Smartphones touch the lives of blind people, through technology – TwinCities.com
The blind and sight-impaired community felt trepidation after the iPhone debuted in 2007.
How, these folks wondered, would a blind person operate a smooth, featureless glass surface? The touchscreen smartphone age, which began in earnest with Apple’s handset, appeared at first like yet another stumbling block for the non-sighted, yet another something new they could not do.
“I know I was worried when the iPhone initially came out because it is a piece of glass,” said Luis Pérez, a Miami technology teacher who is partially blind.
Today, however, the iPhone and other smartphones are just as indispensable to blind people as they are to many sighted people — and the iPhone, in particular, bristles with features for the blind.
Twin Citian Jeff Mihelich, like other vision-impaired iPhone users, employs a range of flicking, tapping and twirling actions to move through his handset’s windows, apps and menus. These actions trigger voice prompts that tell him what is on the screen.
Rebecca Kragnes, another blind Twin Cities resident, makes her fingers dance over the display on her iPhone. The screen shows six ovals that are digital equivalents of the six buttons required to compose in Braille. She can’t feel the buttons but hardly makes a mistake.
Stephen Robertson strides with assurance down a Minneapolis sidewalk, assisted by two tech sidekicks: his iPhone and a compact speaker strapped onto his wrist. As the phone issues navigation prompts, these are microphone-amplified so he can hear them over street noise.
Michael Malver sits alongside his guide dog in a Minneapolis cafe with a package of coffee set before him. Holding his iPhone over the box, he has his phone read to him the text on the packaging. Malver uses a similar method to identify currency denominations.
Like many sighted handset users, these sight-impaired Twin Cities residents don’t know how they ever got along without their pocketable sidekicks. But for those who are partially or completely blind, this symbiotic relationship with the handsets has different nuances.
VOICE AND TOUCH
Apple’s iPhone, along with Google Android smartphones, have in recent years been transformed to take into account the needs of the vision-impaired.
Apple in 2009 rolled out an iPhone feature called VoiceOver that serves as a spoken guide to those who cannot properly view the touchscreen. VoiceOver for the iPhone, modeled to an extent on VoiceOver for Apple’s Macintosh computers, has since been steadily improved.
Google has similarly developed a blind-accessibility feature called TalkBack.
More recently, phone-based voice assistants have been an extra help for the blind, much as they are for the sighted. The iPhone has Siri. Android phones have Google Now. Microsoft’s Windows smartphones have Cortana.
Ask the invisible oracles a question and they respond with helpful information. That, for instance, is how Robertson can initiate a walking route, with navigation prompts then piped over his wrist speaker.
And, over the past year, the sight-impaired have gained access to other consumer-electronics gizmos. The Apple Watch smartwatch, which is designed to work in tandem with the iPhone, has its own VoiceOver capabilities. Navigation features on the Apple Watch are a boon for blind people because they use subtle yet readily identifiable vibrations to let users know when to turn left or right.
Apple’s recently released fourth-generation Apple TV, a streaming device that connects to a home HDTV, also boasts a sophisticated version of VoiceOver. This is an improvement over more-primitive accessibility features in earlier Apple TV incarnations. That is how Robertson and his wife, who also is blind, typically watch TV.
Blind people do not necessarily see their phones as their saviors. After all, said Malver, he and others with vision impairments always adapted fairly well in decades past. But they also think they should be able to enjoy the same digital-device and online access as anyone else — and they now have it, for the most part.
And it was a number of sight-impaired technology experts who have led the way into this more-accessible world.
One is Douglas Walker, a technology instructor at the Hadley School for the Blind in Winnetka, Ill., who has become a prolific creator of videos that scrutinize the fine points of VoiceOver and other accessibility tools.
Yes, Walker creates videos for blind people.
“Very few blind people are totally blind,” he said, adding that many sight-impaired people can watch the videos in magnified form.
Sighted people who teach the blind also benefit greatly, he noted. Besides, he added, the videos’ audio is painstakingly constructed to convey the essential points even for those who can’t see at all.
“I am a consumer of this technology because I am legally blind,” Walker said. “We have waited a long time for a device like this with a universal design that anyone could pick off the shelf and use. Accessibility features built into Apple devices are a big deal for us.”
Pérez, the partly blind Miami resident, has similarly made it his mission to guide his fellow sight-impaired people in their use of their smartphones and other digital devices, such as the iPad. Pérez, like Walker, creates YouTube instructional videos.
He is also something of a legend as an Instagram photographer despite his impairment.
For him, the iPhone is priceless, because it can tell him via VoiceOver when a face has been recognized, how many subjects are in the photo, whether a scene is properly lit, and if the picture is out of focus.
Even a completely blind person can take photos at family events, he marvels.
“When I encountered the Apple technology (for the blind), it was a magical moment,” Pérez said. “This was all about the hope that technology is going to keep up with my vision loss.”
Pérez said his favorite VoiceOver feature is the rotor, a two-finger twirling motion iPhone owners make to cycle through whatever is on the screen — settings, links, buttons — and get voice prompts that identify the display contents.
