cell phone user with her dog guide

If, prior to your visual impairment, you had experience using a touchscreen smartphone or tablet as a sighted user, you know that telephone functionality barely scratches the surface of the capabilities offered by these devices. Along with making and receiving calls, you probably also used your device to read and compose e-mails, listen to music, consult your calendar, check the local weather, or do a bit of web browsing. And these are just the functions that come pre-installed on every touchscreen device.

These days, mobile devices have become more or less full-fledged computers. They can run third-party programs not originally installed on the device, called apps, and an overwhelming majority of these apps can be used with screen magnification, and are accessible with built-in screen readers.

Let's discuss these apps in two somewhat overlapping categories: those created for the general public, which may or may not be of interest to you, and those developed specifically for users with visual impairments.

Mobile Apps for Everyone

Here is just a tiny taste of the hundreds of thousands of apps you can download and install on your mobile device:

  • Facebook: You can access your Facebook account directly from your mobile device, post updates, upload photos, and chat with friends.
  • Netflix: You can watch videos via your Netflix account on your mobile device. The mobile app allows you to search and select what you want to watch accessibly.
  • Kindle: You can read almost any book you would like on your mobile device using the Kindle app and your device's screen reader. "Almost all new books are published in the Kindle format, which you can purchase from Amazon. The Kindle can also play audio books from Audible.
  • Games: Mobile games are rapidly edging past TV console games in popularity. Doubtless you have already heard of Angry Birds and Candy Crush; in addition, there are several games, such as Papa Sangre and Audio Archery, that were developed specifically to be enjoyed by gamers with visual impairments.
  • Navigation: You can replace that stand-alone GPS device in your car with a smartphone app that uses the same maps and offers the same turn-by-turn directions. Many also can provide walking directions and mass transit routes and schedules.

Mobile Apps Designed for People with Visual Impairments

The mobile platform has been a great boon for developers of accessible devices, as it allows them to forego the design and manufacture of special-purpose hardware that must be priced dearly in order to recoup costs with limited sales. Apps allow the same or even greater functionality, and apps can be improved and updated regularly.

Many of the apps developed specifically for people with visual impairments fall into one of three categories:

  • Navigation: As mentioned earlier, anyone with a smartphone can benefit from a commercially available navigation or mapping app. But some developers have taken the extra step to create apps that provide additional audible announcements and thus become even more useful for cane or dog users. These apps can provide information such as the names of and distances to upcoming streets and intersections, business names, and addresses as you pass them, along with the distance remaining and direction to your destination.
  • Identification: If you don't want to over tip the pizza delivery person, you can install and use one of the several currency identification apps that can quickly tell you if that bill in your hand is a $5 or a $50. Color identifier and light sensor apps can help you stay more in touch with your environment, so at least you will be aware that you are sitting in the dark decked out in orange slacks and a purple shirt. Tired of playing pantry roulette, where you never really know what is in that can until you open it? Use the TapTapSee app to send out a photo, and in a few seconds you will know if you're holding a can of beans or corned beef hash.
  • Reading: As we mentioned earlier, Kindle books from Amazon.com can be read on your touch device using either screen magnification or the screen reader. The BARD Mobile app from the National Library Service also has an app that will let you listen to Talking Books from your regional library service. You can use an app to access Project Gutenberg, a vast repository containing nearly every work of literature available in the public domain. And don't forget to register for Bookshare, a membership service that allows print disabled individuals to search, download, and read for free nearly 200,000 titles, including the latest bestsellers.

Before we go into further detail about these and other useful mobile apps, let's look at which mobile platform and touchscreen device is best suited to your needs and abilities.