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How a Blind Man Finds His Way Through CES

The remarkable CES journey of Mike May.

The International CES is so big, such an assault on the senses, that it’s hard to survey it all in just a few days. It’s even more challenging when you’re blind.

Mike May is a businessman, a former athlete and a motivational speaker who lost his eyesight in a chemical explosion at age 3. He has been attending CES on and off since 1984, searching for technology that can assist the blind community.

“I’m always looking for some cool new thing that happens to be accessible for blind people,” May said when I chatted with him at a CES press preview Sunday night. He pointed out that unlike his own company, Sendero Group, which makes GPS applications for the blind, sometimes tech companies end up unintentionally serving the handicapped.

“As a reporter, I’m here to find those things and report it to the blogs and webinars for blind people,” he said. “You know, maybe there’s a cool Internet radio, or a speaker that instead of flashing lights, it beeps.”

May told me that people bump into him a lot at the show. They’re looking at gadgets and scantily clad women, and not paying attention to where they’re going. He relies on a combination of senses and external support to navigate CES: His hearing, for one; his guide-dog, Tank; and a human guide provided for free by the Consumer Electronics Association, something May says the organization has been doing for the past 10 years.

But on Sunday night he hadn’t found his guide yet. “Tank is really more of a reader than guide, and I’m sort of going on my own at the moment. But I’ll make it through here anyway.”

We talked about vaporware. May said there’s some stuff at CES he gets excited about and nothing comes of it. While it is, at most, vaguely annoying when a much-hyped tablet or TV screen doesn’t make it to market as promised, there’s more at stake for consumers who are relying on technology as a legitimate aid.

At the end of our conversation I asked May for his business card. It’s printed in Braille. A thought occurred to me, and I asked him if he reads his emails.

“Oh sure.” he said. “I use talking software. My iPhone talks, my computer talks, everything. If you went through my house you could find at least 50 things that talk — thermostats, clocks, thermometers, everything.”

“Enjoy the show,” he said, and walked away to the next booth, with Tank a step ahead.

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