A blind trek through the BlackBerry patch with the Blackberry Screen Reader
by Jeffrey Stark
July 31st, 2012
In late May, RIM released The Blackberry Screen Reader As a veteran Blackberry user, I am going to give my initial impressions of RIM's latest foray into accessibility for blind users.
I have been involved in the testing, development and evaluation of accessible mobile devices for well over 10 years. I have used some of the very early proprietary devices, the phones running Microsoft’s Windows Mobile, Symbian, the blackberry OS, Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android since the early days for each of those operating systems.
In late May, RIM released the "blackberry screen reader". RIM offers this software for free, but it is only supported on a limited number of devices. At the time of this writing BlackBerry Screen Reader is supported on the BlackBerry® Curve™ 9350, 9360, 9370, 9320 and 9220
I have been using the 9630 Blackberry Curve Smartphone for just under a week now with the blackberry screen reader. I have used Oratio prior to this for several years; I have to say that this environment and the screen reader seem awful familiar.
RIM makes beautiful hardware. The phone is light, the keys are sufficiently distinct that I can easily type on them and the Direction Pad it uses for cursoring provides a fantastic experience. I easily type upwards of 20 words per minute on this device. Users who are familiar with Symbian, S60 and Nokia phones will find a very familiar interaction model. The blackberry OS is very similar in a number of ways and a user who is familiar with the Symbian operating system will have no problem transitioning to this device.
The device is designed to take advantage of the QWERTY keyboard by offering easy to set up integration with social media and messaging environments. I successfully connected it to twitter, Facebook, msn, Google talk, blackberry messenger and various email services. The threaded messaging screen allows for quick and easy reading and replying. Blackberries have also and optional “unified messaging” screen that brings all of these environments into a single timeline for easy sequential review. This device is clearly well suited for someone who wants to get to work and perform tasks quickly. It integrates well with corporate environments and provides a great contact app and phone dialing app. The voice recognition based “voice dialing” is among the best I have used. It performed extremely well in a very noisy environment. I wish RIM had decided to support the bold 9700 because it had a 2nd “physical key that they call a convenience key”. You can pick what this key does, and this key can be set to activate voice dialing. Instead on the curve you have to go into the menu and find the voice dial app and launch it before voice dialing each time)(which is far less convenient.
I tried to install a number of 3rd party apps and had extremely poor results. I was extremely disappointed that the weather network app did not read and the first screen for foursquare app did not read.
I also found that the screen reader sometimes stopped talking and had to be rebooted when a notification sound was being played at the same time as the character echo and keyboard tones. (I.e. several times I found that while I was typing an email when a text message was coming in, that speech suddenly stopped). I also found that if the speech speed was set to 7 or higher, that the screen reader started to act a little flakey. The screen reader is a little unstable at times but works more than it doesn't (at least in the "core" apps). I also had problems understanding the phone in a slightly noisy environment without an earphone as the text to speech volume is quite low, even when set to the maximum volume
While RIM offers screen reading and custom fonts/font sizes that are quite large, there is no braille, high contrast or magnification support on the device. RIM does offer an “inverted” mode but it really does not provide a good high contrast (white on black) experience and makes it awful strange to try and look at photos of your family on the device because those too are inverted.
The Blackberry curve is offered on a number of carrier’s plans at an extremely low cost (often $0). This makes it an extremely good choice for the budget conscious customer and because of its physical keys and straightforward operating system it will for sure appeal to many people (as long as they do not recieve a lot of email, phone calls or text messages while using the device as sometimes this causes the device to need a reboot. RIM has released at least 1 update for the screen reader since its initial June release, which leads me to hope that more is coming. While the screen reader seems a little buggy and has definite room for improvement, I think that RIM has made a good first start in providing blind users with access to the Blackberry environment. Once they fix the stability issues I am sure that this device will really appeal to the business traveller, people who do a lot of email, text messaging or social media and those looking for an easy efficient interface for dialing and telephony. If they keep up the pace of development demonstrated this summer by offering an update just less than 1 month after the initial release, than RIM may finally catch up to Apple or Google for accessibility in the coming years.