Category Archives: Blog Bits

A Blind Poet in the LightHouse Studio: Watch “Vision” by Leah Gardner

“I’m a woman who’s a blind, depressed lesbian,” says Leah Gardner, with a good-humored chuckle. “That’s who I am. That’s my reality and I’m okay with it.”

Leah is also a part-time tech trainer at LightHouse and a slam poet. She will be marching with our San Francisco Pride Contingent this Sunday, June 25 to #BeSeen.

Leah hasn’t participated in Pride in about 15 years — since she was a young poet in New Hampshire and Vermont — but when she heard about our blind and visually impaired contingent from our weekly newsletter, she decided it was time to march again. In her late 20s, marching in Pride offered her a lot of hope, along with a sense acceptance and celebration in who she was and what she offered to a community. After a tough couple of years, Leah is ready to feel that hope again.

“There’s a lot of excitement building for me, just in terms of being part of this,” she says. “Every time that I participated in the New Hampshire and Vermont marches, it was with wonderful friends but they were all sighted. It was not part of a visually impaired community, as key to me as that was in my life. This year carries this newness to it. It will be a completely original experience of sharing this day with people who are also blind and GLBTQ. So I’m really energized.”

We’re asking folks to use the hashtag #BeSeen and think about what that means in the context of Pride.

“I think a lot of people are very comfortable with talking about sexuality but the vision loss and the reality of that creates a lot of shame,” says Leah. “And in my case I also deal with severe depression and seasonal affective disorder but I fixed with the Best Light Therapy Lamp from SadLampsUSA, which adds some challenges in finding a way to form bonds with other people. We all have some shame about something, some facet of our personality. This ‘Being Seen’ concept to me has become about saying no to that shame.”

And Leah is no stranger to thinking about the intersection of blindness and sexuality. One of the poems she has performed most over the years is a poem called “Vision” about a gay friend who was losing his sight. The poem unpacks the shame and fear that often accompanies both sexuality and disability, and is a testament to the courage it takes to go through a world that isn’t always kind to people it deems outside of the norm. In advance of San Francisco Pride, we asked Leah to perform “Vision” in the LightHouse studio. Watch the video below.

Leah will present this poem live at our “All Eyes on Allies: Pride Training and Community Building” on June 22 where she also discuss what it means to show up to Pride as an ally for people with multiple marginalized identities. This training will also teach volunteers how to be effective human guides.

We hope you’ll volunteer to be part of our contingent. Sign up to march with us on June 25 at our Eventbrite page.

Giving Voice: Michele Spitz supports LightHouse, extraordinary filmmakers, burgeoning artists and Superfest 2016

Professional voiceover artist and lifelong patron of the arts Michele Spitz is dedicated to making the world more accessible to people with disabilities by providing her vocal talents to filmmakers, publishers, speaking venues and charitable organizations. Wherever Michele’s voice is, her heart is also: short and full length documentaries, feature films, children’s programming, museums, industrial videos, audio manuals and PSAs.

Michele is most passionate about her audio description work for the visually impaired — having voiced 37 films including documentary features. In addition to Michele’s audio description work, she also personally underwrites hundreds of patron attendance tickets, as well as artist interactive programs for the performing, visual and cultural arts world. This underwriting program serves: disabled, seniors, veterans and underserved communities.

Michele has also provided her voice for our Superfest International Disability Film Festival, as well as for our headquarters — hers is the voice you hear on our phone system’s recorded greeting!

In light of her unyielding support of LightHouse programs and the growing relevance of audio description as a force in media, Michele sat down with LightHouse’s Paul Blaney to discuss her passion for art and her unwavering support for those with disabilities.

LightHouse: Why is supporting artists with disabilities important to you?

Michele: Art is healing; we can all identify something in art that resonates within us. However, for the blind community, access to visual art can be challenging. It is my hope to ensure that visual art is appealing and accessible to everyone.

LightHouse: What drew you to LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired?

Michele: LightHouse for the Blind is leading the way for those with blindness or low vision and supports the quest to identify and build community. Through trailblazing programs, resources, guides and activities geared specifically for blind people, LightHouse reinforces the need for accessible and meaningful support.

