I’ll get right to the point: the iPhone 3G S includes several features that should make Apple’s smartphone accessible to many blind and visually impaired people for the first time.
And rejoicing was heard in the land?
We’ll see what we’ll see.
The new phone, debuted at Apple’s annual Worldwide Developers Conference, and due for release on June 19, includes a version of Apple’s VoiceOver, the screen reader built into Mac OS X. Since we learned at its launch two years ago that the iPhone is an OS X-adjacent device, lots of accessibility advocates, including me, have suggested that lighting up VoiceOver features in the phone was obviously doable. Now it’s happened.
Since I haven’t seen the phone, I can only report what Apple has told us about 3G S accessibility, and pose some questions. After two years of resisting both the phone’s monthly cost, and lack of accessibility, I’m pretty eager to get one.
First off, let’s get our definitions straight. The iPhone 3G S will become available almost simultaneously with iPhone 3.0, a software release that works on both the new phone and existing iPhones and iPod Touch devices. VoiceOver, and another new feature with accessibility implications, Voice Control, require the iPhone 3G S. Though I haven’t confirmed this with Apple, I’m making an educated guess that the new features require the faster processor in the iPhone 3G S. iPhone 3.0, a free update for existing iPhone owners, and $9.95 for iPod Touch, does not appear to include specific accessibility enhancements. Apple has not announced any new iPod Touch hardware, so you’ll need to buy a phone to get VoiceOver and Voice Control.
Apple’s iPhone vision accessibility page touts VoiceOver as the same screen reader available on its Mac OS X computers. The accessibility toolbox also includes a couple of other options that are familiar to OS X users; zoom and white on black.
Apple uses the term “gesture” to refer to the many ways in which you tap, double-tap, drag, or pinch to use the touch screen. This nomenclature may not be familiar to blind users, for whom a tactile keyboard is the usual means of interacting with a screen reader. With VoiceOver turned on, the iPhone, whose glass screen is completely devoid of tactile reference points, other than a button at the bottom, will speak the names of items over which a finger passes. Open the item with a double-tap, or use other gestures to manipulate it. Another detail for the uninitiated visually impaired user; the iPhone’s home screen does not contain the usual vertical menu of functions, but a grid with square icons representing your applications. Apple’s description touts contextual information provided in VoiceOver, and the freeform ability to interact with the screen reader. In a computer environment, screen readers deliver information in a specific order, as set out by navigation commands and arrow keys. On the iPhone, you can drag your finger to another part of the screen, getting audio feedback as you go. Speech rates and voices are customaizable. The device will even duck other audio, such as iTunes music, when VoiceOver is speaking
Like the innovative pinch gesture that makes it possible to zoom into and out of Web pages on an iPhone, the rotor, new in iPhone 3G S, appears to be an ingenious navigation aid that will make moving around, and keeping your place a lot easier for VoiceOver users. From Apple’s accessibility page: “Turning the rotorâ€” by rotating two fingers on the screen as if you were turning an actual dial â€” changes the way VoiceOver moves through a document based on a setting you choose.For example, a flick up or down might move through text word by word. But when you choose the â€œcharacterâ€ setting, each time you flick up or down VoiceOver will move through the text character by character â€” perfect when youâ€™re proofreading or editing text.”
The iPhone uses a virtual QWERTY keyboard. VoiceOver will speak text as you type it; letter by letter, or as you complete a word. It’s unclear to me how the software assists a blind user in finding virtual keys in the first place. That’s among the first features I’ll be testing.
VoiceOver speaks 21 languages, and Apple says you can activate it without sighted assistance, along with your iPhone.
Let me mention a few non-VoiceOver accessibility upgrades. I make extensive use of what Apple calls “white on black” in Mac OS X. I call it “reverse video”, but that seemed to confuse some of my Twitter followers yesterday. This feature inverts your screen, so that text is light and the video background is dark. This essential (to me) feature is part of iPhone 3G S, along with more flexibility in controlling font sizes, and zoom that is available outside Safari. On a Mac, reverse video can be toggled on and off with a keyboard shortcut (control-option-command-8, if you want to see what it looks like). I hope the iPhone also provides a quick toggle.
There is one major caveat about VoiceOver, and accessibility in general. While Apple has made these tools available, and implemented them in applications it ships with the iPhone, there is no guarantee that app developers will fully support accessibility. An app could, for example, be completely invisible to VoiceOver, or choose not to allow you to adjust its font size. In most cases, small developers will make these choices either because they simply don’t realize that they have visually impaired customers, or because they believe that the time required to implement accessibility is prohibitive. It’s going to be up to iPhone users and potential iPhone users to educate developers. I’m hoping to talk to a few, and learn how much work it is to implement Apple’s new goodies. While advocacy is important, it’s also a good idea to understand what challenges a developer faces in making an app accessible. I’ll let you know what I learn, though it’s safe to say that since the iPhone 3G S has just been announced, learning the ins and outs will take a little while. I intend to be persistent, but patient. And rest assured that each and every app reviewed on my App Store Pundit podcast will be evaluated based on its accessibility.