FOWD Day 2: A Closer Look At Accessible Mobile App Design – Robin Christopherson

May 15, 2012 Jonathan Berger

“My name’s Robin, and I can’t see.”

This is one of the most moving talks I’ve ever seen at a technology conference. Robin talks about the history of assistive technology for the blind during his lifetime, and the dramatic change that the iPhone wrought. The blind have an old joke that asks “How many blind people does it take to cross the street?”, and the answer was “Two: one to push the shopping cart full of devices for car-watching, curb-finding, direction-mapping, etc. And another to ask a sighted person for help.” An affordable pocket computer with motion sensors, an accelerometer, a camera, and a thriving app ecosystem has changed all that. Robin went on to detail what specialty apps he uses, which mainstream apps are (and aren’t) optimized for accessibility, and showed us the nitty-gritty of how technology changes his life and empowers him every day.

With technology came opportunity

  • In the 1980s, the PC revolutionized opportunities for disabled people in the home and workplace. This is how Robin got through his education.
  • Stephen Hawking Technology and adaptability allowed for great contributions from people like Hawking.
  • All you need is a single moving body part or the ability to make a sound or puff into a tube, and you can control a computer.
  • An iPhone changed the game: inclusion, power, and price. Now this power is in peoples’ pockets.

  • [* Robin plugs audio-out into computer*]

  • NB: One nice thing about being blind is that if you ask for assistance at the train, they always let you sit in 1st class.

  • Another is that I don’t know what people look like; their physical appearance has no impact on me. I don’t know whether they’re old, young, whatever.

[Video of Joshua Neely, blind].

  • single iPhone replaces multiple devices
  • two ways to navigate iphone:
    • touch item on the screen (and voice announces icon)
    • swipe left or right for previous or next
  • Once it says an item, it’s selected. double tap anywhere on screen to open it up.
  • Compass will announce direction. This is really useful for blind people who are disoriented with regard to direction, espcially in wide-open spaces like parking lots or fields.

Before iPhone

  • Specialty products at specialty prices.
  • Talking GPS was £700, talking notetaker was £2500.
  • You can get an affordable Braille bluetooth display for use with iOS devices.

Specialist Apps

  • [Robin’s now using his iPad ]
  • Adjust speech rate with two fingers moving clockwise
  • Turn screen off and double battery life
  • Light detector app: there’s no talking ovens, so this is how you tell if the oven’s on.
  • Money Reader App: he’s waving a bill under the iPad camera and it announces “20 pounds”. It takes a few tries for him to get it; usually, he does this on the iPhone (better camera, flash).
  • LookTell Recognizer: similar treatment; wave objects under the app and it’ll announce.

Mainstream Apps

Apps vary wildly in their accessibility.

  • Skype: Robin can access the dialpad, contacts, calling. All of the actions speak and can be navigated by touch (without sight).

  • Adobe Connect (Skype competitor): none of the objects are exposed to accessibility. He has no idea what’s going on.

  • Pages: a working word processor, fully accessibility-enabled. It reads text, tells him what’s selected, meta information, screen content. Voice will let him navigate, read content. New iPad will allow dictation. He’ll use a bluetooth keyboard; various multi-touch gestures are available via keyboard shortcut. It’ll read his deletions and meta information around what he types. Very accessible. iPads are the tools of choice for schools in the US.

  • Facebook: lots of accessibility shortcomings. There’re other apps that do similar things to FB, but some apps capture the audience; he can’t find his FB friends anywhere other than FB.

  • Lanyrd (app for conference planning): totally non-accessible. Can’t even sign in.

  • iBooks: Everything is exposed and accessible.

  • Kindle: Lots of unlabeled images. Listen to the text. Very little meta information. There’re other Kindle readers for the blind (and the Kindle hardware is fine) but the iOS app doesn’t work.

Siri Envy

  • Accessibility is great, but its much slower than what sighted people can do. That sort of inefficiency is multiplied when you have to jump from email to calendar and back.
  • Siri lets Robin send a tweet really quickly. He just sent!/USA2DAY/status/202360450736865280 from stage.


  • Alternative to Siri. Also available on android(?)
  • Geo search on Siri is limited to the US.
  • Ask a question, it’ll answer.
  • Answers can be rated up or down.

Accessibility on iPhone

  • This is available in the accessibility settings on iOS. Triple-click the home button to turn on the voice.

  • iOS Developer Library has an Accessibility Inspector which can help you make your apps accessible.

  • There’re lists of helpful apps, as well as non-accessible apps.
  • Android accessibility isn’t as well-developed. Large portions of the OS and many apps aren’t accessible. Blind Android users have to buy supplemental software and hardware.
  • Windows Phone 7 is a non-starter for accessibility.
  • Carsonified is doing great work at Treehouse with accessibility tutorials.

  • Mobile accessibility in mobility: using a robotic exo-skeleton to walk:

  • Claire Lonas walked the london Marathon in 16 days with a bionic suit after being paralyzed from the waist down.

  • Las Vegas is the first place that Google’s Driverless cars are legal. Steve Mahan, a blind user, gains independence. Here’s a video of Steve driving to get a taco, picking up his dry cleaning.

  • AbilityNet: consultancy, training, accessibility audits, disabled user testing, workplace assessments.

  • “Thanks to these tools I was able to move to where I live, meet my wife, have my two beautiful children. I owe everything to the technology.”

About the Author


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