June 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 6

Cell Phone Access

Book Review: Getting Started with the iPhone: An Introduction for Blind Users, by Anna Dresner and Dean Martineau

When the iPhone first made news among users with vision loss because it was "accessible out of the box," I was not among those rushing to buy one. A longtime Verizon customer, my excuse was "I'll get one if it ever comes to Verizon." Well, the iPhone did come to Verizon, at just about the same time that I was asked to review Getting Started with the iPhone: An Introduction for Blind Users (National Braille Press). It struck me that reviewing the book as a brand-new user of the iPhone 4 would be an ideal approach. The iPhone and the book arrived on my doorstep at roughly the same time, and the combination proved to be the proverbial match made in heaven.

For those unfamiliar with the iPhone, a few words of explanation are in order. The iPhone is unlike any other piece of assistive technology to date. First of all, it was not designed for blind or visually impaired people. It's a mainstream product that Apple had the foresight to equip with a built-in screen reader, called VoiceOver, that renders it as immediately accessible to people with vision loss as it is to those who can see the screen. To handle one initially, however, elicits all the foreboding of any touchscreen kiosk or piece of home electronics without buttons or switches. Its screen is completely flat and its face boasts a single button. Although I knew other people with vision loss were successfully using iPhones, I remained skeptical. Motivated by that skepticism, I opened the book first.

Introduction to the Book

Co-authors Anna Dresner and Dean Martineau couldn't have planned Getting Started with the iPhone more thoughtfully. The book offers an introduction, a physical description of the phone itself, clearly delineated sections on using each feature, a journal kept by Anna Dresner when her phone was new, and back matter that includes frequently asked questions and other resources. The book is available as three soft-bound braille volumes or as three corresponding digital files that can be loaded into any braille-aware device.

Even before turning on my iPhone 4, I read the first volume of the book. Dresner and Martineau begin with a glowing description of the iPhone's capabilities and provide a section entitled "A Word of Encouragement," wherein the reader is advised that using the iPhone will seem impossible or difficult at the beginning, but eventually the gestures and navigation methods will make sense. While my initial reaction to this section was that it was somewhat patronizing, as I started to use the iPhone I found myself recalling it again and again, whenever I longed to throw the device out the window and return comfortably to a phone with buttons I could feel.

Before experimentation with the iPhone is even possible, it's necessary to connect it to your computer via iTunes. Although the authors carefully detail how this is accomplished, it turned out to be the one and only step for which I required sighted assistance. Using JAWS, Window-Eyes, or System Access, I experienced difficulty in locating all of the necessary buttons and boxes for syncing the phone for activation. Once that was done and VoiceOver was turned on, however,I was ready to go. To buy myself a little additional peace of mind, I immediately called Verizon to have my phone number transferred back to my old phone, thus rendering the iPhone a device that could do everything but make phone calls. This took the pressure off using the phone as a phone for the first week—a move I recommend to anyone able to do it.

Touching and Flicking

Anyone using an iPhone employs various gestures to activate features. Using the phone with VoiceOver requires additional gestures. Dresner and Martineau explain these gestures clearly and concisely. To look at the home screen, for example, a grid of four rows each containing four icons, they explain that by touching various places on the screen, the user can hear the icon spoken. They next talk about flicking right and left, and somehow, my brain caught on to the flicking but not to the random touching for identifying the icons. For the first few weeks, then, I was a flicking fanatic, flicking right or left to hear icons announced in sequence. When another user pointed out that I could simply slide my finger around the screen to hear the icons exactly where they appeared on the screen, the light went on and life became much easier.

Once I learned to explore the home screen by following the instructions laid out in the book and my own curiosity, the power of this pocket-sized device began to impress itself upon me. I got the weather report in four cities, accessed a sample video on YouTube, and bought an audiobook on iTunes for $1.95 (I'll probably never read it, but the thrill and immediacy of having that book on my phone was mesmerizing). Then, mysteriously, the Phone icon vanished, and it was time to go back to the book.

Moving icons from one place to another, it turned out, is accomplished by double-tapping and holding. By double-tapping on an icon and holding my finger in place, I had inadvertently buried the icon for using the phone itself. Because the book presents information in small, clearly labeled chunks, it was relatively easy to troubleshoot this problem, and to use the book's instructions to return my Phone icon to the home screen where it belonged.

It's a Phone, Too

After a week of exploring the iPhone as a music player, weather forecaster, alarm clock, and e-mail reader, it was time to activate my phone number and begin using it to make calls.

The book explains how to use the keypad as well as voice controls for making calls. The authors also forewarn that, in the beginning, calling errors might occur. While the voice recognition is superb, I initially accidentally called a few people at midnight, and left a few embarrassing voice mails in which I said things like, "I didn't mean to call you, and now I can't hang up my phone." Recalling the "A Word of Encouragement" section once again saved the iPhone from flight toward the nearest trash receptacle.

All in the Details

Dresner and Martineau are both blind users of the iPhone, and it is from that unique perspective that the book is written. They don't just explain to the reader how to compose a text message, they tell you where on the screen the "Compose" button will be located. They tell you how to change the typing mode to find the one most convenient for you. They seamlessly blend information relevant to any iPhone user—e.g., that text messages are organized in "conversations," so that all messages to and from a single contact are in one place—with information on how to command VoiceOver to read the text aloud. Personally, I found the various mentions of where a particular button could be found on the screen especially helpful. The "OK" button, for instance, has a unique position on the screen depending on the particular app being used. Being directed by the authors to the approximate location of a button needed—e.g., lower right corner, above the Y on the keyboard, etc.—took a considerable amount of frustration out of the learning process.

More Than a Single Read

While reading the book before using the iPhone was helpful, some of us are hands-on learners. For this reason, the next few weeks with my iPhone passed without my returning to Getting Started with the iPhone. During this time, I began exploring the wonderful world of iPhone apps, a seemingly boundless pool of software tools one can easily download to the phone for accomplishing myriad tasks. I downloaded apps that could identify my currency; tell me if the light was on; play a variety of radio stations; tell me that a picture I'd just taken was of my cat, my shower curtain, or a can of Campbell's soup; and look up words in a free dictionary.

Then, a problem occurred. I'd been using the iPhone exclusively with the headphones supplied with the unit when a sighted friend asked me to demonstrate how a blind person uses the device. I unplugged the headphones, pressed the Home key—and could not get VoiceOver to speak through the phone's built-in speaker. Turning VoiceOver off and on again, powering the unit off and on again, and all manner of other rescue attempts failed to resolve the problem. Sure enough, Getting Started with the iPhone had the solution in the frequently asked questions section. The problem was solved, and with it, my resolve to keep the book close at hand was cemented.


Getting Started with the iPhone is an absolute must-have for any blind or visually impaired user who is new to this amazing device. Whether you are inclined to read the book straight through or randomly flip through sections as needed—or both—the information is always easily located and blissfully clear. Personally, I found the hardcopy braille version to be a more efficient format for reference, but some may find the electronic version more convenient. The price and content is, of course, the same for every format. National Braille Press is to be congratulated for once again providing exactly the right material at the right time to assist consumers with vision loss in using a popular product. Anna Dresner and Dean Martineau have written a book that delivers the information in exactly the right package.

Getting Started with the iPhone: An Introduction for Blind Users is available in hardcopy braille, on CD, and in downloadable DAISY, EBraille, Word, or ASCII formats.

Price is $18.

To order, visit National Braille Press or call (888) 965-8965.

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