Mobile technology could be a revolutionary chance for the many blind and visually impaired people around the world but it must be accessible and affordable.
This open letter is addressed to companies from the mobile technology sector, developers, research scientists, organisations, politicians and all kinds of disseminators as well. The open letter provides information about a desirable mobile device for blind persons, screen reader software for mobile platforms, mobile web access and commonalities of web accessibility and the mobile web, satellite based navigation for blind pedestrians, mobile access to specific map data, commonalities of blindness and dyslexia/illiteracy, corporate responsibility, proposals for Google's and Nokias public relations and the importance of affordable & accessible cell phones for the many blind people from developing or newly industrializing countries.
Unfortunately, the complexity of the whole issue and the, for most readers unknown, factor "blindness" is a huge problem. It's difficult to make professionals interested. What about you? You could make a difference.
This is a wiki. Please feel free to correct or improve the content.
Mobile technology is a revolutionary chance for blind people Edit
The following could be interesting for the Corporate Responsibility programs and the Public Relations of mobile technology vendors, especially for members of the Open Handset Alliance (OHA) or other open mobile initiatives with goodwill and power of imagination. Please excuse my English, it's not my mother tongue.
Currently a lot of blind persons around the world are using Nokia devices because for a few years there have been two professional - albeit expensive - screen reader software products for the S60 Symbian platform: Talks from Nuance Communications and Mobile Speak from Code Factory, which make these cell phones accessible by output of synthetic speech and also allow the use of third party software such as Loadstone-GPS, Wayfinder Access, web browser, audio player or DAISY book reader. Today, commercial screen readers are available for the Windows Mobile platform too. Apple has integrated the revolutionary VoiceOver screen reader into the OS of the iPhone 3GS. There is a screen reader called Oratio for some Blackberry models as well.
For a blind person an ICT device without a screen reader is like a device without display for a seeing person.
It would be desirable to have a screen reader software for Google's open Android platform too; the best solution would be an open source or non-profit development such that blind people from the developing and newly industrializing regions of our world will have access to it as well.
"Through Android, developers, wireless operators and handset manufacturers will be better positioned to bring to market innovative new products faster and at a much lower cost. The end result will be an unprecedented mobile platform that will enable wireless operators and manufacturers to give their customers better, more personal and more flexible mobile experiences." Source: Open Handset Alliance site
Google's chairman and CEO Eric Schmidt: "Our vision is that the powerful platform we're unveiling will power thousands of different phone models."
In the future, there once should be an affordable, accessible and for the needs of blind users optimized mobile hardware with components from mass market. This device would need to have good tactile keys and a high-quality loudspeaker and should be protected against moisture and dust. A receiver of satellite signals for optimal pedestrian use (accuracy), an electronic compass and perhaps an accelerometer, pedometer or a gyroscope could be offered in a wearable Bluetooth box. Additional hardware like a PC keyboard, a headset, a small remote control, a portable Braille display, loudspeaker or a large display for people with low vision could also be connected via cable or Bluetooth. A built in camera would enable light detection, color recognition, optical character recognition (OCR) and could be useful in situations when seeing help from distance is needed. Though a camera might be too expensive for the basic device it could be offered as an accessory. Built-in RFID technology for several purposes is imaginable as well. It's important to minimize the production costs of the main units to keep them affordable!
Google and other companies from the mobile tech sector could help to quicken the evolution of mobile web access and accessible satellite navigation for the at least 37 million blind and 124 million visually impaired people around the world, especially for the 1.4 million blind children.
"Talking" mobile technology is a great chance for them to obtain access to:
- Communication (phone calls, sms, e-mail)
- Participation in social networks
- Navigation tools + specific map data and location based services (lbs)
- Information and mLearning
- All kinds of helpful and accessible applications (device/web based)
- Mobile Banking and Mobile Payments
- Mobile Commerce
- mHealth, eHealth and services for Safety and Disease Prevention
- E-Government services
This will open new opportunities for the job market and for e-inclusion, especially for those from countries, where access to fixed phones or landline internet is rarely available but cellular radio networks are common. Many people in developing countries use mobile as their primary or only web access due to infrastructure there.
Talking technology could be helpful for persons with limitations caused by dyslexia and illiteracy and for all other users in situations where eyes-free mobile usage is helpful as well, i. e. car driving.  
The intentions of the OLPC learning project (one laptop per child) could perhaps be a kind of model for this idea and Android could open the door for blind, visually impaired or otherwise handicaped people worldwide. Then they would also become more independent of assestive technology (AT) trading policies and the mostly expensive selling prices for these AT products. Some members of the Open Handset Alliance should have the knowledge (and hopefully goodwill) to program a free Android Screen Reader or providing support/resources for that.
On November 24, 2007, the URL of this open letter was firstly posted to an Android related public mailing list to catch the attention of Google, the Open Handset Alliance and developers. After this, many companies and disseminators have received mails with a link to this letter. The content has frequently been updated. You can find the most extensive version here and older versions in the history.
