Is Your Phone Even On? Bridging the Gap Between Blind and Sighted

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

I flick around the screen, double-tapping when I want to select something. As I do so, VoiceOver's speech comes through my Aftershokz headset, which I wear most of the time. That makes me a cyborg, or so I'm told. Nothing is showing on my screen. "Is your phone on?" One of the students on my course at university once asked me, as I called a taxi. "The screen is black." Or as one train manager once remarked, as I was searching for my E-ticket to show him, "That phone doesn't look very awake." Of course, I turned my screen on, so he could see it, once I had my ticket displayed in the app.

It's a strange thing, the iPhone. On the one hand, there's nothing different about the iPhones blind people use. People are often surprised to hear that VoiceOver and other accessibility tools are on every handset. It has given me access to more mainstream services than I had previously. I buy books from stores that don't cater specifically to blind people, and I require no special equipment to read them. Even apps for the blind such as Seeing AI run on the same hardware every iPhone user has.

And yet, the way we use our iPhones is completely different to the way a sighted person would use them. We double-tap where the rest of the world taps once. We flick around the screen, and perform common actions by using a strange thing called the rotor. And as we use our specialist gestures, possibly with nothing showing on the screen, VoiceOver reports back to us. What VoiceOver reads to us isn't necessarily the same as what would normally appear on screen. VoiceOver says "Share button" or "settings button" but the words "share" and "settings" don't appear on screen. Instead, those buttons are represented by icons, and VoiceOver doesn't tell us what those icons are.

All of this can make it rather difficult to communicate about our technology. What if you want to help a sighted friend with their iPhone? You might be an expert VoiceOver user, but if you don't know how the buttons are represented visually, you're going to find it difficult to explain what to do. "Tap the menu button." "What menu button?" And what if you're a sighted person wanting to help a blind friend? You won't be able to tell, from what's displayed on the screen, what VoiceOver calls each icon.

We use the same devices as everybody else, but the way we use them is so different that it can be hard for people to understand how VoiceOver works, or how a blind person could possibly use a touchscreen, and, though I'm not a developer myself, I imagine it must be a challenge to make apps that work equally well for both kinds of users and write documentation that explains the app in a way that makes sense for both use cases.

What, if anything, should we do about this? Perhaps the gap is inevitable, because the only way Apple could've made their touchscreen devices accessible was to invent a new way for blind people to use them. I wouldn't want Apple to make the experience of blind and sighted users more similar if it meant making devices less accessible. Still, I think it's worth trying to find a way to bridge the communication gap. I don't have a definite answer, but I'm writing this post with the aim of starting a discussion.

Is there anything Apple, or app developers, could do? It might help if VoiceOver users had access to visual descriptions of controls. It would probably be best not to add this information to the standard button labels because most of the time, you just want to know about a button's function, not its physical appearance. It would be better to have a gesture that would give this information. However, adding this information would probably take a lot of effort, and there might be easier ways to get the same result.

My second suggestion would be for a group of us to collaborate on writing a guide that comprehensively explains the differences in the two ways of using Apple devices. It would include basic information such as the fact that a single tap with VoiceOver turned off is equivalent to a double-tap with VoiceOver turned on, and more specific information about which icons go with which Voiceover labels. That would have to be done by a person or group of people who are knowledgeable about the use of Apple devices both with and without VoiceOver. Perhaps we can make a start on getting this kind of information together in the comments.

So, what do you wish your sighted friends knew about how VoiceOver works? What do you think it would be useful for VoiceOver users to know about how people use the iPhone without VoiceOver? Developers, have you found it difficult to create apps that are easy to use both with and without VoiceOver? What are the challenges of making an app work for both types of users, and do you think Apple could do anything to make it easier, or are they already doing a good job? Please also feel free to share your stories, positive or negative, funny, frustrating or enlightening, about communicating about your use of the iPhone and other Apple devices.



Submitted by brandon armstrong on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

I have one suggestion for apple, they should put in some documentation in settings somewhere and give us a description of what the icons look like on screen.

