We asked... Simon Janatzek, Certified Teacher at the Office for Accessible Education in Herne (German: Büro für Barrierefreie Bildung)

If you buy them, some smartphones are already accessible

A quick check on your smartphone to see when the next bus leaves or quickly letting your friend know via WhatsApp that you are running late: those are very mundane situations for many people. Yet how accessible are smartphones actually for visually impaired and blind people? REHACARE.de spoke with Simon Janatzek. He is visually impaired and tells us which apps are helpful in everyday life.


Photo: Simon Janatzek

Simon Janatzek; © private

Mr. Janatzek, what problems do blind and visually impaired persons run into when using smartphones?

Simon Janatzek: The biggest constraint is primarily the touchscreen. For people who are not able to see, this is an entirely new experience and they initially can’t envision operating a smartphone. A visually impaired person feels around for things. Of course, this does not work with a smartphone, since it has a smooth surface. This is the first obstacle. Once you have overcome it, you typically won’t have any issues operating it. When you receive a call, you briefly feel the display with your fingers and instead of swiping to the right – as one normally does to answer a call – you simply double tap the smartphone with two fingers. Apps work the same way: by touching the symbol once, the name of the app is being read aloud. Tapping twice opens it.

How accessible are smartphones?

Janatzek: When you buy it, a smartphone by itself is already completely accessible. Users don’t need to spend money for additions. Every iPhone comes with an accessibility factory setting; this is the case with all Apple products. You should first get more information on smartphones featuring the Android operating system, since not every product here comes with this factory setting; however, by now, this comes standard with the latest models. As a blind or visually impaired person, I can also initially have another person set up the smartphone for me and use it immediately afterwards. Thanks to the VoiceOver accessibility feature, these devices can be operated without any difficulty. At first, many people are unsure whether a smartphone is right for them. This is why they consult with us and try out the device before they purchase it. Training courses are also an option. Especially older people first like to try whether they can easily operate a smartphone. In my experience, approximately 90 percent of them have no issues with this technology.

Photo: Simon Janatzek talks about accessible smartphones

Simon Janatzek explains how blind and visually impaired people can handle accessible smartphones; © beta-web/Günther

How can blind and visually impaired persons benefit from smartphones in everyday life?

Janatzek: Almost every app also has a VoiceOver function for blind and visually impaired persons. The social networking site Facebook or the communication platform WhatsApp can be easily used via VoiceOver feature. However, there are also many apps specifically designed and developed for visually impaired persons; for instance, a magnifier app that enlarges texts and images. In addition, there is an optical character recognition app for totally blind persons where you take a photo of a text and once the app has recognized the text, it reads it aloud. There are also apps to identify currency or colors. On average, they cost between ten and 100 Euros. But there are also free versions available such as the Departure Board app. This app is very popular: it indicates which bus leaves at what time and from which direction it arrives or in which direction it departs. Apps that recognize an entire room are also trendy; using a picture, the app reads aloud what the camera sees at that time. The current surrounding environment can also be described, for instance, the traffic situation or whether there is a traffic light located right in front of me. Having said that, the app is presently not yet able to replace a guide dog.

What does inclusion mean to you?

Janatzek: It means there are no barriers for people with disabilities when it comes to smartphones or tablets and that they are accessible for everyone. To me, inclusion means a student is able to use this technology to read his learning materials. And for children not always requiring special devices, but being able to use the same equipment their fellow students use, so they can feel like everyone else.

More about the Office for Accessible Education (only in German) at: www.bf-bildung.de
Photo: Lorraine Dindas

© B. Frommann

Lorraine Dindas
(translated by Elena O'Meara)