Using cell phones to see the world

New mobile phones for the blind open new economic vistas

Michael Fitzgerald By Michael Fitzgerald

Amidst all the fears that our lives are too intertwined with computers, it’s easy to forget that digital technology really can improve lives.

Along comes Georgie, software that makes it easier for blind and visually impaired people to use smart phones.

The interface for Georgie features enlarged buttons to help the visually impaired. (Screenreader.net)

The software was developed by Roger and Margaret Wilson-Hinds – married, blind and retired British teachers. They started a non-profit company, Screenreader, to create technology that aids in “mitigating isolation, helping people to read, write and keep in touch with friends, family and what is going on in the world.”

The two are older than your typical technology entrepreneurs – he is 72 and she is 62. If you reversed their ages, they’d still be too old for Silicon Valley’s youth-focused tech hit machine. Granted, Silicon Valley doesn’t care about innovations aimed at a niche consumer market.

As Roger Wilson-Hinds said to Metro, Georgie is “the first smartphone that’s been designed for blind people by blind people. Other smartphones work for blind people in some ways but that doesn’t make it as easy to use as it could be.”

See more on what he means:

Blind smart phone users are a niche market, though the BBC reports that, in the United Kingdom, two million people are visually impaired and 360,000 are totally blind.

Despite advances in technology, using smart phones is a challenge for blind people. The BBC talked to Robin Spinks, principal manager for digital accessibility at the Royal National Institute of Blind People, who said, “Research continues to show that many blind and partially-sighted people struggle with the complexity of today’s smartphone technology.”

Alan Kemp, the computer scientist who spearheaded Georgie, told Metro that “both Apple and Google have provided what they believe accessibility should be, but to be perfectly honest it’s not terribly adequate.”

Kemp said it was a challenge for someone like him, who is not blind, “to understand the kind of issues that blind and visually impaired people face on a daily basis.”

Georgie enables smart phones with features like a compass that talks when you are walking and audible information on bus or train schedules. And Wilson-Hinds can send text messages for the first time in his life.

The software can work on any Android device, though it’s targeted at certain Samsung and Motorola handsets. It costs about $39. Phones are also available with the software built-in.

Should we warn the blind that they are better off not being sucked into their phones, not becoming another data point for someone to analyze? In the end, we are social creatures. Humans value the ability to communicate on our own terms. For blind people, being able to engage more effectively with those around them is a plus, not a minus. 

Straight to the Source