Over the weekend, an image went viral of a woman holding a blindness cane and using a phone at the same time. Many people assumed that the woman was faking her vision impairment because she was looking down at her phone. The reality is, many people who are blind or vision impaired use their phone for Orientation and Mobility so that they can get around their community, and that’s likely what the woman was doing.
Every day, I use my phone for Orientation and Mobility so I can navigate my college campus and other off-campus locations. I’m used to people making strange comments or hearing from friends that people are staring at me as I hold my phone in one hand and a blindness cane in the other. I just laugh these experiences off, because it’s an important piece of assistive technology for me.
Today, I will be sharing different ways for how I use my phone for Orientation and Mobility. These include Orientation and Mobility apps specifically designed for the vision impaired, as well as other general travel techniques. I don’t necessarily use all of these apps or techniques at once- I just choose which ones to use depending on the situation or environment.
According to Wikipedia, “Orientation and Mobility, or O&M, is a profession which focuses on instructing individuals who are blind or visually impaired with safe and effective travel through their environment.” O&M allows people to learn how to navigate their surroundings independently and with the use of different techniques. Many people who receive O&M services use blindness canes, but that isn’t the case for everyone.
Some examples of where people can request O&M services include:
People with vision impairments can use Google Maps in a variety of different ways. Here are some examples:
One caveat to using Google Maps is that it might take you to an alternative entrance/exit. One time, Google Maps guided me to the back of a dumpster behind a building. However, I still love using Google Maps to figure out where I am going when traveling off-campus.
Aira is a paid service that connects vision impaired users with professional sighted guides that can help them with a variety of tasks. Users can use special Aira smart glasses or use the Aira app on their phone. I prefer to use Aira when navigating indoors because they have maps of several buildings on my college campus. Another bonus is that Aira can be used for free at many places, including Walgreens, Wegmans, select airports, convention centers, and more.
Be My Eyes is a free service that connects vision impaired users with volunteer sighted guides. I prefer to use Be My Eyes for quick and simple tasks, such as reading signs above my head or finding a seat in the dining hall. Be My Eyes can also be used for navigating in the community.
Nearby Explorer is an app from American Printinghouse for the Blind that is specifically designed for vision impaired users. I had the opportunity to test this app when I visited Louisville and used it to navigate the APH buildings and the surrounding area. One of my friends who has no usable vision uses Nearby Explorer to navigate our college campus because they find the app easier to use than a traditional GPS.
Another one of my friends with no usable vision told me about the free app Lazarillo as a way to navigate their community. Lazarillo is designed for vision impaired users and tells them about places around them. Users can ask Lazarillo to take them to a specific place or use the exploration mode to hear about what is around them. Another bonus is that users can adjust preferences for what locations they want announced and can choose specific settings for when they are walking versus when they are in a car.
Google Assistant has a camera function that can read text, handwriting, and identify images. Besides using the camera, Google Assistant can find information about businesses, read information from websites, and answer simple questions.
I frequently use different ridesharing services to travel to doctor’s appointments, conferences, restaurants, social events, and more. There’s a couple of different ways I can call for a ridesharing service:
Sometimes, I just need to get an idea of where I am and don’t need any fancy apps to help. I use my phone camera to take pictures of my surroundings or to zoom in on items that are far away, sort of like binoculars or a telescope. My camera roll is also filled with pictures of maps and other important navigational tools.
Many websites for large areas such as college campuses, parks, or train stations have maps for people to download. If I’m in a crowded area, I will step to the side and zoom in on a map to ensure that I know where I am going. Trust me, getting lost in the big city isn’t very exciting or romantic when you have vision impairment!
Besides reading maps, I also use my phone to check for written directions or instructions on how to get somewhere. My friends frequently text me directions if I need help getting somewhere, and I check my email before entering a building to ensure I am in the right location if I’m going to a meeting.
Whenever I am walking around and want to use my phone eyes-free, I use a screen reader such as TalkBack, Select-to-Speak, or VoiceOver. The screen reader allows me to use apps, send messages, make phone calls, and even take pictures with voice assistance. I also use the Google Assistant to control my phone with my voice and complete similar tasks.
There are times that I use my phone merely as a phone and call for additional assistance to figure out where I am going. I’m not ashamed of asking for directions, and sometimes the easiest thing to do is talk to a human being. When I’m on campus, I will call for a security escort and have them help me figure out where I am going.
I use some form of assistive technology on my phone for helping me with orientation and mobility every day. So do many other blind and vision impaired people from all around the world. By having access to a phone, people with reduced eyesight can travel independently and attend work, school, and other events.
So next time you see someone with a blindness cane using their phone, don’t question whether they really need a cane or if they are faking their condition. Just ask them if they need any help to get where they are going, and then go about your day.