Bitcoin may be touted as a global and accessible currency, but some of its users are being badly underserved.
Michael Staffen is a bitcoin user who is blind. He posted about his frustration with bitcoin wallets, which currently don't offer any accessibility options to visually impaired people, on reddit:
"I am a fully blind person who uses a screen-reader and every bitcoin wallet I have downloaded is inaccessible to my screen-reader ... This is making me very annoyed as I am a bitcoin supporter and I have acquired my own bitcoin, I just can't goddamn use them without getting help from someone else."
Staffen's reddit post attracted nearly 200 comments and almost 1,000 upvotes. The comments were largely positive, calling on wallet developers to provide accessibility features for blind bitcoin users.
A core developer working on Multibit, a popular open-source wallet, said he raised the issue with the Multibit developer community and had started beta testing for accessibility issues after seeing the post. He has also recruited Staffen as one of Multibit's beta testers.
CoinDesk contacted Staffen to get a walkthrough of his experience using a bitcoin wallet with a screenreader. A screenreader is a piece of software that reads out the entire contents of a computer display and allows a blind or partially sighted person to operate the device.
“Most people want to make [bitcoin] accessible, they just haven’t considered it. That’s one of the problems around accessibility.”
Staffen uses the market-leading third-party application JAWS. As he fired up his computer, JAWS called out his cursor's location on the screen.
Staffen said he uses only a keyboard to navigate through his computer. The screenreader read out each menu so quickly that Staffen had to slow it down for us to follow.
Firstly, he chose to demonstrate his problems with the the Bitcoin-Qt wallet. When the application launched, Staffen showed that he could only access the main menu bar in the application.
This menu bar contained three drop-down menus that allowed him to backup and encrypt his wallet, but did not allow him to perform basic functions like check his wallet address or send and receive bitcoin. Those features are accessed through buttons contained in the application's main window.
"If I go to the Bitcoin-Qt wallet, I can get into menus like 'file', 'help' and 'settings', but I can't really do anything with them. There's nothing to [help me] hear what's going on. There's no interaction with the screenreader, so basically the wallet is useless to me, unless I get someone to help me." He added:
"For example, even getting to the [wallet] address, which I need to cut and paste - I can't even really do that."
Staffen said his sister, who is also a bitcoin enthusiast, currently helps him access the wallet. However, Staffen says he's not pinning blame on a particular company or person for the poor state of accessible wallets.
"Most people want to make it accessible, probably including the developers - they just haven't considered it. That's one of the problems around accessibility: It's not that people intentionally exclude others. It's also up to [people with disabilities] to make noise."
Michael Staffen's story
Staffen (pictured) is a 36-year-old who lives in a town called Regina in a relatively rural province called Saskatchewan, which is part of the 'Canadian prairies'. He developed lymphoma, a cancer of the blood, four years ago.
When he was diagnosed, he was told he had stage-four lymphoma and that the cancer had spread to his central nervous system. He was given a bleak prognosis.
"I was in a coma for a total of a month and was given a 0% chance of living. When I woke up from my coma, I could not see or move."
The cancer had damaged Staffen's optic nerve, leaving him with no light perception. After a year-long stay in the hospital, where he received chemotherapy, he eventually started a physiotherapy regime to regain use of his body.
"I did physiotherapy twice a day, where I learned how to walk and use my body again. I am now considered cured!"
Staffen is currently enrolled at the University of Regina where he is studying for a master's degree in public policy and administration. He expected to graduate in September.
He has also become active in the local technology scene, becoming a board member of a maker-space called Crash Bang Labs. When CoinDesk spoke to him, he was in the midst of monitoring his new litecoin mining rig.
Staffen got interested in bitcoin two years ago after hearing about it on a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio show, but was struggling to adapt to using technology as a blind person.
"As a relatively new blind person I just did not have the wherewithal to go about [buying bitcoin in 2011] and wiring money at the time just seemed extraordinarily shady."
By April of last year, Staffen was comfortable enough with technology to give bitcoin another go.
"My sister and I teamed up to figure out how to buy bitcoins from Mt. Gox. We had to wire our money to Japan which seemed ludicrous and scary."
Staffen was so enamoured with the digital currency that he used a cash advance from his credit card to get enough funds to buy some. Unfortunately for Staffen and his sister, they bought into the cryptocurrency at its April peak of about $250.
"The price collapsed the very next day. I kept them because I thought they may recover eventually," he said. The cryptocurrency's price, of course, rallied to over $1,000 over the course of the year. It's currently about $850 according to the CoinDesk BPI.
Gary Rowe, a core developer on MultiBit, said the team is working on a new version of the wallet that would implement the Java Accessibility API recommendations.
This set of guidelines is designed to help developers create Java applications that are accessible to people with disabilities, including visual impairment or blindness. Rowe said he expected MultiBit HD to be released by the end of March at the latest.
"MultiBit are committed to delivering code of the highest quality to a wide range of users. Some of those users require support for accessibility to make their experience of MultiBit better," he said, adding that Staffen is MultiBit's only visually impaired beta tester at the moment.
Assistive technology boom
Screenreader technology is becoming increasingly common on computing devices, led by a combination of consumer expectations, industry adoption and legislation, said Robin Spinks, the principal manager for digital accessibility at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, the leading charity in the United Kingdom.
The latest WebAIM survey of screen reader usage, for example, shows that adoption of the technology has grown from 12% to 72% in the last three years. WebAIM is a non-profit organisation focused on web accessibility solutions at Utah State University.
Apple developed a screen reader and made it standard on iOS in 2009, a move that Spinks says sparked mass adoption of the technology. He said:
"Apple has led the march on this and other companies are following in their wake. Leaders in industry are demonstrating that it's economically viable."
As for Staffen, he says he plans to immerse himself further in the bitcoin economy. He's been thinking about developing an education centre for people to learn about bitcoin or a wallet that's accessible to blind users.
"I'm not sure what the business will be yet, all I know is I want to make a living from it."
Image via Shutterstock, Michael Staffen