[BCAB] How the Blind Are Reinventing the iPhone

Paul David, the Wonder of Wembley p.balster at ntlworld.com
Thu Jun 14 23:38:40 BST 2012

The Atlantic, May 2 2012
Liat Kornowski - Liat Kornowski is a writer based in New York City.

At first many blind people thought that the iPhone would never be accessible 
to them, with its flat glass screen. But the opposite has proved true.

Maria Rios, 66, woke up at 6am. She got out of bed in her little second 
floor apartment on the north side of Central Park, and checked her iPhone 
for the weather. Then she felt around in her closet, where she had marked 
her navy blue garments with safety pins, to tell them apart from her black 
ones. In the adjacent room, her roommate Lynette Tatum, 49, picked out a 
white sweater and dark denim slacks. She used her VizWiz iPhone app to take 
a photograph and send it to a customer-service rep who lets her know what 
color the item is.

For the visually impaired community, the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 
seemed at first like a disaster -- the standard-bearer of a new generation 
of smartphones was based on touch screens that had no physical 
differentiation. It was a flat piece of glass. But soon enough, word started 
to spread: The iPhone came with a built-in accessibility feature. Still, 
members of the community were hesitant.

But no more. For its fans and advocates in the visually-impaired community, 
the iPhone has turned out to be one of the most revolutionary developments 
since the invention of Braille. That the iPhone and its world of apps have 
transformed the lives of its visually impaired users may seem 
counter-intuitive -- but their impact is striking.

Watching Rios and Tatum navigate the world with the aid of their iPhones is 
a lesson in the transformative and often unpredictable impacts that 
technology has on our lives. After getting dressed, they strap on their 
backpacks, canes in hand, and walk out the door. They can't see the sign 
someone hung in the elevator, informing them the building is switching to 
FIOS, but the minute they're outside the fact they can't see is a minor 
detail. They use Sendero -- "an app made for the blind, by the blind," says 
Tatum -- an accessible GPS that announces the user's current street, city, 
cross street, and nearby points of interest. What it's missing, adds Tatum, 
is a feature that tells you which bus is arriving and what its next stop is. 
In the meantime they walk a couple of blocks south to catch the M1 downtown.

Rios pulls out coins from her purse and pays the driver. She tells the coins 
apart by their size and the ridges. Bills are another story -- but there's 
an app for that. It's called the LookTel Money Reader and with it you can 
scan the bill you're being handed, instead of depending on the kindness of 

Romeo Edmead, 32, who's been blind since the age of two, is a prominent 
member of the blind community in New York, taking pride in who he is and all 
that he can do. He's a guide at the Dialog in The Dark exhibit, a writer for 
the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the blind, and an athlete. But he hasn't 
caught up with the iProducts yet. "It's revolutionary in all that it can 
do," admits Edmead. "Now, if I want to tell money, I have a standalone 
device," he demonstrates its size with the palm of his hand. "It's a kind of 
box you slide the bill into and it tells you what the bill is, but it means 
carrying something extra. That's inconvenient." 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' 5 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 

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.

"We use Audible and it reads for us books that we download from 
audible.com," Tatum goes on. Each woman is in her respective phone, sliding 
and flicking and taping, looking for apps. What makes an app stick, they 
explain, is whether it's practical, accessible, fast, and easy to use. Rios 
adds that she downloaded a hundred apps by now, but for the most part she'll 
use an app once or twice and leave it. There are a few, like Sendero, that 
they use every day. "There's also HeyTell, it's speech texting," explains 
Tatum. She demonstrates, and manages fairly quickly to record a few words 
and send them to Maria. Maria receives the message, opens it, and holds her 
phone to her ear. It works. "There's Dragon Dictation, but that's half 
baked," says Tatum. "You can speak to it and it turns it into a written text 
you can then send over." There's also HopStop. "It's completely accessible, 
you put in your destination and it tells you what trains to take and exactly 
how to get there."
Chalkias, Tatum's colleague, is not only an iPhone advocate who breezes 
through the device faster than a baby with an iPad, he also gives private 
lessons to people of all ages on how to use it. He has found
that people, young and old, who can use a computer, are familiar with the 
desktop environment, and can type, have an easier transition to the 
touchscreen. "The first thing I teach is the layout," he explains. "They 
have to understand it's a grid, four by four [apps], they need to understand 
the dock, the status bar, how to unlock the screen.It's a new language, it 
means moving from buttons to no buttons, and it means relying completely on 
audio cues, so it takes time to adjust. The name iPhone is misleading --  
it's more of a computer than a phone."

Siri, the highly acclaimed feature of the iPhone 4S, isn't the answer to 
everyone's prayers, in his view. It's a nice shtick, but it's not always 
compatible with the voice over feature. "She'll hear what you're saying, 
explains Chalkias, "but either not respond or her answer will appear on the 
screen and you'll still have to tap it to hear the response, so there are 
still some glitches."

Tatum and Rios mention that in the future they'd like their device to 
describe to them what's on the street as they're walking down -- Toys "R" Us 
or CVS. It would be great if the phone could vibrate anytime they are close 
to one.  There should be an app that informs them of construction sites: 
Even the accessible GPS apps don't mention those. They would also like an 
app that reads out restaurant menus, and a navigation app that works 
People like Nektarios Paisios, 30, are the ones who can make those wishes 
come true. Paisios, a Computer Science student from Cyprus, moved to New 
York four and a half years ago to work on his dissertation. He went blind at 
four years of age, and is working on a number of iPhone apps that could 
potentially solve some of the blind community's problems with the device. 
One of them is an indoor GPS.

"One of the biggest concerns of the blind community is finding their way
around independently," he says. "You can find an address, but what if you 
get someplace and you have nobody to help you find your way around the 
building?" His solution, still in the works, will attempt to sketch a map of 
the building based on previous routes taken within, and the strength of the 
wireless signals bouncing from the different sources. It'll also take into 
consideration the pace and number of steps a person takes from one point to 
the next. If a blind person were to arrive to a hotel, he'd only need to be 
shown to his room once. The iPhone will remember the way for him, and 
navigate him back and forth from the room to the lobby.

Another app Paisios is working on is a more elaborate form of VizWiz, the 
app that tells the person what color is the shirt he is about to wear. For 
people like him who have no recollection of color ("yellow means ripe, 
because yellow bananas are ripe"), it doesn't mean much that the shirt he is 
pointing to is green. He'd like a stylist app to tell him what this green 
goes with, so he can know which color pants to put on. It'll also be able to 
tell more intricate designs. "What if people want to be fashionable?" he 
asks earnestly.
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." 

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