Sat, Oct 05, 2013 - Page 9 News List

Smartphones guide the blind toward ‘sight’

With the growth in demand for assistive devices for the blind, smartphones have an important role to play, providing cheap apps assisting with daily challenges

By Nick Bilton  /  NY Times News Service

Illustration: Constance Chou

Luis Perez loves taking photographs. He shoots mostly on an iPhone, snapping gorgeous pictures of sunsets, vintage cars, old buildings and cute puppies. However, when he arrives at a photo shoot, people are often startled when he pulls out a long white cane.

In addition to being a professional photographer, Perez is almost blind.

“With the iPhone I am able to use the same technology as everyone else, and having a product that doesn’t have a stigma that other technologies do has been really important to me,” said Perez, who is also an advocate for blind people and speaks regularly at conferences about the benefits of technology for people who cannot see.

“Now, even if you’re blind, you can still take a photo,” he said.

Smartphones and tablets, with their flat, glass touch screens and nary a texture anywhere, may not seem like the best technological innovation for people who cannot see. However, advocates for the blind say the devices could be the biggest assistive aid to come along since Braille was invented in the 1820s.

Counterintuitive? You bet. People with vision problems can use a smartphone’s voice commands to read or write. They can determine denominations of money using a camera app, figure out where they are using GPS and compass applications, and, like Perez, take photographs.

Apple has included a number of features that help people with vision problems take pictures. Among them, in what is called assistive mode, the smartphone can say how many heads are in a picture and where they are in the frame, so someone who is blind knows if the family photograph she is about to take includes everyone.

All this has come as a delightful shock to most people with vision problems.

“We were sort of conditioned to believe that you can’t use a touch screen because you can’t see it,” said Dorrie Rush, the marketing director of accessible technology at Lighthouse International, a non-profit vision education and rehabilitation center. “The belief was the tools for the visually impaired must have a tactile screen, which, it turns out, is completely untrue.”

Rush, who has a retinal disorder, said that before the smartphone, people who were visually impaired could use a flip-phone to make calls, but they could not read on the tiny 2-inch screens. While the first version of the iPhone allowed people who were losing their vision to enlarge text, it was not until 2009, when the company introduced accessibility features, that the device became a benefit to blind people.

While some companies might be building products and services for people who have lost their sight with altruistic goals, the number of people who need these products is growing.

About 10 million people in the US are blind or visually impaired, according to statistics from the American Foundation for the Blind. Some estimates predict that during the next 30 years, as the vast baby boomer generation ages, the number of adults with vision impairments could double.

Not all smartphones are equal when it comes to assistive technologies. People with both visual and physical impairments say the Apple iPhone surpasses the Google Android smartphone and the Windows Phone by offering a long list of accessibility features that are built directly into the Apple operating system.

Apple’s assistive technologies include VoiceOver, which the company says is the world’s first “gesture-based screen reader” and lets blind people interact with their devices using multitouch gestures on the screen. For example, if you slide a finger around the smartphone’s surface, the iPhone will read aloud the name of each application.

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