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How This Legally-Blind Man Uses Technology to Run Marathons

Kelsey Davis, Manager, Digital Media, Consumer Technology Association (CTA)
Technology is making the previously impossible, possible. Just ask Erich Manser. Diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease at the age of 5, Erich eventually went on to take a position at IBM, working with technology to enhance accessibility.

We had a chance to speak with Erich about his professional experience as well as how he is using technology to help him run marathons and an Ironman competition.

Tell us a little about your background. How did you end up at IBM and what do you do at the company?

I am 44 and live in Littleton, MA, with my wife Lisa and daughters Ellie (11) and Grace (8). I was diagnosed at age 5 with a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), which gradually leads to blindness. Symptoms of RP include night-blindness and diminishing peripheral fields, so when I was younger, the night-blindness was the most noticeable to me, when trying to go to things like dark school dances or going to the movies with friends.

I began working in technology in 2003, and as someone losing eyesight, became quickly aware of the importance of technology that is accessible and can be used by everyone. I volunteered as an accessibility tester and learned all I could about accessibility, until eventually learning of research positions at IBM where my career focus could be entirely on tech access.

I joined this team in 2014, and it's been incredibly rewarding being able to devote my time to helping shape the future of accessible technology as part of this talented global team. My work ranges from conducting user tests, to familiarizing myself with changes in legislation and writing about their implications, or assisting with accessibility best-practices for IBM customers.

It's especially exciting being able to contribute to some of the more cutting-edge work, as well, such as how to make self-driving technology accessible to all (#AccessibleOlli) or helping test new technology providing remote virtual assistance to blind and visually-impaired people, including ways of leveraging IBM's Watson AI capabilities to enhance accessibility.

You use technology to run marathons. Tell us a little about your experience with the Boston Marathon and your plans to run an Ironman race?

Prior to the 2017 Boston Marathon, the technology I used to train and race marathons and triathlons was pretty much identical to the technology everyone uses to do those things. Stop watches, fitness tracking apps and devices, heart-rate monitors, etc. Because of my visual impairment, I would need to adjust how I used them, because the existing fitness technology typically hadn't been developed with the needs of blind users in mind.

For example, on a fitness tracking watch with no audio output, I cannot see the screen display without having my large desktop magnifier, so I would need to learn the sequence of button presses needed to set and begin tracking a specific activity, like going for a run. Once running, audible alerts or haptic vibrations to signal that I've completed another mile have been helpful for keeping track of how many miles I've gone, but I generally cannot tell how fast I've gone until I get back to my computer to download and view the data.

Making the argument that these gadgets should be made accessible for blind people, seen as a somewhat niche market, had had minimal effect. When companies begin to realize that there are benefits to eyes-free fitness for everyone (keep eyes on the road, safety, etc.) the more sizeable market becomes a compelling argument. This is a pattern we see somewhat regularly, where a solution developed specifically for the disability market ends up benefitting the general population more broadly.

In the 2017 Boston Marathon, we conducted some extreme testing of a new technology called Aira ( which is popularly used to assist blind people with things like grocery shopping or reading mail. It combines a smartphone app with a head-mounted camera and allows a remote sighted assistant to access that camera feed in order to describe the blind user's environment and surroundings to them. Our test was to use this solution in a crowded 30,000 person marathon, and though we knew going in that it's not exactly a perfect solution yet for these challenging conditions, it was exciting to be able to use the technology throughout the experience (still with an in-person guide for safety) and be able to share back what worked and what could use improvement with that team. Ideally, those findings can be implemented to help push the limits of this exciting technology even further.

How does technology like Aira improve the lives of those who are visually impaired?

Technology like Aira offers or restores independence, dignity and choice for blind and visually-impaired people. My family and friends are incredibly supportive, but in my own mind I don't like having to always ask what just happened at my daughters soccer game or what brand of cereal I'm picking off the grocery shelf. With a solution like Aira, I am empowered to otherwise access this sort of information without needing to rely on those around me. Though technically I'm still being assisted by someone else, so not entirely independent, accessing the information as a paid service when and how I want or need it returns control to me.

What emerging technology are you most excited about?

Self-driving technology, for sure. Much like how Aira restores my independence in many day-to-day tasks, I'm excited for how self-driving technology stands to do the same for mobility. Having given up driving about 15 years ago when it no longer felt safe, it was clearly a difficult decision as it meant giving up that sense of freedom and independence I had gained when I was 16. Having to always rely on others to get where I need to go is not easy. However, I'm also mindful of not having my excitement cloud my judgment regarding the new technology.

Like many people, I am eager to see this new self-driving technology tested extensively and proven out over measured, modest increments. I wouldn't want to hop in a self-driving vehicle and head right to the 65 mph highway, but I am anxious to see the smaller successes in lower speed, low-risk settings to demonstrate the transportation and safety benefits, so that more and more people can feel comfortable with the technology.
It's exciting that these developments are even happening in my lifetime, and as I've said jokingly, there's never been a better time to be blind.
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