How the Blind Are Reinventing the iPhone

At first many blind people thought that the iPhone would never be accessible to them, with its flat glass screen. But the opposite has proved true.

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Sendero, "an app made for the blind, by the blind."

Maria Rios, 66, woke up at 6am. She got out of bed in her little second floor apartment on the north side of Central Park, and checked her iPhone for the weather. Then she felt around in her closet, where she had marked her navy blue garments with safety pins, to tell them apart from her black ones. In the adjacent room, her roommate Lynette Tatum, 49, picked out a white sweater and dark denim slacks. She used her VizWiz iPhone app to take a photograph and send it to a customer-service rep who lets her know what color the item is.

For the visually impaired community, the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 seemed at first like a disaster -- the standard-bearer of a new generation of smartphones was based on touch screens that had no physical differentiation. It was a flat piece of glass. But soon enough, word started to spread: The iPhone came with a built-in accessibility feature. Still, members of the community were hesitant. 

But no more. For its fans and advocates in the visually-impaired community, the iPhone has turned out to be one of the most revolutionary developments since the invention of Braille. That the iPhone and its world of apps have transformed the lives of its visually impaired users may seem counter-intuitive -- but their impact is striking.

Watching Rios and Tatum navigate the world with the aid of their iPhones is a lesson in the transformative and often unpredictable impacts that technology has on our lives. After getting dressed, they strap on their backpacks, canes in hand, and walk out the door. They can't see the sign someone hung in the elevator, informing them the building is switching to FIOS, but the minute they're outside the fact they can't see is a minor detail. They use Sendero -- "an app made for the blind, by the blind," says Tatum -- an accessible GPS that announces the user's current street, city, cross street, and nearby points of interest. What it's missing, adds Tatum, is a feature that tells you which bus is arriving and what its next stop is. In the meantime they walk a couple of blocks south to catch the M1 downtown.

Rios pulls out coins from her purse and pays the driver. She tells the coins apart by their size and the ridges. Bills are another story -- but there's an app for that. It's called the LookTel Money Reader and with it you can scan the bill you're being handed, instead of depending on the kindness of strangers.

Romeo Edmead, 32, who's been blind since the age of two, is a prominent member of the blind community in New York, taking pride in who he is and all that he can do. He's a guide at the Dialog in The Dark exhibit, a writer for the Matilda Ziegler Magazine for the blind, and an athlete. But he hasn't caught up with the iProducts yet. "It's revolutionary in all that it can do," admits Edmead. "Now, if I want to tell money, I have a standalone device," he demonstrates its size with the palm of his hand. "It's a kind of box you slide the bill into and it tells you what the bill is, but it means carrying something extra. That's inconvenient."

Tatum is what Edmead calls "a techie." She had a previous, failed experience with the Android, which almost made her give up the touch technology. Luckily, she kept her mind open enough to see how those around her are adapting to the iPhone. "I started 'Info share' five years ago, where a group for visually impaired people can share information. A young lady, Eliza, got an iPhone, and she was entranced." The sales representatives at the Verizon store, she says, were very nice and helped her set up her email account and sync her contacts. They didn't know much besides that, and she had to teach them how accessibility is turned on (through Settings.) "They all went 'Whoa!'," she says.

Tatum and Rios happily volunteer to show off all their iPhone can do. "See, I tap it," says Tatum, her iPhone stretched in front of her, "and it started reading out what is on the screen." 

Blind people use their iPhones slightly different than the sighted because, well, they can't see what they're tapping on. So instead of pressing down and opening up an app, they can press anywhere on the screen and hear where their finger is. If it's where they want to be, they can double-tap to enter. If it isn't, they'll flick their finger to the right, to the left, towards the top or the bottom, to navigate themselves. The same for the simple "slide to unlock" command. 

"We use Audible and it reads for us books that we download from audible.com," Tatum goes on. Each woman is in her respective phone, sliding and flicking and taping, looking for apps. What makes an app stick, they explain, is whether it's practical, accessible, fast, and easy to use. Rios adds that she downloaded a hundred apps by now, but for the most part she'll use an app once or twice and leave it. There are a few, like Sendero, that they use every day. "There's also HeyTell, it's speech texting," explains Tatum. She demonstrates, and manages fairly quickly to record a few words and send them to Maria. Maria receives the message, opens it, and holds her phone to her ear. It works. "There's Dragon Dictation, but that's half baked," says Tatum. "You can speak to it and it turns it into a written text you can then send over." There's also HopStop. "It's completely accessible, you put in your destination and it tells you what trains to take and exactly how to get there."

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Liat Kornowski is a writer based in New York City.

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