Mobile Devices for Persons Living with Vision Loss

The use of an iPhone or iPad is possible for people with vision loss for the enjoyment and accessibility of all Internet-related services.
Sabato De Rosa

In this article, we will discuss the all-around technology, both hardware and software, in particular smartphones and tablets, designed and built by one of the most predominant companies on the global market. It is necessary to comment on this company because of the very precious work it has accomplished to make their devices accessible and usable for people with disabilities. Their work is so extraordinary and important that it is considered the key milestones of technological and social evolution for the life of blind and visually impaired people.

We are referring to Apple, the US multinational, which shares and claims the leadership in technology with other giants such as Samsung, Google and Microsoft.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak at the beginning of their career and the Apple logo

Apple, whose name apparently came up because one of the founders, Steve Jobs, worked in an apple orchard, was founded in the mid ’70s of the twentieth century by two people who later became protagonists in the history of technology: Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the brilliant creator and designer of Apple's first computing devices, both at hardware and software level. This company, which has its headquarters in Cupertino, California, went through various tribulations. In fact, even more innovative and advanced from a purely technological point of view than from the user interface of software and operating systems, it has never achieved the intended business success, stifled by two giant competitors: IBM and Microsoft. Unlike Apple, they were able to build a more efficient and effective business network, even at significantly lower prices at which were distributed computers, clones of IBM devices with Windows operating system, designed and built by the Redmond company. Since the early years of the new century, however, the Cupertino company experienced continued growth because of the new challenges looming on the horizon: the development of mobile devices such as smartphones, tablets, media players and various accessories, not least smart watches. Apple rose to the challenge, thanks to the intelligence, vision, fantasy and creativity of the then CEO, Steve Jobs, and developed devices which represent a true revolution because of their design, the state-of-the art technology, and the quality of their electronic and material components, translating into global interest.

Another strong point about the Apple products is Apple's fundamental choice of developing both the hardware and software for their devices. This resulted in stability and reliability in time and in use. The support provided for all Apple products throughout their life cycle is not to be overlooked. In fact, Apple computers and devices are supported for at least a five-year period, unlike similar products developed by competitors that have a life cycle of no more than two years as far as support is concerned for the update of the software with which they are equipped.

Devices by Apple

But the Cupertino company, certainly prompted by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), legislation with which it would still have had to comply, and stimulated by the CEO's intelligence, wisely took the decision to equip all its technology devices with accessibility features making them usable by disabled users. In Steve Jobs' mind, Apple had to develop devices with a "design for all" concept. These are devices that simplify and improve the quality of life of all people. And judging from the outcomes, we can assure that the company has raised to the task, at least as far as visual disability is concerned. There are so many blind people around the world, probably the majority, who have one or more devices developed by Apple and who are using them with obvious satisfaction. Let us briefly summarize Apple's story relating to the integration in their devices of accessibility and usability processes for people living with vision loss. VoiceOver, a fully functional screen reader built into the operating system, initially introduced as Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger. This screen reader, originally only available for blind and visually impaired English-speaking users, was able to expand its user platform with the release of a new version of the Mac OS operating system, code-name Lion, in which were integrated voice synthesizers in over thirty different languages. At that point, the decisive step of integrating the concept of universal accessibility into Apple's development processes was accomplished. So, Voiceover evolved over time by refining and enriching new features that were integrated not only in computers but also in new devices marketed by the American technology giant. Around the first decade of the new millennium the first iPhone with assistive technology, the iPhone 3GS was introduced. Then followed all the other devices developed by Apple, which integrated dedicated assistive technologies not only for blind and visually impairment people but also for people with other types of disabilities: people who are deaf, who have a functional mobility, etc. Let us only mention the music players marketed by the American giant, the iPods, and the various models that followed the first iPod Nano. We could also mention Apple TV, the tablets (all models of iPad products), all iPhones models, as we mentioned earlier, starting from the 3GS model. Let us have a look now at the features and the most significant aspects of assistive technologies for people living with vision loss. For the development of its devices with touch-screen technology, Apple, after thorough studies also led in collaboration with other companies such as IBM, has conceived a whole series of gestures to do on the screen with one or more fingers in order to ensure the efficient and concrete user-device interaction. Thanks to these gestures, a blind person is able to interact with the system's apps. The blind or visually impaired user can also use apps designed and developed by developers outside the Cupertino company, provided that programmers, when designing the app interface, took into account every accessibility criteria.

Apple's headquarters in Cupertino, CaliforniaIn the evolution of the iOS operating system, the system installed on Apple's smartphones and tablets, increasingly refined features have been integrated to make data and text more accessible to blind and visually impaired users. A virtual keyboard has been introduced that simulates Braille reading and writing increasing the efficiency and management of the device itself. Even the way in which the information is presented on the screen has largely evolved. Voice synthesizers have improved, making them more pleasant to listen to and more easily understandable. It is possible to read the content of a screen using Braille technology. Using the wireless Bluetooth technology, it is possible to interface a Braille display with a smartphone or a tablet to interact with an Apple device without even touching the screen. On all these Apple devices, the services available on them are accessible and usable. The use of an iPhone or iPad is possible for people with vision loss for the enjoyment and accessibility of all Internet-related services: emails, surfing on the Internet, accessibility to the main social media and instant messaging apps. The Cupertino company's outstanding work in designing and creating reliable and robust high-quality assistive technology must be acknowledged.


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