LightHouse: What important message would you like to convey to those unfamiliar with artists with disabilities?

Michele: Living with a disability should not prevent one from accessing and appreciating art. It is my hope (through audio description and underwriting performing arts programming) to expand awareness of the blind community, so everyone can deepen their enjoyment of art.

LightHouse: How do you select your audio description projects?

Michele: I often ask myself: ‘What haven’t I covered? What can I do next to support people living with disabilities?’ I want to be involved with projects that raise awareness and connect people to their community. Often, it’s lack of exposure that prohibits people from understanding the nuances of the art world. It’s my job to break stereotypes and give people ample opportunities to explore for themselves the interplay between art and humanity.

LightHouse: What are your future plans for working with the disability community?

Michele: I will continue to pursue partnerships with artists who push the envelope in developing projects with and for the disability community. My goal is to forge long-lasting relationships reflective of my passion for the arts, my desire to heighten awareness and, in doing so, attract more people to the cause.

LightHouse: Thank you for chatting with us Michele!

You may read more about Michele’s work at womanofherword.com.

Michele Spitz "Woman of Her Word" Logo

 

Every Pixar Film Is Now Accessible with Mobile Audio Description from Disney

Sixteen Disney Pixar titles now available with mobile audio description for the blind

Audio Description — the extra audio track that narrates film action for people who are blind or have low vision — has been around for decades, but even if you’re blind, you might not use it. Why? Ironically, often the problem with audio description is not really the audio description. The problem is in how AD is delivered — or rather, not delivered. For years, the LightHouse has heard and advocated for blind filmgoers who simply aren’t able to pay for their movie and enjoy it in the format of their choice. If you’re blind at the movies, you know about the broken receivers, the strange formats, poor public education and training, and the many other intervening factors that have continually stymied AD availability across movie theaters and in-home systems, ultimately stonewalling the blind film-watching experience.

Starting today, that’s changing. With a new, major update to the Disney Movies Anywhere app, you can now take control of your own personal audio descriptive track, on your own smartphone, on your own terms.

This brand new, free, mobile audio description from Disney Movies Anywhere is smart and user-friendly; it listens and syncs automatically with their films (starting with the sixteen classic Disney•Pixar titles), including today’s home release of The Good Dinosaur. In accomplishing this, Disney•Pixar is leading the way for accessible films; and soon, we at the LightHouse are confident that this mobile Audio Description experience will be possible for all movies, everywhere.

Disney Movies Anywhere - click to download from iTunesA project that originated at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville and was taken on by the engineers at Disney, this new accessibility system using an app and a smartphone to access audio description is not only a passion project for the good folks at these companies, but Pixar and Disney have seen to it that key members of the blindness community have been given a chance to provide early and influential developmental feedback every step of the way. In this regard, the LightHouse has contributed feedback, tested for quality assurance, and now we’re proud to help spread the word.

At an event at Pixar in December, part of an unprecedented and ongoing collaboration between LightHouse for the Blind, the Blind Babies Foundation and Guide Dogs for the Blind, we invited nearly 200 blind people from organizations all around the Bay Area to download the app to their iPhones and iPads and test out the technology at a private, red carpet screening of The Good Dinosaur. The response was universal acclaim. The app’s beta version worked seamlessly. People both blind and sighted left the event joyously; celebrating the idea of being able to go back to the movie theater or watch a movie in their homes exactly the way they want.

How Does It Work?

It’s incredibly simple. If you already have a Pixar film that you’d like to watch with audio description, all you have to do is go to the app store and download the Disney Movies Anywhere app. When your movie starts playing (on a separate device or television), open up the app and locate the film. Then click “sync and play audio,” and the rest is done for you. Note that currently this works only for those running iOS 7 or later, with more platforms to come.

For more detailed instructions, visit Disney’s website, or download this special fact sheet to get you started.

What’s Next

More access audio description! This not only means Disney•Pixar is making their movies more personally accessible, but will require the participation of other film studios and distributors to help the blindness community promote accessible movie systems that work and are controlled by the user.

