iPhone, here I come

January 13, 2011 • Posted in blindness, Seeing Eye dogs, technology for people who are blind, Uncategorized by

When I first heard that iPhones came with VoiceOver for the blind, I figured Apple must have done this just to get some good PR. I mean, come on. How could a blind person possibly use a touchpad?

Then I went to the Seeing Eye to train with Harper. All the young people (well, all the people under age 35, I guess) there used, you guessed it: iPhones. Their phones murmured text messages to them while we were waiting in the lounge. Carlos regularly updated his Facebook status while he and I commuted in the Seeing Eye van together. He and Marcus would point their phones at their dogs from time to time to take photos, then manipulate their phones to send the photos home to loved ones.

Photo of Harper

My classmate snapped this photo of Harper on his iPhone and sent it to Mike.

I worked on my knitting while we gathered for Seeing Eye lectures in the evenings. These iPhone kids spent that down time discussing their favorite apps. “Do you guys use Color Identifier?” They showed each other how to point the iPhone’s camera at things to hear it call out colors. The iPhone being the iPhone, of course, the color names were fun – and specific. “Crimson lipstick,” the robot’s voice would say. “Jukebox yellow.” “Moon Mist.“ I was intrigued. I wasn’t sold, however, until one of the students put the phone in my dirty little hands.

Marcus Engel and I were in the student lounge, killing time before it was our turn to do a route with our trainer. “Wanna try my iPhone,” he asked, placing the little gadget in my palm. “I’ll show you how to dial a number. Do you ever use ‘Tell Me’?” I do.

“Tell Me” is a service that yet another blind friend, the wonderful George Abbott, told me about in 2005. The White Sox were gearing up for the World Series back then, and I was having trouble keeping up with all the other teams in the running. You call 800-555-TELL for free and an automatic voice gives you the time, the weather, news and sports updates. Marcus was wise to choose “Tell Me” as a way to start me on the talking iPhone. I am so familiar with “Tell Me” that I felt comfortable giving it a try, and I knew what it should sound like if it worked. It was also reassuring to know that if I made a mistake it wouldn’t cost Marcus any money.

“Tap the screen to see where you are on the number pad,” Marcus said.” Double tap it if it’s the number you want.” I was expecting this to be a frustrating and time-consuming ordeal. To my amazement, I picked it up immediately. All I had to do was run my finger across the screen, and the voice called out “three!'” I moved my finger down. “Nine!” To the left. “Eight!” Tapped twice, and I was on my way. Spatial information. Imagine.

After I enterred all the numbers, Marcus told me to go to the bottom of the screen to push a button. I didn’t have to memorize special key commands to get there. I could just drag my finger to the bottom, and the iPhone called out the button when I found it. Tap twice, and the button was pressed.

Within 30 seconds, I’d connected to “Tell Me” and knew what the weather was supposed to be in Chicago that day. Warmer than in New jersey! Marcus brought up a web site next, explaining how I could swipe three fingers to scroll, hold down one location and tap another. There’s a learning curve to VoiceOver, he said. “But it’s so worth it.”

“There’s this cool rotor you activate by turning your fingers like a dial. You can double triple-finger tap to toggle speech, and a triple triple-finger tap…” Just then our trainer returned. Time to go out with our dogs. I welcomed the interruption. I’d learned enough. I was already sold.

Mike was thrilled to hear I’d finally come around to the iPhone – he’s been trying to get me to “go Mac” for years. The Apple store on Michigan Avenue here in Chicago has a full-time associate (they don’t like to call them salespeople) who is blind, and they offer regular classes to teach VoiceOver applications. Harper and I returned to Chicago on December 15. Best to wait until after the holiday rush before tackling the Apple Store.

The rush is over, and once we find some free time we’ll head to Michigan Avenue to make the big purchase. Only question now is…do I go with Verizon, or AT&T?

karen On January 13, 2011 at 10:18 am

OMG! I am so psyched I can barely contain myself. I am a devoted Verizon user. I have never had any problems with reception and my family is all on verizon. So stubborn me waited and waited. Well my patience has finally paid off! On Feb 3rd I am going online and ordering my very own iPhone! Feb 3rd is the order date for current Verizon customers. YES!!!

Lauren On January 13, 2011 at 10:26 am

I’ve been bugging Tom about this, so keep us posted on how it goes!

L^2 On January 13, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I got to play with an iPhone for the first time when I was in guide dog training with Jack back in October – and it sold me too. I already have Verizon, so I’ll be getting mine through them when it’s time for my next phone upgrade later this year.

Sandra On January 13, 2011 at 2:15 pm

You’ll have to let me know how it works out for you — I’m considering getting one myself!

