Jobs’s legacy includes accessible software for disabled people
Source: Canberra Times (Australia)-October 9, 2011
By: Graham Downie
A largely overlooked aspect of Steve Jobs’s legacy is the emphasis he placed on making Apple’s products accessible to people with disabilities.
At first glance, the iPhone, with almost no tactile controls, seems the antithesis to a usable product for people who are blind or who have limited sight. But it is fast becoming the phone of choice for many such people. This is because every iPhone includes software designed specifically for people who cannot see the screen.
When activated, a synthetic voice speaks the function touched by a finger. Gestures are used to control the phone. Some users acknowledge that some learning is necessary and that the phone is not suitable for everyone.
Synthetic speech combined with sophisticated screen reading technology has made everyday computers usable by people with limited or no sight. However, this software is relatively expensive.
Apple includes what it calls VoiceOver in all of its new Mac computers. It claims VoiceOver is full-featured screen access technology which rivals the best screen readers for Windows. This claim is not universally accepted, but it is significant that a manufacturer supplies this type of software in a range of its products, including the iPhone, iPod and iPad.
Meanwhile, many appliances are becoming increasingly difficult for about 20 per cent of Australians to use.
Voice Technology Designer and managing director of Vocal Branding Australia Tim Noonan describes these people as the overlooked consumers. He says that since 1992, guidelines have been available explaining the issues and approaches needed to make consumer electronics accessible to people with disabilities. But until recently and even today most products are still inaccessible.
Noonan, who is blind, uses an iPhone. He says Apple’s unprecedented incorporation of VoiceOver on the Mac and in the iPhone exemplifies Apple’s and Steve Jobs’s visionary understanding of inclusion and participation in modern society by as many user communities as possible.
“But until the announcement of the iPhone 4s, Voiceover really only solved half of the accessibility challenge for blind users; but with the forthcoming Siri assistant and voice dictation, Apple has again delivered, by providing efficient and intuitive voice input and control of the iPhone.” Noonan says the latest iPhone will be the game changer for blind people. He says it is the first commercial device to intelligently bring together voice and visual interfaces within a mobile communications device.
Meanwhile, those overlooked consumers can have difficulty using some modern washing machines, changing the channel on a television, adjusting the temperature of house heating or cooling, setting the alarm on a clock radio and operating microwave ovens.
So many of these and other products are operated by viewing a menu on a screen. Others have tiny controls which are difficult if not impossible for people with reduced dexterity to use.
An exception is a television set- top box, not yet commercially available, which provides voice guidance including television programs. The same cannot be said for digital radios available in Australia.
Specialised software is available to some smart phones but to date it does not give access to many of the aps on which people will increasingly depend. Therefore the commitment by Apple and Jobs is commendable.