Smartphones Open Worlds for the Blind

By Bilton, Nick | International Herald Tribune, September 30, 2013 | Go to article overview

Smartphones Open Worlds for the Blind


Bilton, Nick, International Herald Tribune


Advocates for blind people say smartphones and tablets could be the biggest aid to come along since Braille was invented in the 1820s.

Luis Perez loves taking photographs. He shoots mostly on an iPhone, snapping gorgeous pictures of sunsets, vintage cars, old buildings and cute puppies. But when he arrives at a photo shoot, people are often startled when he pulls out a long white cane.

In addition to being a good photographer, Mr. Perez is almost completely blind.

"With the iPhone I am able to use the same technology as everyone else, and having a product that doesn't have a stigma that other technologies do has been really important to me," said Mr. Perez, who is also an advocate for blind people and speaks regularly about the benefits of technology for visually impaired people. "Now, even if you're blind, you can still take a photo," he said.

Smartphones and tablets, with their flat glass touch screens and no texture anywhere, may not seem like the best technological innovation for people who cannot see. But advocates for the blind say the devices could be the biggest aid to come along since Braille was invented in the 1820s.

Counterintuitive? You bet. But people with vision problems can use a smartphone's voice commands to read or write. They can determine denominations of money using a camera app, figure out where they are using the GPS and compass applications, and, like Mr. Perez, take photos.

Apple has included a number of features that help people with vision problems take pictures. Among them, in what is called assistive mode, the iPhone can say how many heads are in a picture and where they are in the frame, so someone who is blind knows if the family photo about to be taken includes everyone.

All this has come as a delightful shock to most people with vision problems.

"We were sort of conditioned to believe that you can't use a touch screen because you can't see it," said Dorrie Rush, the marketing director of accessible technology at Lighthouse International, a nonprofit vision education and rehabilitation center. "The belief was the tools for the visually impaired must have a tactile screen, which, it turns out, is completely untrue."

Ms. Rush said that before the smartphone, people could use a flip phone to make phone calls, but they could not read the tiny screens. While the first version of the iPhone allowed people to enlarge text, it wasn't until 2009, when the company introduced accessibility features, that the device became a benefit to blind people.

While some companies might be building products and services for people who have lost their sight with altruistic goals, the number of people who need these products is growing.

About 10 million people in the United States are blind or visually impaired, according to statistics from the American Foundation for the Blind.

And some estimates predict that over the next 30 years, as the vast baby boomer generation of people born after World War II ages, the number of adults with vision impairments could double.

Not all smartphones are equal in assistive technologies. People with both visual and physical impairments say the Apple iPhone surpasses Google Android phones and Windows Phone smartphones by offering a long list of accessibility features that are built directly into the Apple operating system.

Apple's assistive technologies include VoiceOver, which the company says is the world's first "gesture-based screen reader," that lets blind people interact with their devices using multitouch gestures on the screen. …

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