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Yes, I Am Disabled (and Proud)!

Note: This post is in response to a recent Twitter post by Katie Novak.  For context, make sure to read Katie’s original tweet and her blog post as well as the many excellent responses that have followed.

For many people, the title of this post would not make sense. They would have a difficult time understanding how I could be proud of something (my disability) that is often seen through such a negative lens in our society. When we think of disability, we often focus on the challenges it presents to people. Rarely do we consider its positive aspects. Yes, there are challenges, and in no way am I implying that we don’t live in an ableist society where disabled people still face a range of obstacles in their efforts to secure civil rights and the opportunity to live a good life. But at the same time, disability as a natural part of the human experience changes our lives in a number of positive ways. For me, the most positive aspect of having a disability is the community, the many wonderful people I’ve met who continue the fight and speak up for themselves with dignity and grace in ways big and small. I am grateful  for those who have come before me and made civil rights for disabled people possible. Without them, I would not be here today.

In school we are taught about the civil rights movement as if it were ancient history – something that took place in the now distant past, a time when people of color and women fought for their rights and secured important victories that have shaped our society to this day. Rarely do we think about the civil rights movement for disabled people, or what some have called the “civil rights struggle of the 21st century.” This is not ancient history – it’s going on today as we speak, and in many different ways: from our efforts to get access to an education, to those aimed at securing good jobs, accessible transportation options and the ability to participate in the digital world on an equal basis.

It would seem like discussing language in that context would be focusing on the wrong thing. Why focus on language (disabled vs. person with a disability) when there are bigger problems that deserve our attention? Well, language is the way in which we define who is in and who is out. It explains why of all places, I would feel the most excluded at an event meant to celebrate inclusive education. When a speaker says something like “I don’t see disability” (yes, this has actually happened/happens) it sends people like me a powerful message – I don’t see you, you are invisible to me. Implying that I don’t have a disability is essentially saying that the last 20 years of my life did not take place. My disability is not just what I can do, it is who I am in the world. I see the failure to fully recognize people’s identities as a blind spot within the Universal Design for Learning (UDL) movement (if you’ll pardon the pun coming from a person with a visual impairment). That is why the conversation Katie’s tweet and blog post started is so important.

Having grown out of the universal design movement in architecture, UDL approaches disability from a social model perspective. Sure, this is a better  than the medical model that dominated the conversation on disability for most of our history. That model is the one championed by the medical profession and by charities. Disabled people were/are seen as broken beings who need to be made whole through surgery, medication and other interventions. In order to raise the funds needed to research “cures” for disabilities such as autism, charities grounded in the medical model rely on skewed portrayals of disabled people. You are either a helpless victim who needs saving or a “superman/superwoman” who can climb Mount Everest, run an ultra marathon or perform some other exceptional achievement. There is not much of an in-between. Mostly ignored are the majority of people with a given condition who just want to be able to do the same things as everyone else: get up in the morning, have a good cup of coffee, go to a job they love and pays them a fair wage, get home to take care of their kids, and sit down to watch a good movie.

The social model of disability, in contrast, does not focus on “fixing” the person, but rather on addressing the barriers that exist in the environment and keep people from accomplishing their goals, whether it is boarding a bus or learning how to code. Thanks to the social model, we have accessible entrances to buildings that benefit not just disabled people, but those making deliveries, parents pushing strollers and more. Angela Blackwell calls that the “curb cut effect.” When we design for the needs of one, we actually find solutions for the many. Or as Microsoft puts it in their Inclusive Design Toolkit, when we “solve for one, we extend too many.” I am incredibly grateful for the many innovations the social model of disability has brought about that have made my life easier: from the technology I now use to access the Web and compose this blog post to the UDL principles that have improved educational opportunity for me and many other learners.