Just because Disney is the first movie studio to take the delivery method of audio description seriously, doesn’t mean it’ll be the only one. There are 285 million visually impaired people in the world — that’s 285 million people who, if given an accessible way to enjoy great movies, would be fans and customers for life.

This spring, we’ll be introducing mainstream audiences to this and other great new accessible technologies at a number of conferences, starting with a special LightHouse panel at SXSW on March 15. More on that soon, so stay tuned.

How Can I Help?

The best thing you can do is spread the word and send us feedback. There are lots of blind people out there who don’t think audio description is for them, many because they’ve never had a positive, easy experience getting it set up and calibrated. With these barriers gone, Pixar’s sixteen world-class titles are now accessible in a whole new way.

The LightHouse knows that nothing comes out perfectly the first time, and we’re already hard at work identifying new kinks and challenges in this brand new technology to make sure that the next version of the app is even better. To this tune, our friends at Pixar have set up a special feedback email address so that you can sound off with your comments, observations and helpful feedback. Just send an email to dmaappfeedback@pixar.com.

To contact us for inquiries about this or any of LightHouse for the Blind’s many technology initiatives, email press@lighthouse-sf.org.

Forbes Honors Two LightHouse Mentors in Annual ’30 Under 30′

Forbes' 30 under 30

Every year Forbes releases their “30 under 30,” which highlights 30 impressive young adults leading the way in various industries. This year we were very excited (though not entirely surprised) to find not one but two blind LightHouse mentors on the list: Hoby Wedler and Haben Girma.

Hoby Wedler stands, arms crossed, in front of lab coast hanging on hooks
Returning to teach our annual Chemistry Camp at Enchanted Hills now for the fifth year, Hoby is an engaged and passionate teacher of all things chemical and olfactory. The camp, which NPR recognized as a major confidence booster for blind youth in its infancy back in 2011, allows blind students to get hands-on with concepts and skills that they might otherwise be shielded from in school. Hoby works regularly for Francis Ford Coppola in the wine business, and is finishing up his Ph.D at Davis, but still comes to Enchanted Hills each summer to mentor LightHouse youth, and even lead an occasional event for adults, like guided wine tastings or even this upcoming blind beer tasting.

Haben GirmaHaben is also a tremendous role model for any aspiring blind change-maker, young or old. Honored by the White House and profiled everywhere from the BBC to the Washington Post, Haben is the first deaf-blind graduate of Harvard law. Her real claim to fame in the blindness community, though, is as a fierce advocate of accessibility in her legal practice at Disability Rights Advocates. In a recent settlement with the influential book-lending startup Scribd, she ensured that the massive library of reading material would be available not just to sighted individuals, but to those who use screen readers and other adaptive technologies, as well. Haben joined our LightHouse youth in a mentorship event this summer, and is also an alumnus of Enchanted Hills. You can watch her TED Talk below, and check back soon for more from these ambitious young leaders.

Forbes 30 under 30: Food and Drink | Law and Policy

Haben Girma speaks at TEDx:

250 Blind People Celebrate the Latest in Audio Description at Pixar Red Carpet Event

dozens of blind people stand in the atrium of Pixar Animation Studios
(all photos courtesy Morry Angell/Guide Dogs for the Blind)

On Thursday, December 10, 250 blind people and their pals gathered together at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville for a very special evening.

two men in navy suits with canes walk down the red carpet, one wearing a fedora

The event, which both celebrated audio description and showed the enthusiastic audience a sneak preview of a new mobile technology for delivering perfect, uninterrupted audio description in theaters and at home, was also an unprecedented gathering of blindness organizations from around the Bay Area. Dressed to impress, in cocktail attire and rolling down the 150-foot red carpet through the atrium of Pixar, we couldn’t have been more proud to see all the white canes, dogs and, most of all, a blind community dedicated to improving video description throughout mainstream culture.

A special thanks to the Blind Babies Foundation and Guide Dogs for the Blind for collaborating with the LightHouse on this first-ever gala video description event. Here’s to many more great movie-going experiences to come. Look for more details about the new technology in a future issue of the LightHouse eNews.

