Croudsourced accessibility: Self-made digital menus

Something straight out from the real world: Menu cards in restaurants are not nice to deal with if you are blind. It is an old problem we grow used to ignoring over time, but still something that can be quite nagging.

There are a lot of psychological issues involved in this one. Of course, you can ask for the menu to be read out to you by the staff. While they usually do their best, you end up missing out on some things most of the time.

First of all, depending on the current workload in the restaurant, the staff will usually try to cut some time and not read everything to you. What they usually do is to try to understand what type of meal you are interested in, and just read the choices from that category to you. While this can be considered a service in some situations (human preprocessing), there are situations were you will definitely miss a highlight on the menu that you would have liked to choose if you knew that it was there.

And even if the staff decides to read the complete menu to you (which is rare), you are confronted with the 7-things-in-my-head-at-once problem. It is usually rather hard to decide amongst a list of more then 7 items, because our short-term memory is sort of limited. What the sighted restaurant goers do, is to skip back and forth between the available options, until they hit a decisive moment. True, that can take a while, but it is definitely a lot easier if you can perform "random access reads" to the list of choices yourself. However, if someone presents a substantial number of choices to you in a row, as sequential speech, you loose the random access ability. You either remember every choice from the beginning and do your choosing mentaully (if you do have extraordinary mental abilities), or you end up asking the staff to read previous items aloud again. This can work, but usually it doesn't. At some point, you do not want to bother the staff anymore, and you even start to feel stupid for asking again and again, while this is something totally normal to every sighted person, just that "they" do their "random access browsing" on their own, so "they" have no need to feel bad about how long it takes them to decide, minus the typical social pressure that arises after a a certain time for everyone, at least if you are dining in a group.

In very rare cases, you happen to meet staff that is truly "awake", doing their best to not let you feel that they might be pressed on time, and really taking as much time as necessary to help you make the perfect decision. This is rare, but if it happens, it is almost a magical moment. One of these moments, where there are no "artificial" barriers between humans doing communcation. Anyway, I am drifting away.

The perfect solution to this problem is to provide random access browsing of a restaurant menu with the help of digital devices. Trying to make braille menus available in all restaurants is a goal which is not realistically reachable. Menus go out of date, and need changing. And getting a physical braille copy updated and reprinted is considerably more involved as with digital media. Restaurant owners will also likely not see the benefit to rpvide a braille card for a very small circle of customers. With a digital online menu, that is a completely different story.

These days, almost every blind person in at least my social circles owns an iOS (or similar) device. These devices have speech synthesis and web browsers.

Of course, some restaurants especially in urban areas do already have a menu online. I have found them manually with google and friends sometimes in the past, which has already given me the ability to actually sit back, and really comfortably choose amongst the available offerings myself, without having to bother a human, and without having to feel bad about (ab)using their time.

However, the case where a restaurant really has their menu online is rather rare still in the area where I am. And, it can be tedious to google for a restaurant website. Sometimes, the website itself is just marginally accessible, which makes it even more frustrating to get a relaxed dinner-experience.

I have discovered a location-based solution for the restaurant-menu problem recently. Foursquare offers the ability to provide a direct link to the menu in a restaurant-entry. I figured, since all you need to do is write a single webpage where the (common) menu items are listed per restaurant, that I could begin to create restaurant menus for my favourite locations, on my own. Well, not quite, but almost. I will sometimes need help from others to get the menu digitized, but that's just a one-time piece of work I hopefully can outsource :-). Once the actual content is in my INBUX, I create a nice HTML page listing the menu in a rather speech-based browser friendly way.

I have begun to do this today, with the menu of a restaurant just about 500 meters away from my apartment. Unterm goldenen Dachl now has a menu online, and the foursquare change request to publish the corresponsing URL is already pending. I don't fully understand how the Foursquare change review process works yet, but I hope the URL should be published in the upcoming days/weeks.

I am using Foursquare because it is the backend of a rather popular mobile navigation App for blind people, called Blindsquare. Blindsquare lets you comfortably use Open Street Map and Foursquare data to get an overview of your surroundingds. If a food place has a menu entry listed in Foursquare, Blindsquare conveniently shows it to you and opens a browser if you tap it. So there is no need to actually search for the restaurant, you can just use the location based search of Blindsquare to discover the restaurant entry and its menu link directly from within Blindsquare. Actually, you could even find a restaurant by accident, and with a little luck, find the menu for it by location, without even knowing how the restaurant is called. Isn't that neat? Yeah, that's how it is supposed to work, that's as much independence as you can get.

And, it is, as the title suggests, croudsourced accessibility. Becuase while it is nice if a restaurant owner cares to publish their menu themselves, if they haven't, you can do it yourself. Either as a user of assistive technologies, to scratch your own itch. Or as a friend of a person with a need for assistive technologies. Next time you go to lunch with your blind friend, consider making available the menu to them digitally in advance, instead of reading it. Other people will likely thank you for that, and you have actually achieved something today. And if you happne to put a menu online, make sure to submit a change request to Foursquare. Many blind people are using blindsquare these days, which makes it super-easy for them to discover the menu.

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