Submitted by LaBoheme on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

not as bleak as you would believe, but first, turn screen curtain off and keep it off. how many times you tried to show your friends a photo you took and your friends just got so baffled cause there was nothing on the screen? or you told someone to call a number, show them the contact info, and they just fumbled and tapped on your screen and messed up everything? if you don't mind me saying, it's just too blind. i only turn SC on in special situations, otherwise, i keep it off. one mind think SC save battery, well, marginally. but think about it. 99.9999% of users don't use SC, and if that does cause serious battery drain, then iphone must be a very poorly designed piece of hardware.

as for communicating to sighted persons, it is very helpful describing the location of the icon. if you say something like "tap share, the button at the bottom left corner", it should be easily understood.

knowing some regularly use icons also helps. the dictation icon looks like a microphone, the more info button usually looks like a capital I, and when vo says "selected", it is usually highlighted or in different color. and of course you tell a sighted friend to tap and not double-tap, to swipe and not three-finger swipe, etc.

Submitted by Nikola Jovic on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

I believe this gap was always there, even without an IPhone, it is just somewhat more noticeable on smartphones thanks to screen curtain. On pretty much any operating system and even very often on websites, such icons are present with a label for us. Not much can be done about this, in fact it is even more difficult on Windows since unlike on a touchscreen you do not know where something is located. I don't see this being done any other way. One more example is custom actions, where you may have no idea how something is done without voiceover on, however this is a massive boost to our productivity on iOS.

Submitted by tunmi13 on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

These are what I've noticed So far in apps. Do not expect it to be 100 percent accurate.
Here's a starting list.
three ilipsesis, sometimes going diagonally: menu
A circle or even two parallel lines are usually also considered menus. VoiceOver sometimes calls them hamburger menus or circle menus.
A gear, or some sort of switch, means settings.
A trash icon will most often be a garbage can icon or some sort of bin.
The record buttons are most oftenly big red circles, or sometimes a microphone icon.
Play is usually a green icon.
Share depends. Sometimes it can be just a postbox or some sort of communication option.
Back or next buttons depend too. Sometimes they could be arrows.
Some sort of fancy I, is usually considered info.
Help is most often a question mark.

I'll update these constantly as I find new ones.

Submitted by Lysette Chaproniere on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

Thanks LaBoheme and Tunmi for the tips. If I can get enough of this kind of information together, through my own research and what people post here, I’ll compile it into a guide. I like the tip about telling people where on the screen the button is located.

Brandon I agree, having some documentation in settings would be a good idea. That way, people could find that information when they needed it, but it would be out of the way when they didn’t.

Nikola you’re probably right that our phones make an existing gap more noticeable. It’s great that we can much more often use mainstream technology, and so don’t need to buy expensive products nobody else needs, and things like rotor actions do make our devices easier to use, so I’m not complaining. What we already have works well. But now that the gap is noticeable, it’s useful to work out how to translate between the two ways of using our devices.

Submitted by Nikola Jovic on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

In reply to by Lysette Chaproniere

Lysette, it's definitely very useful to have this info available somewhere. As you mentioned in your blog post, it's often hard to give instructions to sighted people even though you know perfectly well what they need to do exactly because of this. I often find myself just doing stuff on their phones with voiceover rather than struggling with icons and how they look like. Another thing you can also do is show the icon on your phone and then they should be able to get around. For example, see, you need to press this button down here, with of course showing the location on the screen. Who remembers old days of things being simple with a keyboards on phones, just up arrow twice and then enter :)

Submitted by Ann Marie B on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Hello. A guide or also having the description of the icons in settings would be helpful. I have some funny and interesting stories with family members and the iPhone. My fiance's aunt who is sighted was ready to take her iPad to the Apple store because it was all black. I told her that screen curtain was probably turned on. I told her how to turn it off and her iPad was working again. There were also times when I assumed that the buttons are labeled the same way as VoiceOver says them. Showed my fiance's grandma how to send a message through messenger and told her to tap send and she said there is no send button but there is a green button. Funny me trying to tell people like my mom or my fiance's grandma how to do things with there Iphones by usings button lables that are nonexistent.

