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.

Built-In Accessibility in Mainstream Products: A Benefit for All!

When I first heard in 2009 that Apple’s latest iPhone would be accessible to the blind and visually ipicmpaired, I was very skeptical. I had seen the iPhone’s touch screen, and could not figure out how on earth I could use it without being able to see. A lot has changed since then, and using touch screen devices has become more common among the blind and visually impaired. Best of all, people no longer have to purchase special software or hardware to be able to access the devices. Companies like Google and Apple are working tirelessly to make sure their products can be used by everyone.

Touch screen devices have become accessible to blind and visually impaired users thanks to screen-reading technology. This software speaks out loud the apps and reads emails and text messages. Apple’s Voiceover and Google’s Talkback are among the most popular screen-reading programs designed for mobile devices.

Before 2009, the majority of blind and visually impaired cell phone users had to purchase screen-reading software in addition to their phone. These programs could cost a minimum of $300, and were only compatible with certain devices. Two of the most common programs were Talks and Mobile Speak. Prior to these programs, blind and visually impaired people were not able to read or send text messages independently. Not everyone could afford both the phone and software, and many of us settled with having a phone that had buttons that were easy to tell apart. At least that way we could answer the phone and make calls.

I finally got my iPhone in 2012 after hearing from my blind friends how accessible it was. To say that I was thrilled with the phone’s accessibility is an understatement. For the first time I could browse the internet, send and receive text messages and even know who was calling me thanks to the built-in accessibility! Best of all, I loved the fact that the phone was completely accessible right out of the box. By simply turning Voiceover on I could begin using it – I no longer had to buy additional programs just to be able to use my phone.

More products have become accessible out of the box ever since 2009. In addition to the screen-reading capabilities, people with low vision can make text larger and even change the screen colors for better visibility.

Individuals with physical disabilities are also benefiting from built-in accessibility. Thanks to programs like Apple’s Siri and Android’s Google Now, they can do things like dictate text messages and even open specific apps without having to physically touch their phone or tablet. While Siri and Google Now were not originally designed for people with disabilities, they have been tremendously helpful to this community. Additional built-in accessibility features also help people who are deaf and those with learning or cognitive disabilities use their mobile devices independently.

Designing devices to be accessible out of the box is not only the right thing to do, it is also good for business. Just like anyone else, people with disabilities will by products that are usable and that meet their specific needs. I applaud companies like Apple and Google for their continuous efforts to make their products accessible for everyone, and I hope more manufacturers will follow their lead.

This accessibility has opened more opportunities for people with disabilities in many ways. In future blogs I will discuss how these features combined with other apps have allowed disabled individuals to use mobile devices for many purposes. What off the shelf products have you found accessible as a blind or visually impaired person? Do you have additional suggestions for readers? As always, thanks for your comments and feedback!

How does technology help people who are blind or visually impaired?

blog pic 5-7If someone had told me 10 years ago that one day my cell phone would read print documents and describe things to me, I would’ve laughed and thought this person had watched too many sci-fi movies! This is all to say that today’s technology not only makes life easier for everyone, but in the case of those of us with vision loss it allows us to do even the simplest of things others might not have to think about.

Thanks to modern technology, people with vision loss can do numerous things such as write documents, browse the internet and send and receive emails. Screen Reading software and special talking and Braille devices allow those of us with no vision to use computers, cell phones and other electronic devices independently. Similarly, people with low vision can use screen magnification software and devices that will allow them to see letters, pictures and other objects without having to struggle or strain their remaining vision. This technology – commonly known as assistive or adaptive technology – is continually evolving, and has removed many access barriers for people with vision loss.

Besides allowing us to carry out routine tasks at work and school, assistive technology also enables people with visual impairments to be more independent at home. We can now read the mail, listen to audio books, get step-by-step walking directions to unfamiliar places, record important information and so much more with special standalone devices designed for people with no or low vision. There are also devices like talking watches, thermometers, scales, blood glucose and blood pressure monitors that help us live independent and healthy lives.

People with low vision can also benefit from devices that magnify or enlarge objects. This equipment can help them take notes, read small print on electronic devices and watch TV. In other words, simple tasks that might have previously required the assistance of a sighted person can easily be done completely independently by people with some or no vision.

Cell phones and tablets have revolutionized the way people who are blind or visually impaired interact and use technology. Screen reading and magnifying software – like that used in computers – allows us to use these devices independently. However, the unique aspect about cell phones and tablets is that they can serve many of the purposes for which standalone devices and software were previously developed thanks to apps.

Nowadays I can easily do many of the things that previously required special software or devices on my iPhone or iPad. By using a special app called the KNFB Reader, I can take a picture of a print letter and my phone will read it out loud within a matter of seconds. I no longer carry around a heavy or bulky tape recorder. With an app called Read2Go, I can download books in a matter of minutes or seconds onto my iPad and begin listening to them in no time!

Tablets and cell phones also enable people with visual impairments to do things that were previously impossible, or – at the very least – challenging. It is now possible for the iPhone, for example, to describe the color, shape and size of objects to someone who is blind thanks to an app called TapTapSee. Furthermore, other apps, such as Be My Eyes, connect blind or visually impaired individuals with a sighted person, who will then assist them by describing things. To put it simply, the sighted person (who can be located almost anywhere in the world) can be a virtual pair of eyes for the blind individual.

This is only but a brief explanation of how assistive and mainstream technology has helped and improved the quality of the lives of those of us with visual impairments. Since many types and brands of such technologies exist, it is virtually impossible for us to cover this topic in a single post. Assistive technology sure has opened a lot of doors and removed countless barriers, and I am very excited to see what it has to offer for all of us in the future.

For information and reviews about the latest assistive technology products and apps, I invite you to check out our very own technology blog at: http://clhtech.blogspot.com/. How has assistive technology helped you? Please comment! You can submit your questions about blindness or visual impairment to sandysview@chicagolighthouse.org.

Thanks for reading!