Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

Commentary: On 10 Years of the iPhone

On January 9, 2007, the Apple iPhone was unveiled by the late Steve Jobs in front of thousands of curious spectators. The launch of this new and entirely touch-screen operated cell phone changed the way in which people across the globe interact with technology. For me and countless other individuals with vision loss or other disabilities, the iPhone and similar mobile devices not only gave us greater access to technology, but they also afforded us more independence that previously seemed impossible.

My brother and several friends were among the lucky ones to own that first iPhone from 2007. I always heard excited chatter from them about the cool features it had. “I can even check the weather,” my brother told my relatives in Mexico. At the time touch-screen devices like the iPhone were completely inaccessible to those of us with vision loss, so I could only dream of enjoying that technology. That all changed in 2009 with the launch of the iPhone 3GS, when Apple incorporated Voiceover, its screen-reading software into this and future versions of the iPhone.

Like most of my friends who were blind, I was skeptical and didn’t know if the iPhone would work for me. The thought of being able to use a touch-screen without sight seemed daunting and impossible. It was not until 2012 that I decided to switch to an iPhone after constantly hearing rave reviews from my friends, who were extremely pleased with the accessibility. Their feedback did not disappoint. For the first time in my life, I was able to send and receive text messages on my own thanks to the iPhone. I could also check the weather and email on the go, something that my family and friends took for granted.

Today, the iPhone not only helps me stay in touch with the world, it also gives me more independence. Apps like LookTell Money Reader and TapTapSee allow me to identify things without needing someone’s assistance. With the Bard Mobile and NFB NewsLine apps I can download books, newspapers and magazines in a matter of seconds to listen on my iPhone. The kNFBReader app quickly scans printed documents and reads them out loud to me. Thanks to Voiceover and the built-in accessibility of the camera, I can even take pictures! Finding last minute transportation has become easier thanks to apps like Lyft and Uber, and I can easily find my way to unfamiliar locations with the phone’s GPS.

Without a doubt, the iPhone and other mobile devices have dramatically enhanced the lives of everyone, but even more so for people with disabilities. Technology has changed significantly since 2007, the time when I and other people with vision loss could only dream of being able to use these devices. Kudos to Apple and other manufacturers who are constantly trying to make their devices accessible to everyone. The possibilities with technology are endless, and I am sure it will only continue to help people with and without disabilities connect to the world and live more independent lives.


Becoming ‘Aware’ of Your Surroundings Through Modern Technology

Becoming ‘Aware’ of Your Surroundings Through Modern Technology

Going on my own to unfamiliar places has always been one of my biggest challenges. People with sight can easily scope out an area and figure out where things are, but this is not always the case for someone who can’t see. New assistive technology is being developed that will make it easier for us to navigate independently when out and about. The Aware app, made by Sensible Innovations, is one such technology. We at The Chicago Lighthouse are currently involved in a pilot project testing the app, and I recently got a chance to see how it works!


The Aware App was developed by Sensible Innovations of Springfield, IL. Rasha Said is the company’s founder and CEO, and she was inspired to develop the app by her son, who is legally blind. Said saw her son’s need to know what was around him in unfamiliar places, and realized that millions of individuals worldwide with vision loss could also benefit from the emerging technology.

How It Works

Using Apple’s iBeacon technology and the Aware iOS or Android mobile app, users get verbal information and directions to different locations in a building. The iBeacons, which are installed throughout different areas of a facility, transmit information via Bluetooth to a user’s phone. The app then announces the places as users approach them. It will also give directions and guide them to different locations.

The Aware app uses information and navigation beacons. Navigation beacons give directions to different places in a building. Users can choose a desired location in the app’s directory (a feature I particularly like,) and once selected, the app will guide the person there. At The Lighthouse, it can give me directions from the lobby to the cafeteria and vice versa. Information beacons give more specific details, such as the description of a room’s layout. When in The Lighthouse lobby, for example, the app announces where the information desk and seating areas are. These beacons can also read things like restaurant menus and items in vending machines.

Beacon information for each building is managed through an online portal. The website, which is also accessible to assistive technology users, allows those in charge of configuring the beacons to add or update information as needed. This can be useful when making a correction or updating the description of a room’s layout, for instance. The portal can be accessed at any time of day, and information can always be updated.

My Thoughts about the App

Aware is fully compatible and accessible with iOS’s voiceover screen-reader. After installing and opening it, the app automatically began searching for beacons around The Chicago Lighthouse. Seconds later, it announced that I was in the lobby. When I hit the “more information button on the upper right of the screen, it told me that the information desk is directly straight ahead from the entrance, and that there are seats all around the lobby. Beacons are also installed in three of The Lighthouse’s vending machines. After tapping the information button when I was near the drinks vending machine, the app read the different items and prices.

This app is an emerging technology that I believe has a lot of potential. It is easy to use, and very accessible to people with varying degrees of vision loss. Directions are clear and easy to understand, and the app constantly announces the areas users are approaching. This is of tremendous help for orientation purposes. I hope that one day more places will adopt this remarkable technology so that people with vision loss have the freedom to venture out and explore at their heart’s content. Kudos to Rasha Said and the entire Sensible Innovations team for their hard work. The possibilities for this technology are endless!

Commentary: Making Technology Accessible From the Start

Biometric login, or using someone’s fingerprint or snapshot of their face to verify the person’s identity, is said to be more secure than traditional passwords. As an avid technology user, I couldn’t agree more. Passwords and password security are not guaranteed in today’s day and age. We will all eventually forget a password, and this often means we will have to go through the annoying process of resetting or changing it. Let’s also not forget about all the viruses, and even hackers that can easily steal our passwords and other information. Using one’s fingerprint and taking a selfie to login is simple – no need to remember complicated passwords!

