If you are practiced with using a smartphone but new to vision loss or blindness, you will find that mobile touch-screen readers can take some getting used to. Here at AccessWorld you'll find a treasure-trove of learning resources to help you get up to speed with all manner of smartphone access for users with visual impairments and blindness. We've collected some of the most helpful pieces in the Additional Links section at the end of this article.
You will find that accessing and using a smartphone is a different experience with a visual impairment or blindness, and that the apps you find most useful now might be different than those you preferred before losing your sight.
This article will take you on an app tour that highlights what we consider the most essential apps for the sight-impaired smartphone user. Unless noted otherwise the apps included here are available for both iOS and Android. Also, many if not most have been reviewed thoroughly in previous AccessWorld issues. Follow the included links to learn more.
The essential built-in apps—meaning the apps that come pre-installed on your device—that make a smartphone a smartphone are the phone, contacts, calendar, and text messaging apps. There is also a web browser—Safari for iOS and Chrome for Android and an app you can use to access the store where you can buy and download more apps—many at the bargain price of $0.00—for your device. The store is called simply "App Store," on the iPhone and "Play Store" on Android devices.
Because built-in apps are all quite accessible, using these apps is a great way to hone your skills with your device's built-in touch-screen reader, which is called VoiceOver for iPhones and TalkBack for Android.
Smartphone Apps that Work Like an Extra Pair of Eyes
Now that we've mentioned the basics, let's show you how your smartphone can help you accomplish tasks you may think you can't do without vision.
Be My Eyes
The Be My Eyes app offers remote assistance from one of over a half million volunteer sighted helpers. The app uses your device's camera to create a video link, meaning you can point the camera and and ask questions ranging from "Can you help me set my oven to 400 degrees?" to "My computer has stopped talking. Can you help me figure out why?" Be My Eyes began its life as an iOS only app, but recently it was also made available for the Android operating system.
In either case, this is an absolute must-have app for your smartphone.
A second excellent app is Microsoft's Seeing AI, and unfortunately, it's currently iOS only. This is an amazing app, offered absolutely free.
Seeing AI can recognize and speak text detected by the smartphone camera, either in tiny snatches or full pages at a time. It can read bar codes on grocery and other product labels, offer up the product name, and usually additional information, such as nutrition labeling, cooking and other instructions.
Using Seeing AI you can snap pictures of your friends and family members, and later use the app to tell you who's nearby. An experimental setting can describe the scene around you, such as "A fenced-in yard," or "A blue door on an apartment building." You can also forward images you receive in email, or find on Facebook or Twitter, and Seeing AI will do its best to describe the action and read any text contained in the image.
A recent update to the app includes several new features.
- A currency reader that can tell you the denomination of US and Canadian currency. All you need to do is select the "Currency" option and point your iPhone's camera at the bill.
- A light indicator that changes audible tones as the light level increases. Perfect for locating windows or determining if you've left the lights on—again.
- A color monitor that can name the color of clothing and other items you hold in front of the camera.
- A handwriting recognizer that can actually read cursive. It's a remarkable achievement, and the performance will doubtless improve over time.
Did you know that optical character recognition (OCR) was originally developed by Ray Kurzweil to be used in reading machines for the blind? Those original machines were large and bulky, and cost $50,000 apiece. Today the same technology can be found in your iPhone or Android device. And Kurzweil is the K in KNFB Reader.
For Android users KNFB-Reader is a must-have app. iOS users may find that Seeing AI does the trick when it comes to going through your mail, reading a recipe card, or checking out the memo that gets passed around at work five minutes before the meeting is scheduled to begin.
KNFB Reader does its OCR directly on your device, so it tends to be faster than Seeing AI, and more languages are supported. The app usually costs $99, but you can often find it discounted up to half off. The Android version also allows you to "try before you buy" with up to 25 free recognitions before you make your purchase decision.
Your iPhone or Android smartphone is an excellent navigational aid. And much of this functionality comes built-in.
Apple and Google Maps
Both iOS and Android devices come equipped with GPS technology and a set of maps you can use to navigate. You can set a destination and receive turn-by-turn directions both for driving and for walking. The latter, of course, is of considerably more interest to those with visual impairments who wish to travel independently.
