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More on the iPhone...

  • By Paul Crichton
  • 22 Jan 07, 02:28 PM

Apple’s unveiling of the iPhone last week started discussions all over the internet. An unofficial Apple blog was perhaps the most controversial, shinning an unhealthy yellow spotlight onto attitudes towards and understanding of the visually impaired.

The original posting asked if any, “usability experts out there willing to weigh in on the Universal Access aspects of the iPhone and the lack thereof.”

It was a real eye-opener to see the hostility of the replies, as illustrated by the posting of coalxman, “I hate to do it to you, but this is a DUMB blog. Why would the blind want this phone as 90% of its function is visual?”

Perhaps to some extent this can be put down to excessive brand loyalty. And maybe there is nothing more upsetting than having a new product that excites you so much being criticised. But I’ve seen these kind of attitudes expressed before. I think that there is a lot of ignorance in the wider public about disability issues. I still occasionally get asked how the visually impaired used computers, for example.

It's funny that this should appear in the week when everyone in the U.K. has largely been appalled by Jade Goody’s bullying of Shilpa Shetty on Big Brother. There are similarities in the attitudes displayed here. For “Do Indians eat with their hands?” read, “Why would the blind want this phone?”

I can’t help but wonder if Apple’s designers in particular and most product designers in general would ask the same question. Perhaps that is why universal design is not more prevalent.

I think it is worth remembering that the iPhone is, er, a mobile phone. So there is no reason why someone with a visual impairment or a mobility impairment wouldn’t want it. Of course it is much more than a phone, in that you can download and watch video on it, listen to music and surf the net with it. But then, those are all things that someone with a visual or mobility impairment would want to do as well.

I actually don’t know – but if you do I’d be fascinated to hear – whether products like this are covered by legislation like the Disability Discrimination Act.

Apple or someone else could develop software for it and someone might come up with a clip-on keypad or something (mental note to self – patent that idea) making the iPhone accessible to all. But it would be great to see these kinds of products offer “off the shelf” accessibility.

Comments   Post your comment

I suppose the defence will be that blind users don't have to have an iPhone, they have a choice of other phones.

However, it's not going to affect just blind users, of course. My concern is that by providing purely visual feedback the phone would be less "usable" than if it had tactile feedback, not just for the blind but for all users.

On a positive note, mobile phones have actually helped people with hearing difficulties communicate.

Just think of the "vibrate". In more recent years, with the advent of 3G phones, deaf people could sign to each other using video calls (a much richer experience than just text messaging). My colleague, Colm blogged about it back in May 2006

  • 2.
  • At 01:16 PM on 23 Jan 2007,
  • Kwen Wan wrote:

Unfortunately the Act does not cover products themselves.

  • 3.
  • At 10:31 AM on 24 Jan 2007,
  • Tom C wrote:

You might be jumping the gun here a little. This phone is designed to run the os x operating system (or a version thereof). The full version of this includes the Voiceover screenreader, and I haven't yet seen anything categorically stating that this won't be present on the phone itself.
Admittedly the lack of a more tactile keypad may be a problem, but it may be better to wait until the product is available for a hands on trial before decrying its design as inaccessible.

  • 4.
  • At 12:03 PM on 24 Jan 2007,
  • Richard N wrote:

I agree. The assumption that the iPhone will be inaccessible and useless might well be jumping the gun.

There has been a lot of discussion about the inaccessibility of the iPod, and the missed opportunities to add speech, for example. But Apple has a put a lot of effort into accessibility overall, especially with Mac OS X (see Apple's accessibility section), and that's worth bearing in mind.

The fact that the iPhone runs a version of OS X means that, potentially, it has the ability to use some of the same types of access features. I wouldn't be at all surprised if the iPhone gave good audio feedback to users, either when it's launched or soon after.

Also, a clever touchscreen like the one they've developed would give plenty of scope for finger gestures; see this speculation on iPhone trails at the 37signals blog.

Combining these with audio feedback might, for example, allow you to draw an 'L' shape and have the iPhone read out all the people in your contacts list, or artists in your music collection, beginning with L.

Who knows if any of this is more than wishful thinking? The speculation around the existence of the iPhone was bad enough. But it's certainly possible, and, arguably, far more likely, thanks to the technologies that Apple is developing. Add this to Apple's good record in adding accessible features to some of their products, and I'd say there's reason to be optimistic.

Encourage Apple as much as possible to continue with their accessibility work, and ignore the idiots who ask "why would the blind want this phone?". Like certain irrelevant celebs, they don't have a brain cell between them.

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