Sunday, January 04, 2009

Google engineer Raman addressing blind accessibility on touch screen phones

I’ve previously railed here about the inaccessibility of the iPhone, due to the whizbang Apple product’s touch screen not having any features that make the much-ballyhooed gadget usable by blind folks. Maybe my approach to touch screen phones was all wrong. Instead of knocking the innovation, I should’ve embraced it.

At least, that’s what
T. V. Raman has done.

From the New York Times article linked above:

Some of Mr. Raman’s innovations may help make electronic gadgets and Web services more user-friendly for everyone. Instead of asking how something should work if a person cannot see, he says he prefers to ask, “How should something work when the user is not looking at the screen?”

With no buttons to guide the fingers on its glassy surface, the touch-screen cellphone may seem a particularly daunting challenge. But Mr. Raman said that with the right tweaks, touch-screen phones — many of which already come equipped with GPS technology and a compass — could help blind people navigate the world.

So then, the question comes to mind, if he can’t see the touch screen, then how does he know where to correctly touch it to make a call?

Since he cannot precisely hit a button on a touch screen, Mr. Raman created a dialer that works based on relative positions. It interprets any place where he first touches the screen as a 5, the center of a regular telephone dial pad. To dial any other number, he simply slides his finger in its direction — up and to the left for 1, down and to the right for 9, and so on. If he makes a mistake, he can erase a digit simply by shaking the phone, which can detect motion.

He and Mr. Chen are testing several other input methods. None of these technologies have been rolled out, but Mr. Raman, who is already using the G1 as his primary cellphone, hopes to make them freely available soon.

(Few screen readers are available for smartphones today, and they can often cost as much as a phone itself.)

This is truly the insight that needs to be applied to touch screen phones, and should have applications that can be carried over to other touch screen devices that are ubiquitous and becoming more and more commonplace around households and businesses everyday.

Those in the blind technology circles might know who T. V. Raman is, but many don’t. For those of you who don’t, let me shed a bit of light. Mr. Raman is a computer scientist and engineer at
He is also blind due to glaucoma and And is behind several aspects of accessibility at the online search and advertising behemoth. He has a history of creating accessibility in existing products, including pdf documents for Adobe Acrobat.

I’ve read a good bit about Mr. Raman over the past few years, but this is, by far, the most interesting news to me. The reason why is the ondslaught of touch screens coming down the pike in the future of our everyday lives. If they can innovate and make this aspect of daily living more accessible, which I see becoming more and more integrated into our lives, then I’m all for it.


Anonymous said...

How do you set up Google so that it chooses sites that are web accessible?

Greg said...

As a quadriplegic I have a problem with apple also, I would love to use the iphone however because I cannot use my fingers, I am unable to.
On other phones I use A pencil in my wrist cuff, quite successfully. However the iphone is only operated by a touch or through A specialized stylus (pogo stylus). It's a real shame, I would like to utilize all the features available on the iphone!

Ron Graham said...


Thanks for the comment. It was that inaccessibility that made me scratch my head this past fall when Abilene Christian University received lots of press for giving iPhones to their incoming freshman class. If that weren’t bad enough, there were loads of specific apps for the phone that were designed to have the students’ classroom experience, some of which were required classroom technologies, and thus, necessary to participate fully in the ACU experience. My question then was, what about those incoming freshman students who couldn’t access the screen, due to visual or motor disabilities. I don’t know if you read those posts. I also wrote a letter to the editor of the main Abilene newspaper, but never received any response personally about the letter.

I firmly believe we will see more and more touch screen devices in our daily lives. Hopefully, Mr. Raman’s drive to innovate will spur further support to the effort to bring accessibility to this front.


Per said...

If you want more info and links related to Android accessibility, please read:

Small business web site design said...

good post

Rebeca said...

French app development shop PresseLite appears to have the first Augmented Reality (AR) supporting iPhone app live in the iTunes store, though we don't know how they did.

Ignasi said...

Please, let's not forget that the iPhone is probably the most accessible cellphone right now. It comes with a built in screen reader called VoiceOver and I use it every day. It's great that efforts are being made to make the Android platform accessible, but that doesn't change the fact that as of now, the iPhone is by far a much better solution. It simply works, and works great.

Ron Graham said...


I'm in agreement with you. Check the date of this post. This post is outdated, and since the time that I originally wrote it, Apple has jumped out to the forefront in providing accessibility. I like it when accessibility is off-the-shelf with products, which is what Apple has done with Voice Over. There is no "blind tax" to gain accessibility; its built-in. I've got a few friends who are totally blind and have iPhones, and all of them just rave about the accessibility that Voice Over gives them.

Thanks for the comment.