But such features work properly only if app developers keep blind people in mind as they design the interfaces. A blind person who is cycling through the buttons on a display will hear only “button” over and over if the developer doesn’t design text on the buttons to be enunciated via VoiceOver. Improperly designed apps are a big problem even as accessibility becomes a better-known issue, Pérez said.
“It is not difficult to make your app accessible,” he said. “It’s just a matter of will and awareness.”
Malver, of Minneapolis, said he runs into this problem on a regular basis.
At a downtown Minneapolis Caribou coffee shop not long ago, he noted the irony that this cafe chain’s iPhone app is partly inaccessible to him.
The attractively designed app, which to a sighted person looks a bit like a painting, reveals itself to Malver in an entirely different and highly problematic way. A collapsible menu on the upper left appears to be inaccessible to him, which is a serious issue since it’s where app users go for the menu, cafe locations, gift purchases and more.
Elsewhere on the app, he said, accessibility is hit-and-miss. Links in some cases are cryptically labeled (such as “semicolon”) and in other cases VoiceOver can be used to click some but not all of the available options.
Caribou spokeswoman Brianne Bauer said the app was designed by a developer that is no longer in the company’s employ. She added that the company is working with a different developer on “next stages of the app.”
In the meantime, Bauer added, possible accessibility issues with the app are “something we’re having internal discussion around” even though “we have not received any complaints via customer service.”
Malver has had better luck with the Dunn Bros. chain’s iPhone app, which he has used for signing in, finding locations and paying for drinks, but he cautioned that he has not exhaustively evaluated the app’s accessibility and therefore can’t fully vouch for it.
The Lunds supermarket chain’s iPhone app also has been a problem for him, partly because some buttons aren’t properly identifiable via VoiceOver.
“There are unlabeled buttons, but I don’t know what they do and haven’t taken the time to explore them to figure it out,” he noted.
“I used to be able to read the weekly circular,” he added. “But since iOS 9, the app sometimes crashes when I open sections of the circular and try to read them.
A Lunds spokesman said the company’s app is designed with full accessibility in mind, but he added that a recent update to Apple’s iOS mobile operating system broke certain accessibility features. He said the chain is working with third-party developers to get this fixed.
PHONE A BOON
Yet Malver said his iPhone is a boon in many ways.
An app for identifying paper-money denominations saves him the hassle of having to painstakingly fold bills in particular ways — an origami-like system — so he knows which is which.
He can hold another app over his postal mail to have its contents read to him, though this is somewhat awkward, and he still has a person come to his home to help him with this.
Another app reads the barcodes on items in his cupboard so he is able to distinguish clam chowder from chicken-noodle soup.
BlindSquare, an app that links to the Foursquare local-search app, gives him a running commentary of commercial establishments in his vicinity as he is walking down the street.
“An iPhone has made aspects of my life more manageable,” said Marver. But he added, emphatically, “We were not sitting around helpless before the iPhone came along.”
Robertson, of Minneapolis, also is heavily reliant on the BlindSquare app as he goes for strolls. Enunciated prompts are fed through his wrist speaker.
Robertson and his wife, who also uses an iPhone, are constant users of Apple’s Siri voice assistant as well. Siri recently migrated from iOS mobile devices to the current-model Apple TV, which has a remote control with a microphone for issuing spoken commands from the living-room couch.
Siri also is built into the Apple Watch, but Robertson doesn’t own one of those.
“I applaud Apple for putting VoiceOver in all of its products,” he said.
But Robertson, like Malver, is annoyed with app developers that integrate VoiceOver improperly, if at all.
“If there is a bug, it is just aggravating, and you are waiting until the next upgrade before it is fixed,” he said.
Kragnes, of Minneapolis, has mastered various methods for typing on an iPhone.
She has been blind from birth, and swears by an MBraille app that turns her iPhone into a Braille touch keyboard.
The app developer claims that “an experienced blind MBraille user can easily surpass the sighted typists using the (iPhone’s) built-in virtual keyboard.” This isn’t hard to believe as Kragnes leans back on her living-room sofa, positions her iPhone on her lap, and lets six of her fingers fly.
Kragnes has an alternative to her on-screen Braille typing in a gadget called a “Braille display” — which looks nothing like a display for a sighted person. There is no screen.
The flat, rectangular gizmo has six physical buttons to compose in Braille. It also includes a strip with dozens of small nubs that rise and fall to make the Braille words and sentences that blind people can decipher with their fingertips.
The device, once linked to an iPhone via a Bluetooth wireless link, lets Kragnes read what is on the iPhone screen, and to input text when required. That is how she can engage in rapid-fire email or text exchanges, for instance.
Mihelich, of Minneapolis, regards himself as a relative novice with VoiceOver but said he is learning quickly.
His favorite uses for the iPhone include a countdown app that lets him time his staged workouts at the gym, the Blindsquare app for figuring out what is around him, and a barcode scanner “to figure out what the hell is in a box,” he said.
But he shares other blind iPhone users’ frustrations with apps that could be coded better with the non-sighted in mind.
“Software makers have to think about screen readers and how to make them accessible with the first line of code,” he said.
The good news: When he contacts app developers about subpar accessibility, they sometimes respond and promptly take action.
“The makers of the countdown app reformatted it so the buttons were more spaced out” for more-accurate VoiceOver use, he said. “It was nice.”