VoiceOver: the hidden voice of iPhone for blind users

voiceover_utility_iconThe Royal National Institute for Blind People (RNIB) is a UK agency dedicated to support and advice for the blind. GoMo News spoke to Gary Readfern-Gray, an Accessibility Specialist-Developer at RNIB. He is also blind. This is the fascinating account of his experience with the iPhone 3GS, with contributions by colleagues John Worsfold and Ed Chandler.

What is VoiceOver?

It’s a speech output service for the latest Apple iPhone 3GS. While the device is undoubtedly a big success, VoiceOver is likely to be missed by the majority of people as it is not turned on by default. Most readers will be probably thinking “I don’t remember that? “What is it?” and “Where is it in the iPhone?”

VoiceOver has been available in Apple’s desktops and laptops for about five years and now it is available in the iPhone.  What this means is that blind and partially sighted people can use the phone just like their sighted friends.

How do you activate it?

From the main screen, tap “Settings”, and then from within Settings tap “General”.  Scroll down to “Accessibility” and select it. There you will see “VoiceOver” and “Zoom”. Select “VoiceOver” and then turn it on.  To use the iPhone you will need to familiarise yourself with some new control gestures using one, two or three fingers to tap or flick the screen. It’s easy, just read the instructions on screen and practise, as your gestures will now take on new meanings, for example, scrolling up and down needs to be done with 3 fingers instead of 1. Press the home button to return to your applications, in doing so you would have heard VoiceOver read out the options for the application, by flicking right using one finger you can move through your applications and double tap to select them (three finger flick left or right to go to the next page), have some fun practising this. Now, using three fingers, quickly tap the screen three times.  Did the screen just go blank? Well, apart from doubling the battery life, you are now experiencing the iPhone as a blind person might.  Don’t be scared, all your apps are there waiting for you. Remember you have VoiceOver on to help you so continue to flick right or left using one finger to move through your applications, double tapping to select them. Simply tapping the screen with three fingers three times will make the screen come back on. (be careful here as a three finger double tap will mute or unmute the speech on and off!)

So how does it work?

The guiding principle behind Voiceover is that touching the screen speaks what you touch and double-tapping the screen activates the item that has just been announced.

OK, very cool … but can I really use this stuff in anger? Well, to be honest, I wasn’t sure.  Not because I’m a technophobe – far from it – but because I’d only ever previously used a phone with physical buttons. I knew that blind people were using touch screens, but I didn’t want to spend money on something that I could only half use! My chance came when my wife bought an iPod touch, which also sports VoiceOver. I hijacked it and she didn’t see it for the first couple of days as I put VoiceOver through its paces. Some questions I had about it were; “Is it possible to use an on-screen keyboard if I can’t see it?” and “Can I send texts?” The answer to that is “with practise.” As you move your fingers along the keyboard the letters speak and, like the home screen icons, double-tap to actually type the letter. My next question was “Can I  browse the web?” When I discovered that this was actually easier than on any other mobile device I had previously owned, I was hooked. I just had to get an iPhone. Basically, instead of having pinch and zoom as a method of viewing the page, VoiceOver has simple gestures for finding the type of thing you want to find on a page like a heading or a search box.

Did you find any weaknesses with the service?

Well, apart from the obvious things like playing games (the space invaders always beat the blind man!), there are many apps in the app store which don’t work with VoiceOver and I’ve not yet found a way in which I can effectively use my GPS. This doesn’t appear to be the fault of the device, rather that the application designers don’t imagine that blind people will ever try to use their apps. If you’re an app developer, then the best advice I can give you for getting your apps to work with Voiceover is to label images and buttons correctly and to test your apps with Voiceover on your iPhone before putting them on the App Store. (Feel free to contact us for help with this).

So, it’s not perfect, but I can do more with my iPhone than I ever could before, such as use the social networks, listen to radio and watch TV, read newspapers and surf the web, and yes, even make phone calls – if I have the time. Thumbs up to Apple!

Royal National Institute of Blind People
Visit our website: www.rnib.org.uk/innovation
Follow us on Twitter at http://twitter.com/RNIB_innovation
Email: innovation@rnib.org.uk

About Cian O' Sullivan

Ace reporter, Cian, has moved on from GoMo News. He is currently the office manager for Photocall Ireland - Ireland's premier news and PR photography agency. You can check out the site at www.photocallireland.com. If you want to contact him directly about anything, Cian's new email is cian at photocallireland dot com.
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4 Responses to VoiceOver: the hidden voice of iPhone for blind users

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  3. L.A.Dubb says:

    I tried out voice over…and the only problem I found isthat it doesn’t read incoming calls.
    As soon as that’s fixed, I’m going to have every piece of the I series.

  4. Al says:

    Not only that it doesn’t read incoming calls, the audio prompt goes away when making a call. So as a blind person you don’t kknow how to end/cancel the call if you wanted to.

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