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November 21, 2016

How Do Deaf and Blind People Use a Smartphone?

By Special Guest
Edwin Medina, President, In Motion Mobility

Have you ever asked yourself how visually impaired people can use a smartphone? What about someone who is deaf? This article will explore how technology enables blind and deaf individuals to go about their daily routine.

Smartphone: A Conduit for Communication
Chances are a sighted person most likely takes their sight for granted; such is life, we only appreciate what is given when it is taken away.

No man is an island, and the ability to feel understood and connected to the social world around us is easier for hearing and sighted persons than it is for deaf and blind persons. Smartphones aim to lower those barriers to entry, allowing these individuals to better navigate the world - in ways that they could not do a decade ago.

Phones Provide Assistive Technologies
The goal of mobile technology is to support people in everyday activities. However, most phones are difficult to use without assistive technologies. Thankfully, these assistive devices, apps, and inborn phone features (which can be turned on and off at the user’s request) can make life a little less difficult, and a little more rewarding. These features enable users to bypass or workaround their disability and interact with the world as they speak, shop, travel, or browse the internet.

Deaf Individuals Prefer to Text and Send Video Messages
Deaf individuals seldom use the call function feature on their cell phone; they prefer to text.  The first phone which allowed people to text easily was the Sidekick, which came out in 2002. Since then, email and instant messaging apps have equalized the playing field, as have subtexts/subtitles available on all YouTube videos.

Technology like Skype, Facetime, WhatsApp, Viber, and Facebook Messenger enable video calls - enabling deaf individuals to use American Sign Language (ASL) when talking to other deaf persons. You can check out this heart-wrenching promo for Motion Savvy, an application that uses a specialized camera to track ASL, then speaks what you just signed to a hearing person you are trying to have a conversation with. These technologies are giving individuals greater integration into the world.

“Email, texts and instant messaging all have made my interactions with hearing people much, much easier. On the other hand, mobile technology is still more limited than fixed technology such as computers,” said Don Grushkin, professor of Deaf Studies, California State University, Sacramento.

Blind Individuals Rely On Screen Readers
Since visually impaired individuals cannot see the icons on the screen, the phone must be activated with a device called a screen reader. A screen reader’s main function is to read the text that is displayed on the screen, verbalizing what the user is doing as he or she navigates the touch screen. For blind individuals, smartphones and modern operating systems offer on-screen narrators and voice recognition that allows integration with a Braille output device.

Apps are vital and enable blind persons to navigate through a “sight-first” world; apps can be used to scan the barcodes of products in the supermarket, as well as check whether a light is turned on in the house or now. These apps respond with audio labels, and although they are better on desktop devices, they are still being used on mobile phones as well. The most famous talk-back screen readers are Job Access With Speech (JAWS) and Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA). 

Final Thoughts
If you are deaf or blind, you can start to become connected to the digital world by turning on all the accessibility features on your phone. You’d be surprised how much is available just by doing this. If, after turning on all accessibility features (through your Settings) you still find that you need some features, then should you start shopping around for the aforementioned assistive devices.

These applications make the playing field a lot more level, enabling blind and deaf individuals to naturally integrate into society. Through the use of assistive technologies, screen readers, and applications, people can get to where they need to go.

About the Author: Edwin Medina, President of In Motion Mobility has 19 years of experience in the mobility industry. His commitment to delivering the best products and services to his clients, many of whom have placed their trust in him for decades, led him to open In Motion Mobility in 2014. In his spare time, he enjoys spending time with his family and traveling.

Edited by Ken Briodagh

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