An Aeropress, a Vest, and an Eye Phone
It takes eleven steps to brew a cup of aeropress coffee. Antonio Guimaraes knows them by heart, his hands dancing over the six pieces of the apparatus while we talk. He passes me the first cup and starts the process all over again for his own. I’m impressed. He’s nonchalant. Sure, he’s blind, but that’s just a detail about him, like his smile. Although he is new to Workbar, he has settled in quickly, tucking into his quest for accessibility and mobility that could ultimately improve the lives of the sighted as well. The path behind and before him is a unique one, and the subject of this week's Unconventional Wisdom.
We are sitting in the corner of the Workbar Cambridge Café chatting about word play. When he tells me that his friends roll their eyes at his puns and Spoonerisms, I realize we might have a lot in common. He negotiates the world with a cane, an iPhone, a portable Braille note-taker, and his wits. The first three of these tools he uses sparingly. Improving communication and mobility for the visually impaired has woven technology into his life and his livelihood, yet he seems more Zen with every moment spent not reaching for his phone.
“I can sense different levels of light intensity,” he tells me, looking up from our low chairs towards the sunny windows on Prospect Avenue. “It almost feels like we’re on a patio; there’s a beachy mood in this corner.” Nailed it. He starts telling me about some of his hacks and tricks- systems learned and self-taught- that enable him to do anything from understand colors to do mathematical parlor tricks. Color, he explains, is a construct that can be imagined on a Cartesian plane. Braille, he explains, is like a marriage of math and music.
I’m almost through my coffee before he even touches his phone, but once he does I’m obsessed with it. Watching him drum his fingers on the screen, listen to his texts at warp speed, and scroll through personal and business emails, I realize how integral this phone is to him. At first I feel voyeuristic listening in on his texts. I can’t look away. He gets an idea and scrolls through his photos. I’m confused how he does this. He hands me his phone and I see a photo of him and a friend in a Tesla.
“They said I could test drive it in the parking lot.” He grinned. “I told my friend that if she didn’t do it, then I would!”
It’s not surprising that Guimaraes feels good behind the wheel. In 2010 when San Francisco adopted some of his (privately held) ideas for accessibility it confirmed two things in his mind: his ideas were good, and he needed to share them. When his team placed third in the 2013 Angel Hackathon, he knew he was in a position to effect real change. “Tech needs feedback from real blind volunteers.” Guimaraes has been known to be brutally honest when technology for the blind demonstrates a disconnect from actual blind people. "No one else has the balls to say Google Docs sucks for the blind."
Guimaraes does not say the MBTA sucks. But I can tell it frustrates him, that something so crucial for mobility is so fixable. “They need to provide the infrastructure maps of every station, but described from a blind perspective.” He used to keep his good business ideas close to his metaphorical ‘vest,’ but he has abandoned this caution for the sake of putting his ideas into action- by anyone. “With iBeacon or near-field communication at bus stops, an app for the blind could actually push cities, and improve lives for the sighted, too.”
“Okay, now let’s open the Blind Folder.” Most of the apps in there he dismissed, but two in particular were noteworthy. With Tap Tap See he can take a picture of text and convert it to speech. “I sat in the Trident bookstore just geeking out that I could read all the books. Or enough of one to know not to buy it.” Guimaraes explained how Be My Eyes could be a tremendous help, if it had some improvements. This app supposedly connects a blind user to a sighted volunteer through a FaceTime-like video call, at which point they “lend their eyes” to the situation and presumably tell the person if their socks match or if there is an intruder behind them. I’ll never know because no one picked up when we called. Instead of getting huffy (like me) Guimaraes got energized at the opportunity. Automatically he began rattling off a list of ways around that problem, how to gamify the experience to create more involvement, how to connect volunteers, and how to leverage technology into a solution.
His problem-solving reminded me of his unconventional answer when I asked him about his favorite aspects of Workbar. This social, connected networker surprised me by saying he appreciates being left alone to do his work. “That’s why we’re here, isn’t it? To identify with the work we’re doing?"
To bushwhack through obstacles for the visually impaired, Guimaraes pulls from a deep well of inspiration, but it’s his wry take on the shallow pleasure of Yik Yak that shows off the humor in his quiver. While we scroll through the social media app’s sometimes entertaining (and usually profane) message feeds, I blush at the explicit bodily functions and innuendo on speakerphone as he upvotes and downvotes. He smiles at the levity of his contribution to the collected wisdom, and quips, “So now I’m a part of that movement, too.”
Our unconventional work space celebrates unconventional wisdom. Explore diverse innovators within the Workbar community for the month of May through our blog and social media. Discover #unconventionalwisdom
About the Author: Dave Gentry is a fan of progress and recess. He believes in Olde English, new fortune cookies and he answers to #davertido.
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