By David Feinhals, Executive Director

With the evolution of Apple’s iPhone and iPad, an era of unprecedented independence and enhanced quality of life for individuals with severe vision loss has begun. To fully utilize this powerhouse of technology, the NJ Foundation for the Blind has developed a training program, called iSee.

The goal of iSee is to teach adults who are blind and visually impaired the gestures, integrated accessibility features and apps that will enable them to use these ultra-portable, all-in-one solutions to stay connected, informed and independent. We believe it is the first and only program of its kind in New Jersey.

As a not-for-profit organization, the development of new programs and services is completely driven by the needs of the population we serve. So in October of 2012, upon learning that Apple Inc. had taken yet another leap forward with accessibility for the blind on their mobile platform, we asked our students, “Who here would enroll in an iPad and iPhone training program if we offered it?”

Now, just six months after asking that question, we have 15 students who are using this technology with an additional 47 individuals signed up for our demonstrations and training in the spring! Before I tell you about our recently completed pilot, allow me to briefly describe the versatility and accessibility of the mainstream technology that has become an integral component of our entire continuum of programs.

Why the iPad and iPhone?

To summarize, the latest versions of the iPad and iPhone are equipped with a robust speech output feature for the blind, called VoiceOver, as well as a speech-enabled personal digital assistant, called Siri, which allows people to accomplish tasks with far less physical interaction than that required by computers and many high-tech adaptive products. When you combine all of the built-in apps with those that are being created by third party developers every day (most of which range from free to under $20.00), people with severe vision loss can now use their iPad or iPhone to search the Internet, send email, take notes and access online services; to identify currency and products in packages; and to carry a single solution that functions as a clock, flashlight, GPS device, portable book reader, calculator, calendar, reminder, radio, and more.

How Was the iSee Pilot Program Designed?

15 adults with varying degrees of vision loss in our weekly Better Health & Wellness Program opted to enroll in the iSee pilot. Each group of students met with the instructor for one hour per week for 13 weeks. All instruction was provided in small groups – up to three students in each class. Students were grouped according to which of the two devices they owned (more on this later), as well as by learning style, and severity of vision loss.

What Did the Students Learn?

Well, the good news is that they learned a lot! But before I answer the question, let me give you some points to consider before launching this type of program:

  • Experience with technology — As you might imagine, classes comprised of students who had more experience with technology in general moved more quickly through the curriculum, regardless of the extent of their vision loss. Therefore, both pre-tests and post-tests are critical.
  • Setting up the devices — Ideally, every student who receives this type of training should have a device of their own, via a grant, the help of a major donor, or their own means. Just be aware that you will have to reserve at least one hour of class time for teaching students how to set up their new device, create an Apple I.D. and activate VoiceOver.
  • Outcomes — So you’re ready to launch your new iPad and iPhone training; you have your instructor who has spent months mastering the technology, researching accessible apps, and creating a wide variety of lesson plans. But do you teach everyone the same apps? If not, how will you measure outcomes?

Specific Takeaways

So the question remains: “What did the students learn?” While everyone learned how to operate the few controls on the devices; activate and use VoiceOver and Siri; type a note using the virtual keyboard; use an app to identify currency; and send and receive email, each student spent the rest of the time learning only those apps that they felt were important to them — the students had direct input into the content of the curriculum!

To measure outcomes, we simply added tasks to our post-test to allow for measuring competency with apps that students felt made them more independent. Sort of like, “pick an app, any app” and demonstrate that you can use it effectively.

What Did We Learn From This Pilot?

This was such a rich experience for students and staff alike. I thought I would share the following tidbits of information that cover the gamut, from the devices themselves to the ways in which students used them:

  • Providing opportunities to experience success early on, such as with the currency identifier app, helped build confidence and maintain enthusiasm.
  • The combination of speech output, voice recognition and the audible virtual keyboard was appealing to our students, especially those who struggle to use a standard QWERTY keyboard with a computer.
  • Those students with very low or no vision often required hand-over-hand instruction when initially learning gestures, which require very specific motions and finesse.
  • Apps that identify products in packages and those that scan and read text were among the most popular across all groups.
  • The latest iPod Touch and the iPad mini are equally accessible alternatives to the new iPad and iPhone for those individuals looking to spend less money on the device, who don’t require a larger screen for viewing magnified text, and who want to avoid the ongoing monthly cost of a phone/data plan.
  • With the right training, adults who are blind and visually impaired can use Apple’s iPad and iPhone to increase their independence, be as connected as their sighted peers while mobile, and participate in the language of our culture.