Deborah Kendrick

I had owned my first iPhone for about a week in 2011 when someone showed me a bit of magic that convinced me that this was a tool I was going to love. That experience was downloading two iPhone apps designed with blind people in mind. One was a light detector. The other (and this truly seemed like a miracle in 2011) could tell whether a piece of paper currency was a $1 or a $20. Blind iPhone users were posting like mad to Facebook and email lists, practically delirious with the newfound freedom of being able to quickly identify the money in your wallet without special folding or mnemonic gymnastics. One friend talked about a staff meeting where people were practically throwing money around on the conference table, giddy with the stunning success of this iPhone app to announce denominations, regardless the condition of the bills, with speed and accuracy.

A year or so later, there was even more buzz from the blind iPhone population when an app called TapTapSee was released. This one could tell you if a shirt was red or blue—or that it was a shirt for that matter. It could tell you that there is a vase of pink and white flowers, there a black and white cat on the sofa, or identify any other random object whose image you captured with your iPhone’s camera. Since that time, like everything else in the world of technology, those apps designed to provide visual assistance for blind people have evolved with the proverbial speed of wildfire, and many are accentuating independence and efficiency for blind and low vision people in ways we only fantasized about a decade ago.

Today, there are so many apps in the visual assistance category that knowing about them all or identifying which ones are the most appropriate match for your needs is next to impossible.

Once again, Judy Dixon and National Braille Press have solved that problem for the rest of us with a book that explores and evaluates many of the current visual assistance apps, guiding us through the process of choosing and using the apps that will best suit our individual needs.

What Visual Assistance Apps Can Do

If you are new to the realm of visual assistance delivered by your iPhone, here are some of the kinds of information you can get. You can find out what an object is (is that a tree or a car sitting in front of your house? A blue tie or a brown one in your closet?) Or, if you just want to know the color of something, there are a multitude of apps for that as well. You can identify money, packages, business cards, and bar codes. You can get a description of the scene around you (waiting room with upholstered chairs) and even a bit about a person sitting across the aisle from you on the train (boy with dark skin, about 10 years old, smiling).

If you need a bit more information, you can talk to a live human being. With just your iPhone’s camera, you can get help finding that blueberry you dropped on the rug, assembling a color coordinated outfit, reading the instructions to start using your cool new headset right away, or locating your own luggage on the airport carousel.

These are just a few of the skills and just a few of the apps available to make life easier for blind and low vision iPhone users. To explore them all would be a daunting, if not impossible, task, yet that is exactly what Judy Dixon has done and done so well for us in this new book.

All In the Details

In her typically thorough-yet-concise style, Dixon has assembled an excellent sampling of the visual assistance apps currently available. For each app, she tells you the name, the developer, the price, the amount of space it requires and, best of all, a basic step-by-step tutorial for using it. She uses consistent testing methods to keep her evaluations as fair as possible. For example, she uses the same three objects to test several apps on color identification accuracy, for example, and the same physical items for comparing apps that identify objects. Every blind iPhone user knows the time involved in learning each new function with VoiceOver. Here, the author saves the rest of us countless hours by doing the exploring for us and identifying exactly what can be found on a given screen. She tells you that a given button is in the lower left or upper right corner, for example, so that you already have an idea of an app’s layout before you even give it a try.

She provides clear explanations of the two popular apps that offer interaction with live agents (Be My Eyes and Aira), and gives some guidance from personal experience on using them effectively.

What Is Not Included

New apps providing visual assistance may well be emerging minutes after you buy this book. One category of apps, those for scanning documents, for example, are deliberately not included. Many of the apps that are included, however, have the capability of capturing and interpreting short bits of text such as package labels, business cards, addresses on envelopes, and handwritten notes, but not larger documents. The author explains that a more detailed exploration of scanning apps was beyond the intended scope of this book.

Who Should Read This Book?

If you are just curious about apps that provide visual assistance to blind iPhone users, you will find this book incredibly informative. If you are a new iPhone user, just beginning your exploration of the power of apps, this book will be your indispensable guide. Even if you are an experienced iPhone user, you may find some surprises in Dixon's book.

Did you know, for example, that there is one money identifier that can identify up to 42 kinds of currency? And did you know that there is a money identifier the names currency with vibrations as well as spoken words, enabling those with hearing difficulties to “read” their money? Have you wondered which of the many apps that proclaim to recognize color are actually reliable?

I’m not going to tell you the answers to those questions here, but you will find them and many more amazing facts in this book. You will find a brief but compelling discussion of how visual assistance apps merge with every philosophy of blindness, and why Judy Dixon has a pet hippopotamus.

Sure, that last bit was a wee bit of humor. Read this fabulous little book and you will get the joke! Even better, you will get a clear and informative guided tour through the many available apps that offer visual assistance.

Getting Visual Assistance from Your iPhone, by Judy Dixon, is being released for sale on Jun 15. Get it in hardcopy braille, one volume, or as a download in BRF, DAISY text, or a Word document. For information or to purchase contact National Braille Press, 88 St. Stephen Street, Boston, MA 02115; Visit their website; or call 800-548-7323.

This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.

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