When I first heard that iPhones came with VoiceOver for the blind, I figured Apple must have done this just to get some good PR. I mean, come on. How could a blind person possibly use a touchpad?
Then I went to the Seeing Eye to train with Harper. All the young people (well, all the people under age 35, I guess) there used, you guessed it: iPhones. Their phones murmured text messages to them while we were waiting in the lounge. Carlos regularly updated his Facebook status while he and I commuted in the Seeing Eye van together. He and Marcus would point their phones at their dogs from time to time to take photos, then manipulate their phones to send the photos home to loved ones.
I worked on my knitting while we gathered for Seeing Eye lectures in the evenings. These iPhone kids spent that down time discussing their favorite apps. “Do you guys use Color Identifier?” They showed each other how to point the iPhone’s camera at things to hear it call out colors. The iPhone being the iPhone, of course, the color names were fun – and specific. “Crimson lipstick,” the robot’s voice would say. “Jukebox yellow.” “Moon Mist.“ I was intrigued. I wasn’t sold, however, until one of the students put the phone in my dirty little hands.
Marcus Engel and I were in the student lounge, killing time before it was our turn to do a route with our trainer. “Wanna try my iPhone,” he asked, placing the little gadget in my palm. “I’ll show you how to dial a number. Do you ever use ‘Tell Me’?” I do.
“Tell Me” is a service that yet another blind friend, the wonderful George Abbott, told me about in 2005. The White Sox were gearing up for the World Series back then, and I was having trouble keeping up with all the other teams in the running. You call 800-555-TELL for free and an automatic voice gives you the time, the weather, news and sports updates. Marcus was wise to choose “Tell Me” as a way to start me on the talking iPhone. I am so familiar with “Tell Me” that I felt comfortable giving it a try, and I knew what it should sound like if it worked. It was also reassuring to know that if I made a mistake it wouldn’t cost Marcus any money.
“Tap the screen to see where you are on the number pad,” Marcus said.” Double tap it if it’s the number you want.” I was expecting this to be a frustrating and time-consuming ordeal. To my amazement, I picked it up immediately. All I had to do was run my finger across the screen, and the voice called out “three!'” I moved my finger down. “Nine!” To the left. “Eight!” Tapped twice, and I was on my way. Spatial information. Imagine.
After I enterred all the numbers, Marcus told me to go to the bottom of the screen to push a button. I didn’t have to memorize special key commands to get there. I could just drag my finger to the bottom, and the iPhone called out the button when I found it. Tap twice, and the button was pressed.
Within 30 seconds, I’d connected to “Tell Me” and knew what the weather was supposed to be in Chicago that day. Warmer than in New jersey! Marcus brought up a web site next, explaining how I could swipe three fingers to scroll, hold down one location and tap another. There’s a learning curve to VoiceOver, he said. “But it’s so worth it.”
“There’s this cool rotor you activate by turning your fingers like a dial. You can double triple-finger tap to toggle speech, and a triple triple-finger tap…” Just then our trainer returned. Time to go out with our dogs. I welcomed the interruption. I’d learned enough. I was already sold.
Mike was thrilled to hear I’d finally come around to the iPhone – he’s been trying to get me to “go Mac” for years. The Apple store on Michigan Avenue here in Chicago has a full-time associate (they don’t like to call them salespeople) who is blind, and they offer regular classes to teach VoiceOver applications. Harper and I returned to Chicago on December 15. Best to wait until after the holiday rush before tackling the Apple Store.
The rush is over, and once we find some free time we’ll head to Michigan Avenue to make the big purchase. Only question now is…do I go with Verizon, or AT&T?