Legally blind from birth, Julian Vargas’s old cell phone led him to a new career in training other blind people how to use technology.
Julian Vargas (Photo: Bernard Falkin)
Back in 2005, Julian Vargas bought a Nokia 6620 from AT&T for about $100. The phone ran the Symbian operating system, and AT&T sent him a memory card loaded with TALKS software, which provided text-to-speech access to nearly all of the phone’s features and functions—this at a time when most phones had only numeric keypads, except for expensive BlackBerrys and Palm Treos. The iPhone and Android didn’t yet exist.
“Having that [Nokia] phone was a game-changer for me,” said Vargas, who has been legally blind his entire life. “That was something, to suddenly have a phone that spoke all kinds of things to me that I never had access to before, like my signal strength, my battery level. If I got a text message, it would read that message and, even more importantly, I could respond to the message.”
One of the best features for Vargas, and other blind users of those rudimentary Nokia smartphones, was that they could use the TALKS software to store numbers in a contact list. Until that point, Vargas had to memorize his contacts.
Smartphones have evolved by leaps and bounds since then. And Vargas, who is now 53 and lives in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles, has made something of a career out of training other blind people how to use smartphones, smart speakers, and all manner of digital technology—even microwave ovens.
Today, Vargas spends relatively little time on his computer. It’s mostly apps on his smartphones that get him through his day. He’s very keen on Microsoft’s Seeing AI app (Opens in a new window) , which he describes as the Swiss Army knife of blind tools. It speaks text as soon as it appears in front of the smartphone’s camera, can read some handwritten text, and identifies different denominations of currency. Vargas also uses an app that works with En-Vision America’s ScripTalk (Opens in a new window) , the free program whereby pharmacies will put an RFID tag about the size of a quarter on the bottom of prescription bottles. Using the app or a small standalone piece of hardware, all the info on the prescription label will be read aloud. Sometimes, Vargas needs another set of eyes to help him. At those moments he is likely to turn to Be My Eyes (Opens in a new window) , an app in which a sighted volunteer on a live video call describes for the blind user what the camera on their smartphone shows. He also maintains a list of other iOS resources (Opens in a new window) on his website.
“I feel that God gave each one of us a certain talent, a certain ability,” said Vargas. “And I don’t think it was intended for us to keep it to ourselves.”
Vargas and his younger brother were raised in an observant Catholic family in New York City. Both were born with a rare genetic condition known as Leber Congenital Amaurosis (LCA). Somewhere around 2003, at the age of 33, Vargas’ already-limited vision began to decline. He knew that time would come because LCA is a degenerative disease with no cure or treatment. Not long afterward, he resolved to begin the transition from using magnification software for his Windows computer to an application that did both magnification and screen reading. His goal was to get to the point where he could just use a JAWS screen reader and no magnification to do whatever he needed to do on his PC.
“The more you increase the magnification, the less screen real estate you get,” Vargas explained. “When you get up to four, five, or six times magnification, you have so little screen real estate, it becomes impractical to use the magnifier and you realize it’s time to go to a screen reader.”
Though Vargas never went to college, he took computer courses in the late 1990s at a vocational center in California. He describes himself as an autodidact who realized that he had a knack for figuring out how to use all sorts of electronic devices. His career as a paid trainer for blind tech users began after a period of helping his friends without charge. That was followed by a series of presentations at blind service organizations, including the Braille Institute, the Council of Citizens with Low Vision International, and the National Federation of the Blind (NFB). Word of his tech chops spread to the point where Vargas’ presentations at his San Fernando Valley NFB chapter drew people who normally didn’t go to meetings.
“I don’t want to make people dependent on me,” said Vargas. “I tell people from the start that my goal is to make it so that I don’t have to hear from them after a while.”
Vargas soon became a regular at the annual Assistive Technology Conference (Opens in a new window) organized by California State University, Northridge (CSUN). The CSUN gathering, which features gear and software to help blind, deaf, and others with disabilities, has been referred to as the "CES of assistive technology." In 2009, after the conference’s location moved south to San Diego, a mini version of the gathering called Best In Tech (Opens in a new window) began in the San Fernando Valley. At the last one where Vargas spoke, close to 500 people attended.
