August 29, 2013

Three Life-Changing Moments: What Apple Has Done

The Loop > Magazine > Issue 9

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By Robert Carter

The year is 1964. I am walking down the hallway of my elementary school, struggling under the weight of a very heavy typewriter. I must get this typewriter into my third grade classroom. Unlike my classmates, I have to type my assignments rather than write them out in longhand.

Born prematurely, I was placed in an incubator where I was given lifesaving oxygen. Unfortunately, the oxygen was too much for my optic nerve. It was damaged, leaving me totally blind. This is why I was typing in third grade and not writing with a pencil. For me, however, the typewriter was only a content creation device, since I could not read back or edit what I typed.

Fast forward 18 years to 1982. I am standing in my apartment with the cover removed from my brand new Apple IIe. I place an Echo II speech synthesizer board in one of the Apple IIe’s expansion slots, plug in a speaker and load a piece of software called Textalker. I then experience my first Apple-related life-changing moment. The computer speaks to me, reading aloud the information that is on the screen. Yes, the voice is robotic and mechanical, but it is speaking English that I can understand. I now have a talking word processor that enables me to both write and edit my own work.

This was critically important for me, because I was about to begin a graduate program to obtain a Ph.D. in Psychology. I don’t know how I would have written my doctoral dissertation without the talking Apple IIe.

In 1984, the Macintosh essentially replaced the Apple II family overnight. Unfortunately, the Mac’s graphical user interface was not accessible to blind people. To be fair, there was one company called Berkeley Systems that developed a screen reader for the Mac, but it was not widely adopted. Blind people moved from Apple to MS DOS and later to Windows, where third-party developers created speech synthesizers and screen-reading software for these operating systems. Unfortunately, this add-on adaptive technology was expensive, meaning that blind people spent two to three times what sighted people did for the same computer.

In 2005, Apple announced that it was developing a screen reader for the Mac so that blind people would at last have access. There are a couple of unique things about Apple’s VoiceOver screen reader. First, it is built into the operating system, not bolted on after the fact. As a blind Mac user, I can install OS X with no sighted assistance. This is possible because VoiceOver feedback is available throughout the entire installation process. This is not the case in operating systems where sound drivers are added late in the installation process. Second, Apple does not charge extra for VoiceOver. It simply comes built-in to every Mac.

Getting full access to the Mac is the second life-changing moment that Apple has provided for me. I use my Mac every day for editing audio, emailing, texting, web browsing, social networking and a whole lot more.

I must admit to some pangs of frustration and jealousy in 2007 when people started walking around with their iPhones. However, I knew that a flat glass screen with some icons on it just wasn’t useable by a blind person.

Imagine my surprise in 2009 when Apple announced that the iPhone 3GS would contain VoiceOver screen-reading technology, making the iPhone accessible to people who are blind. The engineers at Apple developed a talking touch screen. Slide your finger around the screen, and VoiceOver speaks the name of each icon that you touch. To activate the icon, you simply double-tap. This is brilliant and amazingly easy for most blind people to do. Just as with the Mac, VoiceOver comes built-in on every iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Apple TV at no additional charge.

Life-changing event number three is when Apple gave me access to the iOS touch screen. I don’t know how I would get along without my iPhone and iPad and the dozens of apps that I use every day.

Apple’s invention of the accessible touch screen is, in my opinion, tantamount to Louis Braille’s invention of Braille. To illustrate my point, Amazon recently released an update to its Kindle iOS app, making more than 1.8 million Kindle books available to users of Apple’s VoiceOver-accessible touch screen devices.

Today, there is nothing more important than access to information. Apple’s pocket-sized touch screen has changed our world in countless ways. For people who are blind, equal access to electronic information means, for the first time in the history of the world, blind people have the chance to fully participate in all aspects of society. Access to Information levels the playing field, giving blind people the means to compete socially, educationally and vocationally. The opportunities are tremendous and the possibilities are endless. I am hopeful that blind people will embrace this technology. It is the first step toward fully participating in all that life has to offer.