Visually impaired coached on how to use smartphones



For the blind or visually impaired, operating smartphones and tablet computers can be a challenge as their flat touch displays provide no means of reading by touch, unlike Braille.

In response, study groups are examining ways to teach the use of certain functions, such as screen reader and zooming, to at least enable some visually impaired users to better use the gadgets’ features and access a broader range of information.

“If the sight-impaired get to learn appropriate iPad functions, they will have far greater access to information,” said Hisami Baba, director of harmony-i, a Tokyo-based nonprofit organization that sponsored an instructional gathering in February.

At the meeting in Chiyoda Ward, Tokyo, an instructor talked six volunteers through the basic steps of operating an iPad, tailored to their needs.

“Double-tap the screen with three fingers and drag your fingers down” the instructor told them, as the characters displayed suddenly magnified many times over.

Some among the group found that black text on a white background was too bright to read. But after switching the settings on their iPads to show white text on a black background, they found it much easier to read.

Even so, “it is difficult (to operate the device) as I can’t feel I’m pressing buttons or anything,” Ikuo Takahashi, a 59-year-old company employee, said as he stared at an iPad screen.

Tsukasa Ono, former vice president of Tsukuba University of Technology in Ibaraki Prefecture, said there is growing demand for such instructional meetings.

“They formerly thought it’s impossible for them to use the touch displays. But with the wide spread of smartphones and tablets, they have become afraid of being left behind by technological advances,” he said.

Smartphones and tablets allow the visually impaired to help improve their quality of daily life readily through apps, or software programs, such as for searching for their locations or downloading books and music.

Following last year’s Great East Japan Earthquake, Michio Matsumura, a blind resident of Aoba Ward in Yokohama who has been using an iPhone with screen reader function since 2010, tried to check out Tokyo Electric Power Co.’s website to learn about the utility’s rolling blackouts amid the nuclear disaster.

But since the device’s screen reader couldn’t read a PDF file containing the times and durations of the power cuts, he had to turn to Twitter, where he spotted a message from a friend with impaired hearing and obtained the relevant information from him.

“I hadn’t imagined that I could communicate with a hearing impaired person this easily before,” Matsumura, 35, said. “It might be hard for the visually impaired to operate iPhones, but I want them to know that using the same tools as others can expand the possibility of what they can do.”

Matsumura, who runs a business that provides corporate human resources training, started a series of lecture meetings in March to teach visually impaired people and senior citizens how to use iPhones.

In addition, there is a mailing list for the disabled to share and exchange information on using smartphones and tablets.

According to Masamitsu Misono, a 34-year-old blind man from Yotsukaido, Chiba Prefecture, the list now contains more than 200 names, compared to the fewer than 10 when he started it in 2009.

“Visually impaired people have been awakened to new possibilities and want to find out how they can use their touch-screen devices better,” said Misono.