Sincerely, Per Busch
Android Accessibility Edit
- Google's open Source blog on October 20, 2009: Introduction to the Eyes-Free project, Android's new accessibility APIs and Talkback, an open source screen reader
- Eyes-Free Blog
- Eyes-Free Mailing list
- eyes-free channel on YouTube
- Mailing list for Android's text-to-speech (tts)
History of Android Accessibility Edit
- On November 24, 2007, there was the first public question about an Android screen reader. Next attempt to catch attention for Android Accessibility was the post Don't be evil, be accessible and more messages followed. Another advocate was respectively is Peter Meijer aka Blindfold aka @Seeingwithsound, developer of vOICe for Android. He provides valuable information about the possibilities of eyes-free mobile usage on his web site and is a well known contributor to discussions within the Android developer community.
- Rumors from Googles 2008 I/O conference: Andy Rubin, Google's Senior Director of mobile platforms, demonstrated non-touchscreen versions of the Android platform to some reporters. He was showing off a browser designed entirely for button-based navigation. As it seems, he or another Google employee said at this conference that Android is designed to work with a wide variety of form factors -- everything from touch screens to QWERTY keypads to devices with no screen at all! (via Engadged)
- New York Times on January 03, 2009: For the Blind, Technology Does What a Guide Dog Can’t. If the article is no longer easily available online, please read the important parts at this posting to Googles Android discuss group. The article reports about Google's blind research scientist T.V. Raman's development of an Android screen reader and new input/output (I/O) methods for touch screen devices.
- In February 2009, T.V. gave a talk about his research on eyes-free mobile usage at Stanford university, Hear the audio and read the slide.
- Googles Open Source Developer Blog (April 01, 2009): Announcing Eyes-Free shell For Android. T.V. Raman and Charles Chen introduced the Eyes-free project. Charles Chen is the developer of the Text-to-speech (tts) Library that can be used with an Android port of the open source eSpeak tts engine. T.V. and Charles, thank you!
- On may 27, 2009: Announcement of the free and high-quality Pico text-to-speech engine for Android, demonstrated during a keynote on Google's I/O conference. SFOX brings speech solutions to Android.
- Android Developers Blog on September 23, 2009: An extensive introduction to text-to-speech in Android
- On September 29, 2009, a Google employee confirmed that the new APIs would allow to program a screen reader for Android. A few days later, blind coder and Android newbie Nolan Darilek aka @TheWordNerd has started an open source screen reader project called SPIEL with quick successes.
- Official Google Blog on October 20, 2009: More Accessibility Features in Android 1.6, including an announcement of the Talkback open source screen reader, developed by Google employees.
Examples of open source accessibility Edit
- AEGIS is a €12.6 million invest in open source accessibility, focusing on API-based solutions (OAF = Open Accessibility Framework). One key area is accessibility for Java-based mobile devices. Find out more at this post from Peter Korn of Sun Microsystems who initiated this project.
- NVDA is an open source screen reader for Windows. The Mozilla Foundation, Microsoft and Adobe are sponsors of this great project. Read more at the NV Access site.
- Orca is an open source screen reader for Linux. It is fine that this software runs on the OLPC XO-1.
- The GNOME Foundation is running an accessibility outreach program. See also this article: GNOME focuses on accessibility.
My name is Per Busch, I am 40 years old and I live in Kasselin Germany. For about 16 years I am blind. Read my Twitter blog. I write about accessibility and mobile technology, occasionally for Heise Online which is a very reputable platform for computer technology news in Germany. Read more about me.
The Open Letter Initiative is my private attempt of consumer-to-business-work. I started it on November, 05, 2007. The reason for this initiative was Google's announcement of the new and open mobile Android platform. You can comment or discuss this letter on the Talk page or send me an e-mail.
Related pages to this letter on Blind Wiki: iPhone Accessibility, Nokia Accessibility, Loadstone-GPS and Mobile Accessibility News (updated only till March 2009)
- The World Health Organisation (WHO) about the magnitude and causes of blindness and visual impairment.
- About accessibility APIs at the Access Interoperability Alliance site and on Wikipedia. Those APIs for assistive tools give developers an interface option to make their applications accessible for all.
- Experiences Shared by People with Disabilities and by People Using Mobile Devices (W3C/WAI)
- Raising the Floor (RtF) "is an international coalition of individuals and organizations working to ensure that the Internet is accessible to people experiencing accessibility or literacy problems, even if they have very limited or no financial resources."
- G3ict, the global initiative for inclusive ICTs is a flagship partnership initiative of GAID, the United Nations Global Alliance for ICT and Development.
- Vision Free is an initiative by Stevie Wonder, Sendero Group and the National Federation of the Blind, sponsored by Intel Health.
See also at Wikipedia: