Environment & Science

iPhone opens doors for the blind and visually impaired with accessibility features

Julian Vargas, who is legally blind, uses his iPhone to scan the bar code on a package in the grocery store.  The phone then reads him information about the product.
Julian Vargas, who is legally blind, uses his iPhone to scan the bar code on a package in the grocery store. The phone then reads him information about the product.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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The Apple iPhone has featured a touchscreen for years, but that was of little help to the visually impaired until voice commands came along. Now, the iPhone has the audio assistant known as "Siri," and the blind and visually impaired are realizing the iPhone's potential as a visual aid.

Among them is Julian Vargas, who’s been legally blind nearly all his life. He makes his way down Victory Boulevard in Van Nuys. He’s on his way to the supermarket to do some shopping.

"Let’s say... well that feels interesting, I wonder what that is," says Vargas as he feels around a bag to find the seam, where the bar code is usually located.

Vargas used to use a handheld magnifier specially made for the visually impaired — one of many, often expensive tools he carried around. Now he pulls out his iPhone, activated by his voice.

He feels around the touchscreen. The phone reads the icons out loud. He opens a scanning app.

The iPhone says, "Barcode read: Dove smooth milk chocolate; 9.50 ounces; 9.5 ounce bag."

Apple added accessibility features to the iPhone three years ago. Vargas says it’s been a “game changer.”

"It’s making it so that blind people don’t necessarily only have to buy blindness-specific products, which are typically more expensive and generally speaking, are available to most by help from the government," Vargas says. "But those who don’t qualify for that kind of help sort of fall through the cracks. With this, you can have access to a lot of useful functionality only previously found on blindness-specific products, for a lot less."

Vargas says his iPhone can even read paper currency. "You just put it over money."

The iPhone reads, "Five dollars, five dollars. One dollar, one dollar, one dollar." Vargas laughed.

Vargas teaches visually impaired iPhone newbies how to use it to go shopping or get around town. He says most don’t realize how accessible the phone is to the blind.

"You can almost just feel it," Vargas says. "Their eyes widen. You can kind of feel that energy that they suddenly have, like, 'Wow, I can do this! Now I can actually go and do this. Now I can actually participate in that.' You know, it gives them more confidence and also just helps you to feel like you’re part of something.

Vargas added, "For the longest time, as a blind person, there’s just certain things that maybe you couldn’t participate in as readily. You know, when the iPhone first came out, the first two versions of it were not accessible. So everybody’s talking about the iPhone, 'Oh, this is the latest thing.' And we’re sitting on the sidelines. We can’t do anything with it."

At a blind technology conference in Culver City, Brian Albriton, who’s completely blind, shows a visually impaired friend how he connects his Braille Bluetooth keyboard to his iPhone.

"Check this out here," Albriton says. A beep sounds. "And it’s now about ready to interface. Let me just get it to do that. And then, all I do is press a button on the iPhone and move the joystick a couple times. There’s my connect tone. So now we’re connected."

Albriton says he could get around using a special GPS device made for the blind, but the iPhone’s made it easier.

"For instance, if you’re in a cab and you’re wondering, 'Is this guy going where he’s supposed to be?' Well now I can turn on my, have my GPS turned on and be tracking where he’s going. Not too long ago, I told him 741 North Vermont, where I work at Braille Institute, and then I’m checking my GPS and I say, 'Hey buddy, I think you’re going south.' He couldn’t believe it. He says, 'How do you know?'" Albriton laughed. "I said, 'My phone told me!'"

It essentially offers an extra pair of eyes. "That’s why they call it the 'Eye' Phone, I guess!" Albriton says, laughing at his own joke.

Nearby, Concepcion Galvan of Los Angeles stands with some of his students. He’s visually impaired and teaches others how to use assistive technology aids.

"People like you that can see are going into the accessibility area where we’ve been in," Galvan says. "It’s almost like coming into a line from your left and to the right and to the middle, where the left is the people that can see and the right is the people that cannot see and we’re coming in together, all at once."

Doctor Bill Takeshita is the chief of low vision at the Center for the Partially Sighted in L.A. He hopes Apple’s iPhone accessibility will push other smartphones to be more accessible.

"Because of Apple’s innovation to incorporate these features for the blind and people with other types of disabilities, I think this is really changing things," Takeshita says, "because now the competitors will hopefully include that in their products. And as a result, I, as a blind person, could buy a phone and pay the same amount of money that a person with normal vision can. And I could use it."

And Takeshita says that could mean more choice, and more freedom, for the visually impaired.