Submitted by Luke on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Good post and definitely something worth talking about. I applied for an Apple At-Home Advisor job a few years ago. I was told they didn’t currently have a way to adapt the tools for a blind user. I didn’t fight it because frankly the gig didn’t pay much and would’ve been a big pay cut for me. In hindsight though, what you described would pose a big challenge for a blind Apple support rep, as we wouldn’t have a clear way of guiding sighted customers through tasks on their devices.

As for a list describing icons, it’s not a bad idea for system icons, but many app developers use their own graphics that don’t always follow the usual standards, so that’s something to keep in mind.

Exactly! I tried that at home advisor thing last year, and though it was accessible, it was just not a good fit for me and I didn't last long. That was one thing I didn't get any training on, how to describe icons to the sighted people who I was dealing with. This gap definitely needs to be addressed, and I think some kind of list here would be a good place to start. It's incredibly frustrating to have an obvious ability to help someone who may not be techy, but yet again, there's something that stands in the way.

Submitted by Brian Giles on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

I'm team screen curtain. I always find it amusing when someone asks if my phone/Mac is even on because it's easy to forget that SC is on. I was in a class once in college and we were in a room full of iMacs. Out of habbit I turned on SC while I was doing my research and the prof walked by and asked if my computer was on. lol

I have a friend who loves to tell everyone how it looks like I'm "playing my phone like a musical instrument" when I use BSI.

Submitted by Lysette Chaproniere on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Member of the AppleVis Blog Team

I’m glad you brought up the employment issue. If, when you applied for the position at Apple, they couldn’t get you onto their systems as a VoiceOver user, well, I would’ve thought the company that made touch screens accessible would’ve been able to solve that problem. There probably isn’t enough of an incentive for them to do it, because not enough VoiceOver users are applying for the jobs, partly because of our small numbers but partly because some know they will be turned down, and so “blind/disabled people don’t get jobs” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy yet again.

You’re right, though, even if they could adapt the tools, they’d still have to find away around the translation issues I discussed in my post. I wonder whether a way around this might be to assign blind support reps to take calls from VoiceOver users, not exclusively dealing with accessibility queries but helping VoiceOver users with any of the problems people call Apple for help with. After all, who are the experts in using Apple devices with VoiceOver? The people using VoiceOver every day. They’d have to work out how to match staffing levels to the level of demand for a VO-specific service, and it might be that, because the number of VO users is so small, VO-specific lines wouldn’t be open as many hours of the day as the mainstream lines, but that would still make things a lot better both for customers and for potential blind employees.

I’ve actually been thinking about this in relation to my own employment. I love writing blog posts for AppleVis, but all AppleVis bloggers and editors are volunteers, and I’ve started wondering whether I could expand to writing on similar topics for other sites too, or producing software documentation, and maybe make some money from this kind of work, but the issues we’re talking about make that more difficult. I don’t want to sound like I’m making excuses; there might be ways around it that I haven’t thought of, and I’ve only recently started considering it so I haven’t done a lot of research yet.

Submitted by Ekaj on Wednesday, June 19, 2019

This is a very good post. One thing I've been thinking about lately is this, and I don't know how exactly to put it into words but why is it that some people just don't seem to grasp how useful and overall cool all this technology is for those of us who use screen readers and such. I've had people ask me why I'm on my computer so much, or iPhone or whatever. And yes, this has included my own family--most of whom can see perfectly and have no other disabilities. I think it's that they don't realize just how big of an impact this stuff has made on us. For example, my iPhone has allowed me to do so much. I can read books and magazines for the low price of free. I can not only check the weather, but do so in a fun and intuitive way with apps such as Weather Gods. I know I'm missing stuff here, but you get my point. This love affair with technology is mainly why I left my most recent job. To make a long story short, they basically didn't want any of it yet they call themselves a cross-disability organization. But anyway, you can read all about that on my journal. To sum it up though, I think there should be a campaign or some other means of better communicating to the general public why we are so addicted to our tech gadgets. As a neighbor friend of mine put it though, it's a positive kind of addiction. I'm paraphrasing what he said to me, but I think he's absolutely right.

