by Curtis Chong
From the Editor: The iPhone is unquestionably the most popular cell phone used by the blind. Apple's revolutionary breakthrough in providing a roadmap for making the touchscreen usable by the blind has earned it significant praise from the blind, and their money has followed their words. But even with its impressive list of features and its accessibility, the iPhone is not for everyone, including some blind people. In this article Curtis Chong, who is a technology expert now living in New Mexico, explains the benefits of cutting-edge technology, but he also knows that the complexity of the iPhone and the needs of many cell phone users do not make it a good match. Here is what he has to say:
Many people have hailed the Apple iPhone as one of the first touchscreen technologies that can be used by the blind without sighted assistance. When Apple released the iPhone with VoiceOver back in 2009, even the most skeptical among us recognized that Apple had accomplished a truly phenomenal feat of design and engineering; for the first time in history a person who could not see the screen was able to operate all of the controls of a device, even though those controls were nothing more than icons on a flat screen.
Today the iPhone's reputation as an accessible technology for the blind is widespread. People who have never used an accessible cell phone have heard about the iPhone and dream about taking advantage of its accessibility for themselves. Well-meaning sons and daughters, hearing about the legendary accessibility of the iPhone, act to purchase this marvelous piece of technology for their aging mother or father. Parents who want an accessible cell phone for their blind youngsters believe that the iPhone is the perfect solution.
Accessible as the iPhone is, it is important to understand both its strengths and weaknesses before deciding to spend the money to get it. For some people it will be the perfect solution. For others it could turn out to be a very expensive paperweight.
The good and bad points about the iPhone that are listed below are based solely on my personal experience. In judging the accuracy of this information for yourself, you should know that I was a relative latecomer to the iPhone; I waited nearly two years before I decided to abandon my accessible Nokia cell phone for it, and, because I had talked with a lot of blind people before I decided to make the purchase, I was not disappointed in my decision.
1. The iPhone enables you to take advantage of online services—particularly if they are supported by an iPhone app—for example, banking, news, music, searching for information, reading books online, email, weather, etc.
2. The iPhone gives you the same technology as many of your blind friends who have already embraced the iPhone as their technological Swiss Army Knife of choice. This means that, if you run into trouble, you will probably be able to find a blind person with the knowledge and experience to help you.
3. The iPhone demonstrates conclusively that the blind can operate a touchscreen device that has been properly designed for nonvisual use. In this regard I take great delight in using my iPhone with the screen completely blank—just to show my sighted colleagues that it can be done.
4. The iPhone can tell you who is calling before you answer the call.
5. The iPhone can help you keep track of recent calls made and/or received, and you can easily return a missed call.
6. The iPhone offers a dictation system that enables you to make calls to people in your contact list, call specific phone numbers that you already know, dictate emails and text messages, and ask questions that may or may not result in useful answers.
7. The iPhone can run a GPS system that you can use to direct drivers to where you want to go if you pay for a good GPS app.
8. The iPhone has a free built-in compass which is quite useful in places where there are no good landmarks.
9. With a ten-dollar app, the iPhone can read paper currency; this app can even read foreign paper currency.
10. The iPhone is a great music player and also good for streaming radio.
11. With the iPhone you can read digital talking books and electronic Braille books from the National Library Service of the Library of Congress.
12. The iPhone can be used to read books from Audible.com and Kindle books from Amazon. It can also read books from a variety of other sources—including Learning Ally and Bookshare.
13. The iPhone offers access to NFB-NEWSLINE® through a free app.
14. You can take pictures with the iPhone. Autofocus gives you a verbal indication whether there is a face in the picture. Also the camera can, to some extent, be used with optical character recognition software to read printed material if you can focus the camera.
15. The iPhone has built-in voice output and screen enlargement available free. Activating these technologies is fairly straightforward. Moreover, you will find that a growing number of books and people are available to offer help and support for new iPhone users.
1. If you don't want to pay for a data plan, the iPhone has no option for that. A data plan will cost you about twenty dollars a month. You need a data plan for the iPhone to be able to communicate over the Internet.
2. It is very inefficient to make a simple phone call with the iPhone, particularly if you don't have a person in your contacts list. You can dial a phone number that you know much more quickly with a keypad that has real, physical buttons.
3. On the iPhone touch typing for texting and email is very slow as compared to a regular keyboard; this has been somewhat mitigated by Braille apps, of which there are now two. However, you should know that research has shown that, on average, a blind person entering data using the touch-screen QWERTY keyboard is writing at about three words per minute. By contrast, users of the built-in Braille apps have been clocked at around 23 words per minute.
4. The iPhone is very much a technology requiring good hand-ear coordination. People who want real buttons that they can operate silently by touch will be very disappointed in the iPhone.
5. Battery life for the iPhone is still an issue. You have to charge it at least once a day—a lot more if you use GPS.
6. The iPhone is not small. It is bigger than a lot of flip phones.
7. For a lot of people the iPhone is a lot more technology than they want. It is not for someone who just wants a phone to make and receive calls.
8. The iPhone is not cheap. Even with a two-year contract, the basic unit can cost $200. The full retail price of the iPhone is approximately $650.
9. First-time users of the iPhone have reported initial frustration with this powerful technology. It is not uncommon for these people to feel as if they want to throw the phone away during the first month. Answering calls and hanging up calls seem to be two particularly difficult problems for beginning iPhone users.
10. The iPhone requires a fair amount of dexterity and the ability to tap quickly. People who have motor issues or poor dexterity will likely not benefit from this technology.
The iPhone is simply not for everyone—despite its built-in nonvisual accessibility. Before you decide to get one, do the research, talk to your colleagues in the blind community, and decide whether or not you really need or want the power that the iPhone has to offer. Before you buy, be prepared to experience some frustration, have a few second thoughts, and expect initially to find some simple phone functions harder than you think they should be.