Sometimes when Josh Pearson is reviewing the menu at a restaurant, he finds himself in unexpected conversations.
“People will see me reading a restaurant menu with my phone and they’ll say, ‘Whoa, you’re not using a phone like we use the phone,’” he says. Because Pearson is blind, he uses Android vision-support features like those on Pixel to have the menu’s written text read aloud to him. “That sparks a conversation,” he says. “And I’ve met some of the most incredible people this way.”
These features have been instrumental for Pearson in other ways, too. A guitarist and singer-songwriter who goes by “Ramblin’ Blind Josh Pearson,” he credits the
TalkBack is a screen reader that audibly describes apps, messages, and other content on a phone, giving visually impaired people eyes-free control of their device. Pearson uses it to open up Google Maps, which speaks directions that help him navigate the world. And it’s how he makes his way to Google Docs, where he speaks his lyrics into his phone and TalkBack reads his words back to him.
Pearson, whose day job is to train people on assistive technologies for use in college or work, joined us for a conversation about his music and how TalkBack,
I play all different kinds of stuff. You can take a blues song from the 1930s and change up the rhythm just a little bit and you’ve got a rockabilly song from the 1950s. You can move that style forward with the instrumentation that you put around it and you have a modern Americana song. So some people might call it country, other people might call it singer-songwriter.
I'd always grown up in a musical household. But reading got me into music. I had access to a library for the blind, found a book on early country musicians and plugged their names into Google. I heard this scratchy old recording [from] the 1930s. I didn’t know that music could sound like that. I was used to hearing things slick and produced. But then I listened to somebody, I think it was Blind Willie McTell, a blues man from the ’20s, as well as Hank Williams, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, and I realized what went into producing these records. You had one take to get it right, there was no overdubbing.
I start by getting a rhythm, then throw in a few chords. And you’ve got a song, right? That’s as simple as it can get. Then I start humming words, or mumbling, and write down and read back in Braille, or with speech, I use TalkBack, which gives me a way to use everyday plain language in the lyrics. I can really pare down what I am trying to get across to just the bare emotion of the story. And then because TalkBack reads back my words to me, I’m able to critique my own work and really home in on how certain words should come together and get the phrasing in a sentence just right.
I can navigate around completely independently, using TalkBack to access things like Google Maps, which will let you know, okay, get on this bus, take it seven stops. And it will tell you what accessibility seating there is available. I use the Lookout app to be able to read a sign, or a restaurant menu.
Using TalkBack, I navigate to the venue, put my guitar down in the greenroom, find food, get a bathroom break, you know, whatever I need. Then, when I’m ready to walk on stage, I might navigate to an app on my phone that connects me to a virtual assistant who will look through my camera and say, take three steps that way, go to your left, turn to your right, the microphone is straight ahead of you and watch out for the drum kit. I can hear them through my headphones. They will also explain to me what the audience looks like. Once I start performing, I point my phone at the audience so the virtual assistant can let me know.