Celebrating 5 years of VoiceOver on iOS. What i Means to Me
I never thought I would be up before the sun, waiting with much anticipation for some highly intelligent man on the opposite side of the globe to unveil the newest features for a phone, slightly larger phone/computer cross, and computer. But, there I was, with the rest of the household– coffee in hand on the edge of my seat listening to Tim Cooke et al enthusiastically extolling the latest in Apple goodness from the Worldwide Developer’s Conference WWDC. It reminded me of those infomercials on late night TV in the days before the late late talk shows and early early news programs, but with much more pizzazz and a hell of a lot more creativity. Plus this was something I use, want to use, and know works. Not being a true techie, I couldn’t fully appreciate the impact on human existence some of the fancy new features have, so left the hooting and squeeing to my brilliant, tech minded other half, but I did squeal a bit at audio chat in iMessage, handover, and the ability to control household activities through voice commands ala George Jetson. Yes, I am looking forward to iOS8, nine, ten etc. I am not, strictly speaking, an Apple fan girl where the great fruit named giant can do no wrong. As a professional in the blindness field and as an intelligent consumer by nature, I believe in informed choice and using what works best for one’s needs. But I can, with absolute certainty say, after four years of being an iPhone user, next to my Seeing Eye dogs the iPhone is the best investment I have made as a blind person. I didn’t jump on the iOS bandwagon right away. I wasn’t dragged kicking and screaming—more like gentle peer pressure, but once I got there, like a Yankee moving to Georgia, I stayed with no intention of leaving.
I got my first cell phone in 1995. It was the size of a freight car—well maybe a freight car on a toy railroad, didn’t do anything other than make and receive phone calls whose quality was similar to speaking with astronauts on the space shuttle, and was a battery hog. There were no accessibility features. I don’t remember what plan I was on, other than it was expensive and you kept your calls to a minimum. As a blind person fresh out of graduate school and job-hunting, often traveling to unfamiliar areas for interviews, I felt a sense of confidence never known before, knowing I had this link with friends, cab companies, the police stowed in my tote bag, worth the astronomical monthly bill. With each contract renewal and phone upgrade, the phones got smaller, sexier, with flips, without flips, with the ability to text, surf the web, geo-locate and send emails. For a price, one could add third party software making these features accessible, but I was a holdout, preferring to keep my phone in its bodyguard status rather than something that might help me with my day-to-day productivity. Then the iPhone 3GS with Voiceover started appearing in certain circles of blind acquaintances. I was intrigued, but still skeptical on how this expensive “toy” could benefit me. The touch screen was intimidating. In 2010, at the end of an expiring Verizon contract, a friend and lover of all things I convinced me to go for it and make the leap to the iPhone 4. At the time, AT&T was the only carrier selling iPhones on contract and Verizon couldn’t give me a date when they might be selling this miracle device. It was expensive even with a two year contract, but the more time I spent around my friend’s phone and the more I heard both sighted and blind friends praising its many virtues, curiosity finally got the best of me and off we went to Apple’s flagship store in Boston for my fateful meeting with iPhone.
Four years have passed, I am on an iPhone5S and have an iPad mini, and yes, the iPhone has improved my life in more ways than I can count. It is wonderful having the total accessibility right out of the box. As a professional, community volunteer, and socialite, I am able to manage my busy schedule, respond to important emails or texts in real-time no matter where I am, all with a few simple swipes on the screen, but it is much more than this. It is the plethora of apps one can acquire that turns the iPhone into a real life changer, and most aren’t specifically designed with blind or visually impaired users in mind. I have always been an explorer, and asking for directions or information from sighted people can be interesting at best, frustrating at worst. Having a handheld GPS with turn-by-turn directions that announces points of interest while walking or riding in a vehicle is a dream come true. Yes, there are other GPS’s available to blind travellers and they work well, but having a GPS along with other useful apps all in the phone is so much more convenient, and easier to carry. Couple these GPS apps with the wide variety of public transit apps available globally, and travelling independently as a blind person isn’t completely stress free but a lot more enjoyable than in the past.
Currency identifiers, colour identifiers, and apps able to determine what you are looking at and all the reading and music apps one could wish for. I could go on and on. It may sound a bit cheesy or Lifetime movie worthy, but I feel I am the closest to being sighted, as I probably ever will be since losing my vision. Of course, there are apps that aren’t or are barely accessible, but for the most part, I can accomplish everything I want to do, and I applaud Apple’s commitment to accessibility. Accessibility came with a price–a law suit, but they have kept at it and seem open to suggestions from their users. Ok, I know some people reading this are wondering about Android and Windows phone. From my understanding Windows Phone has been completely inaccessible to a blind user but that is about to change. I have had limited experience with Android and its TalkBack feature but know blind users who are happy with it, and like me, wouldn’t change devices for the world. It is, when all is said and done, not a battle between iOS, Android, or Windows or whatever might come next. It is what works best for you and fits into your lifestyle. This is just what I means to me. And the intimidating touch screen I was worried about four years ago? It wasn’t as scary as I thought.