Hotspot: Nikki Lyssy in the Zone

Horizon photo of where the sky meets the ocean.

May 15, 2018 — Mobile technology has made it much easier for internet-connected people to capture, share, and respond to photos and videos. As a result, we see a shift to more visual communication online, e.g., photos, videos, emojis, stickers, etc. Every day, people upload and share more than 2 billion photos on Facebook, Instagram, Messenger and WhatsApp, according to Facebook Research.

How do you do that if you cannot see?

Nicole "Nikki" LyssyFor Nicole "Nikki" Lyssy, a junior English major, challenges may arise in both creating and consuming visual content because she is blind, but she has impressive tools to help her engage with the world. Nikki and her twin sister, Kendal, a communications major, were born 14 weeks earlier than their due date, yet they work hard to stay ahead of any challenges such as the internet, online classes and a largely seeing-world that often does not create with universal design principles to provide accessibility for all people.

Focus 40 BlueNikki learned grades 1 and 2 for Braille over a period of four years starting in kindergarten, she said. Reading about 300 words per minute these days, Nikki uses her Focus 40 Blue wireless, pictured, which combines the latest Braille technology with both USB and Bluetooth connectivity. Its refreshable Braille display weighs 1.43 pounds and provides a tactile interface to a computer. Used together with screen-access software such as JAWS® for Windows, the Focus 40 Blue can enhance the computing experience. It combines the latest Braille technology, the most user-friendly keyboard and a control layout for about $2,500 to $3,000. Nikki also learned the Nemeth Braille Code for Mathematics for her math classes and took two years of Spanish as her foreign language requirement. English, Braille Grades 1 and 2, Braille for Math and Spanish, yes, she has a gift for learning.

An estimated 253 million people live with vision impairment: 36 million are blind and 217 million have moderate to severe vision impairment, according to the World Health Organization. Applications such as TapTapSee and VizWiz are among some of the tools created to help visually impaired people "see" photos.

"When comparing the accessibility of social media apps such as Twitter, Facebook and Snapchat, it is important to distinguish between what each social platform provides its wide array of users," Nikki said. "Facebook and Twitter are engaging for me because they allow users to post writing as well as photos. While Snapchat does the same, the draw of this app, in my understanding, is the picture stories, videos and messages that pop up. I am not a Snapchat user because I cannot see the photos, so it wouldn’t necessarily make sense for me to use this platform for my own life. In the future, if there were a way to make photography, in general, more accessible, I would be the first to try it out. Use of Alt Text is a very good starting point."

What is Alt Text?

Alternative text is an attribute—a description—added to an image tag in HTML, the markup language used to create content on web pages. Visually impaired users using screen readers read alt text to better understand an on-page image.

Alt text is a tenet of accessible web design. Its original and primary purpose is to describe images to visitors who are unable to see.

The alt text appears inside of the image container when the image cannot be displayed, helps search engines understand what an image is about and appears when an image on a page cannot be found. Alt text is also known as “alt attribute” and “alt description.”

For her academic work, Nikki said she finds Blackboard Learn to be very accessible. Apple iPhones, iPads, and iPods come from the factory fully equipped to connect for accessibility—or "inclusivity," as Apple calls it—no special apps required, no additional expenses, nothing extra to download or install, it's ready as it is and Nikki is a super-user as well as a super-fan. Apple is all about making its devices work for a wide range of people: the very young, the very old, people brand new to computers and mobile devices, and also people with disabilities and special needs.

"I am happy to tell you that I have been really fortunate when it comes to accessibility with UNT’s online platforms. I do not have experience with Canvas, but have heard it is very accessible for multiple screen readers. Additionally, Blackboard works wonderfully with both JAWS for Windows and VoiceOver on Apple products," she said.

"One of the reasons I chose to come to UNT over any other schools I applied to was because I knew, from the beginning of my time touring campus, that accessibility was at the forefront of all North Texas does. The Office for Students with Disabilities has been instrumental in ensuring that all students have equal access to materials, but it doesn't end there. People like yourself, the faculty and staff, and those who design websites all consider accessibility a top priority, and it has made my experience here truly worthwhile and incredible," Nikki said.

