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Smartphones Flunk for Blind Users

On the sidewalk near his office at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute on Fillmore St. in San Francisco, Dr. Joshua Miele checks his iPhone for the next Muni bus. Image from video by James Irwin for The Bay Citizen
On the sidewalk near his office at the Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute on Fillmore St. in San Francisco, Dr. Joshua Miele checks his iPhone for the next Muni bus. Image from video by James Irwin for The Bay Citizen
Blind users see digital divide in new generation phones

Smartphones can be pretty clueless when it comes to blind or visually impaired users.

For millions of consumers with normal vision, smartphones offer almost effortless conference calling, e-mailing and Internet browsing. They make it easy to find a gas station, a rental car or a recipe. Vast music libraries and video games are expected features for a device with a $200 to $600 price tag.

But for many in the blind and visually impaired community, the absence of physical buttons on most smartphones makes interactions with some devices virtually impossible.

Nowhere is the digital divide in the smartphone market more pronounced than between Apple and Google products.

Blind and visually impaired smartphone users offer near universal praise for the iPhone, whose 3GS has a built-in VoiceOver screen reader that enables all functions with a few taps, swipes or other gestures on the touch screen. On Google's Android phone, blind users can't e-mail or navigate the Internet.

Many consumers with visual impairments say they are being held back from equal participation in the digital revolution, denied tools their colleagues and competitors enjoy. Smartphones, they argue, are public accommodations, no different from building ramps or Braille on elevators.

“Our electronic, digital universe is changing so rapidly that these phones are as essential to our daily life as a curb cut would be,” said Brian Bashin, the CEO of the Lighthouse for the Blind in San Francisco, an advocacy organization for the blind and visually impaired. “We shouldn’t have to play catch up with expensive modifications when it all should have been there right out of the box.”

The Blackberry’s Oratio screen reader, for example, costs blind users an extra $450 on top of the price of the Research in Motion phone.

This month, a House subcommittee held a hearing on the Twenty-first Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act to direct the Federal Communications Commission to make Internet-enabled communications devices accessible to the more than 25 million adults in the United States with vision trouble.

The FCC currently requires telecommunications manufacturers and service providers to make their products accessible to people with disabilities. One FCC official said Google would likely not be liable under the current law because it is not the phone’s manufacturer.

Jenifer Simpson, a former FCC official who is now the senior director of government affairs at the American Association of People with Disabilities, is frustrated that more companies are creating communications products that the FCC doesn’t currently regulate.

The question she wants companies to ask is, “Can Grandma give you a phone call on the smartphone you want to buy her for Christmas?”

Joshua Miele, an associate scientist at the San Francisco-based Smith-Kettlewell Eye Research Institute who designs educational tools for blind people like himself, says the iPhone is a new paradigm for the more than 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States.

“The most amazing thing about the iPhone is you go into the settings and you turn on the screen reader and you can use every part of your phone, every text-based application and you don’t have to pay anything extra,’’ he said.

VoiceOver, the iPhone’s built-in screen reader, is controlled though gestures instead of arrow keys or keyboard commands. It can be customized so that a visually impaired person can easily magnify a web page or flip to a white-on-black background.

The iPhone 4, unveiled this month, expands the roster of accessibility tools, including the ability to wirelessly connect to a device that displays Braille.

Smartphones Become Essential Accessories for the Blind

In contrast, Google’s TalkBack screen reader on its Android mobile operating system doesn’t do enough talking, many advocates for the blind say. Android works impressively for calling, listening to music, using global positioning system data and applications like Facebook, but it won’t help blind users dispatch an e-mail to their boss or scan a website while waiting at the airport.

When Android was released more than a year ago, the disability community was primed for more innovations. When a totally accessible smartphone failed to materialize this year, advocates for the blind castigated Google as a peddler of expectations. The Android 2.2, released a few weeks ago, didn’t substantially enhance the phone’s accessibility to blind and deaf users.

Disability groups have been encouraged by some recent victories. The National Federation of the Blind last year reached a settlement with Motorola after pressuring the leading manufacturer of cell phones to comply with Section 255 of the federal Telecommunications Act. The act requires telecommunications equipment manufacturers and service providers to make their products and services accessible to people with disabilities. The agreement commits the company to make the phone-related functions on its BREW line of phones useable for non-visual customers.

Advocates for the blind say Google has done extraordinary work in other areas, pointing to the Google Books Library Project.

Steve Jacobs, president of the IDEAL Group, Inc., which develops applications for the blind, said his customers are hopeful that Google’s Project Eyes-Free , which invites software developers to create accessible applications for the Android, will serve up exciting inventions soon.

“I believe Google will rise to that occasion,” Jacobs said.

T.V. Raman, a computer scientist and engineer at Google, agrees.

Raman, who lost his eyesight at age 14 from glaucoma, is revered by many people with disabilities for his pioneering work on Google’s search service that helped people with visual impairments navigate the web. But the gifted innovator, who solves Rubik’s Cubes in Braille for fun, has also been faulted by some for developing products only he could figure out how to use.

Raman defended Android in a recent interview as “still a young platform” and said that the accessibility problems in the browser and e-mail will be fixed.

“There are rough edges,’’ he said. “The best way to silence that criticism is to go and build it. I wanted this yesterday as well.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that there are expensive, third-party screen readers currently available for Google's Android phones. Screen readers for Android phones are free, open source, and bundled on every phone. This version has been corrected.

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