Blind iPhone users, via stuff.co.nz.
I was fascinated by this story from The Atlantic, describing how accessibility features of the iPhone are rapidly changing blind users’ daily lives. A description of some of the features:
Tatum is what Edmead calls “a techie.” She had a previous, failed experience with the Android, which almost made her give up the touch technology. Luckily, she kept her mind open enough to see how those around her are adapting to the iPhone. “I started ‘Info share’ five years ago, where a group for visually impaired people can share information.
A young lady, Eliza, got an iPhone, and she was entranced.” The sales representatives at the Verizon store, she says, were very nice and helped her set up her email account and sync her contacts. They didn’t know much besides that, and she had to teach them how accessibility is turned on (through Settings.) “They all went ‘Whoa!’,” she says.
Tatum and Rios happily volunteer to show off all their iPhone can do. “See, I tap it,” says Tatum, her iPhone stretched in front of her, “and it started reading out what is on the screen.”
Blind people use their iPhones slightly different than the sighted because, well, they can’t see what they’re tapping on. So instead of pressing down and opening up an app, they can press anywhere on the screen and hear where their finger is. If it’s where they want to be, they can double-tap to enter. If it isn’t, they’ll flick their finger to the right, to the left, towards the top or the bottom, to navigate themselves. The same for the simple “slide to unlock” command.
The article goes on to describe the way that apps developed specially for the blind, including navigational apps, color identifiers, and paper money identifiers, have started to replace single-use machines and even open up new sensory experiences. Austin Seraphin describes on his blog some of his first impressions in his first week of using an iPhone. Here, he describes being able to explore and share the world of color with the aid of an app:
The other night, however, a very amazing thing happened. I downloaded an app called Color Identifier. It uses the iPhone’s camera, and speaks names of colors. It must use a table, because each color has an identifier made up of 6 hexadecimal digits. This puts the total at 16777216 colors, and I believe it. Some of them have very surreal names, such as Atomic Orange, Cosmic, Hippie Green, Opium, and Black-White. These names in combination with what feels like a rise in serotonin levels makes for a very psychedelic experience.
I have never experienced this before in my life. I can see some light and color, but just in blurs, and objects don’t really have a color, just light sources. When I first tried it at three o’clock in the morning, I couldn’t figure out why it just reported black. After realizing that the screen curtain also disables the camera, I turned it off, but it still have very dark colors. Then I remembered that you actually need light to see, and it probably couldn’t see much at night. I thought about light sources, and my interview I did for Get Lamp. First, I saw one of my beautiful salt lamps in its various shades of orange, another with its pink and rose colors, and the third kind in glowing pink and red.. I felt stunned.
The next day, I went outside. I looked at the sky. I heard colors such as “Horizon,” “Outer Space,” and many shades of blue and gray. I used color cues to find my pumpkin plants, by looking for the green among the brown and stone. I spent ten minutes looking at my pumpkin plants, with their leaves of green and lemon-ginger. I then roamed my yard, and saw a blue flower. I then found the brown shed, and returned to the gray house. My mind felt blown. I watched the sun set, listening to the colors change as the sky darkened. The next night, I had a conversation with Mom about how the sky looked bluer tonight. Since I can see some light and color, I think hearing the color names can help nudge my perception, and enhance my visual experience. Amazing!
Some other interesting links: AppAdvice has a list of apps targeted toward blind users, or with thoughtful support for accessibility functions, as well as a list of games that blind users may enjoy. MacWorld has a rundown of where these settings are located, and what each means. One feature not on the list, but mentioned by Seraphin in the post linked above, is that blind users have the option of disabling the screen and camera, which strikes me as pretty badass in the same way that when I was a kid I thought it was awesome that people who could read Braille could read in the dark. Finally, in a different realm of accessibility, David Pogue of the New York Times describes Apple’s implementation of custom gestures and options for users that don’t have the physical mobility to use multitouch gestures. Comments on the post from users are very interesting. Here’s one sample:
My 11 year old nephew has cerebral palsy. The iPad has opened up a whole world for him. Before the iPad, Nick needed help to surf the web, type, etc., with a regular computer. He lacks the strength and accuracy to press down on a physical keyboard. In addition to motor control problems, Nick’s speech can be difficult to understand. He has used and benefitted from two different AAC devices (assistive and augmentative communication) but they never became something he used in his daily life, only at/for school.
But Nick can use the iPad 100% independently, even without Assistive Touch, because he can tap, swipe and type on the large on screen keyboard, which is much larger than any smartphone. He can do everything on it and with it that any other kid can. He WANTS to use it because it’s cool and because it’s NOT for the disabled. He’s not different when he uses his iPad, he’s just like any other kid. Only luckier, cuz most of his friends don’t have one!
I am a speech-language therapist and I use Android text to speech apps with my adult patients with aphasia, but only has a demonstration of what’s possible because the keyboards are too small for them to use. I was already thinking of switching to an iPhone, and this is another reason to do so. I know that there is a risk of simply giving people with disabilities, especially kids, iPads and expecting them to develop communication skills. It doesn’t work that way, and over using iPads for therapy and education does more harm than good. But in the hands of capable teachers, iPads, iPhones and iOS can change lives.
All of this is super cool and super interesting, but the thing that I was really tickled by in the Atlantic story was this comment from one of the blind advocates:
Yet for all that technology has helped achieve, many in the blind community fear it might result in illiteracy in the generations to come. “I think the technology that’s coming out right now is wonderful,” says Chalkias,”but I also think it’s dumbing us down because it’s making everything so easy. I have a lot of teens who have speech technology and they don’t know how to spell, and it’s horrifying to see that.”
Rios has encountered the same problem. She is an administrative assistant at the music school of Lighthouse International “an organization dedicated to overcoming vision impairment,” based in Manhattan, and a tutor at CCVIP who helps Maria with teenagers. “Even now I come in contact with kids who can’t spell,” she says. “Young adults don’t read Braille because they have screen readers who read for them.”
“I definitely think there’s benefits to this technology” Chalkias says. ”But if it keeps getting easier we’re just going to be a society of idiots that can’t do anything except tell our computers what to do for us.”
Among all populations, the more things change, the more things stay the same.