The success of the social model of disability is actually why disabled folks like me are now in a position to critique it and point out where it falls short. One way in which it does is by failing to fully account for people’s lived experiences. Even if you were to create an accessibility utopia where few barriers existed, that would not erase the last twenty or so years of the life that I have lived as a disabled person. And neither would I want that to happen, as my life would not be as rich and as meaningful without the experiences I have had (both good and bad) from the time I was first diagnosed with my visual impairment to where I am today. And yet that is what often happens within the small community of UDL. I notice that there is a discomfort around the use of the word “disability’ (I joke that it is the four letter word of UDL). I think in part that tension arises from the need to “sell” UDL to the broader education community, in the process forgetting that the movement originated out of a need to do what was right and just (including learners in the margins) not what was popular.

I think we can find a balance where we make UDL welcoming to both the general public and  the disability community. The change has to start with the language we use, and I have a few suggestions:

  • Be comfortable with including the terms “disability” and “disabled” in our conversations. Doing so is incredibility validating to those of us who have a lived experience with disability. Whenever you avoid something, you are actually saying something about it, if that makes sense. You are saying “this is so bad” I don’t want to even talk about it. Silence is not neutral – it always “says” something.We can talk about learner variability and disability. The two are not exclusive.
  • As a movement that is built on the importance of providing choice and flexibility, we should be comfortable using both person-first and identity-first language as appropriate. Person-first language (e.g. person with a disability, person with autism) is well intentioned in that it seeks to emphasize the worth of disabled people by putting the person in front of the disability (thus the term person-first language). But we don’t need other people to give us self-worth. We can gain our own self-worth if given the opportunity to live life on our own terms.
  • We need to be clear with our language to avoid misunderstandings. What I propose is that we start by sharing our own labels in relation to disability. There is precedent for this: you have probably seen speakers who share with the audience their pronouns in order to be clear about their gender identity (mine are him/his). We can do the same thing for disability if at the start of our presentations or professional development sessions we share what we call ourselves: person with disability, disabled person or ally are just a few of the options. We should then explain why we have chosen the labels we want to use for ourselves, and give other people the permission to use theirs. I know this suggestion will be controversial. There is a resistance to labels within the UDL movement (you’ve probably heard expressions such as “labels only belong on clothes”). However, I think labels need to be considered in context. It always depends on who is doing the labeling and why. If an outsider is using the label to demean or lessen the worth of a person, then yest that is problematic. But if insiders (members of a community) choose to use the label for themselves, then it can be empowering and a way to build community.

I personally consider myself a disabled person. While disability is not all of who I am, it is a big part of my identity. My disability is not something separate from who I am (which the term “person with a disability” implies). It shapes my world from the moment I open my eyes in the morning to the time I close them at night. It is not like a suitcase that I get to put down whenever I want to.

There are times when I can “pass.” When I am sitting in front of the computer or at a meeting most people can’t tell that I have a disability. After all, “I don’t look blind.” My eyes don’t look or act any differently than most sighted people. But the moment it is time to go and I have to take out my cane, the gig is up. I don’t always have the option of hiding my disability and neither do I want to do that. It took me some time to come to terms with my disability and to get comfortable in my own skin. I know that is a journey without a fixed timetable. As with most experiences in life, we all process the events in our lives differently, and besides, it is not a race. That is why I take no offense if someone says he or she is a “person with a disability.” That’s fine with me because that’s where they are in their journey, and I was once at that point too.

When I was first diagnosed with my visual impairment, I spent countless hours researching my condition and reading research articles (which by the way were way beyond my understanding as someone who does not have a medical background). It was my hope at that time that there would be some kind of treatment or innovative surgery I could get that would “fix” everything and return me to my former life as a sighted person. I followed the medical model because that is how I was first exposed to disability, through my medical diagnosis. At that point I saw my disability as the taking of something – the taking of my independence (as I could no longer drive). I am quite open in sharing that it was not a great time in my life.

It was only when I started to embrace my disability, when I started to see that I could work with it, instead of around it, that I started to thrive in my life, both professionally and personally. A key point was learning about the work of John Swain and Sally French and their Affirmative Model of Disability, which completely changed my perspective and the way I saw myself in relation to my disability. It no longer became something I had to overcome, but rather something that I drew strength from, even with the occasional frustrations that come from living in a world that doesn’t always accommodate my needs.

