Blind Advocates Share Vision of Smarter Tech

Smartphones, with their big screens and few buttons, would seem to be designed exclusively for those who can see. However, many of China’s estimated 8 million blind people are nonetheless enthusiastic users. Taking advantage of software that turns what’s on the screen into spoken text, they can do pretty much anything sighted people can.

“Smartphones are essential,” said Chen Yan in an interview with Sixth Tone. Chen, born visually impaired and now completely without vision, is the chairwoman of a local Beijing association for the blind and the author of a book on what it’s like to be blind. She relies on screen-reading software, for example, to use the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat. However, many apps she uses don’t always work well with screen-reading software, and go silent, or crash.

That’s the pitfall for blind people: All too often smartphone producers and app makers overlook their visually impaired users and neglect the functions they need the most. Luckily, tech-savvy watchdogs are making sure developers don’t forget about them.

A pioneer of this movement is Gu Linglei. Blind since birth, Gu has turned his disability and enthusiasm for electronics — also lifelong — into something of a mission. Ever since he taught himself how to use a computer, and later a smartphone, Gu has been trying to improve the experience for blind people by writing special software, giving advice, and teaching classes. Also, whenever he runs into an app or a website that cannot be used easily by visually impaired people, Gu tries to convince the developer to make its product more accessible.

Visually impaired people like Gu interact with computers and smartphones by having a voice read out what’s on the screen. On a computer they use the keyboard to select a certain element, such as the address bar in a browser or a block of text on a website, which the software then describes out loud. Smartphones work similarly. Gu’s iPhone is set to “VoiceOver” mode, which allows him to select elements by swiping left or right anywhere on the screen.

This might sound time-consuming, but the screen reader speaks surprisingly fast. Set at its top speed, Gu’s iPhone rattles off five syllables per second. Nonetheless, the visually impaired community is constantly asking Apple to speed it up. Gu’s computer, comprehensible only to trained ears, speaks nearly twice as fast.

Screen-reading software such as Apple’s VoiceOver relies on programmers properly labeling everything they create, something they often neglect to do. For an example of an app that is inaccessible to blind people, Gu shows a news app that opens with a welcome message and a “Skip” button. But of course, Gu cannot see this. Due to sloppy programming, the screen reader cannot find this button either, and when Gu moves his fingers across the screen, all he hears are error sounds. (The app’s developers have promised to address this issue.)

To read the rest of this article, published in Sixth Tone, please click here.