Mobile Screen Reader 101: How a Blind Person Uses a Smartphone

September 1, 2021
Hands on a phone with Braille reader below. Credit: Michel Erriens

Screen Reader 101 discusses the basics of using a screen reader and getting started with one on a computer. This sparks interest and conversations as it reveals that blind people like me not only use computers but also use smartphones. People are surprised when they learn that I could use a smartphone with a touchscreen.

In response, here I share how I use the VoiceOver screen reader on my iPhone. Voiceover is a built-in accessibility feature on Apple devices like the iPhone. It is a text-to-speech screen reading app that people use to navigate the iOS environment. VoiceOver makes it possible for a blind person like me to make phone calls, manage text messages, navigate mobile apps, and more.

How do I do it? Allow me to indulge you by answering the questions I’ve received.

What happens when you turn on VoiceOver on the iPhone?

When you turn on VoiceOver, it transforms the way you use your iPhone. To activate it on the iPhone, go to Settings and select Accessibility and then Voiceover. The most notable change is you’ll hear a robotic voice in the background.

The voice can be changed by tweaking the VoiceOver preferences. You can change the speaking rate to be faster or slower. The voice can be male or female in the language you prefer.

The next big change is how you interact with the phone. The most basic example is the “single tap” gesture. Without VoiceOver, this is the activate gesture. It’s similar to what the Enter key does on a physical keyboard.

With VoiceOver turned on, single tapping will no longer activate anything. Its job is to help you move around your screen. On the home screen, for example, a single tap selects the tapped icon. To open the app behind the icon, you will need to tap it twice.

This is one of a few gesture changes that occur after turning on VoiceOver. The easiest way to get familiar with the changed gestures is to use the practice feature. To try it, turn on VoiceOver and then select VoiceOver Practice. Another option is to simply do a four-finger double tap on your screen to activate practice mode. To turn it off, scrub your screen with two fingers.

How do blind people type on a touchscreen phone?

People ask if I use a special kind of iPhone with braille dots, do I ask someone to type for me, or other similar questions. There are different ways to type on an iPhone. This depends on the user’s preference. The most conventional way is to type the same way sighted people do. I use the on-screen keyboard.

Here are three options for typing:

  • Direct touch typing: Similar to how sighted people type.
  • Touch typing: Press a key and release to activate.
  • Standard typing: Double0tap each key or character to activate.

Personally, I use the touch-typing method. No one can say that one is better than the other. It depends on which style is most comfortable for the person. One thing they all have in common is that it requires memorizing the placement and the position of each key on the virtual keyboard. And by the way, there are no phones with Braille dots.

Another option for typing is to use an external Bluetooth keyboard. This might be a good option when you’re not up and about. The downside is that it requires a separate purchase.

You can also type by using dictation. This is a great feature for native English speakers. However, for non-native English speakers like me, using this can be a challenge. It doesn’t do well with my Philippine accent.

Dictation is similar to using Siri to enter messages. Dictation and Siri are both sensitive to accents and the pronunciation of English words. Speaking of Siri, this brings up the next question.

Is Siri useful?

Without a doubt, Siri is useful. Siri’s recent enhancements are uncontested. It can still be sensitive when it comes to accents, diction, and pronunciation. However, it is fairly usable for most tasks for non-native English speakers like me.

I don’t use Siri to type messages. I use Siri when I am not holding my phone and want to make a call. I also set reminders, which is easier to do by speaking out loud rather than manually going to the reminder app. The same is true for when I am setting an alarm.

Siri is most useful for quick random questions. Asking about the dollar to peso conversion rate for the day, for example. I also use it for simple math calculations like adding or multiplying. I ask Siri and get an answer right away.

Siri also comes in handy when I want to do a quick web search. It instantly gives me an answer or a link to an article that answers my question.

The last and my favorite thing about Siri is when I’m outdoors or when I’m in the car. Rather than constantly asking people where we are, I’ll fire up Siri and ask, “Where am I?” and Siri announces my exact location.

I love Siri because it reduces the burden of manually typing. It also makes it easier to do tasks when I’m outdoors or not holding my phone.

What gesture is most helpful?

I’ll share my top three gestures. One is the double tap, the second is the two-finger double-tap, and the third is the four-finger single tap on either top or bottom part of the screen.

As mentioned before, the double-tap activates the command. This is what I use to open an app and execute any command. The two-finger double-tap works in multiple applications, such as for receiving and ending a call. This same gesture can pause and play audio and video.

The four-finger single tap at the top part of the screen will bring the focus to the element or icon in the top-left part of the screen. The four-finger single tap at the bottom does the opposite as it brings the focus to the lower right part of the element or content on the screen.

This gesture is important because I use a larger phone. The iPhone 11 is slightly bigger than what I was used to. The four-finger single tap gesture helps a lot while navigating. It brings the focus back on top or at the bottom. It’s a simple way to reorient myself.

Which is better: touch screen or traditional keypad phones?

The answer depends on the situation. The touchscreen is definitely better when it comes to efficiency and capability. It’s like having your computer in the palm of your hands. The things that you can do are limitless.

The downside of touchscreen phones is typing. Some blind people can type fast on the onscreen keyboard but not all blind users can. Typing can be challenging especially when outdoors.

This downside is where the old keypad phones have an advantage. If you want the ease of use and convenience, the keypad phone is for you. This is perfect for those who want a phone with a text function. They’re also more battery-efficient. However, the ultimate challenge for these phones is the availability of compatible screen readers. Unlike smartphones, the assistive tools for these old phones are not built-in.

The learning curve in transitioning from a keypad phone to a smartphone is steep. It can be intimidating at first. It’ll require a lot of learning and practicing. But once you master these new phones, there’s just no turning back. And that is me, talking from experience.

This evolution of technology can only do so much. As powerful as they are, they can be useless for blind users like me when there are no accessibility and inclusion features. In this case, the key is for the mobile apps to be accessible.

Photo credit: Michel Arriens

Consultant | Manila, Philippines
God's Warrior, Accessibility Ninja, Health and Wellness Enthusiast, Writer...

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