light can be enormously problematic and frustrating for the visually impaired. I was wasting a ton of energy I might have devoted to my job simply trying to find the place where I should start typing and resume working. When you’re developing creative ideas and getting into a flow, stopping for mundane reasons like finding the pointer is intolerably disruptive. For someone with normal vision, this is like having the computer shut down every couple of minutes. How effective are you going to be under these conditions?”
With a characteristically mischievous grin, he adds, “Who knows how many potential Nobel Prize winning ideas slipped through my fingers as I was trying to track down that inconspicuous pointer!”
A second accessibility plus was the placement of the power button, which sits alone on the side of the Yoga keyboard so it cannot be confused with anything else. “Again, this might seem trivial to sighted users, but it isn’t,” Skinner says. “I recently used a friend’s non-Lenovo PC. I had to have a sighted user help me turn it on because their power button is in the top row of the keyboard—between the Delete key and the Page Down key. That can cause all manner of headaches. It may be a simple fix. But I want to work with a company that cares enough about inclusive design to make that fix.
“I’ve noticed that Lenovo’s ThinkPad has a similarly clear design,” he adds. “In that case the power button is set off to the right of the keys, and it’s the only round button on the keyboard, so the user can’t miss it.”
“The third accessibility feature that served me well was the backlit keyboard,” Brent says. “Obviously, this won’t help someone who is blind, but as my eyes got worse, being able to illuminate the keys and adjust the brightness level was extremely helpful: it increased the contrast between the keys and the rest of the keyboard. Again, there isn’t going to be one set of interventions that works for all VI users. It’s a matter of providing the right support at the right time to meet the individual’s specific needs. And in a degenerative disease, those needs are going to change over time—sometimes drastically.”
“The fourth accessibility feature was the Yoga’s on-screen keyboard,” Brent says. “It provides a fallback solution when the user’s eyes are no longer acute enough for the backlighting to work. The bigger keys and better contrast enabled me to keep working efficiently during this stage of my downward trajectory. A PC with a standard keyboard would have been essentially unusable at this point.”
After all the accessibility features, Brent adds that “The Lenovo computer was simply a better and more economical machine. I’d have switched even if my eyes were perfect. It has more power and a faster processor with quicker data retrieval. I spend hours compiling code, and the Yoga has made my work more efficient. Back then the Yoga also supported USB-C connections, and while my other PC did not. The USB-C connections allowed me to daisy chain peripherals together in ways that I needed. I also like having a solid-state drive, and the RAM was extremely affordable. A sighted coworker enthusiastically endorsed the Yoga, so I felt confident purchasing it simply as a computer upgrade. I’ve never been tempted to switch back!”
Over the past year, Brent’s vision has continued to deteriorate. He is now restricted to a mere two degrees of central vision (essential for reading and recognizing faces) with an acuity of 20/200, which meets the definition of “legally blind” and means that what a normally sighted person can see at 20 feet Brent sees as if he were 200 feet away.
“I’m new at being blind,” he says stoically. “I haven’t developed the skills and intuitions that someone would have if they’d been blind since infancy. I don’t read braille, for example, and I’m not yet adept with screen readers and other tools. But I’m speaking with one of the Lenovo PDO’s accessibility consultants about the problems I’m encountering, and the solutions Lenovo offers. I’m encouraged that he’s willing to address my questions and listen to my suggestions and feedback.”
“At the end of the day, I’m looking for a hardware company that cares enough about blind users to provide us with the technology we need to stay productive,” he concludes. “Based on my experience, Lenovo is that company.”