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First Impressions of the Apple iPad from a Blind User

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I dropped by my local Apple store on Sunday to see if the iPad might really be as cool as it sounded.

Well, it's as cool and cooler. I asked the salesman to turn on Voiceover, the built-in screen reader, for me, and he did and handed me the device.

If you're visually impaired and you've gone shopping for home or personal electronics in your life, you already think something is weird here. Screen reader built in? For free? Salesperson who knows it? Knows how to turn it on?

This is not science fiction, this is my actual shopping experience, and this is not the first time I've had such an experience at the Apple store (If you aren't visually impaired, you might think it's kind of normal to go to a store, ask about a product feature that's described on the web site, and have the sales person show it to you. You might even walk out of the store in frustration or disgust if the sales person couldn't figure it out. But we're pretty used to coming up empty-handed.)

OK, so I'll skip a few steps and say I bought an iPad.

Yes, it's an all-touch-screen device. Yes, I've always said that touch screens and blind people don't go together -- it's suggested, usually by slightly dumb people, that I could just memorize where all the icons were and then I could touch the screen at the right spot and get the right thing to happen... Do they really think they could withdraw $100 from an ATM that way? Dial a phone?

But, the iPhone and iPad have an ingenious and delightful interface that actually makes the touch screen a pleasure to use.

There will be a proper, full-featured review of the iPad in AccessWorld soon. These are just the first impressions of a so-far-happy customer.

How does it work?

To get around the screen on the first day, when you don't know where anything is or how it really works, you can explore by swiping your finger across the screen. So, you turn the iPad on (by pressing a "real" button called the home button) and hear the time. Already, a fabulous talking clock! Then, you swipe your finger to the right to hear the date, then again to the unlock button. You can go back the other way by swiping to the left (I presume everything is in reverse for a right-to-left language model, but I've only tried the US English version so far). Once you decide to choose something, which on the first screen is mostly only the unlock button, you swipe across the screen until you land on the thing you want, then double-tap with your finger to activate the button.

While you're exploring the home screen, which is where all the things you can do on the device are listed, you don't need to know where anything is or in what order they are listed. You start swiping, and you'll start with whatever you last did. So, if you had been in the contacts list earlier and then had gone back to the home screen, you would go forward hearing "Notes," "Maps," "Videos," and then you could go backwards through the list and eventually get to the top item. There, you get a sound effect to let you know you've hit the edge.

After using the device a little, you'll learn the physical positions of certain things. On my iPhone, I know where the phone is, where the compass is, and where the clock and battery icons are. So, you tap the spot where you think the item is and Voiceover reads what's there. If it's what you want, you double tap. If you've missed it by a bit, you can swipe across until you find the right thing.

You can explore everything this way, including your playlists in your music app (which they call "iPod") and the keyboard in the Notes application. You can type an entire note by swiping across the keyboard until you find the letter you want, then double-tapping the letter, then swiping forward or back to the next letter.

Life is too short to do many notes that way, and luckily there's an alternative. You can glide your index finger around the screen and Voiceover will say each thing as you pass over it. When you find what you want, you can touch the screen with a second finger, all without lifting up the first finger. This is much faster, but takes some practice.

Of course, if all I want to do is take notes, I have much better options than the iPad. I have a laptop, a BrailleNote,a Victor Reader Stream....

What is it good for?

What I really think I'll do with the iPad is read books, show photographs, watch videos, and surf the Internet. This seems to be a content-consuming device, not a content-creating device. In other words, if I want to write the great American novel, I'll go to my PC with a "real" keyboard, a full-featured screen reader and word processor, and all the bells and whistles. If I want to read my novel after it's published, though, I might do it on this little guy. I sometimes carry my laptop around the house with music playing. Now, I'll do it with the iPad and its much-superior sound quality.

So, what have I done with it so far? I've connected it to my Wi-Fi network and I've synched it with my mac. From there, I transferred my playlists and music files and my photos. The synching was painless.

I have not yet downloaded or read a book -- I did sample the book-reading capability at the store, and it appeared to work well -- the salesperson put me into a book, I explored for a while, then he put me into the text of a chapter so I could be sure the actual text was readable. That's as far as I've gotten.

One of my favorite little dumb features is the screen curtain. I use it on my iPhone. If you tap the screen three times with three fingers together, the screen will go blank. This might save battery... No evidence yet to support this, but it does keep people from looking at what I'm doing. Don't forget to turn it back on if you want to show off your vacation photos!

There is currently 1 comment

Re: First Impressions of the Apple iPad from a Blind User

my daughters teacher has been bringin one of these over for her to play with and she really responds to this i put a donate button on my blog so hopefully one day we will get one - be nice if eventually they had a braille app

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