Check out some highlights below and check out all the photos from the event here.
several prominent female members of the blidnness community pose for the cameraa little girl hugs a dinosaur plush doll next to the red carpeta woman and her dog inspect a dinosaur plush dolla well-dressed boy with a white cane walks with his friends and family

Pixar is Throwing a Red Carpet Screening for the Blindness Community — Win Tickets Here

White Canes, Red Carpet - glamorous evening of audio description, tech, and access for all

In October, we wrote about the work we’ve been doing with Disney-Pixar to make their movies more accessible for the blind. Today, we’re thrilled to announce that next week, we’re throwing a party at Pixar Animation Studios, offering a sneak preview of their new technology at an accessible screening of their new film, The Good Dinosaur.

little caveman boy rests, eyes closed, on the Good DinosaurWe conceived “White Canes, Red Carpet” as a celebration — of audio description and technology, but moreover, inclusion and access for all. We believe that not having to contend and litigate for good accessible technology is not just a luxury, but a civil right, and seeing such an influential studio as Disney-Pixar take on the challenge wholeheartedly is truly something worth celebrating. What’s more, this will be an unprecedented gathering of blindness organizations across the Bay Area — and we’ve been working closely with the Blind Babies Foundation, Guide Dogs for the Blind, and several other agencies to ensure that as many groups as possible are represented.

So on the evening of December 10, the red carpet will stretch through the atrium at Pixar Animation Studios, and the majority of the hundreds of attendees will be blind or have low vision. The evening will culminate with a very special screening of The Good Dinosaur, and representatives from Disney and Pixar will speak and seek feedback from attendees on their new technology. It will be a grand evening, and the LightHouse is very proud to be a part of it.

HOW TO WIN TICKETS

If you love the magic of a premiere and the glitz of a new film — and especially if you’re blind or have low vision — enter our raffle by Friday, December 4th. In order to win tickets, you must answer the following, and email to lighthouseblind@gmail.com.

1. Full Name:
2. Number of tickets desired (including adult, teen, child):
3. Do you have an an up-to-date iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad?
4. Are you blind, have low vision, or affiliated with a blindness or accessibility organization?
5. Phone contact:

We will notify all ticket recipients by Monday, December 7. Unfortunately we do not have resources to notify all those who are not picked.

Press: please send any media requests to wbutler@lighthouse-sf.org.

Facebook Seeks Advertisers with Disabilities for Speaking Event

Facebook Ads with bullhorn logo

One of the most integral features of Facebook is the ability to advertise a business to the millions of people who share similar needs and interests — and Facebook knows that blind people and others with disabilities use it to promote their pages and run targeted ads, just like everyone else. That’s why we’ve teamed up with the social network to put out a call for marketing and advertising professionals with disabilities to come share their experiences with programmers the accessibility of Facebook’s advertising tools.

If you fit the description below and are interested in traveling to Facebook’s headquarters to share your knowledge, contact sblanks@lighthouse-sf.org.

The message from Menlo Park:

Facebook is looking for advertisers who use assistive technology to run Facebook ads, to share their experience with us. Our goal is to better understand the experience of advertisers using assistive technology, such as screen magnifiers, Braille displays or non-mouse equipment, so that we can build better products for them.

This includes business owners, social media advertisers, and particularly those who use Facebook Ads tools. For example, a Facebook ad tool is Ads Manager (on computer or mobile phone) or Power Editor. You might also use a partner tool that uses our API like Nanigans.

We want to meet someone who has used our ad tools quite a bit, someone who is passionate about social media advertising, and willing to share their story.

What we’re looking for:
People to talk about how they use Facebook advertising tools specifically and the internet more generally. We’re seeking people who can help us understand how assistive technology interacts with advertising. The talk will be 60 minutes, with 15 minutes of Q&A, for an audience of about 50 Facebook designers and engineers.

Things you’d be asked to speak about:
Your use of the Facebook advertising tools (in specific) and the internet (in general). We’re seeking inspiring speakers who would be articulate and can help others understand how assistive technology interacts with their advertising.

