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RNIB Team Welcomes Off-The-Shelf iPhone Accessibility

An advanced screen-reader and other accessibility features on a new version of Apple’s iPhone represent an “extremely significant development” for a previously inaccessible technology, according to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

‘Off-the-shelf’ features built into the iPhone 3GS allow blind and visually impaired users to send and receive text messages and emails, browse the internet, play music and make and receive phone calls.

The ‘VoiceOver’ screen-reader on the new phone also claims to be the world’s first “gesture-based screen-reader”, working with the iPhone’s touch-screen to describe or read out whatever function or piece of text the user moves their finger over, in any of 21 different languages. This allows users to read emails or text messages, and a ‘Speak Auto-text’ function will speak out letters or words being typed on the phone, suggesting possible corrections as it proceeds.

A further gesture-based ‘rotor’ system activated with a circular motion of the fingers switches the screen-reader mode backwards and forwards between word-by-word speech and reading out individual characters. Additionally, a voice control function allows users to make and receive calls, play and control music through voice commands.

The RNIB says Apple has taken “a positive step” by building-in these features for free. “All too often, blind and partially sighted people have to rely on third-party assistive technology software and hardware in order to make mainstream devices such as mobile phones accessible”, said Kiran Kaja, from the RNIB’s digital accessibility team. “This involves an additional cost for the user. But with Apple providing a free VoiceOver screen-reader on all iPhone 3GS devices, blind and partially sighted customers can now benefit from an off-the-shelf accessible mobile phone at the same price as their sighted counterparts.”

Other accessibility features on the 3GS include a zoom function that can dramatically magnify the entire screen of any application; an option to change the screen display to white on black, offering higher contrast; easily discernible tactile buttons to perform basic phone operations; and an option to use giant font sizes when reading emails.

While praising these features, Kaja said there were one or two areas where further improvements could yet be made. “While the iPhone 3GS includes very good accessibility features, RNIB would like Apple to continue to look at making the iPhone usable by those who may not be as technically savvy. They also have a role to encourage third-party application developers to make their applications compatible with VoiceOver.”

On its website, Apple states that it is “working with iPhone software developers so they can make their applications VoiceOver compatible.”


  1. Dan TeVelde | July 10th, 2009 | 12:59 am

    I appreciate the article about the new phone but I wish apple would enhance its technical support for its products. I couldn’t get a live person when i called Apple directly. I also contacted my local apple store and a clerk actually told me that the phone wasn’t very accessible and that it might not be the best phone for me as a totally blind person. apple needs to communicate more effectively with the blind community.

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