Friday, July 2, 2010


DW7: Mobile Accessibility for the Visually Impaired

This morning, we had the honor of hosting Yam Tong Woo, who is visually impaired. He shared a heart-warming story of his life and how the iPhone has changed the way he communicated, even with his disability. Below is his talk, reproduced in full.

Good morning, I am Yam Tong Woo and as you can see I use a white cane. Yes I am blind.

2 and half years ago I was like you fully sighted – using my eyes for using the hand phone and mouse for surfing the internet. I knew next to nothing about digital accessibility for the blind. Like me then, I daresay some or most of you here would also be ignorant of the accessibility features that are currently available to the blind to stay connected via hand phones and computers. Yes, the blind can also use hand phones, reading and sending SMSes and surfing the internet.

What I missed most when I became blind was catching up with the daily news – local and international. My poor wife was reading the newspapers to me until she was hoarse. Thank goodness then my son told me about the screen reader for the blind on the computer. That was the beginning of my new stay-connected life via digital devices. Since then I have mastered the Jaws screen reader for the computers. It is a program whereby it reads out what is on the screen – every letter, sentence and paragraph on the page. It also allows us, the blind, to operate the programs e.g. emails, social networking sites like twitter, face book just like what I did before I became blind.

For the hand phone there is a program called Nuance Talks which allows the blind to use the hand phone like how you would use it except it talks. So we can send sms, read sms, make a call, etc.

With any new chapters in life there is a learning curve when a blind uses keyboards and buttons on these devices especially for me when I use to use these gadgets as a sighted person.

When I first read about iPhones, I was skeptical like many of my blind friends. Touch Screens? How can the blind use it? How are they going to look for the features?

When Maxis first launched the iPhone in Malaysia last year, I was fortunate to be the first few blind people who touched the phone, play with it and asked to comment for a newspaper article. I was really struggling with it. Typing on the iPhone was a horrendous affair as I was used to the physical buttons on the hand phones. It was a very, very slow and arduous process to type in a short sentence. I remembered the journalist nearly wanted to stop me and do the typing for me instead.

Today I am a proud owner of an iPhone (self bought). After my first feel of the iPhone I was determined to master touch screen technology as I believe technology is moving towards that direction. As a sighted person I am sure you covet the iPhone for its sleek appearance and it is a phone to seen with. I am a practical person. I bought the iPhone for it’s superb built-in accessibility features.

In the absence of sight, Accessibility allows us the blind to operate the phone with ease. It activates a screen reader software called VoiceOver which turns the phone into a talking device. What’s amazing is it comes with the phone – simply put it is free. With other mobile phones one has to download e.g. the licensed Nuance Talks program which cost about RM1000.00 on top of the cost of the phone.

There other good features that comes with iPhone e.g. accessing several apps from the iTunes App Store. My favourites are the compass, weather report, BBC radio. I can even skype with my children who are abroad and ‘Ping’ as and when with them. ‘Ping’ is a free text messaging service within I-phones.

The iOS4 is now available for download for the iPhone 3GS. From the blind accessibility point of view there‘s a few new interesting features such as the touch typing option, 4 finger flick/tap gestures and a 5 megapixel camera. With any new feature there will be another round of learning. Hence I am still hanging on to my OS3.13.

However, I am looking forward to the iPhone 4 which has just been launched last week. I would like to express my thanks to Apple for their commitment in making their devices accessible for the blind.

My next quest is to get my hands on a Mac book, currently beyond my reach. Thank you for your attention.

More challenging times ahead!

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