Cyber Grandmas—Using iPhones to Make Blind Life Easier

When I’m not listening to punk rock, helping my dad set the thermostat, or reading audiobooks, I do occasionally make an attempt to contribute to society. I talk at local blind support groups about using technology.

Most of the groups I visit are at retirement communities, and many attendees are seniors with very limited technical knowledge. It’s a simple fact that most people over 70 missed out on the computer revolution. Seniors with a recent diagnosis of macular degeneration or some other late-onset vision disorder face a real challenge in learning adaptive technology. Many are struggling to adapt to blindness. In my talks, I hope to give them some sense of how a smartphone can help them live independently.

I’m not saying that these senior citizens are completely tech-ignorant—far from it. Let me tell you about my visit to Senior Meadows Retirement Home.

Never Take the Default Route

To get to Silver Meadows, I used the Moovit app to find a bus route arriving in time for the meeting. After the bus let me off, I told SIRI to open BlindSquare, and used it to obtain turn-by-turn walking directions from Google Maps. I entered Silver Meadows with a confident swagger, already congratulating myself for independently finding my destination, thanks in no small part to my exemplary use of navigational technology and my highly refined orientation and mobility skills. Wow! What an accomplished blind person I am!

Once inside the building, a helpful staff member directed me to the meeting room. As I navigated around some chairs and an oxygen tank, I introduced myself to the support group, Betsy, Emma, and Annie. All three were in their mid-80s. Betsy and Emma both had macular degeneration, and Annie had diabetic retinopathy.

With a smug grin on my face, I used my iPhone like a talking clock. I hit the home button and listened to VoiceOver announce the time. I apologized to the group for cutting it so close and explained the bus had let me off a half-mile away and it took me longer than expected to walk from there.

“Well, you should have taken route 263,” said Annie, who then paused to inhale from her oxygen tank. “It would have let you off a block away.”

Excellent! This was a great opportunity for me to talk about the Moovit app, and how it selected the optimal bus route for an on-time arrival.

“Moovit?” asked Betsy. “Oh, that explains it. You didn’t look at the full list of routes, you just took the first route and that stuck you with a long walk. I almost never take the default route. The 263 probably came earlier.”

She was right. By default, Moovit sorts by what it thinks is the best route and doesn’t necessarily minimize walking distance. However, there is an option to sort by Least Walking. When specifying the destination, just swipe write to the More Options button, then select Least Walking for the route type. Had I known that, I would have arrived a bit early, but I would’ve saved myself a long walk in the summer heat.

Undaunted, I went back to the fact that my iPhone just told me the time. “Your smartphone can replace literally dozens of blind gadgets that might cost thousands of dollars.” I went on to list several—a talking clock, a digital talking book player, a GPS unit, and a handheld magnifier.

Emma smiled and chimed in with, “A voice recorder! And a calculator!”

Betsy went further. “I don’t even remember the last time I launched the calculator app,” she said. “I just ask SIRI. ‘What’s 24 divided by 3?’ or ‘How many cups in a gallon?’”

“SIRI knows metric too!” said Emma.

“Right, uh,” I stammered. Wow, these ladies were on top of things.

Sounds Like a Pain in the Neck

Next, I told them that your smartphone can read printed text to you. I took out a piece of junk mail and used KNFB Reader to read the name and address from the envelope.

“You have to tell it when you want to take a picture of the text?” Annie asked, then wheezed as she inhaled from her oxygen tank. “Sounds like a pain in the neck.” Okay, she didn’t actually say neck.

“That’s much harder to use than Seeing AI," said Betsy. “Here, let me show you.” She took the junk mail from me, told SIRI on her phone to open Seeing AI, and it almost instantly read the name and address out loud.

Wow, I thought, that’s a lot more convenient than KNFB Reader. “What kind of phone do you have?” I asked.

“It’s an iPhone 7,” she said. “Seeing AI requires at least an iPhone 6.”

“Oh, bummer, I have an iPhone SE,” I replied, thinking my SE wasn’t good enough to run the app.

“That should work!” beamed Emma. “The iPhone SE is just an iPhone 6 in the iPhone 5 body size.” Oh. Lesson learned.

There was a pause in the conversation. They all seemed to be smiling patiently, waiting for me to tell them something they didn’t already know.

Amish Life

For my next topic, I took out a box of rice from my backpack. I explained that I was going to use the Digit-Eyes app to scan the box’s barcode and tell me what box I had.

“I use Seeing AI for that, too,” said Betsy. “Can I show you?” I handed her the box. She flicked up until Seeing AI was in product channel, then aimed her phone’s camera at the box. Her phone made a sort of radar sound as the bar code came into the camera’s field of view, then said “Spanish rice”.

“Amish life?” asked Annie.

“No,” said Betsy a little louder, “SPANISH RICE.” Annie reached up and adjusted her hearing aids.

Betsy swiped over to the More button and selected it. Her phone proceeded to read directions for preparing the rice. “I can’t live without this,” she said, as she handed the box of rice back to me.

You Read Apple Insider, Don’t You?

Next, I started to describe navigation apps. I told them how I used BlindSquare to find their building. It tells your walking direction, nearby intersections, nearby shops, and how you can get turn-by-turn directions with a map app. Already having been schooled on my choice of bus route, I feared I wasn’t telling them anything new. I was right.

Betsy asked if I had heard of Autour. “It’s a free app.”

“Oh, Autour.” I cleared my throat and prepared to tell them why Autour was a bad choice. “Autour uses stereo output, so you have to wear earbuds for it to work. Blind people shouldn’t navigate while using earbuds, because it blocks the sounds that give us clues about our environment.”

“That’s not a problem is you use bone conducting headphones. I use the Trekz Air," Betsy said. “Apple doesn’t make bone conducting earbuds.”

“Not yet,” said Emma, “but they’re working on it! I read about Apple’s research into bone conducting earbuds at “You read Apple Insider, don’t you, Paul?”

“I don’t have bone conducting earbuds,” said Annie, pausing to inhale more oxygen from her tank. “But Autour works great with my Bluetooth stereo hearing aids.”

I shrunk noticeably in my seat.

Hacking Seeing AI to Identify Currency

Now terrified, I launched into the next part of my talk.

“Uh… Did you know your phone can identify currency?” They waited politely while I pulled a twenty out of my wallet and identified it using NantMobile Money Reader. “Twenty dollars,” my phone said. “Twenty dollars.”

I heard Betsy open Seeing AI again. She flicked the app into the Person channel, then pointed it at my $20 bill. “Andrew Jackson,” her phone said, correctly naming the face of the long-dead president on the US $20 bill.

“Samuel L. Jackson?” asked Annie.

“No,” said Betsy loudly, “ANDREW Jackson.” Annie adjusted her hearing aids again.

“What the…?” I stammered. “How does Seeing AI know which president is on paper money?”

“It’s the face recognition feature,” she answered. “I taught it to recognize the faces on money to work around the fact that the currency identification feature isn’t implemented yet. It works pretty well. You just have to hold the bill right, but there are only four ways you can hold it, so it’s fine.”

Why Don’t You Just Four-Finger Single Tap?

Humbled, I was afraid to open my mouth again. “Well, what else do you folks do with your smartphones?” I asked.

“I use it for reading. I have both BARD Mobile and the Audible app.” said Emma.

“I have Audible too, plus the Kindle app,” said Betsy. It’s not a recorded human voice like Audible books. I use VoiceOver to read the text.”

“I use the Uber app for rides,” said Annie, “but that last driver was so rude,” she inhaled, “I wanted to strangle him with the cord from my oxygen tank.”

Betsy explained. “Yes, sometimes the drivers aren’t prepared for vision impaired passengers. Annie, you’re lucky all you had was an oxygen tank and not a guide dog.”

“Oh!” exclaimed Emma. “And I use SIRI on my phone for grocery lists! And reminders!”

“And calendar events,” said Betsy.

Putting on my big boy pants, I tried one more time to show them something that, maybe, they didn’t already know. “Um… Have you seen the Facebook app?” I asked. I opened the app and swiped right through the contents of my news feed, then swiped left several times to get back up to the top.

