"I have seen a lot of technology for the blind, and I can safely say that the iPhone represents the most revolutionary thing to happen to the blind for at least the last 10 years."
That's what Austin Seraphin wrote last June, describing the experience of using his new iPhone and its VoiceOver feature to read tweets, check stock prices and surf the web.
Most iPhone users probably aren't even aware of VoiceOver, a powerful screen reader built into every iPhone (and Macs too). But what's special about its implementation on the iPhone is that it is gesture-based - one tap selects and reads an item; a double tap "touches" it; and a three-finger flick is used to scroll. Here's Seraphin recounting one of the moments that came when he and his mum were in the Apple Store making the purchase:
I continued to excitedly ask questions, as did my mum. "Can he get text messages on this?" she asked. "Well, yes, but it doesn't read the message." the salesman said. Mom's hopes sunk, but mine didn't, since I understood the software enough. "Well, let's see, try it." I suggested. She pulled out her phone, and sent me a text message. Within seconds, my phone alerted me, and said her name. I simply swiped my finger and it read her message: Hi Austin. She almost cried.
While iTunes, Seraphin explains, is still woefully inaccessible (especially on the Linux machine he uses), the iPhone's promise for the blind and visually impaired is multiplied by apps. Many, he says, follow Apple's accessibility guidelines, but one in particular gave him a glimpse into a world he had literally never seen before:
The other night, however, a very amazing thing happened. I downloaded an app called colour ID. It uses the iPhone's camera, and speaks names of colours....
I have never experienced this before in my life. I can see some light and colour, but just in blurs, and objects don't really have a colour, just light sources. When I first tried it at three o'clock in the morning, I couldn't figure out why it just reported black. After realizing that the screen curtain also disables the camera, I turned it off, but it still have very dark colours. Then I remembered that you actually need light to see, and it probably couldn't see much at night. I thought about light sources, and my interview I did for Get Lamp. First, I saw one of my beautiful salt lamps in its various shades of orange, another with its pink and rose colours, and the third kind in glowing pink and red... I felt stunned.
The next day, I went outside. I looked at the sky. I heard colours such as "Horizon," "Outer Space," and many shades of blue and grey. I used colour queues to find my pumpkin plants, by looking for the green among the brown and stone. I spent ten minutes looking at my pumpkin plants, with their leaves of green and lemon-ginger. I then roamed my yard, and saw a blue flower. I then found the brown shed, and returned to the grey house. My mind felt blown. I watched the sun set, listening to the colours change as the sky darkened.
Seraphin's account is one of the most profound and touching stories detailing the intersection of humanity and technology that I've come across in some time, and you should definitely read it in full over on his site, Behind the Curtain. I'm continually amazed at how much information my iPhone makes accessible to me, but for some other users, the revelations it contains are even greater. [Behind the Curtain via Cult of Mac]