New iPhone a breakthrough for blind people

The iPhone has grabbed widespread attention for its sleek design, revolutionary multitouch display and countless apps.

Not as well known is this: It’s the only smartphone that blind people can use out of the box.

That has local advocates downright giddy about the iPhone 4S, Apple’s latest creation hitting stores today with an advanced voice-command feature called Siri.

“The blindness community is really hyped about what (the iPhone) does now and what it can do in the future,” said Wes Majerus, a technology specialist and instructor at the nonprofit Colorado Center for the Blind. “There is a lot of hype about Siri.”

Early reviews suggest Siri is a technological breakthrough, although it could use some tinkering.

Siri responds to spoken commands such as “Set my timer for 30 minutes,” but it struggles with questions like “When is the next flight to Denver from San Francisco?”

Apple says the software is still in beta, or test, mode. The company’s video promoting the feature concludes with a blind woman responding to a text message simply by speaking to her iPhone.

“There’s something to be said for being on the move and just pulling out the phone and dictating a text to somebody and getting it sent off,” said Majerus, who is blind and owns an iPhone 4.

An estimated 240,000 Colorado residents are blind or visually impaired, according to the American Council of the Blind.

Apple first made its popular smartphone accessible to blind people in 2009 with the iPhone 3GS. VoiceOver was a standard feature on the device and subsequent updates. When the option is activated, the iPhone speaks almost everything that otherwise would be read on screen by the user, such as e-mails, phone numbers and letters on the virtual keyboard when they are tapped.

“The iPhone is the only fully accessible handset that a blind person can buy,” said Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “Android has some accessibility capabilities, but they don’t work as well as Apple.”

Before the iPhone 3GS, blind people had to purchase expensive third-party applications to make their cellphone accessible, Danielsen said.

In addition to working out of the box, the iPhone has access to apps that support the VoiceOver option. There are also a number of third-party apps designed for blind people, such as LookTel’s Money Reader app, which identifies currency with the iPhone’s camera and speaks the denomination.

Danielsen, who is blind, plans to switch from a Nokia phone to the iPhone 4S. Siri is just one reason.

“Apple is rolling out a bunch of new features that are going to enhance the ability of blind people to use the iPhone,” he said, referencing the release of iOS 5, Apple’s latest mobile operating system.

The new features include clearer speech technology and the ability to add a custom spoken label to buttons and commands. In addition to powering the iPhone 4S, iOS 5 was released this week as a free update for the iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4, iPads and recent generations of the iPod Touch.

Colorado Center for the Blind instructor Chip Johnson is excited about the new features, although he has a more cautious view.

“Sometimes the hype is more than the reality,” he said, “but it sounds like there’s going to be some definite improvement.”

Majerus said Siri’s artificial intelligence could help ease a concern that still exists among the blind community about using a touchscreen on a cellphone instead of raised keys.

“As a teacher, I’m still going to tell people that (the iPhone) has a touchscreen and you need to be able to use that touchscreen,” Majerus said. “But if it gets to the point where for some reason that’s not working, hopefully they can get a lot out of the phone using Siri.”

Andy Vuong: 303-954-1209, [email protected] or

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