A Note to the Mainstream Media: Yes, Blind People Can Actually Use Touchscreens

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Over the last couple years, I’ve come to a conclusion about life as a blind person: it isn’t the physical lack of sight that’s the biggest difficulty I face; but rather, it is attempting to overcome peoples’ negative stereotypes and misconceptions about what I can—and cannot—do that is the real problem.

When I think of situations where negative stereotypes about blind people come into play, the use of technology isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. I tend to think about education, or employment, or parenting long before I think of access to the latest and greatest tech. But, as a recent Wired article about a new Braille-writing app demonstrated, misconceptions still abound about what technology blind people are able to gainfully use.

The article, published on January 23, 2015, was written about a new iPad app called iBrailler Notes. The app, which allows users to type notes on their iPad using Braille, was just recently released on the App Store. iBrailler’s main selling point is a "Dynamic Keyboard"—a feature which adjusts the position of the Braille keyboard each and every time you place your fingers on the screen. .

It’s always great to see mainstream media outlets reporting on news impacting the visually impaired, because these stories often educate the public about just how much empowerment blind people can have through the use of assistive technology. What isn’t so great, however, is when journalists get very important details wrong and thus inaccurately represent a story—and therein lies my motivation for writing this post.

In the first paragraph of the Wired article, which was subsequently amended on 2/3/2015, the author stated that it is "nearly impossible" for blind people to use devices with touchscreens:

The proliferation of touchscreen technology may have revolutionized mobile computer input for most everyone, but there’s one sector of the population that isn’t exactly feeling the pinch, the tap, or the swipe: the blind. It’s nearly impossible to interact with elements on a totally smooth screen if you can’t see.

Put simply, the author’s "facts" are completely inaccurate. Thanks to Apple’s excellent implementation of VoiceOver screen-reading technology, blind users are able to fully and independently utilize the touchscreens on their devices.

Need to find a specific app on your home screen? No problem! Either flick left or right with one finger and listen to VoiceOver read the app names as you pass them; or you can just move your finger around the screen to get an idea of the layout.

Want to send an e-mail? You got it! Your options include using the touchscreen keyboard in three different typing modes; built-in Braille Screen Input; Handwriting Mode; and of course, dictation. (That’s another thing that gets on my nerves: dictation is not the be-all-and-end-all solution for text entry on an iOS device if you are blind.)

iOS isn't for you? Have no fear! It’s possible to use a touchscreen on an Android device as well, even if the experience isn’t as polished as it is on iOS.

Oh, and about those gestures that blind people supposedly can’t "feel": not only can blind users tap, pinch, and swipe; we can two-, three-, and four-finger double-tap; we can write Braille with Apple’s built-in Braille keyboard feature; and we can even use Handwriting Mode if we so desire.

For being "nearly impossible" to use, Apple’s touchscreen-equipped devices are popular with blind people the world over. Android, while not as accessible as iOS, also has blind people using touchscreen devices. It’s even possible to use touchscreen Windows 8.1 computers with screen reading software. The only mobile phone platform blind people don’t have access to is BlackBerry, but who really uses that in 2015, anyway?

It is worth noting that not all touchscreen technology is currently accessible to blind people. As one of my readers pointed out, point-of-sale systems, ATM machines, and any other touchscreen-equipped devices that do not have speech output are not useable by blind people without sighted assistance. However, blind people do have the capability to use touchscreen devices if appropriate assistive technology solutions are implemented—a point the author conveniently failed to mention in the article.

Further down in the article, the author contradicts herself by stating, correctly, that the iPad was completely accessible to blind users from day one—thanks to VoiceOver. And yes, that includes the "nearly impossible" task of finding elements on that smooth, glass touchscreen. In fact, that smooth, glass touchscreen was made accessible when the iPhone 3Gs was released in June 2009—well before the iPad’s 2010 launch.

In today’s era of sensational journalism, I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised that Wired got one of the most fundamental details of Apple’s accessibility efforts so horribly wrong. And yet, I still am. Furthermore, I’m disappointed that a major mainstream news source chose to perpetuate factually inaccurate information about blind people, even though it’s clear from my reading of the article that some research was done on the topic. I’m disappointed because the subtle message sent in the article is that blind people can't use touchscreen technology, even though all the available evidence suggests just the opposite. And I’m disappointed because, in all likelihood, there will be people who actually accept the Wired article as fact—and there is probably very little I can do to change that. If nothing else, at least I can go to sleep tonight knowing that I did my part to set the record straight.

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24 Comments

#1 Interesting.

I find it interesting that the person who wrote the very silly article, did not respond to the comments in the comment section about voiceover.

#2 Good on ya for publishing this!