Who we’re looking for:
Full time users of one of the following:
– Screen magnifiers
– A combination of screen readers and screen magnifiers
– Braille displays
– Non-mouse inputs (head/eye tracking, mouth/blow/tongue devices or chording keyboard)

Alternatively, we’d be interested in speaking with people with cognitive impairments, someone who can explain how they use the internet and what special needs they might have.

This speaker might be a professional advertiser or marketer with a job title like, “marketing”, “advertising”, “ad trafficker”, “social media”. Or you might have experience managing and advertising for a FB page in another non-work capacity.

Where: We’d like to host you at our Menlo Park, CA headquarters to speak for a 60 minute session. The facilities are wheel chair accessible.

When: The week of November 30 – December 4, 2015

As a thank you for your time, Facebook is are offering $150 as a speaking honorarium plus travel expenses.

Contact: sblanks@lighthouse-sf.org, or call 415-694-7371.

Disney – Pixar is Making Movies Better for Blind People

concept art: a landscape from Pixar's new film, 'The Good Dinosaur'

On a warm, sunny morning last month, a group of LightHouse employees piled into a van and drove north to Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’ historic outpost in the rolling hills of Marin County. But we weren’t there to talk Wookies and Ewoks; we were being hosted, along with a handful of other blindness organizations, by Pixar Animation Studios

Some might be surprised to hear that Pixar and Disney (which now owns the Emeryville-based animation studio) would be seeking out blind and low vision individuals to test animated movies, but that’s exactly what was happening last month. In Lucas’ private theater, a group of almost thirty sat for a test screening of Pixar’s summer hit, Inside Out, each with a light set of headphones and a specially-loaded iPad on their lap. A small group of some of Pixar and Disney’s greatest movers and shakers waited patiently for feedback of a brand new technology they’ve been working on for some time now. Specifically, they’re on a mission to figure out two things: What is good audio description, and how can it best be delivered.

Many blind moviegoers and television fans don’t use audio description (also called Descriptive Video Service or DVS). Due to a combination of factors, including a range of DVS standards and practices, there are lots of blind and visually impaired folks who feel like it’s just not for them. Personally, I was one of those people — I had never watched a full film with audio description, and I’m told that about half of the group gathered at Skywalker was in the same boat.

And yet, once the narration kicked in and we got the levels right, the audio described Inside Out was a ball. We laughed, we (well, some of us) cried. Most of all, there wasn’t one person in the theater that felt left out of the experience. None of us needed to whisper back and forth quizzically about what was happening onscreen; none of of us sat silently spacing out during action sequences; and most importantly, we all smiled at the same time.

Paul Cichocki, the post-production supervisor at Pixar who oversees foreign language and audio described soundtracks, has been running these kind of focus groups for years, but this year they’re trying a few, exciting new things. “All studios make an effort to do this descriptive audio track,” he told me, “but we wanted to place the same kind of attention to the quality of audio narration as we do to the films themselves.” Disney’s aim, under the guidance of Paul and others, is to innovate rather than placate, to find an elegant solution to the seemingly daunting challenge of helping blind folks enjoy the movies as much as anyone else.

After the film, I sat at a table with Inside Out’s producer Jonas Rivera (who also produced Up) and a few other blind elementary and high school students and talked about our experience. We had all found the audio description satisfactory, useful, and even pleasurable — even those of us who had never used the tool before — but Rivera was nonetheless eager to improve the experience in any way possible.

