[nfbwatlk] Screen readers for blind make smartphones easy to use, Colorado's News Leader, June 2 2013

Nightingale, Noel Noel.Nightingale at ed.gov
Fri Jun 7 16:48:05 UTC 2013


Screen readers for blind make smartphones easy to use
June 2, 2013

DENVER - James Gashel swipes his finger over the screen of his smartphone and double-taps the screen he can't see. A voice reads the words beneath his fingers.

Blind since birth, Gashel, 66, can't read street signs or print on a page. He sees only shadows, blobs or blurs of things around him.
In 2009, he walked into an AT&T store. "It was the first time that I had gone to a regular store, open to the general public, bought a device that everybody else uses and that device worked for me. Even though I couldn't see to use it, it worked for me out of the box. It was a liberating experience."

He asked the salesperson to turn on the iPhone's voice feature. Gashel walked out of the store with it, swiped his finger right and left across the screen, called a taxi and went home.

The difference-maker was VoiceOver, an accessibility option built into the iPhone's general settings. When activated, it speaks what is on the screen. The iPhone can be set up to turn the VoiceOver function on or off when the Home button is triple clicked. (Warning: Don't turn VoiceOver on unless you set up the triple-click Home function to toggle it on and off easily.)

"When most people look at the screen and tap various places to activate controls and buttons, I swipe my finger across the screen to hear what's available under my finger and then double tap to activate the control. So, it makes a flat screen an accessible screen for someone who is blind," Gashel said.

He also uses an iPad and an iPod Touch. "I would say that the way I use the Apple devices is pretty much how anybody else would use them, but in my case, they speak rather than relying on the visual interface. I can do my banking. I can set my alarm system. I can set the temperature in the house. I can control the stereo system. I can know how far I walked in an exercise program. I can know what street intersection I'm approaching."

He gets around without any particular guidance technology except a long white cane, but when in an unfamiliar place, or just for fun, he might use a navigation app such as BlindSquare or Ariadne GPS to locate and guide him to a business or a favorite location, with spoken directions or information about his surroundings as he walks toward the destination.

For a blind person, a $1 bill feels the same as a $20 bill. LookTel's Money Reader app uses the phone's camera to identify the denomination of the bills in his wallet. "I just aim the device at money and it tells me the value of the money."

RunKeeper helps him track fitness activities, and he keeps a list of his exercise routines in Dropbox. He reads books on his iPhone and iPad with Blio, an e-book reader app developed by the company that he works for, K-NFB Reading Technology, a software developer for e-books and specialized reading technology for the blind.

Gashel also serves as secretary for the National Federation of the Blind, which promotes accessibility and equality in many areas of life on behalf of the blind. "This technology did not become available just because Apple one day decided that it should become available. The National Federation of the Blind is a consumer advocacy organization and insisted for a long time that Apple and other companies should make their technology so it would be accessible to blind people."

It's to the industry's credit that it responded, he says.

Gashel says that the world of technology for the blind has evolved significantly.

A feature called TalkBack, similar to Apple's VoiceOver, comes preloaded on all newer Android phones and tablet computers. Gashel has an Android G2 phone, an Asus tablet computer (Android), a Google Nexus tablet (Android) and a Windows Surface Pro. He uses all of these devices in his job with K-NFB Reading Technology to test the Blio app and other products that the company is planning to come out with.

On a recent chilly day in Denver, Gashel is seated in the passenger seat as his wife, Susan, drives their Subaru to a nearby car wash. "I use an app called GPS Plus, because when we're in the car, I'm the navigator."

As they travel down Broadway to West Third Avenue, his iPhone is speaking turn-by-turn directions. Susan pulls the car into Waterworks.

"And another successful trip," says James as he shuts down GPS Plus and locks the screen of his iPhone.

(Copyright (c) 2013 USA TODAY)

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