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10 Years of the iPhone: Witnessing the Start of a Revolution

I was born in 1984, during a time when integration (which later became known as "inclusive education") was becoming more common, but not yet the norm for blind children in Canada. Despite the fact that I was the only blind child - or person - my family had ever encountered, I was raised in a very supportive environment. My parents ensured that I had access to all the specialized instruction I would need, above and beyond regular school subjects, to support my independence. This meant I learned how to use all the popular assistive technologies of the day. I learned how to use braille (which meant, I had access to true literacy). I learned how to use a white cane (despite my initial protests in the midst of the Canadian winters – because “cough cough, I’m too sick for cane lessons today, mom!”)

I was raised during a time when the world was shifting from a period when the internet was not yet commonplace for most households, to a time when everyone became hooked. When I was young, we didn't have "smart" anything. We played with Slinkies, and huge coloured chalks on the driveway, and we collected Trolls, played Game Boy and Nintendo. The CCTV (video magnifier television) that I used to magnify print was so big and clunky that it needed to be transported from class to class on a trolley with the help of a teacher or a group of fellow students. I got my first computer, merely to assist with school writing, in grade 5. The background was blue with white font (WordPerfect, anyone?). The screen reader was the most horrible robotic sounding thing ever, but at the time, it was often the difference between some access -- and none, and I loved it. My family got the internet when I was 16, and graduating from high school. I can remember the loud beeping and crackling of the old modem, which meant we had no access to the phone line whenever one of us was online, and which made it very heart-wrenching in the late hours of the night when I wanted to sneak onto the computer to “chat on MSN” rather than sleep!

The internet gave me the ability to do a lot that would have been much more complicated to accomplish without sight. It meant that I could research for information and articles online for school projects, rather than needing sighted assistance to comb through print books in the library. It meant that I could scan print books onto my computer and use my screen reader to access them without needing a sighted volunteer to read them onto tape all the time. Yep, tape. Because that was a thing, Millennials.

You see, it was never truly my blindness that disabled me. Not really. It was the environment. It was the fact that technology, and public places, and society was – and still is - designed for a sighted world, and this maintains barriers for those of us who don’t fit into the narrow definition of what it means to be a participating citizen. Think of it this way: If I had access to a braille menu at a restaurant, for example, I wouldn’t need it to be read by someone else, and the disabling impact of my blindness would be eliminated. We, as a society, have a lot of collective power to eliminate disability by changing the ways in which our communities, and the things we build within those communities, are constructed to privilege some and disable others.

Though it wasn’t accessible to the blind at first, it was the iPhone, and more specifically Apple’s commitment to universal design, that truly revolutionized so much for me, and for many other blind users. 10 years ago, technology shifted from a force that attempted to level the playing field, to one that propelled us into an era that began to redefine everything.

Let me tell you what I can do with my iPhone or iPad.

Using VoiceOver (the built-in screen reader – which, by the way, sounds much more human then synthesizers of the past), I can access apps that allow me to update my calendar, make note of reminders, send and receive text messages, send, read and manage email, surf the internet, participate in social media, browse YouTube, play games, take pictures that can be described to me, take pictures of text that can be recognized and read aloud to me instantly, access accessible eBooks that are available on the release date (rather than needing to wait for them to be produced into an accessible format), jot down notes on the go without needing to whip out anything else – and the list goes on and on.

Apple set a standard which assures that all their built-in apps meet accessibility requirements, and although we have further to go, we’ve also come a long way. Not all books and third-party apps, for example, are accessible. Those of you who are app developers – is your app accessible? If not, get with the program!

This is all based on universal design – the concept that if you make things accessible from the start, you increase inclusion not only for people with disabilities, but for everyone. Sure, SIRI is a tool which many blind people use, but so do the sighted. Ever ask SIRI a question as your driving because your hands aren’t free? Yep, exactly. Universal design makes economic sense too. From my perspective, I don’t need to only rely on expensive, third-party accessibility software that costs thousands of dollars when companies commit to ensuring that such features are built into the product design. I can go to a store and try a computer or new smartphone right then and there by using a command to activate the screen reader – something that was utterly impossible 10 years ago. And from the perspective of companies and designers, it expands your customer base, especially when you consider that age-related vision loss is on the rise and expected to increase exponentially in the coming decades.

As a braille user, I can hook up a refreshable braille display and have instant access to braille on any computer with a screen reader. This means that a book that would have been 10 volumes in braille can now be read using a small and portable braille device. Many of these braille devices are still very expensive, but we’re also beginning to see low-cost braille solutions which means that it is very exciting to be a braille user in the 21st century.

I can use an accessible GPS app to give me directions as I travel across the city, that will read street names, confirm my location and even allow me to FaceTime with someone if I’m not quite sure where I am.

The iPhone may be a fun toy for many. It may have even changed a lot in your lives. But for me, as a blind person, the iPhone – and other devices like it that put inclusion at the forefront –propelled me into an era of greater choice, flexibility, access, equality and possibility.

I applaud all companies that recognize that universal design doesn’t only make sense, it shatters barriers and – for me – has completely revolutionized the future. And we must continue to hold designers accountable.

Happy 10 year anniversary to the iPhone. Here’s to the next decade and to working collaboratively to breaking down those barriers that still exist.


This blog is curated by the AEBC, but welcomes contributions from members and non-members alike. The thoughts, views, and opinions expressed in the Blind Canadians Blog are those of the contributing authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the AEBC, its members, or any of its donors and partners.
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