I don’t have all the answers, and this post is just a reflection of my own always evolving way of thinking about disability and what it means to be disabled. I cannot speak for someone who has another kind of disability, or even a person with a visual impairment for that matter. There is great variation even within my own community. Some of us need large print, but in my case large print is actually a barrier since it places more of the text outside my limited peripheral vision.

I welcome your feedback on this post, both good and bad. By engaging in difficult conversations, we continue to grow and evolve. I am so grateful for everyone who has shared their experiences on Katie’s blog, especially Joni Degner and Eric Moore. You should really read their posts. By sharing our experiences we give others permission to do the same, and in doing so we build community.

In closing, I want to leave you with a Maya Angelou quote my colleague Mindy Johnson shared with me that now informs how approach all of my work: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Let’s commit to always doing better and becoming more inclusive. And when we get it wrong (as we all will at some point), let’s commit to continuing these kinds of courageous conversations. We will be better for it.

 

 

 

 

 

Entre/Between

I presented this poem at the 2018 ISTE Conference during my TED Ed talk:

Neither here nor there
Neither blind nor sighted
I see you, but not all of you
You see me, but not all of me

Ni aquí, ni allá (Neither here nor there)
The islands, the city, the country
Español, Spanglish, English
Y hoy, ¿quién soy? (And today, who am I?)
Hay, ¿quién sabe? (Well, who knows?)

So I learn to live in between
In and out of the shadows
And as the light turns to dark
And the darkness comes to life
I’ve learned to just dance
Just dance in those shadows

10+ Accessibility Features Coming with iOS 11

 

Slide during Apple's Keynote at WWDC showing a big list of upcoming iOS 11 features that were not discussed during the keynote.At its recent World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), Apple gave developers and the public a preview of the next version of iOS, its operating system for mobile devices such as the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch. This post will not provide a full overview of all the changes coming to iOS 11, but will instead focus on  a few key ones that will have the most impact for people like me who rely on the built-in accessibility of these devices.

A public beta will be coming later this summer, and I can’t wait to get my hands on it to start testing some of these new features. For now, this overview is based on everything I have read on the Web (shout out to AppleVis for a great overview of the new features for those with visual impairments), what I saw in the videos available through the WWDC app after each day of the conference, and updates from people I follow on social media who were at the WWWDC (you should definitely follow Steven Aquino, who provided excellent coverage of all things iOS accessibility from WWDC).

Without further delay, here are ten new or enhanced iOS accessibility features coming soon to an iPad or iPhone near you:

  1. Smart Invert Colors: In iOS 11, Invert Colors will no longer be an all or nothing affair. The new version of Invert Colors will actually leave the images and video alone with a new Smart Invert option. This fixes a problem I have always had with Invert Colors. Sometimes there is text in a graphic or video that is essential for understanding, but with Invert Colors as it currently exists it can be difficult to read this text. This will no longer be the case with iOS 11 and its new version of Invert Colors.
  2. Enhanced Dynamic Type: Dynamic Type has been enhanced to reduce clipping and overlapping at larger text sizes, and Dynamic Type will work in more of the UI for apps that support it. In some areas of the UI where text is not resized dynamically, such as tab bars, a tap and hold on the selected control will show it at a larger size in the middle of the screen.
  3. VoiceOver descriptions for images: VoiceOver will be able to detect text that’s embedded in an image, even if the image lacks alternative text (or as Apple calls it, an accessibility description). VoiceOver will  also announce some of the items in a photo that has not been described (tree, dog, sunset, etc.), much like the Camera app already does when you take a photo with VoiceOver turned on.
  4. A more customizable Speech feature: you can now customize the colors for the word and sentence highlighting that is available for Speech features such as Speak Selection and Speak Screen. These features are helpful for learners who struggle with decoding print and need the content read aloud. The highlighting can also help with attention and focus while reading, and it’s nice to see we can now change the color for a more personalized reading experience.
  5. Type for Siri: In addition to using your voice, iOS 11 also allows you to interact with Siri by typing your requests. This is not only an accessibility feature (it can help those with speech difficulties who are not easily understood by Siri) but a privacy convenience for everyone else. Sometimes you are in a public place and don’t want those around you to know what you are asking Siri.
  6. More options for captions: for videos that include closed captions, you can now enable an additional style that makes the text larger and adds an outline to make it stand out from the background content.  Along with this new style, you can now turn on spoken captions or convert the captions to Braille . This last option could make the content more accessible to individuals with multiple disabilities.
  7. Switch Control enhancements: typing can take a lot of time and effort when using switch access technologies. With iOS 11, Apple hopes to make this process easier by providing better switch control word prediction  as well as a “scan same key after tap” option (this will repeat the same key without requiring the user to scan to it again, which can take some time). Other Switch Control enhancements for better overall usability include:
    • Point Mode has an additional setting for more precise selections: this will add a third scan to refine the selection at an even slower pace, and early reports are that it actually selects the actual point rather than the surrounding accessibility element (button, etc.).
    • Scanner Menu option for Media Controls: recognizing that media playback is a popular activity for switch users (just as it is for everybody else), a new category for Media Controls has been added to the scanner menu. I assume that this feature will work on any app with playback controls, which would make it a great option to use with Voice Dream Reader or any other app with playback controls at the bottom of the screen (which require a lot of scanning to access).
  8. Improved PDF accessibility support: while I am not a big fan of PDF as a format, there are still a lot of legacy PDF documents out there so it is nice to see improved support for PDF accessibilty in iOS 11. One of the common uses of PDFs is to collect information through forms, and with iOS 11 Apple promises better support for forms as well as for tagged (properly marked up) PDF documents.
  9. Better Braille support: as reported by AppleVis, the Braille improvements in iOS 11 include better text editing and more customizable actions that can be performed through shortcuts on a Braille display.
  10. A redesigned Control Center: you will have more ways to get to the features you use the most with the new Control Center, which will now allow you to add widgets for the Accessibility Shortcut,  the Magnifier and text resizing.

As with most releases of iOS, there are a number of features that can be beneficial to users with disabilities even if they are not found in the Accessibility area of Settings. These include:

  1. An improved Siri voice: we got a taste of how much more natural the new Siri voice will sound, but there was not a lot of detail provided. It is not clear if this voice will be available to VoiceOver users, or if it will be incorporated into the rest of the Speech features such as Speak Selection and Speak Screen when iOS 11 finally ships to the general public in the fall.
  2. Siri translation: Siri can now translate from English into a few languages – Chinese, French, German, Italian, or Spanish.
  3. Persistent Reader View in Safari: when you long-press the Reader icon, you can choose to have reader activate on all websites, or just on the current one. Reader view is helpful for removing ads and other distractions that can compete for attention, especially for people with learning difficulties such as ADHD.
  4. Apple TV remote in Control Center: It is also possible to add an onscreen Apple TV remote to the Control Center. This will be helpful for Switch Control or VoiceOver users who may prefer this option to using the physical Apple TV remote.
  5. One handed keyboard: this option is intended to help anyone who is trying to enter text while one hand is busy with groceries, etc. but it can also be helpful to someone who is missing a limb. Tapping on the Globe icon that provides access to third party keyboards will now show an option for moving the keyboard to either side of the screen where it can be easier to reach with one hand.
  6. One handed Zoom in Maps: this feature is intended for drivers to have better access to Maps while on the road, but as with the one-handed keyboard, others will benefit from this change as well. As someone who often has one hand busy with a white cane, I welcome all of these features that make the iPhone easier to use with just one hand.
  7. Redesigned onscreen keyboard: Letters, numbers, symbols, and punctuation marks are now all on the same keyboard. Switching between them is as easy as a simple flicking gesture on the desired key.
  8. Easier setup of new devices; anything that reduces the amount of time entering settings is helpful to switch and screen reader users. When setting up a new iOS device, there’s now an option in iOS 11 to hold it near an existing device to automatically copy over settings, preferences, and iCloud Keychain.
  9. More customizable AirPod tap controls: AirPods can now be customized with separate double tap gestures for the left and right AirPod.  One can be set to access Siri, for example, while another can be set to play the next track. Previously, double-tap settings were applied to both AirPods. This will be helpful for individuals who rely on AirPods to access Siri as an accessibility option.
  10. Less restrictive HomeKit development: it will now be possible to develop a HomeKit device without being part of Apple’s HomeKit licensing program. All that will be required is a developer account. The catch is that any HomeKit devices  developed this way cannot go up for sale. That should be fine for assistive tech makers who just want to experiment and prototype solutions for their clients without the investment required to be part of the official HomeKit program. As The Verge suggests, this could also encourage more developers to dip their toes with HomeKit development, which will hopefully lead to more options for those of us who depend on smart homes for improved accessibility.
  11. QR Code support in the Camera: QR codes can be a helpful way to provide access to online resources without requiring a lot of typing of URLS and the like. They are frequently used in the classroom for this purpose, so I know teachers will find having this feature as a built-in option a welcome addition.
  12. SOS: There’s an Emergency SOS option in Settings app that allows users to turn on an “Auto Call” feature. This will immediately dial 911 when the Sleep/Wake button is pressed five times. A similar feature has been available on the Apple Watch since the introduction of watchOS 3, and it’s nice to see it on the iPhone as well.
  13. Core Bluetooth support for Apple Watch: while this is an Apple Watch feature, I’m mentioning it here because the Apple Watch is still very closely tied to its paired iPhone. With watchOS 4, which was also previewed at the WWWDC, Apple Watch Series 2 is getting support for connecting directly to Bluetooth low energy accessories like those that are used for glucose tracking and delivery. Furthermore, the Health app will have better support for diabetes management in conjunction with CoreBluetooth, including new metrics related to blood glucose tracking and insulin delivery.
  14. Indoor navigation in Maps: Maps has been a big help for me whenever I find myself in an area I don’t know. I love the walking directions and how well they integrate with the Apple Watch so that I can leave my phone in my pocket as I navigate with haptic feedback and don’t give off that lost tourist look. With iOS 11, these features will be extended to indoor spaces such as major malls and airports.
  15. A redesigned App Store: the screenshots I have seen point to a bigger, bolder design for the App Store, which will be welcome news to those of us with low vision. If you like how Apple News looks now, you will be pleased with the redesigned App Store.
  16. Built-in screen recording: I rely on Screenflow to record my video tutorials, but having screen recording as a built-in feature will be convenient for quick videos. This will be great for providing tech support to parents, or for documenting accessibility bugs to developers.
  17. Person to Person payments in Messages: anything that allows payments without the need to use inaccessible currency is A OK with me.

The Notes app has been greatly enhanced in iOS 11 to make it an even better tool for diverse learners who need options for how they capture, store and retrieve information:

  • Instant Markup: adding an annotation to a PDF document or screenshot will be as easy as picking up the Apple Pencil and touching the screen to start drawing/annotating.
  • Instant Notes: tapping the lock screen with Apple Pencil will create a quick handwritten note that will appear in Notes once the device is unlocked.
  • Inline Drawing: when you begin to draw or annotate in Notes, the text around the annotation will move out of the way. You can add inline drawings in Mail as well.
  • Searchable annotations in Notes: everything you write with the Apple Pencil in Notes will now be searchable, making it much easier to find the highlights in long notes taken during a lecture or long presentation.
  • Document Scanner: the new Document Scanner in Notes will detect the edges to automatically scan a document, crop it, and remove glare and tilt to produce a cleaner image. This will result in a better scan you could then pass the scanned document off to a different app to perform even better optical character recognition (OCR). I am hoping this feature is just a start, and eventually we will get built-in OCR in iOS.

A major focus with iOS 11 is improved support for iPad productivity. This includes support for Drag and Drop in an enhanced Split View, as well as a new multi-tasking view with what appears to be the equivalent of Spaces on the Mac. With Apple’s excellent track record of accessibility, I’m confident these features will have the same level of accessibility as the rest of iOS.