Myrna Knepler On January 13, 2011 at 2:43 pm

I love the Apple store, and my Apple computer and I pod (like a phone without a phone). I’ve gone there almost ever week for lessons on using my computer beyond the basics. The trainers are good though you sometimes have to slow them down and insist on you doing everything yourself several times before you leave. I still forget a great deal of what I learn each time, but there is always a next time.

I’ve seen the blind instructor several times when I visited.

Good luck with your new toy. I’m sure you will pick it up fast.

Jenny Fischer On January 13, 2011 at 4:34 pm

Hey Beth! It is so amazing learning of all of the things that are out there. My question is this – I can see how you would tackle knitting, BUT, how do you fix your mistakes? (Don’t tell me you don’t make any!!) I am a hopeless knitter – started more projects than I can count. By the way – Apple stores are fun – I love going to them. Cool that they have a blind salesperson – that is so Mac (Mike is right – as I type on my new Imac.

bethfinke On January 14, 2011 at 8:33 am

Aha! Never hurts to have a knitting store one block away. I scooted down to “Loopy Yarns” with Hanni anytime I got stuck, and now, just yesterday, Mike helped show Harper how to get me there. The hat I’m making now has a small hole near the rim, I must have dropped a stitch or two. “Perfect spot for a cute button, that’ll cover it right up!” my Loopy Yarns helper said. I like her attitude!

Carlos On January 13, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Congrats Beth! Once you get an Apple product, your life changes forever!
I bought an Apple laptop around a year and a half ago. I am not visually impaired but, I have used the VoiceOver program that comes with it a couple of times. That was over a year ago. I guess I was curious to experience its functionality. So, I started the application and turned off my screen. The app has an easy to follow tutorial that guides you through all the commands and teaches you how to use the laptop and navigate through the web. I found it accessible and did use it to check couple of websites and my emails.
I’m pretty sure the iPhone’s VoiceOver app is different but, I guess it might share some basic commands.

I love Apple because they are user-friendly. They try to make your life easier and guess what? They accomplish it. Now, every time I have to use a PC it feels awkward and obsolete; like going back in time 15 years. Also, my laptop comes with a Trackpad, similar to the surface of a touch screen where you can tap, drag, scroll, pinch, rotate, and swipe with several fingers like the iPhone.

I’m with Mike! Apple is great!
Enjoy your terrific iPhone. It will make your life easier.

bethfinke On January 17, 2011 at 3:34 pm

Carlos, you are one of the only sighted people I know who would try out that Voiceover program without being *required* to learn it for their job (teaching blind students, tech support, that sort of thing). Bravo!

savas On January 13, 2011 at 5:03 pm

awelan arkaşlar

Siobhan Senier On January 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

Am contemplating an iphone myself this spring. . .and now I wonder: is there an APP that would let us record ourselves talking and create files to send? I have been missing our tapes, but the technology has changed so fast. Are you still making tapes for Brad and Pick, or are you communicating mostly in text these days? That in itself is an interesting question, how the technologies have changed your mode of communication.

Anyway, in your copious free time (knitting, fer chrissake?) I think you could write a very cool SECOND book about your journeys with and through adaptive technologies (as well as technologies that weren’t necessarily designed to be “adaptive” for people with disabilities). We have all seen a lot of tech changes in the past decade or so, but it is really interesting to think about how people with disabilities make use of them, and also change them, in turn.

Oh. And Harper is so handsome!

bethfinke On January 17, 2011 at 3:43 pm

I’m thinking you coud record something on your computer, right, and then send the link to someone to download on their phone? I am actually a computer nitwit so probably not the right person to ask…and as much as I like your idea to write a book about adaptive technology, I’m afraid that the technology advances so quickly that no matter how fast I wrote the book and got it published it’d be sure to b out-of-date by the time it came out.
Thanks for the compliment on Harper — his headfeels so wide compared to Hanni’s, and his ears so big, it’s hard to imagine him being handsome, he seems more like a loveable goofball to me. But even strangers on the street tell me he’s a handsome dog, so it must be true!

penn nelson On January 14, 2011 at 9:57 am

Another wow, I got a new phone, not an Iphone, it has a texting key pad of which I have not tried yet. Chicken I guess, much easier to dial the number and talk.

Enjoy your new toy!


Hank On January 14, 2011 at 11:29 am

BG1 uses an Iphone. It is pretty amazing.
I can’t imagine that it makes much difference in the city which carrier you use, although AT&T apparently has some advantages, like a faster network and the ability to use multiple aplications at the same time – something you can’t do with Verizon – e.g., look up an address while on the phone with someone. but, I think the AT&T technology has more dropped calls than the Verizon because of the way calls are transferred from one cell tower to another. I would go with whoever gives you the best deal.

Cam On January 14, 2011 at 12:38 pm

I love my iPhone and get oddly excited when someone else says they might get one too!