Submitted by Darrell Shandr… on Thursday, June 20, 2019

If someone is otherwise qualified, there is no excuse for Apple not to hire some of our people for their At-Home Advisor positions. In fact, here in the states, ADA requires the company to make a goodfaith effort to provide "reasonable accommodations," etc.

Keep in mind Apple's market cap is almost a trillion bucks and the company has well north of $200 billion cash in the bank, so they have no valid excuses.

Submitted by Darrell Shandr… on Thursday, June 20, 2019

We can receive information from sighted people more easily than ever before thanks to visual-interpretation services like Aira, Be My Eyes, etc.

Then, we can take that information and teach ourselves the equivalence between the way icons appear to sighted people and the way they are labeled for accessibility.

For instance, the other day, I learned that a custom Send button in an app I am testing appears as a paper airplane pointing to the right.

I would have never known that if I didn't ask an Aira agent.

Submitted by Tina on Friday, June 21, 2019

I wonder if this kind of information describing what the icons look like can be offered in the various books on how to use the I device family. Thanks.

Submitted by kjw810 on Friday, June 21, 2019

Thank you! I have been waiting for some kind of guide to be able to help my sighted friends do things on their iPhones. Here is my example. A friend asked me how to share one of her pictures. Well, of course, VoiceOver says share button, but that is not what she is seeing on her phone. I turned my screen up and put my finger on the share button, hoping that would help her. She says it is an envelope or something. I would LOVE a guide to help me know what sighted people are seeing. I too have a story of someone wondering about my phone being on. Actually, it wasn't my phone but his. My stepson was visiting one day before I had my iPhone. I told him that I would love to just check out VoiceOver and see what it was like. he turned it on and freaked out because he kept saying the phone was locked, so he turned off VoiceOver. I didn't know at the time how very different our gestures would be as compared to sighted people's. That is why I absolutely agree that we need to do something to bridge that gap.

Submitted by Jesus R on Monday, June 24, 2019

Hello, Maybe its just me, but I spend a lot of time reading help articles on the use of apps and the like. Even though I know my way very well around technology, I still find it helpful to look at. Either for passing on to someone else, or in this case, knowing what icons look like. Some tech blogs are very good about this saying something like, "press the settings button, the button that looks like a gear." Through this, I have a good idea of what some of the more general buttons look like, which some people have already written about here, but this is how I've collected the info about the icons.

Submitted by Kelly Hill on Tuesday, July 2, 2019

When teaching sighted people I find it helpful to familiarize them with the voiceover cursor which looks like a Square surrounding whatever icon you have VoiceOver focused on. After that you can place the focus where you want a sighted person to look and have them locate the voiceover cursor and that part of the job is done.

Submitted by Godwin adoyi Agada on Tuesday, July 2, 2019

Good post!
Teaching sighted persons is what I do a lot. What I do is to cast my screen on my PC. They will look on the screen and know what icon I am referring to. Sometimes, I ask them to describe it

Submitted by Ekaj on Tuesday, July 2, 2019

I'll fully admit I haven't been keeping up on most of the tech blogs much lately, but I also find them very helpful. Regarding taking pictures of the screen, I'm wondering if this will soon be possible for those of us who use VoiceOver. That'd be pretty cool indeed. I think it will come in handy for me and perhaps my sister who is a VO user. We have encountered sighted friends and family wanting to know just what it is that we're doing with our computers. Just to give one example, a tutor and I have taken Uber to and from the local YMCA before. While their app works pretty nicely with VO, typing on the iPhone is still a bit slow for me. It seems some of the Uber app is timed, so this tutor has had to steal my iPhone and input things. She is fully sighted, and although she's somewhat familiar with VO from working with my sister, I still have to toggle it off and then back on when our rides have been scheduled.

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