I can’t wait to try out iOS 11 when the public beta becomes available to start enjoying some of these features on at least one of my devices (not the one I use to get work done, of course – at least not until late in the beta cycle when everything is much more stable).

How about you – which ones of these iOS 11 features have you most excited? Which ones do you think you will use the most?

 

Designed for (fill in the blank)

On the occasion of Global Accessibility Day (GAAD), Apple has created a series of videos highlighting the many ways its iOS devices empower individuals with disabilities to accomplish a variety of goals, from parenting to releasing a new album for a rock band. Each of the videos ends  with the tagline “Defined for” followed by the name of the person starring in the video, closing with “Designed for Everyone.” In this brief post, I want to highlight some of the ways in which this is in fact true. Beyond the more specialized features highlighted in the video (a speech generating app, the VoiceOver screen reader, Made for iPhone hearing aids and Switch Control), there are many other Apple accessibility features that can help everyone, not just people with disabilities:

  • Invert Colors: found under Accessibility > Display Accommodations, this feature was originally intended for people with low vision who need a higher contrast display. However, the higher contrast Invert Colors provides can be helpful in a variety of other situations. One that comes to mind is trying to read on a touch screen while outdoors in bright lighting. The increased contrast provided by Invert Colors can make the text stand out more from the washed out display in that kind of scenario.
  • Zoom: this is another feature that was originally designed for people with low vision, but it can also be a great tool for teaching. You can use Zoom to not only make the content easier to read for the person “in the last row” in any kind of large space, but also to highlight important information. I often will Zoom In (see what I did there, it’s the title of one of my books) on a specific app or control while delivering technology instruction live or on a video tutorial or webinar. Another use is for hide and reveal activities, where you first zoom into the prompt, give students some “thinking time” and then slide to reveal the part of the screen with the answer.
  • Magnifier: need to read the microscopic serial number on a new device, or the expiration name on that medicine you bought years ago and are not sure is still safe to take? No problem, Magnifier (new in iOS 10) to the rescue. A triple-click of the Home button will bring up an interface familiar to anyone who has taken a photo on an iOS device. Using the full resolution of the camera, you can not only zoom into the desired text, but also apply a color filter and even freeze the image for a better look.
  • Closed Captions: although originally developed to support the Deaf and hard of hearing communities, closed captions are probably the best example of universal design on iOS. Closed captions can also help individuals who speak English as a second language, as well as those who are learning how to read (by providing the reinforcement of hearing as well as seeing the words for true multimodal learning). They can also help make the information accessible in any kind of loud environment (a busy lobby, airport, bar or restaurant) where consuming the content has to be done without the benefit of the audio. Finally, closed captions can help when the audio quality is low due to the age of the film, or when the speaker has a thick accent. On Apple TV, there is an option to automatically rewind the video a few seconds and temporarily turn on the closed captions for the audio you just missed. Just say “what did he/she say?” into the Apple TV remote.
  • Speak Screen: this feature found under Accessibility > Speech are meant to help people with vision or reading difficulties, but the convenience it provides can help in any situation where looking at the screen is not possible – one good example is while driving. You can open up a news article in your favorite app that supports Speak Screen while at a stop light, then perform the special gesture (a two finger swipe from the top of the screen) to hear that story read aloud while you drive. At the next stop light, you can perform the gesture again and in this way catch up with all the news while on your way to work! On the Mac, you can even save the output from the text to speech feature as an audio file. One way you could use this audio is to record instructions for any activity that requires you to perform steps in sequence – your own coach in your pocket, if you will!
  • AssistiveTouch: you don’t need to have a motor difficulty to use AssistiveTouch. Just having your device locked into a protective case can pose a problem this feature can solve. With AssistiveTouch, you can bring up onscreen options for buttons that are difficult to reach due to the design of the case or stand. With a case I use for video capture (the iOgrapher) AssistiveTouch is actually required by design. To ensure light doesn’t leak into the lens the designers of this great case covered up the sleep/wake button. The only way to lock the iPad screen after you are done filming is to select the “lock screen” option in AssistiveTouch. Finally, AssistiveTouch can be helpful with older phones with a failing Home button.