Nikki generously compliments the staff members of the UNT Office of Disability Accommodation and UNT Workplace Inclusion & Sustainable Employment, WISE, who routinely work with about 1,000 students with disabilities in various categories. She also praises the faculty members who order textbooks and workbooks early; for the disabled, this provides the required additional time to order accessible versions before classes start. The only course Nikki found frustrating was geometry that she took in high school, citing "no bank of spatial senses to rely on," she said, but overall, she is very proud of her academic success and high-grade point average.

You will find Nikki to be happy, friendly, outgoing and upbeat. In addition to answering questions about technology that improves her life, she explained a little about etiquette when meeting a blind or disabled person. "Everyone is different, so if you want to know something, just ask," she said. "If someone does not want assistance or to answer questions about their disability, they will let you know. I like it when someone helps me find my way, but others may not. If I don't need help, I'll speak up."

Rebecca Cagle with Nicole LyssyFrom the UNT WISE office, Rebecca "Becky" Cagle, pictured here with Nikki, offered Nikki a sighted guide to the General Academic Building before our meeting about technology and accessibility. While Nikki appreciated the offer, her work to learn the UNT campus has paid off, so with her long white cane, she made it to the basement of the GAB—a feat that often challenges sighted individuals. Sometimes, Nikki also uses a $28 app called Blindsquare, an accessible GPS application developed for the blind and visually impaired, she said. It describes the environment, announces points of interest and street intersections as you travel. In conjunction with free, third-party navigation apps, Blindsquare is a powerful solution providing most of the information blind and visually-impaired people need to travel independently. It does not work indoors, Nikki said; she's still waiting for that app to come out.

Working once a week with a certified orientation and mobility specialist, COMS, Nikki is learning something new all the time, she said. COMS guides teach mobility skills, use of other senses, and environmental features, e.g., sun, sounds, slopes, etc., and more. Nikki and her guide lately have been working on how to cross a busy street for an upcoming trip to Minneapolis, Minn., where she will attend a summer camp sponsored by the National Federation of the Blind.

"Nikki has strong self-advocacy skills," Becky said, which is an essential trait for everyone, but especially for anyone with a disability. Becky is a senior program project coordinator and former rehabilitation specialist and holds a Master of Science degree in Assistive Technology and Human Services from California State University, Northridge, Northridge, Calif., and a B.S. in Rehabilitation Science from University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas. Becky also is certified by the International Association of Accessibility Professionals in Accessibility Core Competencies. She has worked more than 30 years championing the cause for accessibility. Read more about Becky Cagle.

Nikki does have some perception of light, but because the light can be painful, she often wears sunglasses. She also shared that if she could see, she would like to visit the ocean and see where the water meets the horizon and visit the mountains or other great sights of the world, but most of all, of course, she would like to see the faces of her mother, father and three sisters.

What is Universal Design?

  • Universal Design is the design and composition of an environment so that it can be accessed, understood and used to the greatest extent possible by all people regardless of their age, size, ability or disability.
  • An environment (or any building, product, or service in that environment) should be designed to meet the needs of all people who wish to use it.
  • This is not a special requirement, for the benefit of only a minority of the population.
  • It is a fundamental condition of good design. If an environment is accessible, usable, convenient and a pleasure to use, everyone benefits.
  • By considering the diverse needs and abilities of all throughout the design process, universal design creates products, services and environments that meet peoples’ needs. Simply put, universal design is good design.

Learn more about the Universal Design Project, the Centre for Excellence in Universal Design, and The Effect of Computer-Generated Descriptions on Photo-Sharing Experiences of People with Visual Impairments.

Universal design is saying we literally want everyone to be able to use this.

Editor's Note: Please note that information in each edition of Benchmarks Online is likely to change or degrade over time, especially the links to various websites. For current information on a specific topic, search the UNT website, UNT's UIT Help Desk or the world wide web. Email your questions and comments to the UNT University Information Technology Department or call 940-565-4068.