January 29, 2013|By Ben Wolford, Sun Sentinel
When visually impaired people gush over iPhones, they swear they aren’t just following the sighted onto the Apple bandwagon. The device isn’t simply the trendy choice for them. It’s pretty much the only choice.
Out of the package, there’s nothing you need to see and no setup necessary. Just turn it on. There are GPS apps to help navigate, count currency and detect color. Meanwhile, the iPhone is competing with Braille, and nonprofit workers in Fort Lauderdale and elsewhere are offering classes on how to use it.
“I’m not an Apple fanboy,” said Eric Barrette, the technology specialist at the Lighthouse of Broward. Barrette, who is legally
blind, teaches clients how to navigate all manner of technology.
Fanboy or not, Barrette is clear: “The iPhone is accessible pretty much out of the box, whereas the Android” — the other big player in smartphone products — “requires a lot of setup from a person who can see,” he said.
On a recent afternoon, Rayna Kistler, 35, of Fort Lauderdale, dropped by with a problem. She couldn’t figure out how to add contacts, and Siri, the voice-recognizing computer inside the new iPhones, refuses to do it hands free. It’s one of the phone’s drawbacks.
“This is visual,” she said. “That’s why this is tedious.”
Every iPhone comes with a factory feature called VoiceOver that tells users what they’re tapping. But a talking phone has drawbacks, too.
“I’ll be in an elevator and someone will shoot me a text,” Kistler said, “and the whole elevator will hear it.”
A handful of app developers have taken on projects to make life more sight-like.
There’s one app called Color ID, which works with the camera to recognize whatever color the lens is seeing. It’s a neat toy, but when there’s darkness or shadow, it tends to insist everything is some shade of blue, Barrette said.
Besides, if you’re blind from birth, color is a meaningless idea.
Handier, perhaps, are apps for navigation, which speak walking directions. LookTel Money Reader uses the camera to spot currency to save visually impaired people the trouble of asking (and trusting) others. It costs $9.99 in the app store.
A free one is oMoby, which takes a picture of a product, searches the web and speaks what it is. “Heinz tomato ketchup,” for example.
The phone is doing more for people, but some doubt Braille is on its way out. Broward Lighthouse Director Elly du Pré said those who can read Braille have a lower unemployment rate. Plus it’s silent, and things like spreadsheets are too big and spatial to listen to with VoiceOver.
Braille can’t take Instagram pictures, though. Tommy Edison is a Connecticut radio broadcaster who has gathered a following as the Blind Film Critic, but lately he has gathered 29,000 Instagram followers looking at his pictures of train cars, refrigerator leftovers and the like. Some are blurry, but people seem to like them, and he enjoys reading their comments.
“They talk about the framing of it, the light,” Edison said. What they’re talking about, “I have no idea.”