Seeing tech through the eyes of the visually impaired

David Woodbridge, a Vision Australia tech consultant and Apple Accessibility Ambassador, tells us about the less visible side of tech

We tend to take the gadgets we have for granted. If we aren't able to do something, it’s not us, it’s the machine.

But for the visually impaired, using a smartphone, amongst other devices, presents a whole other set of challenges. The tech has to come equipped with features that compensate for the loss of vision, since sight is key in operating pretty much every gadget out there. For example, smartphones are essentially slabs of screens.

To find out how the visually impaired can still use mainstream devices like the iPhone, I spoke with David Woodbridge, a technology consultant with Vision Australia and an Apple Accessibility Ambassador. Visually impaired since he was eight-years-old, Woodbridge now works with tech companies and people like him to shed light on accessibility in technology.

How he uses his devices

I watched as he navigated his iPhone with considerable ease, his fingers flying over the phone deftly as if guided by intuition, but more likely by experience and VoiceOver. Just like how you and I are powered by muscle memory to remember where different apps are located on our smartphones. I could barely keep up as he demonstrated the accessibility features I never fully realised existed in the iPhone.

He shows me a Light Detector app that uses the iPhone’s camera to detect where the light source is, sounding a tone as he maneuvers the phone around to find the light. It comes in handy when he has to walk around the house and turn the lights off. As I was marvelling at the existence of this app, Woodbridge pipes up. “That’s the primitive way of doing it, the really cool way to do it is via Homekit”. Great, I felt like a complete doofus.

As it turns out, Woodbridge has about 38 connected devices in his home which he controls using Siri. He explains, “Instead of having to run the app and doing it manually, I’m able to use Siri to do the full voice interface because she is integrated into Homekit. The more productive I can be, the better I like it.”

His Watch chooses this opportune time to chime. It’s his Ring Video Doorbell, one of his connected devices, signalling that there’s motion detected at his front door in his Australian home. He recalls a funny incident, “Because Ring video doorbell is a motion sensor, I called a delivery man out the last week. He said he had knocked on the door to deliver my parcel. But I know he didn't because the Ring Video Doorbell would have been triggered and let me know.”

He also reveals a hidden feature on the Apple Watch. When he’s in a meeting, he doesn’t have to rudely interrupt to ask someone for the time. All he does is hide his Watch under the table, double tap its face and it vibrates to tell him the time. “It’s a long vibration for tens, and short for minutes or hours. Everytime I show people this function, they ask why only VoiceOver users get this”, he laughs. 

Of course, it's not all rainbows and butterflies. Woodbridge has met his fair share of tech challenges along the way.

The Tile encounter

Tile is a Bluetooth tracker that you can attach to your belongings to locate where they are via an app. Woodbridge bought 10 of them and realised the app wasn’t accessible. He explained, “Rather than saying David’s wallet, David’s iPhone and so on, it said "text event 1" and "text event 2" because the developers had just labelled in coding what the areas on the screen were.”

As a result, he wrote in politely to the company to request that the app be made accessible for blind users all over the world. “A while ago, they had an update on the App Store and the first line in the actual update said: we’ve made it accessible for VoiceOver users,” he beams. 

There's no reason mainstream devices cannot be used by the visually impaired. All it takes is a little more consideration for other perspectives. As a coder himself, Woodbridge believes that accessibility isn’t just for the blind and that ultimately, good coding is good practice.