You Know, Blind People Can Actually Use Touchscreens

By Michael Hansen

Over the last couple years, I’ve come to a conclusion about life as a blind person: it isn’t the physical lack of sight that’s the biggest difficulty I face; but rather, it is attempting to overcome peoples’ negative stereotypes and misconceptions about what I can – and cannot – do that is the real problem.

When I think of situations where negative stereotypes about blind people come into play, the use of technology isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. I tend to think about education, or employment, or parenting long before I think of access to the latest and greatest tech. But, as a recent Wired article about a new Braille-writing app demonstrated, misconceptions still abound about what technology blind people are able to gainfully use.

The article, published on January 23, 2015, was written about a new iPad app called iBrailler Notes. The app, which allows users to type notes on their iPad using Braille, was just recently released on the App Store. iBrailler’s main selling point is a “Dynamic Keyboard” – a feature which adjusts the position of the Braille keyboard each and every time you place your fingers on the screen.

It’s always great to see mainstream media outlets reporting on news impacting the visually impaired, because these stories often educate the public about just how much empowerment blind people can have through the use of assistive technology. What isn’t so great, however, is when journalists get very important details wrong and thus inaccurately represent a story – and therein lies my motivation for writing this post.

In the first paragraph of the Wired article, the author states that it is “nearly impossible” for blind people to use devices with touchscreens:

The proliferation of touchscreen technology may have revolutionized mobile computer input for most everyone, but there’s one sector of the population that isn’t exactly feeling the pinch, the tap, or the swipe: the blind. It’s nearly impossible to interact with elements on a totally smooth screen if you can’t see.

Put simply, the author’s “facts” are completely inaccurate. Thanks to Apple’s excellent implementation of VoiceOver screen-reading technology, blind users are able to fully and independently utilize the touchscreens on their devices.

Need to find a specific app on your home screen? No problem! Either flick left or right with one finger and listen to VoiceOver read the app names as you pass them; or you can just move your finger around the screen to get an idea of the layout.

Want to send an e-mail? You got it! Your options include using the touchscreen keyboard in three different typing modes; built-in Braille Screen Input; Handwriting Mode; and of course, dictation. (That’s another thing that gets on my nerves: dictation is not the be-all-and-end-all solution for text entry on an iOS device if you are blind.)

iOS isn’t for you? Have no fear! It’s possible to use a touchscreen on an Android device as well, even if the experience isn’t as polished as it is on iOS.

Oh, and about those gestures that blind people supposedly can’t “feel”: not only can blind users tap, pinch, and swipe; we can two-, three-, and four-finger double-tap; we can write Braille with Apple’s built-in Braille keyboard feature; and we can even use Handwriting Mode if we so desire.

For being “nearly impossible” to use, Apple’s touchscreen-equipped devices are popular with blind people the world over. Android, while not as accessible as iOS, also has blind people using touchscreen devices. It’s even possible to use touchscreen Windows 8.1 computers with screen reading software. The only mobile phone platform blind people don’t have access to is BlackBerry, but who really uses that in 2015, anyway?

It is worth noting that not all touchscreen technology is currently accessible to blind people. As one of my readers pointed out, point-of-sale systems, ATM machines, and any other touchscreen-equipped devices that do not have speech output are not useable by blind people without sighted assistance. However, blind people do have the capability to use touchscreen devices if appropriate assistive technology solutions are implemented-a point the author conveniently failed to mention in the article.

Further down in the article, the author contradicts herself by stating, correctly, that the iPad was completely accessible to blind users from day one – thanks to VoiceOver. And yes, that includes the “nearly impossible” task of finding elements on that smooth, glass touchscreen. In fact, that smooth, glass touchscreen was made accessible when the iPhone 3Gs was released in June 2009 – well before the iPad’s 2010 launch.

In today’s era of sensational journalism, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Wired got one of the most fundamental details of Apple’s accessibility efforts so horribly wrong. And yet, I still am. Furthermore, I’m disappointed that a major mainstream news source chose to perpetuate factually inaccurate information about blind people, even though it’s clear from my reading of the article that some research was done on the topic. I’m disappointed because the subtle message sent in the article is that blind people can’t use touchscreen technology, even though all the available evidence suggests just the opposite. And I’m disappointed because, in all likelihood, there will be people who actually accept the Wired article as fact-and there is probably very little I can do to change that. If nothing else, at least I can go to sleep tonight knowing that I did my part to set the record straight.

This article originally appeared on AppleVis here