Hi! You did the right thing by publishing this blog entry, Michael, I think so anyway: it's definitely a good thing to expose the unnecessary ignorance of some mainstream journalists. I haven't read the article you refer to, but, from what you say, I can agree with you that this is definitely a bad case of a journalist getting facts wrong. Admittedly, blind people are probably only a small percentage of the i-device-using market, or of the mobile phone and tablet market in general, but the fact that three different mobile platforms, IOS, Android and Windows 8.1, can all be used successfully by blind people is proof that blind people were definitely not incapable of using touch-screen phones or tablets before the new iBraille app for the iPad came along, or before braille screen input and dictation arrived on all i-devices, come to that.

#3 Windows 8.1

App Developer

I want to make note that screen readers will not work on Windows 8.1 phones. The OS they use is Windows 8.1 RT which has most of the accessibility layers pulled out to save space on the device. In fact, the Surface tablet has Windows 8.1 RT installed. Therefore, narrator is not available. It is only with Surface pro, pro 2, and pro 3 where Windows 8.1 standard is included. JAWS (the referenced news release) can work on these devices. Unfortunately, Windows 8.1 phones use a more restricted version of Windows 8.1 called Windows 8.1 for mobile, or Windows 8.1 phone for short. This is a subset of features found in Windows 8.1 RT, and again, does not include the accessibility layers and narrator. Therefore, the only mobile phones available to blind users is IPhone and Droid.

#4 Partially agree

I agree, the way the reporter described how revolutionary this app is was a bit silly. I do however disagree with the fact that we haven't been effected by the widespread use of touch screens, which is the impression I am getting from your blog post. More and more everyday things are gaining these screens, and it can sometimes prevent us from doing everyday tasks. Ovens, debit card readers, and coffee makers being just a few of the examples. And even if we're referring to just mobile phones and tablets, we still don't have the same freedom of choice. We have apple, android, which although it has many great apps, the accessibility isn't nearly as good, and if you get the wrong kind of android phone, the custom UI carriers put on could make it almost unusable, and blackberry, which has a primitive screen reader. I'm not familiar with the accessibility of windows phone 8. So I guess my point is yes, apple has made huge strides in revolutionizing access to touchscreen devices, however touchscreens haven't really been the best thing for people who are blind over all.

#5 Sorry, I misread something above!

Apologies for my mistake in my previous post! I read in the blog entry above that Windows 8.1 computers with touch screens can be used with Narrator, and mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that Windows 8.1 phones worked with Narrator too! Although I was wrong about that, it's possible that Windows 10 phones might work with Narrator, as I gather, from what I've read recently, that Microsoft is trying to make its interface similar on all its devices. Whether that's the case in the future or not, it still doesn't alter the fact that blind people already have choice when it comes to touch-screen devices, and that they can choose to use any such device if it has been made accessible, so any claim that touch-screens are impossible for blind people to use is definitely untrue.

#6 great blog post!

Great blog post as always! As for this Wired article...Gotta love bad journalism. I don't think the author even knows about VoiceOver, or iOS 8's implementation of braille input. Pretty sad really. It's like she completely ignored it when people mentioned VoiceOver.

#7 touch screens

the largest area that blind people have been impacted negatively from an accessibility point of view are the touch screen ATM machines being used by most merchants. I was at a retailer where this was being used, and had a very bad experience. Unfortunately, the retailer did not have the older debit machine, and it was either dictating to the assistant my pin code, or pay by cash. Given that I didn't carry enough cash on me on hand, I was unable to make the purchase as I refuse to tell an assistant my pin. This is a very troubling trend and I shutter to think what will happen when it becomes even more mainstream.

#8 You should tell whired about this blog post

Hi. Did you leave a comment with a link to this blog post on that whired article? If not, you should.

#9 Nice Blog Post

This is another nice blog post, and it's partially why I've come to rely on AppleVis so much for help with my Mac. Although I've never owned an i-device I did get to test one out recently. I was emailed by a tech professor and one of her PhD. students at a well-known local university, and they asked me if I'd be willing to help out with an experiment they were conducting with regards to these touch-screen devices. I probably can't say much more than that, but it was rather interesting nonetheless. I haven't heard from them though for a little while, so they must have either abandoned the whole idea or something. I know that the student didn't graduate yet, as this was only a year ago. Now that I think about it, some of the Braille labels fell off my microwave and I've had very little if any trouble at all trying to press the right buttons. I'm going to discuss this with my parents next weekend though and try to get the label gun back, when I'm home for my birthday celebration with the family. Regarding the Wired article, I think it just goes to show how much educating still has to be done by those of us who use assistive technology and I think Apple products specifically.

#10 thoughts

Actually Narrator is on Windows RT and Windows phone 8.1. So yes WP is another option. While it isn't as feature rich as iOS, it's good that the choice is available. I'm hoping they improve it in Windows 10.

