How iPhones help fix unemployment for the blind

Can Apple help fix unemployment for the blind?
Can Apple help fix unemployment for the blind?

For much of his 30-year career in law and banking, Joseph Danowsky, who's legally blind, relied on others to edit documents, respond to emails and get around New York City.

Now he can do it all himself, with his iPhone.

"I don't think people understand the power of it," said Danowsky, a managing director and private client advisor at U.S. Trust. "There's so much more that can be done that couldn't be done before."

To the blind, a smartphone is just a piece of glass. Everything that makes a touch screen intuitive and easy to use for a sighted person is non-existent to someone without vision.

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With advances in voice recognition and screen-reading software and Apple's dedicated effort to create a screen navigation system for the blind, stories like Danowsky's are becoming more commonplace.

That's welcome news for the visually-impaired community, which suffers from sky-high jobless rates. According to the National Federation of the Blind, just 40 percent of working-age adults with visual disabilities were employed in 2013.

Apple CEO Tim Cook takes the issue personally. He addressed the company's accessibility mission in a 2013 speech at Auburn University, his alma mater.

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People with disabilities "are frequently left in the shadows of technological advancements that are a source of empowerment and attainment for others," he said. "Apple engineers push back against this unacceptable reality."

Danowsky, who routinely commutes to New York from his home in New Jersey, is on his iPhone all day. He uses it to order Uber rides, an experience he prefers to traditional car services, because with Uber, Danowsky gets a phone number for the driver and can call to give a heads-up that he's unable to see.

He also uses his device to read the newspaper, update his schedule, analyze spreadsheets and listen to audio books.

But learning to navigate the device wasn't easy. He was previously using high-end feature phones, which were sufficient for calls, emails, calendar and little else. Still, the physical keypad provided a level of comfort.

"When the world suddenly changed and buttons disappeared, I was really troubled," he said.

I attack it in a way that tries to make it more intuitive.
Douglas Walker
Hadley Institute instructor

For help adapting to the iPhone, he and thousands of others have turned to a program called iFocus from the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired, a 96-year-old institution that serves 10,000 students annually across the globe.

Douglas Walker, an educator in the field of blindness for more than two decades, produces regular videos on Apple accessibility functions and various iPhone apps.

Walker, who's legally blind himself, covers everything from sending email, taking notes and setting an alarm to accessing documents in Dropbox and using Siri voice controls for walking directions. He said the videos get about 4,000 plays every four weeks and viewership is increasing 17 percent a month.

"I attack it in a way that tries to make it more intuitive," said Walker. "Once you've been through several of my videos, you start feeling the progression and it gives you the security that you're not going to mess up the device if you start opening things and flicking around."

Access Technology Instruction Specialist, Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired

Source: Douglas Walker

The iPhone's VoiceOver software, which reads the screen aloud, was added in 2009 and is the centerpiece of its accessibility functions. Walker guides users through the gestures and tapping motions required to hear a description of the page, activate or open an item and move on to the next screen.

While most Apple fanatics are focused on Monday's "Let us loop you in" event in San Francisco, and the expected launch of a new iPhone and iPad, Walker is attending a very different technology conference in Southern California.

All this week, Walker and about 5,000 others are gathering at California State University, Northridge for the 31st annual International Technology and Persons with Disabilities Conference.

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Attendees learn about all sorts of technology for the visually impaired, including a session on Apple Watch accessibility.

Sarah Herrlinger, Apple's senior manager for global accessibility policy and initiatives and a 13-year company veteran, will be on hand for some of the event. It's part of the Cupertino, California-based company's effort to promote the message that it's committed to improving access to all of Apple's products.

"We believe everyone who wants to use Apple technology should be able to do so and in the way that works best for them," Herrlinger said in an interview. "We work hard to build our hardware, software and services with accessibility integrated throughout."

Walker says the big advantage Apple has over Google's Android operating system when it comes to the visually impaired is that it controls the whole technology stack, and the software works across Macs, iPhones and iPads.

The many manufacturers building on top of Android phones and tablets, by contrast, make it difficult, because "as you start manipulating the operating system, you tend to break accessibility first," he said.

Within the Apple universe, the iPhone is where most of the third-party developers are focused. LookTel Money Reader uses the camera to announce the denomination of dollar bills, Alarmed helps stay organized with reminders and timers and the KNFB Reader lets users take pictures of any text and have it read aloud.

Dropbox, the popular Web storage and collaboration service, created an experience for the visually impaired by adding text for images, including additional text for context and building semantic functions understandable to people using screenreaders, said Cordelia McGee-Tubb, Web accessibility engineer at the San Francisco-based company.

Using Apple's built-in technology, makes "the process of developing for accessibility significantly easier, requiring much less technical work from the ground up," McGee-Tubb said.

Be My Eyes, which was started in Copenhagen, is another app gaining adoption. It uses video to connect a blind person with a sighted volunteer for help with a particular action, like checking the expiration date on a carton of milk.

Christian Erfurt, the founder and CEO of Be My Eyes, said the app has signed up more than 26,000 visually impaired people and 347,000 volunteers.

"It's breathtaking how willing people are to step in and help others with a friendly pair of eyes," Erfurt said.

So far, Be My Eyes is just available in a consumer version, but Erfurt said there's plenty of demand for integrating the technology into business apps. While he can't talk about specifics, Erfurt said the product can be used to help companies engage with visually impaired customers and employees.

Revel, the maker of an iPad-based payment terminal, already has a business product tailored to the blind. The San Francisco-based company sells a system that includes voice commands, wireless keyboard compatibility and large text on the screen (for people with limited vision). Co-founder and Chief Technology Officer Chris Ciabarra said Revel had to "hack the system" to make it work because early versions of the iPad didn't have all the necessary technology.

It's still a nascent market for Revel, and the company's solution isn't complete. For example, the accessibility features currently work with the order processing, discounts and payments functions, but haven't been built to integrate with customer relationship management tools or inventory.

"We want to be out there helping our customers make more business," Ciabarra said.

As Apple continues to improve accessibility functions, more app developers are likely to follow its lead. In the latest upgrades to the operating system, the company added support for Alex, which speaks in a more natural voice, and integrated braille for text messages, emails and other activities.

Getting comfortable with it requires training, but Danowsky said the new technology helps level the playing field in the business world.

"You can be making phone calls, reaching out to clients, researching information you need, negotiating deals, keeping a schedule, and sending messages," he said. "It's going to be material to a lot of people in business."