“Did you understand what memories looked like?” He asked about clarity of action, about the choice of narrator, about how to properly introduce all the characters without overloading the listener. As the kids and adults responded, he took studious notes. “If this was me, when Joy sees Bing Bong disappear, I would amplify that maybe — but maybe that’s not right. Does it feel like the narrator is too robotic maybe? A little too literal, in some ways?” Jonas scribbled on a notepad as the kids talked. Simultaneously, at six other tables, a different Disney or Pixar employee did the same with other groups.

a voice actress works on the audio description for "The Good Dinosaur"When I spoke to Paul again this week, he had just gotten back from LA, where he was working with the voice actor recording audio description for Pixar’s new film, The Good Dinosaur. Usually the narrator’s script for an audio described film is contracted out to a specialized agency — in Pixar’s case it’s WGBH in Burbank, which handles most broadcast and film audio description on the west coast. Even with contractors like WGBH, Paul is totally hands-on. “I don’t know of any other studio that sits down and reviews the script for the narration track,” he told me this week. “We have the producer, the director, the writer, the film editor and myself comb through that script and make changes. I sent 3-4 rounds of changes to WGBH for The Good Dinosaur. And it’s about helping them, too — they don’t get direct feedback very often about what’s good and bad about their script.  We want to up that standard for the whole community — so that blind people can feel like they really saw the movie.”

Check back on the LightHouse blog again soon for more exciting news from Disney•Pixar.

article by Will Butler

Disney•Pixar is Making Movies Better for Blind People

concept art: a landscape from Pixar's new film, 'The Good Dinosaur'

On a warm, sunny morning last month, a group of LightHouse employees piled into a van and drove north to Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas’ historic outpost in the rolling hills of Marin County. But we weren’t there to talk Wookies and Ewoks; we were being hosted, along with a handful of other blindness organizations, by Pixar Animation Studios

Some might be surprised to hear that Pixar and Disney (which now owns the Emeryville-based animation studio) would be seeking out blind and low vision individuals to test animated movies, but that’s exactly what was happening last month. In Lucas’ private theater, a group of almost thirty sat for a test screening of Pixar’s summer hit, Inside Out, each with a light set of headphones and a specially-loaded iPad on their lap. A small group of some of Pixar and Disney’s greatest movers and shakers waited patiently for feedback of a brand new technology they’ve been working on for some time now. Specifically, they’re on a mission to figure out two things: What is good audio description, and how can it best be delivered.

Many blind moviegoers and television fans don’t use audio description (also called Descriptive Video Service or DVS). Due to a combination of factors, including a range of DVS standards and practices, there are lots of blind and visually impaired folks who feel like it’s just not for them. Personally, I was one of those people — I had never watched a full film with audio description, and I’m told that about half of the group gathered at Skywalker was in the same boat.

And yet, once the narration kicked in and we got the levels right, the audio described Inside Out was a ball. We laughed, we (well, some of us) cried. Most of all, there wasn’t one person in the theater that felt left out of the experience. None of us needed to whisper back and forth quizzically about what was happening onscreen; none of of us sat silently spacing out during action sequences; and most importantly, we all smiled at the same time.

Paul Cichocki, the post-production supervisor at Pixar who oversees foreign language and audio described soundtracks, has been running these kind of focus groups for years, but this year they’re trying a few, exciting new things. “All studios make an effort to do this descriptive audio track,” he told me, “but we wanted to place the same kind of attention to the quality of audio narration as we do to the films themselves.” Disney’s aim, under the guidance of Paul and others, is to innovate rather than placate, to find an elegant solution to the seemingly daunting challenge of helping blind folks enjoy the movies as much as anyone else.

After the film, I sat at a table with Inside Out’s producer Jonas Rivera (who also produced Up) and a few other blind elementary and high school students and talked about our experience. We had all found the audio description satisfactory, useful, and even pleasurable — even those of us who had never used the tool before — but Rivera was nonetheless eager to improve the experience in any way possible.

“Did you understand what memories looked like?” He asked about clarity of action, about the choice of narrator, about how to properly introduce all the characters without overloading the listener. As the kids and adults responded, he took studious notes. “If this was me, when Joy sees Bing Bong disappear, I would amplify that maybe — but maybe that’s not right. Does it feel like the narrator is too robotic maybe? A little too literal, in some ways?” Jonas scribbled on a notepad as the kids talked. Simultaneously, at six other tables, a different Disney or Pixar employee did the same with other groups.

