Apples are good for you! Or: Why I can not see an alternative to the iPhone for Blind Users By Markus Boettner Part 1 Pre-History

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Apples are good for you!

- Or: Why I can not see an alternative to the iPhone for Blind Users

By Markus Boettner

Part 1 - Pre-History

"Carrots are good for your eyes!", I remember my granny saying. At some point, the young Markus noticed granny's glasses and figured out that there must be a bit of a myth at work here.

Carrots are good for us but they are not just good for our eyes. This is the same for apples.

However, there is one Apple, and I am going to spell it with a capital A now, that is good for our a way.

I admit that I was a late starter in terms of mobile phones. For e-mails, Skype and all the other usual tasks I had my laptop with a screenreader and for phone calls I had my phone.

What a fool I was!

A few years ago, I bought a scandinavian mobile phone with Symbian as its operating system. I installed a screenreader to operate all the menus, text messaging and the other features of my phone as the phone called out the content of the display. I had two pretty similar solutions to choose from and picked the cheaper one, which already cost 140 Euros - on top of the phone! I had heard of a software product that could recognise the text in a picture taken with the phone's camera - just like the scanning software on my computer. Over 500 Euros! Just the software!

I thought: "I could take a picture with the phone, go to the next café and take out my laptop, connect the phone to it and open the picture in my OCR text recognition software!" Rediculous! So I left it with that.

I could read and write e-mails, listen to the radio, browse some websites, change my ringtone and set my alarm. I was quite first.

Then came an update to the operating system and the browser, and suddenly I couldn't type anything into the text fields on websites anymore. Whenever I wanted to listen to the radio, I had to go to that point in the menu, then quickly turn off the screenreader and start the radio blind. I also had to restart my phone now and again as the talking software would simply crash. I was getting a bit sad about the whole thing. This was not what I paid so much money for!

Thank you, Marco!

I had heard that Apple had included a screenreader into the iPhone 3GS's operating system. Remembering the attempts that companies such as Nokia or Microsoft had undertaken in terms of accessibility, I had my doubts when I entered my trusted mobile phone store to check this thing out.

And a screenreader on a touchscreen!? That can't possibly work! Accordingly, it took a while for the shop assistant to start the software and I rubbed over the display with my fingers. "Hmmm...nice idea but efficiency is certainly something else.", I thought. Then the shop assistant couldn't get the thing turned off again and put it aside.

So did I. I put aside the thought about it until I read an interview with Marco Zehe. Marco who? Yeah, Marco Zehe. He is German and in charge of the accessibility of Mozilla's Firefox. That man knows what he's talking about in terms of accessibility, and he is blind.

In the interview, he talked about his iPhone, how he once took a picture of an obstacle and posted the picture on Twitter in order to ask his followers what this thing is. He got an answer immediately and thus was able to find a solution for his temporarily restricted mobility. Wow! I was impressed! Shortly afterwards I heard about Google Goggles and how one can take a picture of an item, for example a box of cornflakes, and the phone would call out what it is. Wow! I was even more impressed!

It was certainly time to check this out again! Fortunately, a friend of mine owned an iPhone 3Gs at the time and let me play with it for half an hour or so. The very same evening, I found a second-hand 3GS on Ebay and bought it - possibly one of the better investments of the past few years!

Part 2 - iPhone Explained

I mentioned before that mine and the shop assistant's first encounter with a speaking iPhone was a bit of a disappointment. I also used the word 'software' - a demonstration of the flaw in my approach.

Unlike other mobile phones which require a special software to make them talk, the iPhone has the screenreader built in to the operating system iOS. It is part of the system and hence taken into account in every update to the operating system. With other phones, you're always trying to catch up with your screenreader when your system gets an update.

So not only did Apple include a screenreader in the system of its iPhone, they have also done a brilliant job: If blind people read Braille using their fingers, why shouldn't this work on a touchscreen? Boy, does it work!

Once the screenreader 'VoiceOver' has been enabled, a voice tells you exactly what's underneeth your finger on the display of the iPhone. This includes status messages, such as the battery status, the time, the mobile network reception and the strength of your Wi-Fi network, apps on the home screen, menu items and the keyboard to type messages.

In the vast majority of apps and if the developers have taken Apple's development standards into account, VoiceOver works all the same.

Let me stop for a minute here. Perhaps you are a friend or family member of someone who has lost their sight or who is in the process and you have an old iPhone somewhere in the drawer or want to purchase one. Perhaps you are blind yourself and this sounds good to you. VoiceOver only works on iPhones from generation 3GS onwards, i.e. 3GS, 4 and 4S. Older iPhone models do not have the hardware capacity to run VoiceOver.