Many cities also offer their public transportation routes and schedules to GPS apps so you can plan your bus, train, or light rail trip. If this information doesn't seem to be available through your built-in map app, check with the public transport authority in your city to see if they offer their own app.
The stock Apple and Google navigation services can cover most of your travel needs, but there are a number of features that specifically help the blind traveler. Perhaps you would like to see the layout of your neighborhood, or a street map of a distant city where you plan to travel. For this you will definitely want to download Nearby Explorer, developed by American Printing House for the Blind. This app comes in two versions: Nearby Explorer Online (free) and Nearby Explorer ($79.99). The difference is in the maps. The paid version downloads the maps to your device so you do not need to have a data connection in order to use it. The free version relies on online maps, and requires an active data connection.
Nearby Explorer offers many other "blind friendly" features. For example, you can point your phone in any direction and hear what stores, restaurants, and other points of interest (POIs) are located in that particular direction. You can obtain street numbers as you walk past, and hear at any time the streets in the next intersection and how far away it is.
Uber and Lyft
Are you taking a lot more cabs lately? If so, you may wish to try Uber and/or Lyft, both ride sharing services staffed by private drivers. You use the app to summon a car, offer the destination, and, when you arrive, the fare is automatically paid using your registered credit card.
When you set up your Uber or Lyft account you will need to include a photo, which helps the driver locate you. Make sure your guide dog or white cane is in the photo, so the driver will know you are sight-impaired before he or she even arrives.
If you thought your reading days were behind you because now you can't even make out large print, think again. Today is a Golden Age for accessible reading. There are more resources now than ever. That latest bestseller your friends are all talking about? The obscure book you heard about on a talk show? You can almost certainly find it available using one of these resources.
The Talking Book Library is the oldest producer of accessible books and magazines. In the past, you called your local NLS library and requested a book. Now you can search the catalog yourself and download a book or magazine anytime you like using the BARD Mobile app, developed for both iOSand Android by the National Library Service of the Library of Congress.
Audible.com provides downloadable recorded books. Their collection currently includes well over 150,000 books and periodicals. Most major titles are available on the same day the printed version is released; many can even be preordered at special prices.
You can purchase Audible books individually or in larger quantities and at a discounted price. The most popular purchase option is to become an Audible Silver or Gold plan member, which includes either one or two book credits per month, along with a subscription to an excerpted daily production of either the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. Members receive occasional free books and special sale pricing on selected book collections.
If you have or can get a library card you probably already have free access to a growing collection of CD audio books you can find on library shelves. But that may just be the start.
Many local libraries are members of OverDrive, a service that provides both audio and text eBooks to libraries, schools, and other institutions. The OverDrive catalog contains nearly two million titles, but you will almost certainly not be able to enjoy the entire collection. This is because libraries must purchase one or multiple copies of each title individually, the same as they would purchase print books or CD audio books. And like other library offerings, you cannot keep copies indefinitely. You have to check them out for a specific number of days or weeks, after which you must either renew or the book becomes unplayable. If another patron is reading the only copy of the book the library has purchased, you will have to add your name to a waiting list, the same as you might for any popular library book.
New model Kindle e-Readers will read books aloud using a Bluetooth speaker or earphones. You can also use an Amazon Echo to have the books read. An even easier way to read Kindle books is to use the mobile apps for iOS and Android. Both are extremely accessible, and you can find nearly any book you want to read in the Amazon Kindle store, often priced at a discount to the print version.
Bookshare is an accessible online library for individuals with print disabilities, including the blind and dyslexic. Currently, the Bookshare collection contains nearly a half million titles, which eligible users can add to their personal libraries and read online. Titles can also be downloaded in either text format or as MP3 audio files.
A Bookshare membership requires verification of your print disability, and costs $50 per year. Downloads are free.
Android users can use the Go Read app to search the Bookshare library, download and read books on their mobile device. Apple iOS users can use the official Bookshare Read2Go app to access Bookshare titles. Another app that does an excellent job accessing Bookshare titles is Voice Dream Reader. This app will also store and speak PDF files, word processing files, spread sheets and other documents in your choice of dozens of different voices you can obtain via in-app purchases.
Check out the August, 2013 issue of AccessWorldfor a thorough review of this handy app.
Even if you can no longer read a newspaper, you can still keep up with all the local and national goings on. The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) offers a free service, NFB-NEWSLINE, that allows eligible recipients to phone a local number and use the phone dial pad to navigate and listen to any of over 300 participating national and local newspapers, magazines, and other news sources. Offerings include such national publications as USA Today, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. Small town papers are also included, ranging from the Aberdeen American News to the Zanesville Times Recorder. Local TV listings are also available.
The best way to read NFB-NEWSLINE publications is with their app. This app also provides TV listings customized to your local cable or satellite service, and local hour-by-hour weather forecasts.
The iPhone App Store offers the NFB-NEWSLINE app, an easy-to-use interface for subscribing to and reading periodicals and TV listings. An Android version of the app is currently not available, but Android users who are Bookshare members can use the Go Read app to download and read NFB-NEWSLINE periodicals.
Regular AccessWorld readers may recall that we offered an in-depth look at the NFB-NEWSLINE service in our 2017 special seniors issue.
Going on a shopping trip? Don't forget your phone. And not because you want to stay in touch while you're out, but because you'll be surprised how much of your shopping you can get done using just your phone. Even groceries can be ordered for delivery in many locales. Check with your favorite supermarket to see if they offer this service yet.
Walmart and Target are among the largest retailers, but when it comes to online shopping, the true giant is Amazon.
Amazon.com apps are available for both iOS and Android, and the company goes a long way to make the shopping experience convenient for all their customers, including those with visual impairments. The apps work extremely well with touch-screen readers, and if you do have a problem, help is available directly through the app. The Help tab includes controls to have an Amazon customer service tech give you a call—callbacks are nearly instant. But wait—as they say on TV—there's more. Recently Amazon.com introduced a separate dedicated disability hotline, which your device will only show if you are running a touch-screen reader. You can also reach the help desk by calling 1-888-283-1678.
eBay started out as an auction site where individuals go to buy and sell. Over the years it has spawned a small business revolution, and these days nearly anything from anchovy paste to zebra-print pillows can be found and purchased using eBay. Again, the iOS and Android apps are quite accessible. If you are a registered PayPal user, purchases are even easier because you can "Buy Instantly," with a single double tap.
You may have used the Secondary Audio Channel (SAP) control on your TV to play video with audio description. Many of these same videos, and more, are also available to be rented, purchased or streamed using your iOS or Android smartphone. We'll discuss the two most popular services here: Netflix and Prime Videos from Amazon.
Netflix is a subscription service that offers flat fee plans for all the videos you wish to watch. The app can be a bit confusing to navigate at times, but it's well worth the effort. Beginning in mid-2015 with their Marvel's Daredevil series about a blind superhero, Netflix began offering audio description for all of their in-house productions and many third party movies and TV series.
If you are an Amazon Prime customer, not only do you receive free two-day, or even same day delivery on most of your purchases, but you are also subscribed to Prime Music and Prime Videos. Amazon was a bit late to the game, but starting last year they too began offering free audio description for their in-house productions and other content available free via Prime Video, or for titles rented or purchased from Amazon and played using the same accessible Prime Video app.
Both Netflix and Prime Video offer "Language" settings on their player screens. Activate this control, and if audio description is available, it will show up as an option to be selected. You'll only have to do this once. The setting will remain active until you toggle it off.
So What's on Your Home Screen?
In this article we've offered a roll call of some of what we consider the must-have essential apps for your new accessible smartphone. And we've barely scratched the surface.
Your phone can include any number of screens filled with apps. However, you will spend most of your time on your Home screen—the first screen to appear when you power on your smartphone. Pick your favorites from the apps we've discussed here, and you'll be astonished by just how useful that smartphone can be.
- Microsoft Seeing AI: A Quick First Look at this Groundbreaking iOS App by Bill Holton
- Ten Thousand Steps, Cane Not Included: A Guide to Fitness Tech for Blind Users, by Anna Dresner by Deborah Kendrick
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