Thursday, April 29, 2010

Trends: iPhone for the blind

Trends: iPhone for the blind


Ridzwan A. Rahim

Someone has mastered the use of iPhone 3GS and he's completely blind. RIDZWAN A. RAHIM finds out how.

                                Yam says smartphones such as the iPhone 3GS have enabled the visually impaired to compete on a level playing field with the sighted
              Yam says smartphones such as the iPhone 3GS have enabled the
           visually impaired to compete on a level playing field with the sighted

VISUALLY impaired Yam Tong Woo first had a taste of iPhone 3GS last year when I brought a unit to him for testing.
He had heard about it and wanted to play with it.
I remember that he struggled with it. First of all, he's completely blind. How do you teach someone the basics of iPhone such as the Home screen, the Dock and the apps when he can't even see?
Second, typing was a horrendous affair. Yam was used to touch-typing on phones with physical keypads. The iPhone had no buttons. Typing on the touch screen proved to be such a slow and arduous process that I almost gave up waiting for him to finish his sentences (Life & Times, Aug 12, 2009).
That was then. Now, Yam is a proud owner of a month-old iPhone 3GS 16GB.
He has familiarised himself with the device so thoroughly that he can now teach not just other visually impaired but also sighted people to use the iPhone.
His typing, too, has improved.
"Now I can type very fast," says Yam.
"There's this thing called split-tap typing. You need two fingers.
"You hover one finger on the keyboard and when you reach the correct letter, use the other finger to tap anywhere on the screen to confirm."

During our SMS exchanges for this story, he had that perfect spelling typical of an iPhone user: all sentences begin with a capital letter and the commas and spaces in perfect order.
Whoever complains that it is difficult to type on an iPhone can learn from this guy.
From early on, the chairman of the Malaysian Association for the Blind Cyber Club (MABCC) has seen something in the phone.
"After the last time we spoke, I was convinced that this is something for the blind," says Yam, who became blind about two years ago from a bacterial infection.
"I believe things are moving to touch screen everywhere in the world. Physical buttons will be less and less common from now on."
Sighted users may covet the iPhone's sleek appearance but what got Yam excited about the phone was one feature: Accessibility.
In the absence of sight, Accessibility allows the visually impaired to operate the phone. It activates a screen reader software called VoiceOver.
VoiceOver turns the phone into a talking device. It describes whatever is on the screen in spoken English at twice the speed of normal human speech.
The best part is, it's free. It is a standard feature on the iPhone operating system.
"If we buy some other phones, we would have to spend RM1,000 on a screen reader on top of what we have to pay for the phone.
"I want to create the awareness among the visually impaired that this phone is good for them right out-of-the-box," he says.
But just like in the sighted community, there is opposition to the iPhone in the blind community as well.
Yam says after that initial contact with the device, he posted a mini review on a Google chat forum for the blind but received negative feedback.
Some members said the iPhone was too slow and not easy to use. They would rather use physical keypads but couldn't, because the iPhone does not allow for pairing with an external Bluetooth keyboard (Apple has since announced it will enable this feature in the upcoming revision of the iPhone operating system).
But Yam stuck to his gun and decided to pursue the matter on his own.
First up: price. He felt it is important that the visually impaired community be given some sort of discount.
So he approached telecommunications company Maxis which at that time was the sole distributor for the iPhone in Malaysia.

Months passed by, during which time, thanks to Maxis, Yam had more opportunities to play with the iPhone. Finally, early this month, the telco offered a RM500 rebate on the iPhone 3GS for purchase by members of the blind community. Seventy people turned up at the introduction session. Ten bought the iPhone.
But then came the next problem: neither Maxis nor Apple could teach the newly equipped users to use the phone.
The difference between using the iPhone in normal mode and in Accessibility mode is so huge, there was no way a sighted person would be able to effectively teach the blind.

So the new users had to learn by themselves, with Yam leading the way since he was the one with the most experience with the iPhone.
Happily, through persistence, Yam reports that the gestures have now become second nature.
Holding his iPhone close to his left ear, his deft fingers swipe, tap and scroll on the screen with the confidence of an Apple pro.
He is now even teaching his wife to use the device, which he has set up with a shortcut to make it easy for him to switch back-and-forth between Accessibility mode and normal mode so that he can demonstrate to a sighted person.

Like many other husbands, Yam, too, gets restless while waiting for his wife to get her shopping done. That's when he flips out his iPhone and gets online.
As for the apps, he has downloaded between 20 and 30 from the Apple App Store. Guitar Tuner is one of them.
The free iBlink radio app is another. It offers all sorts of podcasts and reading material concerning the visually impaired community.
The built-in Weather app is important for blind persons, especially for those who do a lot of walking. Because they are unable to see, Yam says, they must check the weather just before stepping out.

For orientation, he likes the iPhone 3GS's built-in digital compass app but he feels there is a pressing need for a good local GPS app.
"In some countries like the US and Australia, they have GPS for the blind. Every 10 metres, the phone talks and give directions and sometimes can even tell the building and the name of the shop facing you. Here we don't have it yet."
Finally, like millions other iPhone users, Yam is an active Facebooker.
"To some people, the iPhone might just be a phone, but to us, it's a lifesaver.
"I'm happy with the current state of consumer technology. It has allowed us access to information and made us more independent. In fact, consumer technology is one of the few areas where the visually impaired can compete with the sighted on a level playing field," says Yam.
He intends to impart his newfound knowledge to the community.
"I'm thinking of starting a iPhone class soon. It will really be a case of the blind leading the blind," says Yam with a chuckle.

Apple, please. Get this guy certified.