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Guide Dogs Champions iPhone Accessibility For Blind And Partially Sighted Users

Published on October 6, 2010 by   ·   No Comments
Leading UK charity, Guide Dogs, believes that the iPhone and the associated functionality can be a major driving force in making modern life more accessible for people who are blind or partially sighted.

To endorse this, it has launched an app called ‘go walkies’ that also builds awareness of and participation in its ‘go walkies’ events.  ‘Go walkies’ is a series of nationwide events to get the country out walking their dogs, whilst raising vital funds to help Guide Dogs.  Dog-lovers around the UK are tasked with organising walks and sponsoring dogs to take part – making it the first series of national events where dogs are sponsored to take part, rather than their owners. 

The app will provide information on local events as well as show dog owners new and interesting routes for walking their dogs.  The app activates the iPhone’s inbuilt GPS functionality and allows users to log and share their favourite walks.  But it does not stop there.  It will also provide weekly care-tips for your ‘pooch’ from celebrity vet Marc Abraham – currently the resident on Sky One’s ‘My Pet Shame’, as well as ITV’s ‘This Morning’ and BBC ‘Breakfast News’.  

For serious dog-lovers there is a doggie picture gallery where users will be able to view cute dog pictures as well as make their own dog famous by uploading images and adding the latest news about its canine antics.

Guide Dogs wants to grow the ‘go walkies’ brand significantly over the next 3 years – and is aiming for this to become the largest sponsored dog walk in the UK.  In order to do this, Guide Dogs is spreading its reach beyond the traditional charity donor.  Development of the app should allow it to engage with a younger consumer who it anticipates will embrace the fun element of the events.  

Traditional donors to Guide Dogs are older females, either with an interest in dogs or who have been affected (in)directly by blindness, and these donors are crucial to the ongoing success of the charity.  Of course the cuteness factor of the puppies on promotional material is an important influencer in generating support. However, with an aim to increase the number of guide dog partnerships by a third by 2020, it is important that the charity seeks out the next generation of support and broadens its appeal with a younger audience.  This app puts Guide Dogs firmly at the forefront of major fundraisers who are embracing emerging media and targeting a younger donor base.  IPhone by its very nature appeals to a younger, technical savvy consumer and many apps exist to support our busy ‘time poor’ and ‘on the go’ lifestyles.

Caroline Shields, Manager for ‘go walkies for Guide Dogs’ comments, ‘Users are not going to download the app unless it appeals to them and therefore we have to ensure that we maintain the interest level and functionality without forgetting that ultimately it is there to support our fundraising efforts.’

Guide Dogs is keen for the app to have a wide appeal – blind and partially sighted people who do not have a guide dog are to be encouraged to download the app so that they can find out more about the work of the charity and also support local fundraising initiatives.  Of course, any dog owner – guide dog or otherwise – will find the pet-care and walking guide sections useful.

Beyond the main benefits of the app, if users want to get involved with supporting the charity, they will be encouraged to either organise their own ‘go walkies’ fundraiser or take part in another local event.  Information on the events is however not exclusive to the app – there is a specific ‘go walkies’ website www.gowalkies.org.uk, a Facebook page www.facebook.com/gowalkies, as well as other advertising and marketing initiatives. 

Shields continues, ‘Blind and partially sighted people are often short-changed when it comes to being able to effectively use new technology, in many instances having to spend additional money on separate applications or simply just not being able to use it.  The iPhone has overcome this with its ‘Voiceover’ technology – essentially software that ‘reads’ the screen out loud.  We therefore wanted to be at the forefront of providing a useful app for visually-impaired users that at the same time also offers a tangible benefit to our target ‘go walkies’ audience of 8+ million UK dog owners, as well as our existing supporters.’  

So what specifically has Apple developed that has made the iPhone so accessible to the disabled and from Guide Dogs’ point of view, the blind and partially sighted?  It is just so hard to imagine a blind person using a touch screen.  However, ‘Voiceover’ technology has made this possible.  This the screen reading software used by Macs and it is now an integral part of Apple’s iOS on iPhone, iPod Touch and iPad.  It has totally revolutionised the technology for this sector of the community where other new and advanced products have simply failed to live up to their promises on delivery.  Previous models of phones aimed at the visually impaired have simply had voice technology, no screens as such.

Accessibility features on the iPhone 3GS & 4 are easily activated and controlled, including:

    * Tap an item to hear it
    * Double tap to activate
    * Split tap – hold down on one location and tap into another
    * Swipe 3 fingers to scroll
    * A ‘rotor’ dial – activated by turning your fingers like a dial
    * Toggle speech which is activated by a double or triple tap
    * A screen curtain feature that disables the screen and the camera.
 
Text messages and emails are simply read out, so once users have mastered the touch facility on the iphone, they really can use any app that has been built to operate smoothly with the voice reader.  For this to work, what is absolutely crucial when developing any app – or website for that matter – is to consider all the possible users and accessibility challenges.  It was important for us to ensure that the visually-impaired would receive the same user experience as anyone else so we had to firstly understand how those users were accustomed to using their iPhone, then work out the limitations of the technology and finally start to build the app.   

Martin Roberts, 32, responded to a Facebook request to test the Guide Dogs’ ‘go walkies’ app for accessibility.  Martin has been completely blind all his life, and is on the waiting list for his second guide dog.  In marketing terms, Martin would be described as an ‘early adopter’ as he has always embraced new technology and applications, and not been held back by his inability to see.  His iphone 3GS is as vital a day to day accessory as mobile phones are to the rest of us.

He comments ‘Blind and partially sighted people are generally let down when it comes to functionality, adaptability and ease of use of new technology.  Apple has really thought about how we can make use of the iPhone. The ‘go walkies’ app is a great example  of something that is new and exciting, yet also serves a purpose for the charity, and I am confident that it will get a huge uptake.’  

Martin has used GPS technology for a while when out with his previous guide dogs, and he can now have one device that incorporates this function with his email and phone.  He uses his iPhone to check the weather and keep up to date with the latest news – just the same as anyone who can read the screen and he is keen to use a wide range of apps.  In terms of the ‘go walkies’ app, he will of course use it when he gets his next dog for walks and care tips, as well as identifying local events and offer his support.

There are surprisingly no other free apps in the UK offering dog owners the ability to find new walks and very few apps that take a social need and link it with a lifestyle choice.  Guide Dogs has been very astute in the creation of this app – allowing it to be of benefit to a range of different types of users – whether they are guide dog owners, blind or partially sighted people, ‘go walkies’ event organisers/ participants, local dog walkers, or people out for a stroll.  It will help to develop interactive social and local communities with the user-generated content, and ultimately should offer a life-enriching experience for all users by providing ongoing audience engagement beyond a single walk or event.  

The ‘go walkies’ app will be available to download for free from the App Store from the beginning of October. For further details, visit online at www.gowalkies.org.uk

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