Education: Vision for the future

Martin Levins
18 December, 2010
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Did you know that there’s only one computer on the market that a visually impaired person can take out of its box, plug in and use without recourse to assistance?

Mac does this. So does an iPhone, an iPod touch or an iPad.

“Apple stuff gives me the independence to do everything I need to do,” says Vision Australia senior adaptive technology consultant David Woodbridge. He’s referring to Voiceover here – start up a new Mac out of the box and it will ask you if you want to use Voiceover to set it up if keyboard input is not detected.

Connect a mobile device and you can do the same thing – set everything up, including re-installing operating systems, without needing to rope your sighted mates in.

There’s a nice demo where you can put yourself in the place of a visually impaired person at the Vision Australia website. Listen to the ‘Accessibility out of the box’ presentation where the default voice, Alex, speaks the slides in a presentation, followed by David describing how he uses Voiceover technologies (you can also hear more at

These technologies have come a long way since MacinTalk in 1984, then PlainTalk in the early ‘90s, migrating to Voiceover when Leopard first pounced on our screens.

I recently met up with David to work through workplace solutions and discovered a lot about the man, his mission and vision impairment.

For a start, he explains that blind is not the same as low vision: the nature of the software/hardware is different in nature and use for each, although there is some crossover in use.

On the Windows side, software such as OpenBook or Jaws are third-party, paid solutions that use audio prompting and keyboard shortcuts like Control–F7.

Voiceover has an approach similar to this, but it’s the built-in nature of the product and the advent of multi-touch, (now with the trackpad on desktops), that has changed this landscape considerably.

David says his favourite gestures on his iPad and iPhone include triple-tapping with three fingers to get a ‘screen curtain’ that blanks the screen, providing privacy, and triple-clicking the Home key which will toggle the device between a Voiceover activated and ‘normal’ state.

This last is particularly relevant whenever devices (or their audio output) are shared. David recounts a situation where a PC used by a blind person was muted by their sighted partner, and David’s support visit to that client had to be abandoned. There was nothing that could be done without a sighted support person to un-mute the computer.

“On my Mac I just press a function key, or I triple-click Home on my iPad, if I’m ever in that situation,” he says.

He shows me many other options such as the ‘rotor’ that will allow a twisting thumb and forefinger gesture to flip through web pages by header, link, input field and so forth, then read the ensuing contents.

There were some other tricks he showed me as well, such as selecting text, then using the services menu to ‘Add to iTunes as a spoken track’ providing a narrated speaking book that can be loaded onto your iPhone or iPad.

For low-vision users, iPhones and iPads can also have their font size made up to 56 point for Contacts, Mail, Messages and Notes.

The only essential that is missing here is iCal which can’t have it’s font sizes changed on the Mac either – aarrgh!

Apple, you’ve done such a great job (described at, but can you make iCal accessible too?

This article originally appeared in the November issue of Australian Macworld magazine.

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