Maria Rios, 66, woke up at 6am. She got out of bed in her little second floor apartment on the north side of Central Park, and checked her iPhone for the weather. Then she felt around in her closet, where she had marked her navy blue garments with safety pins, to tell them apart from her black ones. In the adjacent room, her roommate Lynette Tatum, 49, picked out a white sweater and dark denim slacks. She used her VizWiz iPhone app to take a photograph and send it to a customer-service rep who lets her know what color the item is.
For the visually impaired community, the introduction of the iPhone in 2007 seemed at first like a disaster — the standard-bearer of a new generation of smartphones was based on touch screens that had no physical differentiation. It was a flat piece of glass. But soon enough, word started to spread: The iPhone came with a built-in accessibility feature. Still, members of the community were hesitant.
But no more. For its fans and advocates in the visually-impaired community, the iPhone has turned out to be one of the most revolutionary developments since the invention of Braille. That the iPhone and its world of apps have transformed the lives of its visually impaired users may seem counter-intuitive — but their impact is striking.
Watching Rios and Tatum navigate the world with the aid of their iPhones is a lesson in the transformative and often unpredictable impacts that technology has on our lives. After getting dressed, they strap on their backpacks, canes in hand, and walk out the door. They can’t see the sign someone hung in the elevator, informing them the building is switching to FIOS, but the minute they’re outside the fact they can’t see is a minor detail. They use Sendero — “an app made for the blind, by the blind,” says Tatum — an accessible GPS that announces the user’s current street, city, cross street, and nearby points of interest.