This all sounds great, until we think about people who are blind or visually impaired. How can we possibly snap perfect selfies with inaccessible equipment? Research done at the University of Surrey and Carlos III University of Madrid discovered that facial recognition technology is highly inaccessible for blind and visually impaired users, despite its growth in popularity. Researchers found that often these users cannot take perfectly aligned selfies because smartphone and computers are inaccessible to them. The team suggested including audio components to assist users in taking an accurate selfie.

I have seen this same problem over the years with other technologies. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, blindness organizations and technology developers were working to make ATMs fully accessible to the blind and visually impaired. Later when touch screen cell phones came out, developers began working feverishly to make these usable to people without sight. The reality is that as technology evolves, so will accessibility issues for people with disabilities. Unfortunately, most technology manufacturers neglect to think about folks with disabilities when designing new products.

This should not be a problem in the 21st century, when technology is at its peak of development. We constantly see or hear about products that will be in the market in the near future. There’s not a week that I don’t read about new devices that will come out in the next 5 or 10 years. Why is it then that manufacturers are failing to take people with disabilities into account? It has long been said that people with disabilities are the largest minority, both in the United States and all over the world. Furthermore, the number of people with disabilities throughout the world is projected to increase in the near future.

Facial recognition and biometric login technology can greatly increase security. Unfortunately, it is still not accessible to people with vision loss. This means that I and fellow blind and visually impaired individuals will be excluded from many products and services if this form of login becomes standard. According to the World Health Organization, there are 285 million people in the world who are blind or visually impaired. This is a significantly large number of individuals who would be unnecessarily excluded from today’s technology!

Prior technology accessibility problems have been resolved, so that is why I hope this and other technologies will soon become accessible to everyone regardless of ability. Technology manufacturers are always on their feet developing new products, why not stop and think about how to make them accessible for everyone. This, I think, can go a long way in eliminating accessibility difficulties that often can be easily solved from the get-go.

Commentary: Wikipedia, The Encyclopedia Anyone Can Read!

Wikipedia is the encyclopedia anyone can edit, and soon it will also be the encyclopedia anyone can make accessible. Researchers at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden have partnered with Wikimedia to develop a speech engine that will read Wikipedia articles aloud. This will be a crowdsourced effort, meaning that anyone can contribute to building the speech engine. The tool will be optimized for Wikipedia, but will also work on other websites running the MediaWiki software. It will be free and open sourced, making it accessible to anyone who would like to use it.

Without a doubt, Wikipedia is considered one of the most popular sources of information on the Internet. It is available in more than 280 languages, making it widely accessible to virtually anyone in the world. Many of us turn to Wikipedia to find information about a favorite artist, sport team or historical event. It is estimated that around 125 million – or 25 percent – of Wikipedia users need or prefer speech to text technology to access the website.


When I first heard about this project, I immediately thought about how it would help people like me who are blind or have a significant visual impairment. We already use magnifying or talking software on our computers or mobile devices, so having an online tool readily available to read articles on Wikipedia will give us more access to information. On second thought, not only will people with visual impairments benefit. Those with learning or other disabilities who need or prefer to listen to written materials will also find this tool useful. Even people without disabilities who would rather listen instead of read could potentially find the speech engine helpful.

The most exciting aspect of this new tool is that it will be free of charge to everyone. Text to speech software can be extremely expensive, often costing hundreds of dollars. Most people – especially those in third world countries – will probably never be able to purchase such pricy equipment. This creates a tremendous accessibility barrier that otherwise could easily be eliminated with today’s technology. It is great to see that Wikipedia also wants to make sure that everyone has access to the worldwide web.

People often say that knowledge is power, but unfortunately not everyone has access to written information. Wikipedia’s effort to make a speech engine for everyone to be able to read its content is very fitting. After all, this virtual encyclopedia has allowed us to have a wealth of information literally at our fingertips. I sure am looking forward to the day when Wikipedia also becomes the encyclopedia anyone can read.

Commentary: Smart Canes

The following story is about a prototype of a “smart” cane for people who are blind or visually impaired. According to the researchers, this cane would recognize other people’s faces from about 30 feet away. It would also have other neat features, such as GPS.

While it would be nice for me to have a device with facial recognition capabilities, I wouldn’t necessarily want or use my cane for that purpose. I do, however, think that a cane with GPS functions would help.

There is another issue to consider: would the cane be light and portable with all of the technical additions? I think this is certainly doable – after all, cell phones now fit in the palm of our hand! Cost would be the next important area to consider. One of the nice features of the cane is that it is a device most people can afford, and if technology is added, there is always the possibility that the cost will increase significantly.

I look forward to the day when technology helps me recognize people I may run into when I’m out and about. Regardless of whether it is on a cane or other device, I think this technology will be very helpful to those of us without sight.

Thanks for reading, and you can learn more about this fascinating prototype at Stay tuned for Thursday’s post, where I’ll talk about how facial recognition and other recently developed technologies can help blind and visually impaired individuals.

Commentary: Silicon Valley Finds It Harder to Ignore the Blind

Things as simple as watching your favorite TV show or hailing a cab have been made much easier thanks to modern technology. As the following article points out, however, some of these technologies and services are still inaccessible to those of us with visual impairments.

Thankfully, tech giants such as Apple, Netflix and Comcast have realized that by making their products accessible to everyone not only are they increasing their profits, but they are allowing people with visual impairments to enjoy the same services offered to everyone else. Advocacy and spreading awareness are also important in order to make all products and services accessible for everyone.

As a person who is blind, I dream of the day when all new gadgets, apps and other technologies are accessible to me. I’m sure that when that day comes I won’t have to think twice about buying a new phone, tablet, computer, etc. I invite you to check out the following article and comment!

Read the full article here: