"All There is to See is Possibility"
By Rachel Rosenbaum
Word Count: 1507
When the iPhone first came out in 2007, Anisio Correia was extremely discouraged. The 50-year-old, who is the vice president of programs at the Atlanta Center for the Visually Impaired, has been completely blind since age 2, and he feared that this flat, touch screen phone would be an abysmal technological setback rather than an advancement for the visually impaired community.
“My concern at the time was that everyone was going that way towards touch screen and it would prevent people who are blind or visually impaired from using that kind of technology,” says Correia, whose smile accentuates his olive skin and short gray hair. This smile always remains on Correia’s face and although he is blind, his sighted colleagues say his captivating demeanor compels them to make eye contact with him.
Five years have passed and Correia sits at his desk describing how the little device has transformed him from a man who had to rely on others to complete daily tasks to an independent rehabilitation teacher who instructs other blind people how to be self-sufficient. He describes his normal route to work, which he says used to be boring and void, but is now filled with excitement and color. As he rides to work he uses the iPhone application (app) AroundMe, which maps the user’s locations and reveals the restaurants, stores, pharmacies, and gas stations that are nearby. While sighted people use this app to find the closest gas station, Correia believes it is a lot more meaningful for visually impaired users. He says it paints the picture of a whole new world he had no idea existed. He finishes his story smiling at his iPhone, the little piece of technology that he refers to as “the game changer.”
“It has made a tremendous difference in terms of productivity; it has leveled the playing field for people who are blind or visually impaired,” Correia says.
Correia is one of 21.5 million visually impaired people who have been greatly impacted by the recent development of the iPhone and the increasing availability of new iPhone apps. According to Apple Vis, a community powered website for visually impaired users of apple products, so far in 2012, 33 iPhone apps aimed at helping the blind and visually impaired community have been released, becoming one of the fastest growing markets for apps. These apps have helped a large percentage of visually impaired people in the United States become more independent and integrated into society. They could also benefit users with full vision in the future, just as texting, which was an application originally developed for the deaf community, has become mainstream.
“Years ago I told people about large print newspapers, now I can tell them about iPhone apps which is obviously much more sexy,” says Dr. Cynthia D’Auria, 53, an optometrist at the New England Eye Center, referring to the increase in iPhone apps. D’Auria is impressed with the plethora of apps on the market and always makes sure to suggest the newest ones to her visually impaired patients many of whom, she says, have the iPhone.
One of her favorite recommendations is the LookTel Money Reader, an app released in October 2011. The National Health Institute and National Eye Institute funded the development of this app, which recognizes currency and speaks the denomination. This enables blind or visually impaired users to identify and count bills.
Before this app existed, Correia would fold each of his bills in a different way so he could identify how much he was paying, however he was still unsure if he was getting back the right change. The app has made him more confident that vendors aren’t taking advantage of his disability.
“With this app now if I have any inkling of uncertainty at all I can very easily just check. It gives you another piece of mind that I didn’t have before,” Correia says.
Another app gaining attention and popularity like the money reader is VizWiz. This app allows users to take a picture, ask a question, and receive spoken answers from real people, not recognition software. Erin Brady, a 24-year-old graduate student enrolled in the computer science program at the University of Rochester, is a member of the Rochester Human Computer Interaction, the group that developed this app in May 2011. She says the app allows blind or visually impaired people to live their lives without constantly relying on a friend or family member.
“In everyday life, if there’s something they have a question about they’ll have to wait until their husband or wife comes home. So our aim was if you just had a simple question or something that was private you could send it in to VizWiz and have it answered,” Brady says, describing the workers they have on call 24 hours a day in the group’s office and the secondary outsourcing they use.
One of VizWiz’s faithful users is 39-year-old Jim Denham, who is the assistive technology coordinator at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. Denham can’t believe that the one millimeter-wide camera on his phone has made such an enormous difference in his daily life.
“If I wanna know if something’s a can of beans or a can of soup I can take a picture of a barcode. If five years ago someone had said you’re gonna be using a camera, I would have said no way, but it helps with so many different things,” Denham says.
Brady is excited that, in the last year, more than 5000 people have purchased the app and more than 25 percent of users continue to use the app after their first time. She also credits Apple for recently making an effort to make the iPhone as accessible as possible.
“That they’re constantly releasing stuff from the accessibility team is really cool because it seems like they’ve made it a priority to make sure that the phone can be used by people who are blind or visually impaired,” Brady says.
These apps haven’t only helped adults. Denham has noticed a major increase in the use of “idevices” at Perkins in the last year. He’s excited that these apps benefit students of all ages. While younger students use apps that help their eyes adjust to light and stimulate their vision, older students use apps to read books and learn math and geography.
“Our students love using technology, so anytime you can get a technology tool in their hands, our kids are excited about them. And sometimes they learn more because it’s technology they’re excited about using,” Denham says.
There are even foundations that have started to subsidize the cost of this technology. The Association of Blind Citizens located in Boston and The Center for Financial Independence and Innovation in Atlanta, are two organizations that will pay 50 percent of the product if the user can pay the other half.
While there has been a lot of excitement about the iPhone in the blind community, some disagree that the iPhone is the cure-all for the blind or visually impaired. Empish Thomas, the public education and referral specialist at the Atlanta Center for the Visually Impaired, works with many senior citizens who want a phone that isn’t so complicated.
“I’ll get calls from seniors that say, “Do you just know a basic phone that’s accessible? We don’t want the iPhone. We just want a low level phone that someone can use,’” Thomas says. The 36-year-old laughs as she imitates the frustrated senior citizens:
“I wanna call my kids or call my grandchildren. I’m not trying to check the weather and download the stock updates and do all of these other things. I just wanna make a phone call.”
Although they may be too complicated for some senior citizens, Correia loves all of the extras that come with the iPhone and will continue to use it as his lifeline to complete many daily tasks. He has even figured out how it can help him get through boring meetings.
As he finishes describing his ride to work, he discusses one of his weekly meetings. He pulls out a brail-typer that connects to his iPhone through blue-tooth and demonstrates how the device enables him to multitask.
“What people see is that I am just taking notes. I could be doing anything I want if the meeting is boring. I can be checking my email or texting my wife to find out what’s for dinner,” Correia says.
Near the end of his story, his iPhone interrupts his thought. It announces a joke his colleague from the Center for the Visually Impaired has just tweeted.
“Blind tennis players keep their ears on the ball,” the iPhone recites as Correia lets out a roaring laugh. He shakes his head and smiles at the tweet that he has just heard on his iPhone.
Anisio Correia: firstname.lastname@example.org
Erin Brady: email@example.com
Cynthia D’Auria: firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Denham: email@example.com
Empish Thomas: 404-875-9011