I also agree that it's not fair to say touch screens haven't had a negative impact on our lives as blind people. Sure mobile screen readers are awesome, but they don't exist on a lot of the devices that are increasingly using touch screens. Redbox anyone? Not to mention the point of sale machines. That is something I think all the blindness organizations need to fight to effect some change with. I don't always like whispering my pin to a friend if I'm with them, or having to tell it to the person behind the counter.

Anyone else seen the awesomeness that is Coke Freestyle machines? I like to jokingly say they're the second best thing ever invented after iPods. They have a zillion different flavors of sodas in them and you can mix them up if you want. Their only drawback? Yep, a touch screen, therefore, I have to get the person behind the counter to fill up my cup, and do it again if I want a refill.

When I lived on campus at college, they rebuilt the dorms a couple years ago, and with them came a high tech cafeteria. They have touch screen kiosks where you select what you want, and then you swipe your student ID to finalize your order. That meant I had to get the person in the little store to come out and read me the menu and make my selections for me. I used to say they should have a smart phone app you could use to make your order, but one of my friends who works there thinks students would just abuse it and give their friends free food. She took me shopping one day and I had to use one of those point of sale touch screens, and she finally realized why I didn't like the touch screens in the cafeteria. Her comment was "I don't think they thought that one all the way through."

Is it a huge deal? Not really, but it's 2015.

#11 In the UK.

They have talking ATM's. I know this isn't new but for the UK it kind of is. They started in 2012 I believe and are working great. Most Barclay's ATM's talk and I'm writing to them to tell them to make the coin machines in Barclay's branches talk too.

#12 Re: Windows 8.1

App Developer

Actually ... Windows RT has all of the same accessibility layers as does Windows 8.1, and Narrator is included in Windows RT. What Windows RT 8.1 does not support is third party screen readers, as a check buried deep in the kernel only allows code to be run if it's signed with a certificate issued by Microsoft, as Windows Store apps are.

#13 Inaccessible Kiosks

I have occasionally run into those inaccessible kiosks too. Back in about 2006 my life-skills tutor and I ordered a window air-conditioner online for my bedroom. I was still living in a downstairs apartment in this building at the time. Anyway, when we went to pick up the unit we encountered one of those inaccessible kiosks. The cashier who was checking us out needed my PIN, and so my tutor showed me to the device. He had only been working with me for a few months at the time, so he was unaware I couldn't use the thing. So I told him and he put in my PIN, and we drove back to the apartment. I am now living in an upstairs apartment in the same building, but that air-conditioner came up with me. In addition, whenever we do my grocery shopping and I don't use Peapod, my tutor has to operate the self check-out machine because it's inaccessible. It talks, but it's still inaccessible. Fortunately though, we have built up trust in each other since we've been working together ever since. But still, it would be great if these kiosks could be made accessible like at some of the drugstore chains.

#14 Thanks for the Feedback

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

All,

Thanks for your constructive feedback. I've Incorporated it into the blog post, indicating that for a touchscreen to be accessible there must be speech output and an appropriate assistive technology solution implemented.

Though I think we can all agree that certain touchscreen solutions are horribly inaccessible, I still think that the author seriously meant that blind people *could not* use touchscreens, AT-equipped or not. How anyone could come to such a conclusion is beyond me.

#15 How I took the article

The article author probably believes that, now that this braille app is out, those nasty touchscreens on the iPad and iPhone are now accessible to blind users. Obviously this isn't the case, and hasn't been for about 5 years now or so. Talk about being out of date!

#16 Tip re: inaccessible POS Systems

First off, very good response to the article and I do agree that it is sad how much educating still has to be done about what we can and cannot do. I am forcibly reminded of the Android Talkback reviews posted in the Play store that say how horrible it is because if accidentally enabled, it is such an awful application because it makes their touch screen unusable, reads everything etc. Luckily, there are some made by blind people correcting such inaccuracies, but they are unfortunately buried in all the incorrect reviews. Enabling Talkback isn't easily done by accident, but I digress... What I really posted to say is this. If you have a debit card and encounter one of those pesky touch screen POS systems, hand the cashier your card and kindly ask him or her to run the card as credit. You don't have to provide your PIN and it is no different than making a debit transaction, except that, in most cases, credit transactions take a couple days to clear instead of merely instantaneously as is the case with a debit transaction. I was really surprised somebody else didn't mention this, so I hope I have alleviated this worry for quite a few people. You can of course swipe your card yourself, but I prefer to let the cashier do it because I always slide it the wrong way.

#17 who uses BlackBerry these days?

Tens of millions of people use BlackBerry these days. And there has been a screen reader available for legacy BlackBerry devices for years, and the current generation of BlackBerry devices ship with a Screen Reader.

