Friday, June 29, 2007

iPhone may be cool, but lacks accessibility

Today is June 29, the day of the highly-touted release of the Apple iPhone.

A lot of the hype is about the
iPhone’s touch screen,
which is being promoted as the beginning wave of coming technology.

As for that wave of coming technologies, I certainly hope not. While the iPhone may look sleek, cool, and all of those other promotional buzz words, it lacks basic accessibility for those who are unable to see the touch pad.

Maybe the new
Hitachi brain interface
is the key to giving access to the blind. While I suggest this a bit feceitiously, this interface is actually a pretty cool innovation which has great potential for applications in assistive technology.

A recent request in the Houston Chronicle wanted readers to write one of the newspaper’s business reporters and tell whether you would be standing in line to get one of these new Apple play-pretty’s today.

Here is what I wrote:

I was reading Dwight’s Techblog and saw that you were inquiring whether people were going to stand in line to get an iPhone.

I will not be and will tell you why.

I am totally blind and the iPhone’s touch screen, while packing all the reputed Apple coolness, is just a blank technological slate to somebody who can’t see it.

I use a computer at home with a screen reading program and it reads text great in many forms such as web pages, emails, word documents, and many other applications. I do things on my computer by the keyboard and without using the mouse or monitor that many sighted folks have no idea how to do, even when they're looking at the monitor with mouse in hand.

The reason I explain about the computer and screen reader is that I also have a screen reader on my Nokia 6620 cell phone that reads the screen to me, including the various folders and their contents, the display screen of the number I am dialing, and also reads aloud the caller ID. This software even reads text messages. While I don't text, I do have blind friends who text using their 6620 and later model Nokia phones and this software. While my 6620 is over two years old, it is still functioning well and giving me what I need.

In essence, the iPhone would give me less functionality than the old analog cell phones I used to use before the technology advanced to where I could use a screen reader. On those old phones, I could at least feel the buttons, figure out the number I wanted to dial, and hit send. From what I’m reading, with the iPhone, I couldn’t even feel the number buttons to dial somebody, rendering it totally useless to me.

So, as I’ve explained, the IPhone has nothing that gives me the access I have on my Nokia and would be about as useful as a stone for me. One day, there may be a screen reader that works for the iPhone. Really, though, why would I want the iPhone? For coolness? I’m 45 years old and my idea of being cool is spending time with my wife and 5-year old son. Give me the practical functionality of my Nokia and I’m happy.

I know this might have been more than you were asking for, but cell phone users come in many forms. Blind folks use them too, but we need access to the information we are using. I figured I would share a side of the cell phone consumer picture most people don’t even think about.

(I did receive a prompt reply from the reporter, in which he acknowledged my thoughts and said he had never even thought about people who couldn’t see the touch pad.)


Aaron Marks said...

People who can see very very easily forget what it would be like to not see. The same with how they don't think about what it would be like if they couldn't hear.

Jason said...

I am sure they forgot about accessibility for the touch screen- however there is the possibility that it could be added via voice-recognition for dialling and writing emails, and Macintalk for reading messages back to you.

Ron Graham said...

I believe that the developers of the iPhone were just like the Chronicle reporter in that they hadn’t even thought about people with disabilities using their product. People who can’t see or hear are not in the majority, so these developers didn’t think of them, focusing the design of their product on the mainstream instead. The iPhone is heralded for its packaging of internet and email applications with the music player and phone, all inside the ubercool Apple design. It is predicted to be the one big thing that will move computing in today’s society to the handheld and away from the pc or notebook. People with disabilities rely on new technologies to give them more access, not less. Unfortunately, while the iPhone puts all this mobile incorporation of features once confined to a computer into the palms of users hand, it does so at the expense of those with disabilities.

We can only hope that these bright and creative minds can peek outside of their initial design and see how others might use their phone, opening the door to applications that will make the phone useful to a much broader audience. I feel certain that, with tweaking, some of the already available, current access technologies could make the iPhone accessible to nearly all users. These applications, such as voice commands, once discovered by the mainstream, could be used by more people, even those who don’t have disabilities. How much simpler would it be for a fully sighted person, while driving their car, to access his/her iPhone using voice commands and having items read such as web pages or emails to them without taking their hands away from the steering wheel? Voice commands and speech output would make the iPhone accessible to both the visually impaired and those who can’t physically manipulate the device, as well as drivers wanting hands free operation.

Even if these others don’t get the functionality of assistive technology, those who rely on it for daily access know its true value.

jt said...

I was very interested to read this post and it reminded me of something that might apply to the iPhone. I emailed about the idea but have so far not received any response.

Since it applies to any touch screen device I thought I'd reply here as well. Unfortunately I have so far been unable to find an opportunity to get the idea implemented anywhere so any feedback would be really useful.

In summary, it allows a touch screen device, like the iPhone, to switch to an accessible mode where, instead of the usual graphical buttons and layouts, large areas of the screen are used with a telephone prompt style system to interact with the user. For example, an audio prompt to, "Press the top right of the screen to make a call" and so on.

More areas, for example to input numbers or longer lists of options, could be arranged around the outside of the screen with simple tactile markers added to the casing. The advantage of this method is that it is largely software based with no additional external controls required, so idea for small devices, or touch screen kiosks that have already been installed.

A more detailed description can be found on the prior art database by searching for document ID IPCOM000125721D.

I would love to hear any comments or suggestions you have.