Another way Vargas kept abreast of tech developments was listening to radio and cable television shows that focused on the topic—particularly "The Tech Guy," the nationally syndicated weekend call-in show emanating from the influential Southern California news/talk station KFI-AM. In 2004, a new host named Leo Laporte took over the show. Over the years, Vargas evolved from being one of the listeners calling in for help to someone Laporte regarded as an authority on accessibility, who would help answer questions from blind listeners struggling with their computers and mobile devices. Radio has long been an important source of information for blind people, and Laporte has noticed that he gets a lot of calls from blind listeners or family members calling on their behalf.
Vargas remembers calling in the show when he got his Nokia 6620 and how Laporte was genuinely interested in learning what it was like for a blind person to use it. The radio host subsequently allowed Vargas to promote the Best In Tech gathering on the air. Eventually, Laporte encouraged Vargas to give out his phone number, email address, and website (www.techjv.com (Opens in a new window) ).
“Julian’s very generous of his time,” said Laporte. “He’s a really good guy.”
The respect is mutual.
“Leo doesn’t shy away from taking calls from blind listeners," said Vargas, who also listens to Laporte’s tech podcast network, TWIT.tv (Opens in a new window) . "He embraces people like me being involved in the show."
Laporte said he can feel the frustration of his blind radio listeners when they call in to "The Tech Guy." He tries to imagine the challenge of using a smartphone or computer— or living without them— in this modern world.
“As a sighted user, my experience of accessibility technology is never going to be the same as somebody who cannot see what’s going on,” Laporte explained. “I’m sympathetic how hard it is and I want to help, but I can’t really represent that audience, so it’s really important that people who are helping blind people with accessibility are blind themselves because only they can really understand the issues.”
Laporte and Vargas have both embraced smart speakers at home in a big way. While Vargas has several flavors of the Amazon Echo and one Google Home in his house, Laporte has Amazon, Google, and Apple smart speakers in practically every room of his home. But as far as Laporte is concerned, voice-enabled devices have not lived up to his expectations of what he thought would be a transformational technology.
“I don’t think Siri or Amazon’s Echo or the Google Assistant are as good as they could be or ought to be,” said Laporte. “And they’re not improving at the speed I thought they might.”
In addition to calling in "The Tech Guy" radio show and doing live tech presentations before blind groups, Vargas has spread the word on podcasts. He has served as co-host of a podcast called "All About Smartphones," available on the website of the Audio Internet Reading Service of Los Angeles (AIRSLA) (Opens in a new window) . A group he founded in 2012 to discuss everything from high tech to no tech used to meet in person until the pandemic. Since March 2021, Breaking Blindness Barriers gathers on Zoom and AIRSLA turns its meetings into a podcast.
Smart speakers are one of the things Vargas helps his blind clients learn to use. So is GPS. He taught Bob Acosta, a long-time client, how to follow travel directions spoken aloud on his iPhone by taking a walk with him around the block.
Twelve years ago, Nicholas Harrier lost his left leg, so he built a new one that looks like Tony Stark’s. Now, he makes them for other amputees.
Credit: RaShawn Dixon
Above Nicholas Harrier’s desk stands a shelf of shins. “The collection of failures,” he says, sitting at his office chair.
Harrier is referring to a shelf full of prosthetic covers: decorative skins for artificial limbs. He stands to show me two of the early models. They are primarily made from foam and silicone but look like hard metal armor. The aesthetic is taken from comic books. “These are just experiments,” he explains. “Just trying to see the different layers, textures, and things.”
Harrier is a prosthetic technician, and the decorative skins sitting on the shelf were not good enough for his perfectionist’s eye. Some didn’t fit correctly; others didn’t have the look he intended. They’re reminders of what to avoid and what to do better.
Harrier himself lost his left leg when he was 28. He created his own decorative cover three years ago. It’s pure cyberpunk, a collage of worn iron plates and faux tubing. He bends down to flip a small switch, which lights up a plastic circle in the middle so that it changes from green to blue to purple. Every cover he shows me is do-it-yourself. When I ask how he learned the skills to make these skins, he tells me, “It really was just YouTube. There are some really good people out there, though. I give them all the credit.”
He points to another shin, unfinished. His next project for himself.
“This is hand-carved,” he says. “And the idea is that when it’s done, it’ll look exactly like H.R. Giger’s aliens from the movie Aliens.”
