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Knowing What is Good About the iPhone and What is Not, a Response

I read with some interest the article from the National Federation of the Blind by Curtis Chong, Knowing What is Good About the iPhone and What is Not. As I visit people each week, the subject of accessible phones and devices for independent living almost always arises and as a user of the iPhone and iPad for several years, I'm always interested to read the viewpoints of well respected professionals in the Access Technology arena.

I was disappointed however with the overall tone of the article. The NFB from what I understand is a hugely influential organisation and so is ideally placed to promote products and independent living skills to blind people. I do not feel this article does that.

It is fair to say that Mr Chong points out a number of advantages of using an iPhone, but the clear message coming from it is what is not good about it and that people should be cautious prior to purchasing one.

I firmly believe the iPhone has always been, and still is, a game changer for visually impaired people. We have to accept that phones with very tactile buttons are a thing of the past unless you want something which contains extremely basic functionality, such as to make calls or have a predetermined set of numbers to call specific people. To some that maybe a disadvantage. But on the flipside, what touch screen phones do give us is liberating. It's own built-in apps, and those purchased from the App Store, allow for much more than this. The iPhone promotes independent living, enhances mobility and getting around, allows for printed matter potentially to be read without sighted assistance, makes it possible for a person to have objects identified by volunteers, it's a vehicle for listening to books, and so on.

I will not respond to each and every disadvantage Mr Chong writes about. But I will say this. The one thing he doesn't talk about is consistency. All iPhones work in the same way irrespective of the model. I was working with a low vision user a few weeks back who was struggling to see the screen content. Within a few seconds we had VoiceOver enabled and he is one very happy customer. If I see someone struggling, and they have an iPhone, I know I can help them. I don't need to install anything special, and family members who have similar devices can also enable VoiceOver, practice what is possible, and then help the blind person get acquainted with it if needed. That's a real advantage. I also point friends and family members of the client to this very helpful video which shows how a person can use the device without sight.

But consistency goes further. There is a consistent layout in terms of the gestures and overall layout of most apps and facilities. So, assuming the apps themselves are accessible, and the blind person is aware of the gestures to be used, he or she can easily download an app which would be useful and immediately have some idea as to how he or she is going to go about navigating it.

In fairness, there is some merit as to some of the disadvantages Mr Chong writes about. But I believe to every one of those there is a solution. For example, for people with limited motor skills or dexterity, additional difficulties undoubtedly are imposed. But apart from the fact that the concept of the VoiceOver gestures is well thought out, Braille input apps together with external portable keyboards can be purchased which make for very easy text entry, not to mention the ability to simulate many of the gestures such as the "tapping quickly" Mr Chong refers to in point 10 of the Disadvantages.

With each version of the operating system, (I O S), the Siri voice input system is becoming more intelligent and voice recognition is improving. While initially making calls could be troublesome, Siri could be used for this, thereby allowing the making of calls efficiently. But I would suggest once the geography of the keypad is learned, making calls can be achieved fairly quickly.

Learning a new skill is always going to be difficult and certtainly I agree that the person needs to approach the learning of the iPhone with the expectation that it will take time. This is the case with anything new.

I would lastly like to respond to point 7 of the Disadvantages section of the article where Mr Chong states that the device may contain more functionality than the person wants. But once the person is aware of the range of additional things it can do, maybe that original perception and need would change. I've already mentioned the ways in which the iPhone can assist with independence, but it also breaks down potential social isolation which may be present. access to Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Face Time and other methods of sharing with family and friends break down this barrier together with the opportunity of making new friendships.

In summary, by all means read the article and, notwithstanding some of the advantages Mr Chong mentions such as the device can be adapted to play books from the Library of Congress which have no value outside the US, those he advocates are worth considering. But I would suggest that any article such as this should be considered within the context of many other articles and blog posts, and that careful consideration should be given to what it says. This is just one viewpoint among many and it is always a good idea to canvas the opinion of other blind people, and read other blog posts, to gain a thorough overview.

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