When using other screenreaders, such as Talks and Mobile Speak, you press the buttons on your phone and the software tells you where you are. In other words, you use the standard method of operating the phone and the screenreader tries to keep up with you.

Apple's approach follows a reverse logic: You actually work your iPhone through VoiceOver. Even the finger movements are different. For example, whenever I want to show my wife something on my phone, I have to turn off VoiceOver so she can use it. Meanwhile she is getting used to it and remembers some VoiceOver gestures.

If your iPhone is new or has seen a software update since last October, you can activate VoiceOver with a tripple click on the Home button. You touch an item on the screen with your finger to highlight it and then double tap to activate it. You find the VoiceOver settings in

Settings/General/Accessibility/. Here you find, for example, the option: 'Tripple Click Home'. When you double-tap on this, you can define the setting that a tripple-click on the Home button always turns VoiceOver on or off. This comes in handy if you want to let someone else use your phone.

In the accessibility settings under the section 'VoiceOver', you can also find an option to practise the following gestures without actually doing anything that could have an effect.

Let me quickly tell you something very cool which doesn't really fit here but it doesn't fit anywhere else either.

If you open the iPhone's standard camera app and point the camera at a person, or yourself, VoiceOver will tell you whether there is one or two faces on the picture and where they are. Isn't that powerful?

It will say, for example: "Large face at right edge of the screen.", and when you move the phone away: "Small face in the center of the screen."

Part 3 - Flick, Tap and Swipe

Here are some important VoiceOver gestures which you can practise in the VoiceOver settings:

One-finger single-tap = selects an object.

One-finger double-tap = activates an object (opens a menu or message, starts an app, makes a setting).

One-finger swipe to the left or right = moves to the previous or next object on the screen (a fast way of moving without having to search the whole screen for an item).

One-finger swipe up or down = selects an item in the rotor setting (see below for rotor), also changes the page of the home screen at the bottom left of the screen (for example "Page 1 of 3).

Two-finger double-tap = starts or stops a current action (answering and ending a phone call, playing and pausing music, starting and stopping the stop watch or the recording of a voice memo, taking a picture).

Two-finger tripple-tap = opens an alphabetical list of all items on the screen through which one can then move with the one-finger swipe.

Two-finger swipe up = reads the current page or document from the start.

Two-finger swipe down = reads the current page or document from the current position.

Two-finger scrubb = activates the 'Back' button if there is one.

Three-finger single tap = speaks the page number or rows being displayed.

Three-finger double-tap = mutes or unmutes the speech.

Three-finger tripple-tap = turns the display on or off.

Three-finger swipe up = scrolls down one page.

Three-finger swipe down = scrolls up one page.

Three-finger swipe right = flips left one page.

Three-finger swipe left = flips right one page.

four-finger single-tap near the bottom or the top of the screen = jumps to the first or last object on the page. (I know, this requires a bit of finger acrobatics.)

The Rotor

The 'Rotor' is one of the very fine VoiceOver features. It allows the user to make certain speech-related settings without leaving the current page. The Rotor is an imaginary dial on the screen. If you move, for example, your thumb and index finger in a clockwise direction, as if you wanted to turn up the volume on a radio, this brings you to the next Rotor setting, if you move your fingers anti-clockwise, this brings you to the previous setting. VoiceOver will tell you where you are. Once you have found a particular setting you were looking for, you don't have to double-tap to activate it; you can make selections by swiping up or down with one finger.

I, for example, have set the VoiceOver speed relatively high normally as this makes the usual daily business quicker for me. When reading a longer text, I turn the Rotor to the setting 'speech rate' and then flick down a few times with one finger to slow down the speech. When I am finished, I flick up with one finger again to reach the normal speed. Whenever I want to read a sentence word by word or get the spelling of a word character by character, I turn the Rotor to 'words' or 'characters' and then flick down with one finger.

In the VoiceOver settings under 'Rotor' You can define by yourself, which settings you want in the Rotor - there are a number of settings to choose from.

In the settings, there is also a section called 'Language Rotor' in which you can add other languages. The language can then be changed in the Rotor. When I get a text message in German, for example, I turn the Rotor to 'language' and flick up or down with one finger to switch between English and German.

The Rotor settings also change depending on the app. In Apple's internet browser Safari the Rotor contains settings which are very helpful when navigating on websites. Turn the Rotor to 'headings', and you can flick from one heading to the next. The same applies to links, visited links, form fields, etc.