Prosthetic covers are often created to look hyper-realistic, like skin, but that isn’t Harrier’s goal. His covers look futuristic, mechanical, and inorganic.
Aesthetic protective skins for artificial limbs (or “covers,” as they are known in the world of prosthetics), like those that Harrier creates, are often an afterthought. In the last 100 years, prosthetic technology has advanced at an unbelievable rate. World Wars I and II dramatically increased the amputee population and resulted in improvements to the design of prosthetic limbs in order to keep up with the demand.
Now, the field of prosthetics is more science-driven. Artificial limbs are currently made from lighter materials such as aluminum, titanium, stainless steel, and carbon fiber, and they’re fit by professionals. The main part of a prosthetic that has to be customized is the socket, the part of the device that joins it to the residual limb. Different types of prostheses are made for specific activities, such as biking, basketball, or climbing.
The most advanced prosthetics can even be controlled by electrical impulses from muscles, almost like a real limb. And surgeons are beginning to implant metal rods within the bone of an amputated limb. The rods then stick out at the end of one’s soft tissue. This renders sockets (which can rub and chafe skin) obsolete, and the prosthesis connects to the rod directly.
Advancements in the more mechanical developments of prosthetic limbs can outshine something simpler but still important: how a prosthesis looks. In the 1960s, prosthetists began experimenting with silicone to make artificial limbs more aesthetically pleasing. Now, prostheses can look so realistic that you need a double take to see that they aren’t skin. Still, whether they are lifelike or sci-fi-inspired, custom silicone skins serve an important medical purpose: They can be life-changing when it comes to an amputee’s mental health.
“[A custom cover] has extreme value for the patient in helping them to feel comfortable to participate in life,” says Nicole Soltys, the Associate Director of Prosthetics & Orthotics at Shirley Ryan AbilityLab in Chicago. Soltys’ main goal is to get patients back to doing what they loved prior to their amputation.
“If their amputation and their prosthesis are making them feel self-conscious,” she says, “and a custom silicone cover would help them feel more comfortable in public, then I feel like it’s absolutely necessary. If that’s the only thing that’s going to get them back or just being in life, then it’s very necessary.”
Unfortunately, it takes a highly trained artisan to offer this service, and both types of covers (hyper-realistic and decorative) are rarely affordable if not covered by insurance. “Part of the challenge,” Soltys says, “is that there really isn’t a way to make it less expensive.” Custom silicone covers can cost thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars, and most of the time, insurance companies won’t cover what they consider to be cosmetic.
But even with a skin that looks like something out of The Matrix, the word "cosmetic" doesn’t fit. Hinting that aesthetic covers are merely about appearance dismisses the restorative and psychological component of having a prosthesis that’s exciting to wear. Not every amputee wants a custom cover, but no amputee opted to lose a limb.
Harrier could sell his prosthetic covers for profit, but he understands just how important it can be for amputees to have something that makes them feel more comfortable with their amputation.
“I think we want to make it a medical discussion. The patient’s mental health is definitely part of their medical care,” Soltys says. “It’s not like a piece of jewelry. It’s not something that the patient is wearing just to have something flashy. It really is something that is allowing them to get back into all their activities.”
Back at the lab, Harrier is working on his latest cover. It’s another shin—although he does make hands and fingers as well. He works at Oakland Orthopedics in Bay City, Michigan, a medical center that specializes in prosthetics and orthotics. The unfinished cover hangs horizontally on a pole above a large trash can. Exposed red, blue, and green faux wires travel up the front and are connected to armor made from foam. In the center is a plastic circle, which lights up (similar to Harrier’s own). It’s for a client who works as a model. She has an above-knee amputation.
What makes Harrier’s custom covers so remarkable is not just the way they look.
“I don’t charge for them,” he says. “I’m willing to do them for absolutely anybody who asks.”
Creating these skins isn’t Harrier’s main job; it’s work his boss allows him to do on the side. If he could spend all his energy on a cover, creating one would take two days. Instead, he’s been working on this limb for a couple of weeks.
Harrier could sell his prosthetic covers for profit, but he understands just how important it can be for amputees to have something that makes them feel more comfortable with their amputation.
