by Randy Pierce
“No offense, Randy, but how in the world are you going to use a touch screen given your total blindness?” I’ve heard that question a few times already, despite barely owning my iPhone for a week, and still the truth is even more amazing than I anticipated! Touch screen technology has not enhanced the barriers but has instead introduced an entirely new and powerful means of accessibility.
Adaptive Technology is a mixed blessing in that the powerful options are incredible, but so too is the cost, given the restricted market for such things. Speech technology has added thousands of dollars to the cost of items in the past, yet as our world of technology strives toward “eyes-free” for the benefit of drivers, (primarily) the results are clear. In the case of my iPhone, accessibility and usability are both highly available using just the pre-installed features! No additional cost is fantastic, but the reality of the potential is the greater achievement. The Android platform is not far behind, though full accessibility is not present with their Talk Back program. The expectations have been set, however, and most devices will begin to come standard with this new approach.
Voice Over is the installed accessibility feature on every iPhone (Settings, General, Accessibility), which converts the phone to a means of interacting non-visually. Touch any point on the screen and the phone speaks the name of the Icon or feature present at that location. A single finger flick, left or right, and it advances through the options back and forth with ease. There’s a vast array of easy-to-learn hand gestures that bring the power of the product to life. Even the on-screen, touch-typing keyboard seems a quickly learned and mastered process! The impressive number of accessible applications can quickly enhance the device as a money reader, text scanner, color identifier, and GPS system – at no or minimal additional costs.
I spent a bit more than a month following some online discussions about the product before making the plunge, as my previous Smartphone slowly began to fail me. As such, I found the learning curve tremendously quick and discovered the most powerful aspect of this new technology. As a blind person, the delivery of information is always linear through a screen reader. We get an intricately displayed visual page as a series of single points without any appreciation for the impact of the layout. I may be told that a row across the top has a list of headline options, or similarly, a column down either side of the screen, but understanding the reason for the layout has previously been lost upon me. Things are placed with a prominence, which has meaning for usability. Now, due to the touch screen alerting of actual location points, a blind user can benefit from the size and location of any item in a way that is very close to a sighted user’s experience. We can also skip the fine print with ease just like our sighted counterparts. Do you think that’s a small detail? Imagine the clutter all across your Facebook page and how quickly your eye can focus on the significant details. Finally, we have a means to do so, and it’s all built into this powerful device!
It would be an extensive report to share all of the power and revolutionary change brought to us by this advance in technology. I’ll spare that extensive detail for this post and note that many of my blind and sighted contacts shared my apprehension on the accessibility of touch screen technology. As with nearly everything, awareness, education, and exploration have demonstrated that change, in this instance, may indeed be a tremendous benefit!