Getting an iPhone for someone who is visually impaired
January 15, 2014 7:28 AM   Subscribe

My grandmother has macular degeneration. She is 82, fiercely independent, and sharper than most people half her age. She has enough vision to be able to work her computer, write a weekly condo association newsletter, and manage voluminous email correspondence. (Her computer settings are such that everything is greatly magnified.) And she is very, very interested in having an iPhone.

When I visited her recently, she was intrigued by my iPhone -- especially the voice capabilities. After playing around with it for a little while, she said she felt like it opened up a whole new world for her. She was thrilled by even just a taste of what it could do, natively and via apps. (For instance, I downloaded a color identifier app, and she was so excited to be able to hold the phone up to the clothes hanging in her closet and have it announce what color things were -- if she had something like that, she wouldn't need to have someone come over once a week and choose her clothes for her.) She was really excited about the possibility of having a tool to help her maintain (and possibly even regain in some small ways) her independence.

(She was also impressed by the iPad, but was more interested in having an actual phone.)

I would like to get her an iPhone of her own, but I myself have no experience with the accessibility features such as VoiceOver, and I barely ever use Siri (in my limited experience with that, I've found it spotty in terms of accuracy and etc.). So my question is twofold:

One, has anyone here used the accessibility features of the phone, and can you tell me how frustrating/easy it is for someone with limited vision to use?

And two, what apps do you recommend for a user who is visually impaired? (I have looked around a bit and seen recommendations for Tap Tap See, Flesky, and the Braille Institute app ViA, but I don't know anyone who's used them.)

She's very excited about the possibility of having an iPhone, and is already planning to set up a visit to the Apple Store to take classes on how to use it. I'd love to be able to help get her started. Thanks so much!
posted by mothershock to Technology (12 answers total)
The National Federation of the Blind has a Technology Center that provides consultation about accessibility with various devices, apps, etc. They are generally really great about providing suggestions about what are strengths and weaknesses of different systems and what you can do to set it up to be optimal for your needs.
posted by goggie at 7:33 AM on January 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

Anecdote: a good friend of mine is legally blind and can't recognize people's faces, doesn't see plate in front of him. He can see very high contrast, big font size text at very short distance. He uses iPhone because of accessibility features.
posted by zeikka at 7:36 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

How about an iPad with cellular data plan? That's a large screen. Then get her earphones with a microphone for phone calls.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:46 AM on January 15, 2014

My SO is visually impaired (legally blind, cataracts, etc) and he loves his iPhone (it's an older 3GS, the new ones have slightly bigger screens). He uses the zoom feature A LOT. You tap twice with 3 fingers to zoom and navigate around the screen while zoomed also with 3 fingers. It works everywhere, not just in certain apps, which is nice. He tried using VoiceOver but found it annoying to use anywhere but at home. He also has the font set to the largest size and holds the phone pretty close to his face to read. He doesn't use any other specialty apps for the visually impaired.

I downloaded the Braille Institute app myself to see if I could find him some games with large, simple graphics and that was helpful as well.

Re: the iPad, I got him an iPad Mini (easier to hold up to his face) for Christmas and he's in love with it. Unless he's out and about he'll use the iPad over the iPhone every time.
posted by heavenstobetsy at 7:48 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also Dragon Naturally Speaking is a great voice app for dictation (for texting, emails, etc).
posted by St. Peepsburg at 7:48 AM on January 15, 2014

Definitely look into an iPad or iPad mini. iPhones do work (as the previous commenters have established) but if she doesn't need the phone part (or data plan) then the iPad offers many of the same benefits without the contract issues.
posted by barnone at 7:51 AM on January 15, 2014 [2 favorites]

An friend of mine is blind, and works in a position that involved matching assistive technology to people with disabilities. She often recommends iDevices, and uses them herself.

I can tell you that VoiceOver is totally distinct from Siri - it's built into the OS and doesn't require internet/data access the way Siri does. I haven't used it, myself, but Apple has spent a lot of time refining it.
posted by catalytics at 7:54 AM on January 15, 2014 [1 favorite]

As someone who is visually impaired, I ditched my tiny iPhone with its refusal to have a universal font-embiggening feature for a Samsung Galaxy Note 2 and am so much happier with it. I can SEE STUFF on it, it's magical. Never going back to iPhone.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 8:06 AM on January 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

I'm a researcher who studies technology use by blind and visually impaired people, and the iPhone is the "it" device for tech savvy blind people, and has remained so for the past few years, although Android is catching up somewhat.

VoiceOver is incredibly powerful, and works well for many popular apps, but does take some effort to learn. You might want to look up some local community organizations serving people with vision impairments to see if they offer any classes. Alternately, you could learn VoiceOver along with her -- it's fun and can be a neat party trick.

Here are a few resources from the VoiceOver community:
  • AppleVis - general site about VoiceOver and iOS accessibility
  • - a wiki on this topic, with links to VoiceOver compatibility lists
  • viphone - a mailing list for VoiceOver users, with an extremely friendly and helpful community
One of the pain points for using the iPhone with a visual impairment is the keyboard. Note that you can easily pair the iPhone with a Bluetooth keyboard, or even a refreshable Braille device.

As for apps, Tap Tap See is really cool. VizWiz performs a similar function and is worth checking out also. But since many iOS apps already support the native accessibility features, you can probably just start downloading apps that your grandmother might be interested in and testing those.

Good luck!
posted by shaun at 8:19 AM on January 15, 2014 [4 favorites]

There are also some enjoyable podcasts on accessible technology for people with vision impairments that you two might enjoy listening to, such as Cool Blind Tech and Eyes on Success. They often feature app and device reviews. (disclaimer: I have been interviewed on Eyes on Success a few times; disclaimer disclaimer: I am somewhat awkward in these interviews).
posted by shaun at 8:25 AM on January 15, 2014

Thank you all so much! This is very helpful!
posted by mothershock at 1:51 PM on January 15, 2014

You say she's currently working on her computer: is it also a Mac? If not, it might be massively irritating to switch from Windows/Linux assistive tech to iOS assistive tech.
posted by Jesse the K at 5:44 PM on January 15, 2014

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