While all of these features are featured in the Accessibility area of Settings, they are really “designed for everyone.” Sometimes the problem is not your own physical or cognitive limitations, but constraints imposed by the environment or the situation in which the technology use takes place.

How about you? Are there any other ways you are using the accessibility features to make your life easier even if you don’t have a disability?

3 Ways the iPhone Has Disrupted My Life for the Better

The 10th anniversary of the iPhone announcement in 2007 was mentioned on a number of podcasts I listen to this past week, and this got me into a reflective mood. I can remember vividly where I was when the announcement took place. At the time I was a graduate student at the University of South Florida, and I watched the announcement on the big screen in the iTeach Lounge where I worked as a graduate assistant.

I must admit that at first I was a bit skeptical. The first version of the iPhone was pretty expensive, and it took me a year after the launch to decide that I wanted to get in on the fun.  If I remember correctly, it cost me $399 for 8GB of storage when I bought my first iPhone from Cingular Wireless (remember them?). As cool as that first iPhone was, it took two important developments to make me a true believer.  The first one was the release of the App Store in 2008, which opened up  a world of possibilities only limited to developers’ imagination. The second was the accessibility support announced with the release of the iPhone 3GS. After my first iPhone contract with Cingular was up, I actually returned to a traditional flip phone for a little while for my next phone. Once the accessibility support was announced, though, I was locked in. I have been an iPhone owner ever since.

In addition to the App Store and the built-in accessibility support, there are three other important ways in which the iPhone has disrupted my life in significant ways that go beyond just being able to have access to information and communication on the go.

A Better Set of Eyes

The iPhone couldn’t have come at a better time for me. At the time, my vision loss was getting the point where using a traditional DSLR camera was becoming harder and harder. As I detailed in an article for the National Federation of the Blind’s Future Reflections magazine, the built-in accessibility features of the iPhone have allowed me to continue with my passion for capturing the beauty in the world around me. The way I see it, the iPhone is now “a better set of eyes” for me. Most of the time, I can’t be sure that I have actually captured a decent image when I aim the phone at a scene. It is not until later, when I am reviewing the images more carefully at home, that I notice small details I didn’t even know were in the frame. You can see some examples of my photography on my Instagram page.

Instagram collage showing best nine images of 2016.

Going forward, this idea of the iPhone as my “best set of eyes” is going to be important to me beyond photography. As my vision loss progresses, I will be able to rely on the iPhone’s ever improving camera to recognize currency, capture and read aloud the text in menus, business cards and more, and tell me if my clothes are exactly the color I intended. I have no doubt that “computer vision” will continue to get better and this gives me hope for the future. Already, the VoiceOver screen reader can recognize some objects in your images and describe them aloud. This technology was developed to make searching through large image libraries more efficient, but it will be helpful to people with visual impairments like me as well.

Independence at the Touch of a Button

The second major way the iPhone has disrupted my life for the better is by giving me back my independence in a big way, through apps such as Uber and Lyft. Now, I know you can use these apps on other smartphones, so they are not exclusive to the iPhone. However, when you really think about it, no iPhone means no App Store. No App Store means there is no incentive for other companies to copy what Apple did.

Uber has replaced the many frustrations I had with public transportation (lateness, high taxi fares) with a much more convenient and less expensive solution. Yes, I know some of my blind friends have had a number of issues with Uber (such as outright discrimination from drivers who are not comfortable with a guide dog in their vehicles), but this would probably happen with taxicabs too.

My own experience with Uber has been mostly positive, and the service allows me to easily get to doctor’s appointments, and provides me with a reliable way to get to the airport so that I can do my work of spreading the message of accessibility and inclusive design for education to a broader audience beyond my local area. Uber and Lyft, and the iPhone as the platform that made them possible, have really opened up the world to me.