“You seem like a nice young man,” said Betsy, “but I don’t know why you swipe left so much. Why don’t you just 4-finger single tap at the top of the screen?” For the next five minutes, I got a lesson in advanced VoiceOver navigation. Betsy showed me that a four-finger single tap at the top or bottom of the screen jumps focus to the first and last controls. I guess you learn something everyday, and some days, you learn a lot of things.

I nervously checked the time again, and much to my relief, noticed that our session was nearly over. They surprised me by thanking me for attending their support group and bringing so much information. “No,” I said, “I should thank you. This meeting has been very educational for me.”

As I walked out of the room, I heard Annie say, “I told you he wouldn’t teach us anything.”

“You were right,” said Betsy. “I guess I lose that bet. I owe you $5.”

Annie inhaled from her oxygen tank and said, “Send it to me with Apple Pay.”

Please Tell Me Something Else I Don’t Know

This was based on a true story. I often learn a lot while demonstrating Apple products at local blind support groups. But there’s always more to learn. If three cyber-smart grandmas at a senior center can teach me some tricks, I’m sure you can, too. Let me know how you use Apple products to make blind life easier in the comments below.

Paul Martz lives in the greater Denver area, where he gets lessons in technology from many senior citizens



Submitted by Morgan Watkins on Thursday, December 14, 2017

Yikes, these ladies taught me quite a bit, too. I really enjoyed your presentation and now I need to follow up on what your story has taught me. Thanks for an entertaining blog.

Submitted by Ekaj on Thursday, December 14, 2017

Paul, thanks for a wonderful post. I haven't done much in the way of talking to people about all the assistive tech I've used, but I have done some of this. Many years ago I started doing this at a local senior center but it never really got off the ground for some reason. I did this one time at a Webelos den meeting and brought some Braille stuff and the talking watch I had at the time. I wish I could say the same about my job, but that's only partially true. I have been part of a team that conducts disability-awareness trainings, and I briefly touch on Section 508. But I only barely scratch the surface. When I asked about going deeper into this subject, I was told in no uncertain terms that they didn't want this. Yet they are a cross-disability organization. Go figure. But anyway, I might get to do some of this if I get this new job offer and take it. I'm so proud that all this assistive technology is out there today and has been advancing at a steady pace. I am hopefully getting my first iPhone for Christmas or my birthday next year. All right then, enough waffling about for now. I'm going to bed in a bit, but did want to end with just one thing. I've had my MacBook since the end of 2013 and could not be happier with it.

Submitted by Nicholas on Thursday, December 14, 2017

Hi Paul,
Really nice post! I have had similar situations with elderly clients whom I thought would be techno-frights. They ended up talking circles around me. My prep for those clients increased dramatically for additional sessions. But I never had three at once before, wow!
I really enjoyed this and learned a lot. I have read it twice and am going back for another. Thank you, very mnice!
Best regards.

Submitted by Roxann Pollard on Thursday, December 14, 2017

Thanks Paul for a very amusing and insightful blog. Those old gals certainly taught you and me a thing or two. Keep em coming.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Friday, December 15, 2017

Update: Almost to the hour of posting this blog, Seeing AI released a new version that finally support identifying currency. No more "Andrew Jackson"! However, I must admit, using the face recognition feature was a pretty slick hack...

Submitted by Lynne on Friday, December 15, 2017

Wow! here I thought you were simply going to rattle off the things you taught the ladies and they wound up teaching you a thing or two. Magnificent! I like to say that we older crowd just might not be the nubies people think we are!

Thank you for a brilliant post and I look forward to reading future submissions.

Submitted by PaulMartz on Saturday, December 16, 2017

In reply to by Lynne

I've come a long way since I first turned on VoiceOver, but there's always more to learn. Regardless of age, we can learn from each other. I hope I continue to learn lessons in accessible tech from those who have outpaced me in both smarts and age.

Submitted by Holger Fiallo on Friday, December 29, 2017

This what happens when we make assuntions about others. When we think we know more than others we learn less. Good lesson to learn about not doing so.