When she bought her first computer in 1996, Amy Ruell, who is blind, spent around $2,000 - and an additional $3,500 to make it accessible. For years, each phone purchase meant spending hundreds more on separate screen readers.
For decades, assistive technology for blind and visually impaired persons meant expensive add-ons most only received when schools or vocational rehabilitation agencies paid for them.
But the iPhone, according to Ruell, is changing attitudes and expectations about how accessible products can and should function right out of the box and what they should cost.
It's also changing what technologies blind people need to know. "Blind people need to learn how to use a camera," said Ruell. "Whether it's OCR scan-and-read apps, color or currency identifiers, or services such as VizWiz, the iPhone camera has the potential to give blind users unparalleled accessibility."
Ruell is president of the Boston-based Visually Impaired and Blind Users Group (VIBUG), which meets monthly at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In this interview, conducted by phone on November 4, 2011, Ruell discusses the iPhone's popularity among blind and visually impaired people, the need for improved GPS solutions, and the crucial role computer user groups still play for persons with disabilities.
Q. What makes the iPhone so popular among blind users?
A.R.: Apple, with its emphasis on inclusion, has revolutionized our thinking about our rights and how much we should have to pay for accessibility. With the iPhone, it's free. Its screen reader, VoiceOver, is built in. There's growing interest in finding ways to do things so we don't have to rely as much on traditional assistive technologies.Many users are increasingly advocating for having just one device that can do as many things as possible.
Q. Can you give an example?
A.R.: There's a lot of interest in reading from sources such as iBooks, Audible.com, and Bookshare rather than relying on traditional sources such as Learning Ally or Talking Books from the National Library Service. A lot of people still want dedicated book players such as the Victor Reader Stream, but many people want a reader without spending extra money and want the convenience of having a device that can access books from multiple sources.
Q. How Does the iPhone Compare with Dedicated Book Players?
A.R.: It's not just the device but also the growing immediacy of accessible books. I'm a voracious reader (I belong to two book clubs) and want to read books when they come out - when my friends are reading them. That's why I love Bookshare. I don't have much patience waiting for NLS to record a book.
Q. What Technology Would Provide the Most Immediate Benefits to Blind People?
A.R.: I'd say better GPS that enables us to read signs, find locations, and navigate indoors. It's a huge impediment. How well a GPS solution works depends on conditions, location, and what you use. Dedicated devices do a little better than current apps. With the iPhone, I often need two: one for positioning, one for navigation.
Other needs include better standards for rendering illustrations and graphics in textbooks: captions are often insufficient. We could also use more audible menus on appliances such as stoves, refrigerators, and TV set top cable boxes.
Q. What's the Main Limitation with Current GPS Solutions?
A.R.: They're not designed for blind people. We have different needs. Most people don't need to know what street they're coming up to because they can read the sign. We need to know. At its best, GPS only gets you to within 30 feet. It'll say I've arrived at my destination when I still have to go down the hill and take a right. No matter how good it is, GPS is not yet a substitute for good cane or guide-dog travel, but it can be very important.
Q. What is the Biggest Challenge Among Networking Technologies?
A.R.: One challenge is browsing the web with braille devices. Some of the proprietary notetakers are based on technology that's 10 years old. So users often have trouble navigating a site with dynamic content or applets written in Java script. Sometimes, technology is so expensive that people hang onto devices for years even though they no longer meet their needs just because they have made such a huge investment.
Q. What Role Does Price Play in Assistive Technology Development?
A.R.: An increasingly large one. People are no longer willing to spend thousands of dollars for accessible solutions now that Apple has demonstrated that they don't have to. People are willing to buy an app for $4.95. The Sendero Group, for example, made a GPS app for the iPhone. It wasn't expensive, but it's not a full-featured GPS solution. Assistive technology vendors are now wrestling with how much they can invest in products they can only charge a few dollars for. They must think about universal design, what's applicable to a larger audience, and whether the needs of blind consumers justify devoting significant R&D resources. That dynamic is really coming into play because of the iPhone.
Q. Can an iPhone or iPad Ever Fill All of a Blind Person's Accessibility Needs?
A.R.: I'm not totally onboard yet. I still think for word processing, spreadsheets, and presentation software, you still need Windows. Most of the corporate world is still in Windows. I use Microsoft Word, Excel, Power Point, Outlook, and a Windows-based phone interface called Avia. If I had a Mac, I could not do my current job.
Q. What Role Do Computer User Groups Play?
A.R.: In a few words, training and support. I've seen so much computer equipment given to people who never learn to use it. That's a real problem. Most blind people can't afford training. It may be available through government agencies or vocational rehabilitation, but that only helps a small percentage of users. And even if you get training, it's often two days of cramming. If your home computer isn't configured the same way as the one you learned on, attaining even basic proficiency is difficult.
Q. How Does VIBUG Help?
A.R.: One of the most valuable services VIBUG meetings provide is a Q&A session. Somebody usually has the answer to your question. And if they don't, members can still offer suggestions, strategies, and even phone support to find solutions.