Even though all these gestures sound like a lot of input and a lot to remember but believe me, it doesn't take long and they become fully automated and you don't even think about them anymore.

Part 4 - Appsolutely Helpful

Now I would like to introduce a selection of apps which you can find in the App Store. Most of them are free or cost between 79 Cents or 2.99 Euros. Sometimes the prices change during special offer periods, so there is no point mentioning the price for every individual app. This list is by no means complete and in some cases also down to my personal taste - when more than one apps do essentially the same

Ariadne GPS

This little app allows you to find your position and save it as a favourite. Since the latest update, it is possible to import Loadstone checkpoints, just in case you are using this software on your Symbian phone. From your current position, the distance to the nearest favourite is displayed but also its direction in relation to your direction of movement. I find this extremely helpful when I am on the bus from Dublin to Galway and my wife wants to know where abouts I am, so she knows when to leave home to collect me at the stop.

The app also includes a map to explore the area around you. When you move your finger across the screen, like on a Braille map, VoiceOver tells you the names of streets. It displays rivers and makes the phone vibrate when you are on a road.


This app shows you Points of Interest (POI) around you, subdivided in categories such as Restaurants, Hospitals, Bars, Garda stations, etc.

You can look for hotels according to the price and availability, book a room directly in the app and start the navigation to the destination in the app. You will now be asked which navigation solution you would like to use, Maps, which is already on the iPhone anyways or, for example the following:

Navigon Mobile Navigator, Europe

A full navigation software including the maps for the countries you select, also navigation to points of interest and favourites. one feature which is important for us is the pedestrian navigation with speech announcements.

At 59 Euros on special offer the most expensive app I have bought. I believe the app is worth its price as the maps are being downloaded onto the phone, which makes it possible to use the app when no mobile data signal is available or your mobile phone plan doesn't include a lot of data usage.

Color ID

This app detects colours of items you hold in front of the camera relatively precisely. Nice little app.

Light Detector

This app does exactly what its name says - it echoes the brightness in front of the camera via a beep tone. The higher the tone, the brighter the light - very helpful when you're in an unfamiliar environment, for example in a hotel, and want to make sure the lights are turned off.


Cisco's Global Internet Speed Test tells you the speed of your present internet connection and lets you know if it makes sense to start a radio stream, even if your bill plan allows a lot of data usage. Speaking of radio:

TuneIn Radio

A very comfortable webradio player. You can set up a list of favourites, search local radio stations wherever you are and even record stuff from the radio.

Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to export recordings out off the app. If you would like to do this, I recommend the following app.

Internet Radio Box

It does the same as TuneIn Radio but allows to export recordings. I personally like the way TuneIn is structured better but this is certainly a matter of taste. If you want to export your recordings, Internet Radio Box is your friend!

iBlink Radio

A very nice app all about blindness. You will find blindness-related radio podcasts, information on technology for blind people, such as iPhone podcasts etc. and also webradio shows which are run by blind people. I haven't even explored the entire app yet. There's so much interesting stuff!


Just for the fun of it! If you look for the song "Double Rainbow" on Youtube, you'll get an idea what this wonderful app can do. You tap the record button, speak into your phone...and then listen what happens. I recommend using headphones when doing this as you'll otherwise have VoiceOver on your recording.


SayText is a mobile OCR app. Hold the phone horizontally over a printed text and take a picture. It is very handy if you quickly want to get the gist of a letter. The app is a bit sensitive to lighting issues, which can have an effect on the result. It does the job, I would say.

Dragon Dictate

-You might know this software from your computer. You can dictate text and send it as an e-mail or text message directly out of the app. Handy piece of software.


Post status messages and pictures to your Twitter, Facebook and Linked In account at once.


A fantastic app! Take a picture of anything you want and the app will look for a comparible picture on the web to tell you what it is. I have tested it with my notebook, with clothes, with a fluffy toy dog on an armchair, lemonade bottles and by taking a picture of myself in a mirror.

Want to know what the app said? "Apple iPhone."


An app that I like very much. You can send text messages, pictures, your position etc. to friends who also have the app - and it is for free, No matter where you are and where the other person is, you send texts for free as long as you and the other have an internet connection. The best thing, however, is that the app works on various platforms. If you have a friend with an Android or Symbian phone, that's no problem! The app quickly scans the address book in your phone, just to find other users who are using the app.

I think I will leave it with this little selection.

All in all, I can say that the iPhone changed the way I go about my daily business, made me more independent and even, in a way, more self-confident.

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