The little-known iPhone feature that lets blind people see with their fingers
March 10, 2017
A few years ago, backstage at a conference, I spotted a blind woman using her
phone. The phone was speaking everything her finger touched on the screen,
allowing her to tear through her apps. My jaw hit the floor. After years of
practice, she had cranked the voiceâs speed so high, I couldnât understand
a word it was saying.
And hereâs the kicker: She could do all of this with the screen turned off.
Her phoneâs battery lasted forever.
Ever since that day, Iâve been like a kid at a magic show. Iâve wanted to
know how itâs done. Iâve wanted an inside look at how the blind could
navigate a phone thatâs basically a slab of featureless glass.
This week, I got my chance. Joseph Danowsky offered to spend a morning with me,
showing me the ropes.
Joe majored in economics at the University of Pennsylvania, got a law degree at
Harvard, worked in the legal department at Bear Stearns, became head of
solutions at Barclays Wealth, and is now a private-client banker at US Trust.
He commutes to New York from his home in New Jersey.
Joe was born with cone-rod dystrophy. He can see general shapes and colors, but
no detail. (Only about 10 or 15 percent of visually impaired people see no
light or color at all.) He canât read a computer screen or printed materials,
recognize faces, read street signs or building numbers, or drive. And he
certainly canât see whatâs on his phone.
Yet Joe spends his entire day on his iPhone. In fact, he calls it âprobably
the number one assistive device for people who canât see,â right up there
with âa cane and a seeing eye dog.â
The key to all of this is an iPhone (AAPL) feature called VoiceOver. At its
heart, itâs a screen readerâsoftware that makes the phone speak everything
you touch. (Androidâs TalkBack feature is similar in concept, but blind users
find it far less complete; for example, it doesnât work in all apps.)
You turn on VoiceOver in Settings -> General -> Accessibility. If you turn on
VoiceOver, you hear a female voice begin reading the names of the controls she
sees on the screen. You can adjust the Speaking Rate of the synthesized voice.
Thereâs a lot to learn in VoiceOver mode; people like Joe have its various
gestures committed to muscle memory, so that they can operate with incredible
speed and confidence.
But the short version is that you touch anything on the screenâicons, words,
even status icons at the top; as you go, the voice tells you what youâre
tapping. âMessages.â âCalendar.â âMailâ14 new items.â â45
percent battery power.â You can tap the dots on the Home screen, and youâll
hear, âPage 3 of 9.â
You donât even have to lift your finger; you can just slide it around,
getting the lay of the land.
Once youâve tapped a screen element, you can also flick your finger left or
rightâanywhere on the screenâto âwalkâ through everything on the
screen, left to right, top to bottom.
Ordinarily, you tap something on the screen to open it. But since
single-tapping now means âspeak this,â you need a new way to open
everything. So: To open something youâve just heard identified, you double
tap. (You donât have to wait for the voice to finish talking.) In fact, you
can double-tap anywhere on the screen; since the phone already knows whatâs
currently âhighlighted,â itâs like pressing the Enter key.
There are all kinds of other special gestures in VoiceOver. You can make the
voice stop speaking with a two-finger tap; read everything, in sequence, from
the top of the screen with a two-finger upward flick; scroll one page at a time
with a three-finger flick up or down; go to the next or previous screen (Home,
Stocks, and so on) with a three-finger flick left or right; and more.
If you do a three-finger triple-tap, you turn on Screen Curtain, meaning that
the screen goes black. You gain visual privacy as well as a heck of a battery
boost. (Repeat to turn the screen back on.)
Joe, however, doesnât see that battery boost, since heâs on the phone all
day long. In fact, heâs equipped his phone with one of those backup-battery
Joe also demonstrated for me the Rotor: a brilliant solution to a thorny
problem. There are dozens of settings to control in a screen reader like
VoiceOver: voice, gender, language, volume, speaking speed, verbosity, and so
on. How do you make all of these options available in a concise form that you
can call up from within any appâespecially for people who canât see
controls on the screen?
The Rotor is an imaginary dial. It appears when you twist two fingers on the
screen as if you were turning an actual dial.
Each ânotchâ around the dial represents a different setting you might want
to change: Characters, Words, Speech Rate, Volume, Punctuation, Zoom, and so on.
<img alt="The VoiceOver Rotor." class="StretchedBox W(100%) H(100%) ie-7_H(a)"
The Rotor: Quick access to common voice and reader settings in any app.
