June 2017 marks the 10th anniversary of Apple’s iPhone. Yes, it’s been 10 years since Steve Jobs and Apple released to the world what would become a revolution. A revolution that was limited to the sighted at launch. But with the release of the iPhone 3GS in 2009, the blind and visually impaired community rejoiced in amazement at the implementation of the new screen reader called Voiceover.
Prior to the release of Voiceover on the 3GS, blind people were relegated to using very specific models of phones for accessibility. These phones didn’t offer that accessibility right out of the box, however. By the time you purchased the phone, a screen reader and then perhaps software to scan and read print documents, a blind person would spend a minimum of $2000. At that cost, you still didn’t get a fraction of the accessibility and functionality of the iPhone.
Enter Steve Jobs and Apple…
The 10th anniversary of the iPhone has inspired me to reflect on its history and how it has affected the blind community. The iPhone has brought accessibility to social interaction, navigation, text and image recognition, gaming and so many other parts of our digital daily lives. The implementation of so many of these services and the accessibility of so many apps has truly been a game-changer.
Through personal experience, research and the help of some friends, I’ve put together the following list. A top 10 list, broken down by category, that highlights how the iPhone has impacted the lives of the blind and visually impaired.
Ten years ago, Steve Jobs stressed the portability of the iPhone when he explained how it was so many devices in one. To be able to carry in your pocket an iPod, phone and internet device was indeed a revolution! This wasn’t just a big deal for the mainstream, however. Unlocking the iPhone’s potential for blind people was huge. Previously you could spend thousands of dollars between multiple devices just to achieve some of what the iPhone could do.
9. Going mainstream
The advent of the iPhone and its portability achieved something else for blind people. It included us within the mainstream of society. Not only did you not have to spend thousands on multiple devices, but you could purchase a mainstream device just like anyone else and have it work right out of the box. This also means blind users have access to the same safety and security as others through the use of ApplePay. That level of inclusiveness is a wonderful and powerful feeling!
Games have been developed for blind people long before the iPhone came around. From the early text-based adventures to more modern audio games, there has always been a place for games amongst the blind community. But the iPhone has taken blind gaming to the next level. You can play everything from dice games like Dice World to card games such as those made by Blindfold Games. RS Games offers board games and there are even many 3D immersive audio adventures. And so much more.
There are developers who create their games with blind people in mind, and there are others who work hard to make sure their mainstream game is accessible as possible.
7. Books and Reference
The iPhone also makes it so much easier for blind people to access reference material. Using Safari or SIRI, you have instant access to the internet to research any topic you like. Plus there are apps for accessing text or audio books like Audible and BARD Mobile. There are accessible dictionaries and language translators.
6. Social Interaction
One of the other great things the iPhone does for the blind community is bring us together socially. Of course you can use your iPhone as just that, a phone. But there is a larger world out there. You can text message or even audio/video chat. And then there are apps like Twitter, Facebook and Vorail. You can connect with family and friends and even other blind people from around the world.
5. Audio Description
Games and books aren’t the only forms of entertainment that the iPhone makes accessible to blind people. Thanks to companies like Disney, Netflix and Apple themselves, movies and TV shows are just a tap away for the blind and visually impaired. These companies and others have made a commitment to providing descriptive audio tracks that play along with a movie or TV show. These tracks allow the blind person to know about things happening visually on the screen. Due to the efforts of these companies, access to described content has never been better.
The iPhone also provides many great ways for the blind and visually impaired to stay connected to local and world events. There are many apps, including Apple’s own News app, that can keep you up to date.
Orientation and mobility are crucial in the life of someone who is blind or visually impaired. The iPhone offers the standard supplements for navigation like Apple’s own Maps app. However just as crucial are the various transit apps like Moovit that offer accessible bus and subway schedules. Then there are apps specifically designed for the blind like BlindSquare. This app offers real-time GPS information about your surroundings like street names, crossings and even nearby restaurants and businesses.
Recognizing objects, text and currency can be some of the most difficult obstacles to a blind person. This is where the iPhone shines brightest as a tool for the blind and visually impaired! Using the iPhone’s camera, there are a number of apps to help in identifying things. NantMobile Money Reader is an app that can identify currency from multiple countries just by holding the camera lens up to the bill. Digit-Eyes is another app that can easily scan any UPC code and tell you the contents of what you scanned. Another utility that makes great use of the camera is the KNFB Reader. This app enables you to take a picture of any printed text and then reads it back almost instantly. There are many other utilities that help the blind with object and picture recognition. These include Be My Eyes and BeSpecular. These apps offer live volunteers who either through audio or text can help to identify photos or objects.
There isn’t one item listed within this post that would exist without the built-in accessibility of the iPhone. For those with low vision, there is Zoom and Magnifier. Zoom allows you to enlarge what is on screen for better viewing and the built-in Magnifier utilizes the iPhone’s camera to work like a traditional video magnifier by enlarging objects and text seen with the camera on screen.
Apple has also included the ability to invert as well as filter colors for those who have difficulty perceiving certain colors or who have issues with glare. And what about the color blind? Apple has even included filters to help those with different forms of color blindness.
And of course, there is Voiceover. By using certain gestures on the iPhone’s screen, Voiceover provides auditory descriptions of each element. This is what allows a blind person to navigate the web, reply to text or email messages, play games and use the other ground-breaking tools talked about in this post.
I’ve spoken to many blind and visually impaired persons who are eternally grateful to Steve Jobs and the development teams at Apple for their dedication to accessibility. A dedication that enables blind individuals by giving them independence and confidence, right out of the box.
Thank you Apple, for thinking of us. For helping us to be a part of the “mainstream,” and for continuing to believe that the blind and visually impaired community is worth continuing to fight for. Happy anniversary iPhone!
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Image via Apple.