What technologies can I use to support people with impaired vision?

Robin Christopherson, head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet, details the options available for those with vision impairment

Robin Christopherson
Robin Christopherson

People with 20:20 vision don't have problems looking at website. But for people with impaired vision, accessibility is crucial. Technologies like text-to-speech and screen magnification exist, and all too often vision impairment has been synonymous in people’s minds with simplified or alternative content, such as the ‘text only’ version of a website.

However, specialist Apple products such as the iPad and iPhone 4 have shown it is possible to deliver complete accessibility. For perhaps the first time we can benefit from powerful and affordable mainstream devices that everyone else is using. iOS, Apple’s mobile operating system, allows us all – whatever our level of vision – to access exactly the same content by virtue of screen reading, or VoiceOver and magnification, also known as Zoom. This accessibility functionality is built into all Apple products and enables blind and partially sighted users to fully experience all applications, even those supplied by third party developers.

As the first gesture-based screen reader, VoiceOver merely requires the end user to touch the screen to hear a description of the item under their finger, then double-tap, drag, or flick to action a command. VoiceOver also features an innovative virtual control called a rotor. Turning the rotor — by rotating two fingers on the screen as if you were turning an actual dial — changes the way VoiceOver moves through a document or a web page based on a setting you choose. For example, a flick up or down might move through text word by word, by header, link or image.

It is also easy for a blind user to memorise the layout of screens and commonly used applications. A quick tap confirms you hit the right control and then a double-tap activates it.

The area where iOS devices are most powerful, however, is in replacing specialist devices designed specifically for disabled users. For example, an iPhone can do as much as a specialist talking portable computer developed for blind users, which cost between £1000 and £2000, and much, much more besides. With the addition of free navigation software an iOS device can replace bespoke talking GPS devices, priced at around £750. Similarly, with the addition of an app costing a few pounds, they can replace a specialist communication device for those with a speech impairment. Proloquo2Go, for example, costs around £100 and can transform an iPad into a fully functioning communication solution previously costing a prohibitive £2000.

For basic texting or e-mail, VoiceOver echoes each character on the on-screen keyboard as you touch it and will also read back each completed word. You can also use word prediction and autotext to help facilitate the writing process.

People who find the touch screen difficult due to a physical impairment are not excluded. The iOS devices also have in-built connectivity, with Bluetooth or a cable doc, to allow peripherals such as an external keyboard to be used. There is also free voice recognition software to enable you to dictate your documents and emails. This way the blind touch-typist can have the best of both worlds and use his iPad or iPod Touch much as he would a laptop.

For charities seeking to provide support and advice to people in the disabled community, iOS and ‘VoiceOver’ present a powerful and indispensable platform from which to do so. An iOS application can ensure your target audience is receiving the key information it requires in a truly accessible format.

Robin Christopherson is head of digital inclusion at AbilityNet

Finance IT Advice

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