âLetâs say we want VoiceOver to read word by word, because thereâs
something there that we want to hear spelled. We bring up the Rotor,â Joe
told me. âItâs a deep menu system. And I can choose what Iâm putting
there, and the order. There are 20 or 30 items that could go on the Rotor.â
Once youâve dialed up a setting, you can get VoiceOver to move from one item
to another by flicking a finger up or down. For example, if youâve chosen
Volume from the Rotor, then you make the playback volume louder or quieter with
each flick up or down. If youâve chosen Zoom, then each flick adjusts the
The Rotor is especially important if youâre reading on the web. It lets you
jump among web page elements like pictures, headings, links, text boxes, and so
on. Use the Rotor to choose, for example, imagesâthen you can flick up and
down from one picture to the next on that page.
A day in the life
Joe walked me through a typical day, starting with a check of the weather and
the train schedule, followed by a scan of his To Do list and email Inbox; on
the train, he might read the news or listen to a podcast, audiobook, or music.
Through the workday, he has a few other tricks:
âThereâs another gesture, called scrubbing. You take two fingers, and you
kind of Z-line it. It means, âGo Back.â
âGetting a cab is very hard for me to do. Iâll be standing on the street
corner, and people look at me and say, âWhat is this guy doing?â They
donât see that Iâm visually impaired, that I canât see if somebodyâs
inside the cab! But now, I call a Lyft car or an Uber car, and itâs saying,
âThe car is 2 minutes awayâ; I just call him. Iâm gonna say to the
driver, âIâm on this corner, Iâve got a blue shirt on, Iâve got a
briefcase. I canât recognize you, so just yell out to me when you get
âItâs also kinda cool to be able to project my photos to a huge TV screen.
Thereâs a lot I can see if I get in really close to the screen.â
If he needs to read a printed document, Joe uses called Kurzweilâs KNFB
Reader app. As I watched, he used it to photograph a printed letter; instantly,
the app converted the image to text and began reading it aloud, with
This was very cool: âIf Iâm in my office and put my headphones on, Iâm
hearing the phone call and Iâm hearing what VoiceOver is saying, all through
the headphones. But the person on the other end cannot hear any of the
VoiceOver stuff. You donât know what Iâm reading, what Iâm doing. I can
do all these complicated things without you hearing it. Thatâs whatâs
really incredible. If you and I were working together on a three-way call, and
you were to text me, âLetâs wrap this upâ or âDonât bring that up on
this callââI would know, but the other guy wouldnât hear it.
Joe showed me how he takes photos. As he holds up the iPhone, VoiceOver tells
him what heâs seeing: âOne face. Centered. Focus lock,â and so on. Later,
as heâs reviewing his photos in the Camera Roll, VoiceOver once again tells
him what heâs looking at: âOne face; slightly blurry.â
âIf a cab or an Uber lets me off somewhere, and Iâm not sure which way is
uptown, I open the Compass app. Since NYC is a nice grid, it lets me know which
way Iâm walking.â
âOr I might just say to Siri, âWhere am I?â She tells me exactly where I
Joe uses a lot of text macros. Heâs set one up that says, for example,
âWhere are you?â when he types.
He knows the positions of all his appsâ iconsâbut often, heâll just say
to Siri, âOpen Calendarâ (or whatever).
The big picture
I asked Joe if thereâs anything heâd ask Apple to improve in VoiceOver.
âThe biggest problem with the iPhone is when you use it a lot, you need a
bigger battery. Iâm using it all the time. If the phone were just a little
thicker, to accommodate a double battery, thatâd be a nice thing. Iâm also
a little disappointed they did away with the standard headphone jack, because
when you use it a lot, you need to charge it all the time [and the new earbuds
plug into the Lightning charging jack].â
I pointed out that none of his complaints about the iPhone have anything to do
with accessibility. Theyâre the same complaints we all have.
âI know,â he said, laughing. âVoiceOver is very consistent and itâs
extremely good. Thereâs no problem with VoiceOver.â
(The Associated Services for the Blind and Visually Impaired would undoubtedly
agree; in January, it gave Apple its Louis Braille Award.)
And how about society? What donât we understand? What drives him crazy?
âStop grabbing my arm when Iâm crossing the street,â or âStop talking
louder to meâ?
âI have to tell you, there arenât that many anymore, surprisingly,â he
replied. âAs more visually impaired people enter the workforce, there
arenât too many things, honestly.â
Thereâs an age gap in awareness of these accessibility features, too. âWhat
I find is, people who are older, in their 70s, who have macular degeneration
and could benefit from this, donât,â Joe says. âI donât know why. To
me, itâs so intuitive and fast and easy.â
Well, hereâs the bright side: Maybe Joeâs story will help get the word out.
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in
the Comments below. On the web, heâs davidpogue.com. On Twitter, heâs
@pogue. On email, heâs poguester@xxxxxxxxx. You can read all his articles
here or you can sign up to get his columns by email.
Sent from my iPhone
The fb-exchange mailing list
Manage account, subscribe or unsubscribe:
Administrative contact: insight@xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx