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IAN POPPERWELL: Hi-tech Exclusion

Sounding Off
Published April 1997

Following Jean‑Philippe Rykiel's comments in last month's SOS, it's interesting to hear from another visually‑impaired musician. Ian Popperwell invites you to take sides in the high‑tech exclusion game...

As a blind musician, playing in a gigging band and with an 8‑track home studio, I want to raise the issue of disabled people's access to music and recording equipment. A charity assisting disabled people with physical impairments to gain some access to music technology, the Drake Music Project, was featured in SOS last April, but I think that they painted too rosy a picture — here's another side of the story.

It's well documented and discussed in SOS that much of today's music technology packs more and more facilities into smaller and smaller spaces. This can be advantageous in terms of quantity of features and price, but there is a down side. Paul White has put forward the 'increased features/decreased creativity' correlation, but for me — and for many other disabled musicians — it's accessing those features at all that is the barrier. LCD screens (sometimes with touch‑sensitive areas), increment/decrement parameter control, Alpha/jog/shuttle dials...

These barriers have become starkly evident to me recently, as I've been getting back into equipment‑buying after a few years' break. Apart from purely analogue or extremely simple digital items, it's really difficult to find something which has the features that I want, and which I can use independently on stage or for recording, that is even vaguely accessible to me. For instance, take a multi‑effects processor: I'd like a unit with high‑quality effects, that's programmable (by me), but I don't want to need to see the display screen merely to call up a program. Drum machines are another example. When I had an old TR606 with a little LED above every step button, using it was dead easy; now I've got a 'Rhythm Composer' which has an LCD screen (without any back light) and numerous pages to contend with — I don't know anybody who finds it easy or intuitive to use. And then there are synths, workstations, samplers, DAT machines, sound modules, sequencers, hard disk recorders...

On old analogue synths, for example, I could just feel a knob or switch and know exactly what it was set to and what that setting would mean in terms of the whole sound — and other musicians, too, tend to like tangible and intuitive controls rather than virtual ones. I notice that, in reviews, pieces of equipment with knobs and switches generally get praised for having 'a user‑friendliness that's lacking in the competition'. Where blind people are isolated, though, is in sheer lack of choice — we aren't able to go for the cheaper option if it isn't usable independently by us. Don't get me wrong — I'm interested in technology and I follow its development; I've read SOS since it started (coveting many review items), and am excited by 'progress'. My gripes relate to the lack of access to that technology for me and for other disabled musicians and engineers. Generally, I'm forced to make compromises in terms of features, sound quality, or build quality in order to get equipment that's accessible enough fo me to use independently. And if I then want to do anything but the most basic operations with MIDI, I have to get somebody else in to at least set it up for me.

Interestingly, computers have — until recently — been of little help in terms of music. For word‑processing and other text‑based applications, and a few sequencing packages, PCs can be used easily and efficiently with a speech synthesizer and associated screen‑reading software, and this has provided immense access to information, although there's currently very little available to enable a Windows interface to be accessed reliably and in detail with a speech synthesizer. This is changing, but developments for disabled users are lagging well behind the mainstream market, so that disabled users are often forced to make compromises in terms of how much of a particular application they can access.

There are plenty of disabled musicians around, and my view is that we need to be making manufacturers and suppliers of equipment aware of the exclusivity of many of their products, rather than sitting back and complaining, or merely trying to fit in and manage. Let's speak with one voice, and make it heard!