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Is the Smart Phone the Interface the Blind had been Waiting for?

This article in the Minnesota Daily describes an app that could significantly aid blind travellers.

The app could indicate not only what street a person is on, but could tell a person when traffic lights have changed and how much time is left to cross the street.

A legitimate concern raised in the article is that, if such an app becomes very popular, there will be less of an incentive to install audible pedestrian signals. This issue is an interesting one that goes well beyond traffic lights, and it is one we are going to have to grapple with over the coming years.

On the one hand, smart phones have the possibility of being an accessible interface to a variety of inaccessible products/services. Here are a few examples that come to mind:

Point of sale devices. There is a growing push for mobile payment solutions. Eventually, I suspect companies, payment processors, consumers, etc will agree on standards, and we will begin to make purchases with our phones. In that case, it would not matter what type of hardware the business is using, the interface would be the phone, and it would be the same interface whether you're purchasing a stereo from a big-box store, a meal from a restaurant, or a ride in a taxi. So even if the POS device itself provides no audio or tactile feedback, a deaf blind person could use a bluetooth braille display paired with her iPhone to make the transaction entirely independently.

Bus stop signs. Likewise, as transit systems begin incorporating smart bus technology, we are seeing the proliferation of signs that continuously update passengers at bus stops about when the next bus is going to arrive. As far as I know, these signs offer no audio or tactile output. The same information, however, can easily be made available through an app on a person's smart phone.

Cooking thermometers. One other example worth discussing, because the product is available today, is the iGrill cooking thermometer. This device connects with the iPhone via bluetooth, and using an app, you can monitor the temperature of meat while it's cooking and set an alarm to indicate when the meat has reached a particular temperature. The iGrill device itself does not include audio or tactile feedback allowing a blind person to do what I just mentioned, but the iPhone interface does make this possible.

I won't elaborate on any more of these, but off the top of my head, here are a few other situations where the smart phone could serve as an accessible interface to and otherwise inaccessible one: TV remotes, set top boxes, home thermostats, exercise equipment, household products like ovens, washers, and microwaves, bank machines, airport kiosks, restaurant menus, and one that I hadn't thought of until reading the Minnesota Daily article, traffic lights. I'm sure there are dozens of other examples like this.

Way back, I said "on the one hand"; now, for the other hand: all of this requires that a blind or deaf blind person own a smart phone and know how to operate it proficiently. It also requires that app developers create accessible apps, but I'll leave that aside in this discussion.

I'm a huge proponent of universal design, and a system that requires a special device (e.g., a smart phone) is not one designed in accordance with the principles of universal design. So I am uncomfortable with the possibility of creating inaccessible products like POS devices, bust stop signs, and cooking thermometers, and then facilitating access to these things through smart phones.

That said, this does seem to be a trend, and it has the potential to provide a level of access, at least for a subset of blind and deaf blind people, that I have never seen before. Technologically speaking, it seems like it would be easier to take a wide variety of hardware interfaces (e.g., set top boxes, exercise equipment, home thermostats) and integrate them into the already accessible iPhone than it would be to make all of those hardware interfaces themselves accessible. I'm not saying we should take the easier path; I'm only pointing to one reason why we might see this trend continue and why it could potentially lead to tremendous access to a wide variety of products and services.

I suspect, and I hope I'm wrong, that blind and deaf blind people who are unwilling or unable to acquire and learn to use smart phones are going to find, over the next five to ten years, that they have less access to the world around them than do there smart-phone-using counterparts. I do not believe that a blind person should be required to use a smart phone to access information that a sighted person can access without one, but I do think smart phones are very powerful tools, particularly for blind people, and it's in a blind person's interest to try to acquire one and learn to use it.

Please leave us a comment if you have anything to say on this issue.


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I have a blind friend that borrows the smartphone I got from bell ( all the time for the voice map functions.

I am of a similar view. While I don't think manufacturers of third-party products such as thermostats, set-top boxes or microwaves ought to intentionally rely on the iPhone or the iPad or an Android app to provide accessibility features to their products, this may be a reasonable stop-gap measure to provide access in at least some circumstances.

For example, manufacturers of set top boxes cry that it isn't possible to make those accessible. But these boxes typically have Ethernet jacks (network cables), and I would bet a furry kitten that they could conceivably serve up HTML over a local area network just fine. So if you can't make the box accessible itself, why not provide an alternative control interface that is HTML-based, which people could access from their PC or accessible smart phone? Sure it might seem a bit kludgy to go to a web page to program your PVR, but why can't it work? It would enable at least a subset of people to control the things... Maybe not every person will have a PC or accessible smart phone, but it would be a move in the right direction if going "all the way" isn't plausible in the short term.