a voice actress works on the audio description for "The Good Dinosaur"When I spoke to Paul again this week, he had just gotten back from LA, where he was working with the voice actor recording audio description for Pixar’s new film, The Good Dinosaur. Usually the narrator’s script for an audio described film is contracted out to a specialized agency — in Pixar’s case it’s WGBH in Burbank, which handles most broadcast and film audio description on the west coast. Even with contractors like WGBH, Paul is totally hands-on. “I don’t know of any other studio that sits down and reviews the script for the narration track,” he told me this week. “We have the producer, the director, the writer, the film editor and myself comb through that script and make changes. I sent 3-4 rounds of changes to WGBH for The Good Dinosaur. And it’s about helping them, too — they don’t get direct feedback very often about what’s good and bad about their script.  We want to up that standard for the whole community — so that blind people can feel like they really saw the movie.”

Check back on the LightHouse blog again soon for more exciting news from Disney•Pixar.

article by Will Butler

App Report: Voice Dream Founder Winston Chen Explores New Frontiers in Accessible Design

Voice Dream Writer logo

Apple has always been on the leading edge of accessibility design, and as most blind people know, the iPhone and App paradigm has dramatically sped up the rate of accessible software development. There are many developers who still don’t understand the mantras of accessible software engineering, but thankfully, there are many that do. As of late, Apple has made a special effort to highlight apps that make particularly effective use of VoiceOver, and in turn we’ll be highlighting the developers who are making strides for blind design here on the LightHouse blog. Today, we have an exclusive interview with the founder and iOS engineer behind Voice Dream Reader, and now the new Voice Dream Writer.

Winston Chen wanted to start over. After serving as a big data CTO for ten years, he wanted to try something new, but he didn’t know what. So he did what any reasonable person would do, and moved his family to a small island north of the Arctic circle. At first it was warm and pleasant; he relaxed, learned how to fish, hiked, and spent time with his family. Then it got cold, and suddenly the great outdoors weren’t as welcoming. So he decided to write an app.

Voice Dream Reader is now one of the best-used reader apps in the blindness world — it’s straightforward, efficient interface has won the hearts of many blind and low vision folks, some of whom had all but sworn off “books” altogether. Its integration with Bookshare, Dropbox, Gutenberg and ability to import PDFs and web pages alike eliminates the pain of switching between platforms, Chen, in concert with one other developer who now builds Voice Dream for Android, has spent the last few years building the application into the go-to reading software, not only for the blind, but for those with learning disabilities, long commutes, and as of late those with a love for speed-reading. And now, with this year’s release of Voice Dream Writer, Chen is taking advantage of iOS devices’ new gestural options to make the reading and writing experience more productive than ever.

“3D Touch,” the newest gestural rollout from Apple, allows a new level of subtlety when it comes to touch-screen operation. Now able to tell the different between a soft and “hard” push, 3D touch promises to reduce lots of unnecessary finger-tapping that VoiceOver users are familiar with. In particular, Chen is implementing the new “peek and pop” feature, which allows users to preview a document or set of actions, and then choose to open or not open the file, literally without lifting a finger.

“I think in the end it’s all about efficiency,” said Chen over the phone this week. detailing what sets apart Voice Dream Writer from other accessible apps “You can find out where the cursor is, move it precisely where you want it to go. The other thing is proofreading — it uses all the Voice Dream voices to read. And you can set a bunch of different rules for how it proofreads for you: should it read punctuation, should it read spaces between the word, the stuff you generally wouldn’t catch if you were using VoiceOver.”

Though Chen got the idea for Writer after hearing his blind friends complain about how hard it was to word process on an iPad or iPhone, much like Reader he also sees Writer as an appealing tool for the sighted — an idea he got when he saw some author friends using text-to-speech to proofread their manuscripts. “I got this inkling that there’s a role for speech in the writing process.” Chen even claims that he himself as sighted is more comfortable proofreading using speech. It’s also a less bulky option than lugging around a computer just for its word processing engine. “I have one blind friend — I thought this was so cool: he was on a flight; he kept his iPhone in his pocket, and he had his bluetooth keyboard on his lap, and he was writing, with just the keyboard! He must have looked crazy.”

Follow Winston Chen and the LightHouse on Twitter.