#18 wired article

I did read the article, and maybe I missed something. I think that the purpose of the article was to make the general public aware of some of the devices that are available for the blind. I did not take offence, because there are touch screen devices which render products and services useless for the blind community.

For example; I have a security system in my home. It is equipped with a key pad, with real keys. I was considering replacing it until I was informed that the new systems have a touch screen which does not offer voice assistance. To top it off, they don’t plan on offering such a device.

The fact that we have to jump through hoops to perform simple tasks, unless it is something that the mainstream can use, is very frustrating.

#19 Didn't find this offensive

I think the sobriquet "Sensational journalism" is a bit harsh, Michael. In fact I would say this article is more sensational than the one you critique, though I don't mean that in a nasty way. It is important to understand how difficult it is for sighted people, journalists included, to grapple with the idea that we can do certain things. When I look back six or seven years, before the 3GS in 2009, I thought it would be impossible for us to use an iPhone, and I'm a blind person. I can well understand, even if you have read about the subject, why it still might be difficult to get your head round, hence the first paragraph. Of course, a good journalist should write a first paragraph that tells the whole story, so that people need only read the first paragraph to get a sense of it, but to be honest if you were reading about something like this you would I imagine read more than the first paragraph anyway. it can't be compared with a political or other current affairs article, where you might only read the first paragraph. This sort of thing either interests you or it doesn't. Having said that, you were absolutely right to make the corrections you did, which I thought were posted on her blog in a fair and reasonable way.

This journalist should write a follow up on touchscreen technology though, definitely. Even restaurants have touchscreen menus in some cases now (I was in one in Osaka recently). Ovens, boilers, educational equipment such as projectors in lecture theatres, all of these have touchscreens and I haven't seen a single one with speech output. This is a huge issue; it really is.

On the point about talking ATMs, we do have them in the UK yes, but only Barclays machines I believe. I'm very glad we do have them, but the fact remains that there is only one ATM I can use independently on Barnet High Street, despite the proliferation of cash machines on that magnificent thoroughfare. it's a ten-minute walk from my home to that ATM, and absurdly that walk takes me past at least three perfectly functionint but sadly silent ones. To quote the great Tony hancock: "Stone me, what a life!"

I shan't go on anyhow or else I'll be on talking buses and way off topic.

#20 Actually...

Just to be clear here, the Wired article is NOT in any way talking about touchscreens in general (POS etc). It is very specifically talking about touchscreens on mobiles:

"The proliferation of touchscreen technology may have revolutionized mobile computer input for most everyone, but there’s one sector of the population that isn’t exactly feeling the pinch, the tap, or the swipe: the blind."

In fact the opposite is true, according to webaim's annual screenreader surveys, uptake of smartphones was actually notably higher amongst people who are blind than it was in the general population.

She said she is now going to update the first paragraph.

#21 Done

Article amended

#22 Does it really matter?

Hi. I honestly don't think this matters as long as we know that we can use accessible Touchscreen devices. I can use both Apple and Android devices but the person living 2 doors down from me may think just like the person who had written that article. We are in the minority and simply cannot educate everyone but what we can do is advocate for accessibility which will make some people aware of accessibility available in modern smart phones. I can't really say which platform is better as I use both Android and IOS and I can use all features and comon social networking apps along with sending texts and e-mails. In my opinion if you stick to pure Google devices or Samsung! You are ok and other devices should be accessible as most manufacturers have at least Android 4.1 on their device in the worst case senario but latest devices will have at least KK4.4.2 onboard and that was the previous version of the OS.

#23 I Strongly Disagree

Member of the AppleVis Editorial Team

Hello Saqib,

I disagree with your assertion that press inaccuracies (and misconceptions of sighted people, by extension) don't matter, just as long as we ourselves know we can use these devices.

If someone tells me I can't do something simply because I cannot see, and I know they're wrong, shouldn't I do my best to set the record straight? I would feel that, if I were to say nothing to correct these factual inaccuracies, I'd be doing other blind people a disservice by not speaking up about issues I am very familiar with and which I can write knowledgeably about.

Do I expect that I'll be able to educate every person I meet about the abilities of blind people? No. But I'll surely educate more people than I would if I didn't challenge these misconceptions.

#24 Great Job Michael

I cannot agree more! I am typing this on my first truly accessible mobile device, and although I need a lot more practice this stuff can most certainly be done. I never thought I'd be saying that, but here I am. So many great things are possible now for us on these mobile devices, thanks to companies such as Apple who have actually gone out there and done the necessary research to make it happen. All righty then, I think I've had enough iPhone practice for the weekend. Plus, I believe this is my third comment here so y'all have no doubt heard enough from me, lol.