HILL, Calif. — Ruben Morales, a blind 59-year-old
retired engineer who lives in this Silicon Valley city,
has used a specialized screen-reading program for years
to write and run spreadsheets on his desktop computer.
recently, he figuratively cut the cord to his desktop
and joined the mobile revolution. Morales was visiting
an area Veterans Affairs blind rehabilitation center,
learning how to use an iPhone’s features for
pretty amazing." Morales said, demonstrating how he
can call up a song and play it with a few taps.
"Whatever I can do on the computer I can basically
do it on the iPhone. It has the same capability."
smartphone, a gadget designed for the sighted, has
turned out to be a godsend for the blind and visually
impaired, making them more independent than ever before.
VoiceOver, the iPhone’s built-in gesture-based app
that reads text on a touch-screen aloud, or Google
Android’s TalkBack, blind users can access anything on
their phones. The user activates apps with a few
gestures — single finger to explore and find buttons,
one-finger touch to identify things on the screen, and
double-tap to push the button after it’s located.
a learning curve, but you can learn to do every single
thing on an iPhone that anyone else can do," said
Lee Huffman, editor of AccessWorld, published by the
American Foundation for the Blind. "These devices
are opening up a whole new world."
didn’t look like it would turn out that way at first.
blind community started getting really panicky"
when smartphones and later, tablets, took off following
the iPhone’s debut in 2007, researcher Joshua Miele,
associate director of Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research
Institute in San Francisco, recalled.
"Touch-screens were a real concern."
in 2009, Apple included VoiceOver in its mobile
operating system, and followed up with the personal
assistant Siri in 2011, launching a new world of
mobility for the visually impaired. Google added
TalkBack, a screen reader, to its Android operating
system in 2009 and Google Now, a personal assistant, in
2012. Microsoft mobile has similar features.
made a huge difference, productivity-wise," said
Jennison Asuncion, accessibility leader at LinkedIn, who
is blind. "I use my mobile phone probably even more
than lot of people."
Lauridsen, 32, a trainer at the Independent Living
Resource Center in San Francisco, has been blind since
birth and grew up using expensive, clunky,
single-purpose devices for doing course work in school.
"When the iPhone 3GS came out with VoiceOver built
in it was a huge game-changer for me and a lot of other
people," she said.
uses an app called BlindSquare for navigation; Money
Reader to identify currency denominations; and Voice
Dream Reader to assemble audio play lists of documents
from many sources. She also uses Uber and a lot of other
on an equal footing with what everyone else does — the
Yelping, Facebooking and Twittering," she said.
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impaired people want to use their mobile phones like
anyone else, said Astrid Weber, who researches user
experience at Google, visiting visually impaired people
in their homes to see what they need and how they use
is really important for them," she said.
Now — the Android personal assistant — is popular
with vision-impaired users, said Eve Andersson, manager
of Google’s accessibility engineering. Her
vision-impaired parents use it all the time, she said.
"They ask their phones questions, ask it to call
me, ask it for directions and create reminders. They
love being able to do that with their voice."
years there have been screen readers for desktop
computers. OutSpoken, developed by Berkeley Systems in
the late 1980s, was the first for the Mac, according to
Smith-Kettlewell’s Miele, who worked for the company.
while VoiceOver and TalkBack broke the tether to the
desktop, third-party apps still have to be made
accessible to the disabled.
a legal issue too. The Americans with Disabilities Act
requires websites and mobile applications to be
accessible, said disability rights lawyer Lainey
Feingold, although regulations are still being worked on
by the Department of Justice.
announced Google Impact Challenge: Disabilities last
year with a $20 million grant for technology innovators
in the nonprofit community who work on technology to
make people with disabilities more independent. "We’re
actively looking for proposals," said Brigitte
Hoyer Gosselink of Google.org.
Dropbox, LinkedIn, Yahoo, Facebook, Twitter, Intuit,
Microsoft, and others have jointly asked universities to
train computer students in accessibility software design
and are requiring new hires to demonstrate some
familiarity with it.
as simple as labeling buttons so that VoiceOver can read
them aloud can make a big difference, developers say.
Weinstein, co-founder of the San Francisco startup
DeskConnect, said that when its task organizer Workflow
was released "we got a bunch of people from the
visually impaired community reaching out and saying, ‘Hey
this looks like a really great product but I can’t use
it because I can’t see the screen and you have no
VoiceOver.’ We spent a couple days, maybe a week,
implementing really great accessibility features making
it compatible with Apple’s VoiceOver." The
product won an Apple 2015 Design Award for its
APPS FOR THE BLIND
Money Reader (Ipplex): $9.99; iOS
Dream Reader (Voice Dream Reader): $9.99; iOS
Reading (noinnion): Free; Android
(MIPsoft): $29.99; iOS
(American Foundation for the Blind): Free; iOS, Android
Braille and Audio Reading Download (Library of
Congress): Free; iOS mobile apps for the blind