How Smart Phones Are Helping The Blind See

Iphone sunset in the Andes

hide captionA color reading application allows iPhone users with low vision to experience the scenery around them.

Gonzalo Baeza Hernández/via Flickr

JJ Sutherland, over at the Two-Way, found us the “Best App Ever,” an app that reads colors aloud using the iPhone’s camera. With it, Austin Seraphim, who is nearly blind, can watch and better appreciate the world around him. He wrote about his experience on his blog:

I then roamed my yard, and saw a blue flower. I then found the brown shed, and returned to the gray house. My mind felt blown. I watched the sun set, listening to the colors change as the sky darkened. The next night, I had a conversation with Mom about how the sky looked bluer tonight. Since I can see some light and color, I think hearing the color names can help nudge my perception, and enhance my visual experience.

For many visually impaired people, access to any smart phone represents a step forward. Less than a decade ago, the visually impaired couldn’t send text messages without hooking up to a computer. Now, as the mobile market explodes, accessibility options are finally catching up. And Apple is catching up the fastest.

The non-business smart phone market is still split between Apple and Android users, but Apple may have won another set of customers. Paul Scroeder, vice president of programs and policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, called the iPhone “The undisputed phone of choice for the visually impaired” in an interview with Smart Planet.

In the same article, Schroeder says “You can’t go anywhere without seeing iPhones in the hands of blind people.”

Visually impaired users on the American Foundation for the Blind website report that the iPhone is both easy to operate and easy to set up for their preferences. Screen reading software is included and simple to use. (While screen reading technology has existed for many years, it is often an expensive add-on that can cost upwards of $800 for desktop computers.) The icons on the iPhone’s touch screen are large enough to navigate and can be read aloud when touched. These simple additions made iPhone popular among visually impaired users.

So how does Android accessibility compare and why aren’t users gushing about it? Google’s Talkback for Android application reads screens without any extra software, same as Apple. (BlackBerry users still have to pay an additional $450 to get an application that can read screens). Turns out, the main issue is that Android hasn’t extended their software far enough. Unlike the iPhone, Android can’t browse the entire web with its screen reading technology. For some, email may still be difficult to access. Just this month, Android extended screen reading for its most popular apps, but that does not yet extend to the full library of applications.

To be fair, neither operating system has got it down yet. Visually impaired users complain loudly about the inaccessibility of iTunes. Ultimately, there are still a lot of advancements to be made, so Apple may have won this battle, but they haven’t won the war.

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