I was chatting to an almost totally blind gentleman today at a symposium organized by the ALS Association of Connecticut. It struck me that the move towards mobile technologies that the e-world is currently experiencing works in favor of many blind and partially sighted people.
If you were to look in the shirt pockets of this particular gentleman, you would find the following:
a) A Nokia phone loaded with the excellent K-NFB Reader software. I’d heard of this but never before seen it in action, and it’s truly impressive. Basically, you use the camera phone to take a snapshot of a document (or menu, or sign, or even a dollar bill – anything printed), and a few seconds later it reads it out loud to you as well as displaying the text on the screen in a format of your choice.
I was stunned at how accurate the text and pronunciation were – particularly as the photo had been taken at a wonky angle. Not only that, but you can take a photo of some text in English and have it read out in French, or Spanish, or one of the other languages the software supports. Could come in very useful if traveling abroad.
A Nokia N82 phone loaded with K-NFB Reader currently costs just under a thousand dollars. That’s pretty cheap compared to some assistive technologies – and for people like this gentleman, it has become indispensable.
b) In his other shirt pocket, an iPhone. Unlike the K-NFB Reader, this does have useful assistive software pre-installed at no extra cost. Apple’s VoiceOver screenreader, which allegedly works pretty well even compared with non-free industry leaders like Freedom Scientific’s JAWS screenreader, comes as standard on the iPhone and iPad.
This means that blind and partially sighted people can use iPhones just like the rest of us. And not only that, it may actually be easier for them to access websites and mail programs on the iPhone than on a standard computer. The iPhone’s touch-screen allows VoiceOver users great control via flicking, tapping, double-tapping, dragging… all a lot faster and easier than fiddling with a mouse and trying to figure out where the arrow is pointing.
c) In his bag, a refreshable Braille keyboard which my blind acquaintance connects to the iPhone via Bluetooth (it also works with the iPad and Mac/PC computers). These great portable keyboards, which work by having a series of pins that go up and down as text is scrolled or read out, are a good choice for blind readers who prefer to access the internet via Braille rather than screenreader.
It’s not cheap (expect to pay $3000-$4000 for a portable refreshable Braille keyboard), but if it gives you mobility, flexibility and power over communication, and/or if you can get someone to help fund it, it’s worth it.
Assistive technologies are following mobile technologies and becoming increasingly portable, flexible and sophisticated. They’re allowing blind and partially sighted people, as well as those with cognitive disabilities, greater freedom of movement and communication.
These examples of mobile assistive technologies are three of many – and I can’t wait to see what comes next.Google+