Can You Hear Me Now?

One of the big trends at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this year was the presence of Alexa, Amazon’s voice assistant, on all kinds of consumer appliances. Alexa joins Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Google’s Assistant in heralding a future where voice and speech recognition replace the mouse and the touch screen as the primary input methods for our computing devices. We are not quite there yet, but the accuracy of these services will continue to improve and I am already seeing the potential with some of the home automation functions that are possible with the existing implementations (having my lights be automatically turned on when I arrive at home, for example).

Here, again, the iPhone deserves quite a bit of credit. The release of Siri as part of the iPhone 4S in 2011 brought the idea of speech recognition and voice control to the mainstream. Previously, its use was limited mostly to individuals with motor difficulties or niche markets like the medical and legal transcription fields. Siri helped popularize this method of voice interaction and made it more user friendly (remember when you had to sit for several minutes training speech recognition software to recognize just your voice?).

Looking Ahead

The smartphone is a mature technology and some have questioned whether it has reached its apex and will soon give way to other options for content consumption and communication. One possibility would involve virtual, augmented or even mixed reality. Given the visual nature of AR and VR this gives me some cause for concern just like I had at the release of the iPhone back in 2007. However, just like Apple took a slab of glass and made it accessible when few people thought it could, with some creativity we can make AR and VR accessible too.

We have come a long way in just 10 years (sometimes I find it hard to remember that it has only been that long). In that time, Apple has shown that “inclusion promotes innovation.”  Accessible touch screens, voice controlled assistants, ride sharing services, are just a few of the innovations that have developed within an accessible ecosystem started with the iPhone. Thank you Apple, and congrats on the 10th anniversary of iPhone.Here’s to the next 10, 20 or 30 years of innovation and inclusion.

 

 

HazeOver as a low vision aid

HazeOver is a $4.99 Mac app marketed as a distraction aid. The idea is that it dims all other windows so you can focus on the content in the foreground window (a blog post like this one, a paper you are drafting for school, etc.). The developers have prepared a short demo video that shows how the app works.

 

While that may be a good way to use this utility, for me it has become a helpful low vision aid as well. I often have a difficult time finding the mouse cursor and popup windows if they are out of my field of view (currently about 7 or 8 degrees depending on the day). I have been using Mousepose to help with the mouse cursor problem. Even with the mouse cursor set to the largest size it allows in Mac OS, I still have a difficult time locating it on the screen, especially when I have a dual monitor setup. I have found that the spotlight Mousepose puts around the mouse cursor when I press a special key (I have set to F1) makes this task much easier.

HazeOver does pretty much the same thing but for popup windows. When one of these windows pops up on the screen, the focus is assigned to it and all other windows are dimmed. In the HazeOver preferences, you can determine whether you want just one window to be highlighted or all front windows within the active app. I find the one window setting to be the most helpful with popups. You can adjust the level of dimming at any time using a slider that can be accessed by clicking the Menu Bar icon. For the best performance, HazeOver asks to get access to Mac OS as an assistive device.

A free trial of HazeOver is available from the developer’s site if you want to try it out first before you buy it on the Mac App Store.

 

Read to Me in Book Creator 5

Read to Me Screen in Book Creator

Book Creator for iPad recently added a new Read to Me text to speech feature that allows learners to hear their books read aloud within the app (without having to transfer the book to iBooks first). The feature also supports accessibility in two other ways:

  • all embedded media can be played automatically. This is great for those with motor difficulties, and it also creates a better flow during reading (no need to stop and start the text to speech to hear the embedded media).
  • automatic page flips: again this is a great feature for those who can’t perform the page flip gesture to turn the pages in a book.

These options can be configured through a Settings pane where it is possible to change the voice (you can choose any voice available for Speech in iOS), slow it down, or remove the word by word highlighting that goes along with it. For better focus, it is also possible to show one page at a time by unchecking the “Side by side pages” option under Display.

I created a short video to show how the new feature works (with a bonus at the end: how to fix the pronunciations with the new pronunciation editor built into the Speech feature in iOS 10).