“It’s honestly dehumanizing,” Harrier tells me about his leg before he added the custom prosthetic cover. “I’m an above-knee amputee, so I’m using a knee that thousands of people are walking on. It looks like [every other prosthetic] knee. It’s very narrow, and it doesn’t fill out your jeans. It makes your jeans wave like a flag in the wind when you walk.”
When he added a futuristic prosthetic cover, it not only changed his feelings toward his amputated leg, but it also changed how others approached it.
“When I used to go around the world, it was like, everybody couldn’t wait to talk about one of the worst tragedies I’ve been through in my life. And now they’re just looking at it going, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ ‘Where’d you get that?’ It goes from being this negative interaction to a substantially more positive interaction. And that changes your whole life, when suddenly people are being more positive to you.”
Harrier’s official job title is Certified Prosthetic Technician, but he does a lot more. For instance, he built the lab that he works in, and it feels like a cross between a mechanic’s shop and a high school art room. Harrier measured the place and planned for ventilation. He watched carpentry videos on YouTube to figure out how to build the workbenches.
He’s meticulously organized, and outlined every hook for every hammer, screwdriver, and paintbrush. Harrier decorated his toolbox with the Batman symbol, and his water bottle is modeled after an X-wing. He tells me there are easter eggs all over the lab. I begin to look around and find little white labels that read “look closer.” It’s an American Beauty reference.
Harrier may be the only prosthetic technician in the world who makes the kind of covers that he does and gives them away for free. And he wouldn’t be in the prosthetics field if he weren’t an amputee. He grew up in Alma, Michigan (about 75 miles away from Flint), in what he refers to as the “cancer corridor” of the state. His troubles with his left leg began when he was 13: His doctors diagnosed him with osteosarcoma, a progressive bone cancer.
“There were a handful of others at the hospital that had the exact same kind of cancer,” he tells me. “I’ve had six friends die from cancer.”
A week after the diagnosis, he began chemotherapy. Doctors gave him a total knee replacement, took out part of the tibia in his left leg, and attached a metal rod to his knee.
His internal prosthetic didn’t feel like bone. “[The pain] was pretty much constant, but then also just in the winter, that steel would get cold, and you could literally feel your femur getting cold from the inside. It just took forever for that to warm back up, and it’s such a dull indescribable pain.” His left leg didn’t look quite normal. His muscles atrophied and it was smaller than his right.
The internal rod was supposed to adjust and grow with him, but when that didn’t work, his doctors drilled a hole through https://jiji.ng/ the growth plate in his right knee so it would stop growing as well. Harrier is now about five feet eight inches tall, and his fingertips almost hit his knees.
“They told me, ‘Yeah, you were going to be about five feet 11 inches or six feet. Not anymore. You’re done.’”
In many ways, Harriers was lucky. After going through both the surgery and chemotherapy, he went into remission and has been ever since. But he always knew that losing his leg wasn’t necessarily a matter of if, but when. “They had prepared me my whole life, you know, you’re going to lose it one day,” he says.
That day came in September 2010, when Harrier was 28. He believes the left leg ended up going for three reasons: a cyst, a tree root, and Lake Michigan.
The cyst seemed benign, just a tiny bump on his shin. He had noticed it a few months before going on an August camping trip with some buddies at Lake Michigan.
The tree root was sneaky. Harrier followed a friend down a sand dune to the lake. “My buddy stepped on a tree root, and then when he stepped off, it came back up and it smacked me right on that cyst,” he recalls. Harrier walked back to his campsite to treat the wound, then went back down to the lake.
Within ten days of the camping trip, Harrier was in the ER. Swimming in bacteria-filled Lake Michigan had most likely exacerbated his cyst. Harrier’s whole leg became infected and was radiating with pain. He was given antibiotics, but the infection persisted. In September, his doctors made the decision to amputate.
This was the darkest period of Harrier’s life—worse than chemo, and worse than cancer. To make matters worse, he had broken up with his fiancée just before the camping trip.
When Harrier received his prosthetic, it was much harder to use than he had expected. Physical therapy was exhausting, and even with hours of hard work, it didn’t feel natural when he walked. “I thought it was going to put on a leg, and run, and be the next Oscar Pistorius,” he says. “And then, I’m doing nothing but falling in my kitchen trying to get a glass of water. Just keeping the knee underneath me was a challenge.” Even now, Harrier says he gets tired after walking a mile on the leg.