The Swiss smartphone school for the blind

Learning how to use smartphones is a painstaking process for the blind, but it can bring large rewards Jo Fahy/

“Show me how to get home.” Arthur is speaking the words into his phone in an attempt to get it to direct him to where he lives. He’s blind, elderly and a keen student at the Zurich Apfelschule, a school which teaches visually impaired people how their phones can make their life easier.

This content was published on December 17, 2015 - 11:00

Arthur is one of more than 250 people who have taken part in an iPhone class so far this year. Urs Kaiser, himself blind, leads the group patiently through the steps which in this lesson are focused on obtaining directions. After 15 minutes of back and forth exchanges with ‘Siri’ (Apple iPhone’s built-in voice navigation computer programme), Arthur manages to get directions from the course location to where he lives.

“At first I was on a mailing list where people would swap information about using smartphones,” Kaiser tells “I thought the opportunities we had with a smartphone were fantastic, but it wasn’t simple to use a device that has essentially been designed for a visual user.”

There are approximately 325,000 blind or visually impaired people in Switzerland. Barely 2% of the population under the age of 40 are blind or partially-sighted, whereas that figure rises to 8.9% between the ages of 60-79, and continues to increase based on age. A course like this one is rare in Switzerland. None of the other major organisations for the blind in the country offer one.

As the course begins there are five people sitting around the table at the Zurich office of the Swiss National Association of and for the Blind. Between them they have a mix of total and partial visual impairment. A brief moment of confusion kicks in as the coffee machine refuses to produce the much-needed liquid, only displaying a visual error message on its small screen, and leaving its blind users none the wiser as to its reasons. The challenges posed by carrying out everyday tasks in a highly visual world are numerous.

Finding the way

“Search, tap, double tap to confirm, back, tap,” the smartphone’s robotic voice barks instructions in German in rapid succession as course member Roger gets stuck in to the afternoon’s class with a demonstration of how he searched for directions to a phone shop using maps app, BlindSquare.

It combines information from GPS and the compass with data from social local-search app, Foursquare (used to rate places such as museums and restaurants, the app recommends places a user may like based on their previous preferences and a given location). In BlindSquareExternal link all interaction with the app is carried out using vocal instructions. As apps using crowd-sourced information become more common, the data available to be used for a different set of users increases. Roger has been coming to the classes for three and a half years. “I’ve learnt a lot in these classes, and now I can help other people a bit.”

The class focuses on Apple smartphones, rather than Android, Windows or other devices. According to Kaiser: “Accessibility is always at the forefront, it’s guaranteed that their own (Apple) apps are more accessible. I follow Android’s development in this particular aspect, and if there were an alternative I wouldn’t worry about swapping over. But when you want speech support and speech control, Apple has the advantage.”

Urs Kaiser Jo Fahy/

He is currently testing out an Apple watch, to see how useful it could be to the blind. “I have to say, it is nice to have one but it is not absolutely necessary,” he said. If you get an email, “you can click on it and it reads it out”, the watch also announces news. “Otherwise, it’s annoyed me, as you can programme what you want on the screen and I ended up with the SMI [Swiss Market Index] showing and the time only showing underneath [making it difficult to click on]…I’m not saying this was the watch’s fault, but still,” he laughed.

The class that day was on using apps and smartphones to find directions. The group is encouraged to share their experiences so far using different apps.

Arthur explained that he uses Apple and Google Maps. “Often I’m out walking, I’ve been looking for a specific local restaurant in the woods and I found it quite easily with Google Maps. The turnings weren’t always very clear but it also says the distance, so if I went wrong then I could hear if the distance was getting longer or shorter and then turn around accordingly.” He searched for the restaurant using a voice search and then started the navigation function.

Kaiser reveals that two members of the group not present at the current class have been hiking using their guide dogs and map apps. The class’s response is one of admiration, and it leads to a discussion on a very Swiss issue – how can you hike independently when you are visually impaired?

“If you ask people – ‘what would be your greatest wish?’ It is that it would be easier to find their way, to get from A to B,” explains Kaiser. “But for us to really be able to do this independently, something else is still needed, even though they are making developments in this field, for example with self-driving cars that interpret the environment.”

Talking shop windows

Many of the apps this group use are the same ones people without visual difficulties use. However, the increase in voice-activated capabilities in smartphones means that many apps have become a great deal more useful to the blind.

In Zurich the ‘Beacon Zone’ app reads out information to smartphone users that local shops and businesses in the Wiedikon area of the city have inputted to the app. It wasn’t originally designed with the blind in mind, however it has some key features that make it very useful.

“It’s a great help to be able to perceive my surroundings in this way, in a way it’s like looking into a shop window,” said Kaiser on the app.

There is still room for improvement in Switzerland though. In an ideal world Kaiser would like to see apps designed with the visually impaired in mind, to make them accessible to people even when they can’t see what’s on the screen, “but the development time of these apps [in general] is always becoming quicker and quicker…to delay that would be impossible”.

Specific developments for the blind in this field are difficult to come by in such a small country, but as accessibility for blind users often means simplifying a page or app homepage’s layout, changes made for the visually impaired can also prove popular for other users, and accessibility options are even built into phonesExternal link.

From a more realistic point of view, Kaiser would like to see financial support for the blind to learn how to use smartphones. “Efforts to help people learn how to use these new technologies should be promoted. Training on smartphones should be supported by the social insurance.”

Generally Kaiser uses American online forums to find out about new apps, “it could be a full time job” he jokes. “But with GPS, with the camera in the phone, with the digitalisation of information, we now have access to the autonomy and independence that for years was simply just unthinkable”.  

You can contact the author of this article, Jo Fahy, on twitter @jofahyExternal link and on FacebookExternal link

There’s an app for that
There are various different apps, both Swiss-made and from abroad that the blind find particularly useful in Switzerland. For transport in particular, the Swiss Federal Railways or Zurich Transport Association apps work well. The Swiss Library for the Blind, Visually Impaired and those with Reading Difficulties (SBS) has its own app, the SBS Leser, which is voice-controlled and offers around 30,000 audio books, which can be downloaded onto smartphones and tablets. My Way is an orientation app by the Swiss Federation of the Blind, which gives information on directions and distances, and Google maps is frequently used.

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