MORGAN HILL, Calif. — Ruben Morales, a 59-year-old retired engineer who is blind and lives in Silicon Valley, has used a specialized screen-reading program for years to write and run spreadsheets on his desktop computer.
But 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 people with vision impairment.
“It’s 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.”
The smartphone, a gadget designed for the sighted, has turned out to be a godsend for those who are blind and visually impaired, making them more independent than ever before.
With VoiceOver, the iPhone’s built-in gesture-based app that reads text on a touch-screen aloud, or Google Android’s TalkBack, users who are blind 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.
“It’s 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.”
It didn’t look like it would turn out that way at first.
“The 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.”
But 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.
“It’s 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.”
Erin 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 coursework 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.
She 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 popular apps.
“I’m on an equal footing with what everyone else does — the Yelping, Facebooking and Twittering,” she said.
People who are visually impaired want to use their mobile phones like anyone else, said Astrid Weber, who researches user experience at Google, visiting people who are visually impaired in their homes to see what they need and how they use technology.
“Mobility is really important for them,” she said.
Google Now — the Android personal assistant — is popular with users with vision impairment, said Eve Andersson, manager of Google’s accessibility engineering. Her parents who are vision impaired 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.”
For 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.
But while VoiceOver and TalkBack broke the tether to the desktop, third-party apps still have to be made accessible to people with disabilities.
There’s 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 U.S. Department of Justice.
Google 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.
Adobe, 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.
Something as simple as labeling buttons so that VoiceOver can read them aloud can make a big difference, developers say.
Ari 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 accessibility features.
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