Google Reader on my phone makes my commute fly by!

I had no idea that VoiceOver came with it. I’m going to follow Carlo’s lead and give it a try.

As for carriers, I haven’t had a problem with AT&T, although I know a lot of people hate them. I think Verizon has a better price on their data package.

bethfinke On January 17, 2011 at 3:49 pm

I’m wondering if AT&T will come out with some great, economical package and announce it the very day the Verizon iPhone thing happens — Feb. 3. Will probabaly wait until then to get my new phone, itching to give it a try, though.

Lolly On January 14, 2011 at 10:27 pm


I tried the iPhone a year and a half ago, and returned it after three weeks. There was a lot to love, but I couldn’t get the dialing and writing (texting or emailing) down. It’s a spacial location thing.

I discovered since then, that I’m not the only blind person, nor the only person that has this issue. Two different companies have created overlays for the keyboards when dialing or writing on the iPhone, (one company for sighted folks, and one company specifically for blind folks,) and so I will likely be trying it again, with the overlays.

I waited for Verizon to get it, and while I saw a report from Consumer reports that doesn’t sound too positive about it, I think it’s worth another 30 day trial.

The associates at the Apple Store are really more than sales people, they are into customer service. It’s refreshing!

Kudos to Apple for for incorporating accessibility features for several disabilities into their phone!

bethfinke On January 17, 2011 at 3:51 pm

I agree. Kudos to Apple.
Am curious about this template idea –wouldn’t it have to change every time you use the phone to do something different, ie, going from phoning someone to using Google or what-not?

Richard Q. On January 15, 2011 at 1:04 am

Very exciting Beth. I use one as well; probably most used device I have right now. I’m sure there’s a knitting app that you can get to replace knitting too.

bethfinke On January 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm

No doubt. But to be honest, once I finish this hat I’m working on now I plan to put my knitting away until next Xmas. I’ll need my hands free to play with my new phone!

Rhona On January 15, 2011 at 5:55 am

I vote for Verizon!! We switched last December after being with ATT for over 20 years and the reception is so much better. Don’t know if the Verizon version has the hardware issues that the ATT phone had – hope not! Rick recently got an Ipad from the Apple store in Old Orchard and is loving it! There is a disability mode built in as well. He no longer has to carry the large print phone book and calendar around in his briefcase – the Ipad eliminates about 6 pounds of shlep. It is exciting to hear your experiences about the Iphone. Fantastic!

Jill On January 17, 2011 at 11:19 am

Beth — I think you should find a way to connect with the Apple PR people and turn your experience and evolution with the iPhone into a testimonial that they would value. Your blog post sold me!

bethfinke On January 17, 2011 at 3:38 pm

Ha! If you see my next post, it reminisces about the “good old days” when we used to make music tapes for each other on cassette. I hear that now people have their own music studios right at home using their Macs. We’ve come a long way, baby…!

bethfinke On January 17, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Hey iPhone PR people –are you listening?!

becky On January 21, 2011 at 12:24 am

This phone sounds amazing. Recently got a G2 Google that am enjoying but keep hearing the amazingness of iphone. Great post and fun to read your other posts. Gosh, I have missed a few of them.

bethfinke On January 21, 2011 at 8:30 am

Good to hear from you Becky — it also reminds me to link to yor blog and find out what you’ve been up to, too. Will do that now —

Don’t ask, don’t tell « Safe & Sound blog On January 22, 2011 at 4:35 pm

[…] my cell phone. “Yes,” I said. “Lots of times.” This gave me a chance to talk about the iPhone I am hoping to get soon. I sensed them creeping closer and closer to Adrian and me as I answered questions. They were […]

Jackie On June 8, 2014 at 12:32 pm

Hi all. My brotheris blind and had a Nokia C5 but it broke and he bought a iPhone5. He is visiting me at the moment so that I can help him with the voice over. I’m grateful there is a phone out there for the vissualy impared.

bethfinke On June 8, 2014 at 4:24 pm

Jackie, Thanks for leaving this comment –very eager to hear how others do with Voiceover , it’s been a slow learning curve for me but I am finally learning to use it and send texts, etc. How’s your brother doing with it?


Jackie On June 8, 2014 at 11:39 pm

Hi Beth, he is working on it 4 days now and can make calls and send text. Its just to check a message if its correct I haven’t figured out yet. I’m new to iphone to so I learn it firtst then I show him. We are in South-Africa so pitty it doesn’t read our currency, but we can make out a text message written in afrikaans with voice over, can you believe it!

bethfinke On June 9, 2014 at 8:47 am

Voiceover can make out a text message written in afrikaans? Too much! Continued success with your brother’s iPhone, if he is sending text messages already, you’ve come a long way.


bethfinke On October 30, 2015 at 6:04 am



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