Blind tech exec knocks down walls for disabled

MetaSwitch CTO Chris Mairs, an advocate for the disabled, says digital lifestyle can be freeing, isolating.

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
4 min read
Chris Mairs, a tech executive and world champion water-skier, has never been one to let his blindness get in the way of his career or personal aspirations.

But it wasn't until about 1994, when he helped develop and test a new technology that lets vision-impaired water-skiers participate in slalom competitions, that Mairs recognized an even larger calling.

Chris Mairs
Chris Mairs is chairman of A-technic,
which develops assistive technology.

"It liberated me from my sight," he said, describing the audio device, the first of a handful of technologies the A-technic charity, of which he is chairman, has helped develop and fund for people with disabilities. "So often what we're doing in life is compensating for our disability. But with this (water-skiing device), sight was no longer the limiting factor."

That was just the beginning of Mairs' unrelenting efforts to help develop assistive technologies, and also to educate the business community and the public about technological barriers. He's also known for tackling the question, in lectures and the media, of whether technology ultimately helps or hinders the disabled.

"I have not heard anyone really talk about the issues in quite the way Chris does," said John Rigg, a blind researcher for the London School of Economics who frequently uses A-technic's newspaper reader.

Looking at issues for the blind, for example, Mairs points out that for every technological advance, such as talking books or online shopping, there are also accessibility roadblocks. Screen-dependent text messaging and iPods, for example, are two crazes a blind person can enjoy only to a very limited extent, he said.

Mairs on skis
Mairs is a member of the British
Disabled Water Ski Team.

A native of Nottingham, England, 45-year-old Mairs is the chief technology officer for MetaSwitch, which develops telephone switches for telecommunication service providers. MetaSwitch has U.S. offices in California and Virginia, but is a division of London-based Data Connection, a 350-employee company Mairs helped start in 1981 after working on mainframe and communications systems software at IBM.

Mairs, who is now based in London, registered blind at age 18 after losing his sight from a degenerative condition, just as he started studying computer technology at the University of Cambridge. A self-described "speed-freak," he took up water-skiing at about age 23 when he figured out it was "exhilarating without being life-threatening."

Until recently, Mairs water-skied on the British Disabled Water Ski Team, which he captained to win several world championships. The audio device for slalom skiing, called Bat Blaster ("bat" as in blind, and "blaster" because it's "very noisy"), is now used in all major disabled water-ski competitions, Mairs said.

The newspaper reader, or "Newsreader," which repackages what otherwise would be a massive unformatted text file, is also still used by many, and was particularly popular before newspapers started putting their content on the Internet. For Rigg, it makes it so "reading the newspaper every day is not a chore."

"For a lot of people, it's the difference between reading a paper or not," he said.

While most of A-technic's projects are geared toward helping the blind, its broader mission is to improve accessibility for people with all disabilities. One device in the works is a universal remote control with just a few buttons and spoken feedback that could be useful for someone with a visual impairment or limited dexterity.

Technology--from motorized wheelchairs to hearing aids to talking books--has definitely made life easier and less isolating for people with disabilities, Mairs said. But too often, disabled consumers are left out of the equation for far too long, he said.

Take telephones, for example. When they first came out, you placed a call by asking an operator to connect you. Now you have screen-driven cell phones with tiny keypads "where you think you're about to call someone and you've actually taken a picture of your foot," Mairs said.

And while cell phones have evolved to allow for text-reading technology, it's not possible to add new software to the iPod that might enhance its capabilities. Sure, Mairs can use the screenless iPod Shuffle. But for now, the only hope for using a regular iPod is tapping into the community of open-source hackers putting Linux on the device, which opens it up to speech programs, but essentially makes it a whole different gadget.

In another example, Mairs noted that there are still many retail Web sites--like Target.com, which is subject to a California class action lawsuit--that make it impossible for a blind person to actually buy anything.

"We take one step forward and one step backwards," he said.