Assistive Technology: How iPhones Help Blind People See

8/12/2013 @ 11:39AM
Jacqueline Vanacek, SAP

iPhone innovations have created a new way for the blind and visually impaired to “see.”

In my recent interview with accessibility experts Victor Tsaran at PayPal and Ted Drake at Intuit INTU, I saw how these technologies turn smartphones into powerful assistive devices that employ one physical sense to supplement or replace another.

Victor Tsaran, who is blind, shared that “there are about 650 million people with disabilities in the world, 50 million of whom are blind.”

An accomplished composer, musician and software engineer, he spoke passionately about his own transformation through technology to overcome society’s stereotypes and assumptions about his abilities.

Touch screen technology has been a huge game changer for the blind and visually impaired. Accessibility software is a growing field which makes technology work for the disabled.

Design for accessibility is part of the larger field of human-computer interaction. Human-computer interaction is a hot topic in the tech community. Designing around how humans interact with machines is sparking new user interfaces that use movement, gestures and behaviors to trigger computer responses.

Ted Drake further explained how Intuit invests heavily in user testing to ensure that everyone can benefit from their products. For example, Intuit is working with non-profit My Blind Spot to make QuickBooks content accessible to the blind via screen readers which convert tactile commands into voice.

The power of accessibility software and other assistive technologies can turn a smartphone or computer into a disabled person’s eyes, ears, voice or whichever sense is needed to communicate and participate more fully in everyday life.

VoiceOver is one of Apple’s award-winning iOS assistive technologies. The gesture-based screen reader tells users which button or icon they have touched on the screen. A double tap on the icon then invokes the function. This helps blind or visually impaired users know what is happening on their devices to better control them.

Other innovations like Siri and Dictation help users type, read calendars and launch apps like Facebook FB and Twitter.

A key point that Ted Drake made about expectations is that “when truly innovative products come out, it’s because” developers “didn’t really think about pre-conceived ideas. They didn’t say ‘well a blind person can’t use a phone that’s only glass, because there are no tactile buttons. They said here’s a glass surface. Let’s make it accessible ….’ ”

Accessibility innovations have also led to using a smartphone’s camera to allow the blind and visually impaired to shop, count money and live independently in ways many of us take for granted.

Ted and Victor demonstrated some assistive apps written for the iPhone camera, which one might not think would be useful to a blind person. But Victor took a picture of a dollar bill, sent the image to a crowd sourced group of volunteers, like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk Internet marketplace, and received an immediate answer through the iPhone’s VoiceOver.

He uses that capability when he shops in the grocery store, to ensure he gets the correct change at checkout.

Victor and Ted also demonstrated how the camera can identify the type of soup in a can of Campbell’s – it was tomato – and the color of a pair of socks – pink!

These demonstrations clearly show how a smartphone with accessibility software can open many avenues to help the blind and visually impaired be more included in everyday life.

As we had discussed at the Social Innovation Summit last May at the United Nations, assistive technology offers a powerful catalyst for innovation, because of the harder technical challenges that need to be overcome.
After talking with Victor Tsaran and Ted Drake, I am convinced that innovation without pre-conceived limitations for any user can lead to the most creative technologies of all.

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