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How the blind navigate iPods

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July 18, 2005

How the blind navigate iPods

Stephen Baker

Anyone know how the blind make their way around an iPod? It must be possible, and I'm very interested in picking up this know-how now that my iPod screen is shattered.

I won't be blogging much today. Busy with hardcore editing work...

01:10 PM


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Tracked on July 19, 2005 02:11 PM

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I've been thinking about this post from Blogspotting about whether or not the blind can use iPods. Blogs are hard enough for them to read because of all these ridiculous columns and screwy formatting, but I figured that podcasts would [Read More]

Tracked on July 27, 2005 05:22 PM

Broadly, they don't, as all iPods save for the Shuffle are nearly impossible to use if you're blind. Some people *have* hacked up a few heuristics for how to get music playing on their iPods, but nobody has access to the full range of iPod features (not even artist or track selection), as they are all visual.

You could, however, ask, where they'll tell you the same things.

Posted by: Joe Clark at July 18, 2005 01:43 PM

The ipod doesn't really have any options for users who can't use the traditional interface. My boyfriend wanted to increase the font size for his mom who has macular degeneration but he wasn't able to do it without hacking.

Posted by: amanda at July 18, 2005 04:15 PM

Hi Steve,

Now you're experiencing what I do everyday. The organization I work for, the American Foundation for the Blind, did a review of this for our technology magazine. Here's a link to more information: But the bottom line is, you should still be able to use your iPod to listen to songs, though many of its functions require seeing the screen. Jay Leventhal

Posted by: Jay Leventhal at July 18, 2005 04:16 PM

Thanks for the comments. Don't you think Apple should make an iPod for the blind and sight-impaired? Seems to me that the tech would be fairly easy. Should we push for this?

Posted by: steve baker at July 19, 2005 07:20 AM

Steve, it would actually be very easy for Apple to make the iPod accessible. By creating a model with tactile buttons or by adding speech output that allows users to navigate the menus, everyone could use the iPod without having to look at the screen. You could even listen to it in the dark without using the backlight, which my friends claim kills the battery pretty quickly. Making the iPod accessible would be beneficial to everyone. It would also be easy to add keyboard commands to make the iTunes software more accessible. Apple should definitely add speech output to new models--all music lovers would be happier. Jay

Posted by: Jay Leventhal at July 19, 2005 10:45 AM

Hi everybody! I have a blind friend who loves music. He bought an mp3 player but he can't select the songs he wants to hear, he just has to play it from beginning to end. As I have an iPod, he asked me if there wasn't any software that would "tell" him what he was selecting while using the iPod, as he has on his mobile phone. So my question is: isn't there any software that you can download for your iPod so that when you can listen what you are browsing while using the iPod? Is there any mp3 player that has this ability?

Thank you for your kind attention!

Best Regards

Posted by: Ricardo Roque at August 22, 2005 07:15 AM

I agree that making the IPOD range of products accessible would be easy. It is just a question of adding universality to the design - something that Apple almost always fails to do with all their products.

Apple are great at designing user interfaces that are easy to use for the majority, but they completely overemphasise the visuals (e.g., icons in the finder in Mac OSX being so detailed that the screen draw is so slow even on fast machines - even sighted people hate this). They have rarely ever considered the idea of multi modes of access (i.e. input from any device not reliant on mouse and output to any device e.g. screen or TTS or whatever). Sure they claim to make an effort here with keyboard access and the Voiceover screen reader, but while these things provide some form of "access", they don't necessarily provide useful access and navigability to the blind user. These concepts seem to be completely misunderstood by Apple. (Although Voice Over is kind of getting there - maybe one day).

Anyway in terms of IPODS and ITUNES, the situation is no different. Even the shuffle, while able to be used by the blind due to it not having a visual interface, as proven to fall short of complete accessibility due to the requirement to use Itunes - a relatively inaccessible application even in Windows where screen readers abound. SO people have had to hack around that issue.

Now, with full IPODS, IPOD mini and now IPOD nanos, the issue is worse, not only because the software and interface is not universal, but also because the actual hardware (i.e. the touch wheel) is completely unfriendly to people who cannot see or people who need a good tactile feel to their interface. With an IPOD, you can pres play, rewind, fast forward (by track and hold for FF in a track) and pause and stop, as these are real buttons, but to navigate in any meaningful way through your collection requires hopping into a menu system that relies on using the touch wheel. Even if TTS were available here, the touch wheel would still be difficult.

Now what Apple needs to do here is write a version of their firmware that allows navigation using the real buttons rather than reliance on the wheel, and the inclusion of a few little navigation tricks that would enable access for blind people. What i mean by that is the following (some of these are already there but not all).

* Play track = press play once

* toggle pause track = press play/pause

* stop = press stop

* next track = press FF once

* prev track = press REw once

* skip ff in a track = press and hold FF

* skip back in a track = press and hold REW

* skip to next directory or artist or whatever = press FF once then press t again holding down for a sec

* skip to prev directory or artist or whatever = press REW once then press it again holding down for a sec

* skip around the playback modes. i.e. resume, shuffle, play all, play only dir or artist, repeat dir or artist, repeat all etc. etc. similar to the modes available in options, but have this accessible by pressing and holding a single button (as in the IRiver IFP players).

* a way of accessing bookmarks from a press and hold of a button.

The important items above are the navigation that allow moving around the artists as well as between the tracks. this is very important and is not offered at the moment unless you go to the menu and select and artist etc. This navigation should be available while placing without looking at the screen. Also it is important for audio books as audio books may be stored in dirs (not artists etc) and may have lots of files per book. This leads to another issue... IPODS store stuff in terms of artist etc. they should have the facility to do things in terms of files and DIRs and to play files in their dirs.

Now ... i agree that access to the menu system would probably need TTS or some kind of screen reader capability, but this should be easy enough to do anyway.

I would also suggest that Apple are now obligated under section 508 US legislation, and any other laws related to access for people with disabilities, to make sure their IPOD related products are accessible. This is not least because Apple has cornered more than 80% of the digital audio player market, and so as market leaders in that space, would need to make IPODs accessible as part of their duty of care to consumers, and their due dilegence as a company making consumer products for a mass market where there are likely to be upwards of 20 per cent of people with disabilities in that market. This is also in order to justify continuing as this market leader and also to ensure that consumers have equitable access to the mass market of digital audio products etc.

So i would encourage anyone who finds IPODs inaccessible to consider strongly the idea of taking legal action on the matter.

Posted by: interested consumer of audio players that are accessible. at October 11, 2005 10:28 PM


I'm a blind user, in the market for an accessible mp3 player myself.

There's a group of open source guys developing firmware software for Archos and Iriver mp3 hard drive players and they support full voice menu access, goto

Any further ideas of players that are accessible via buttons or speech?

Posted by: Carl at October 28, 2005 11:11 AM

If anyone manages to find a good mp3 player for a blind user please let me know, I have two blind people in my family and I want to buy them both mp3 players for christmas, but only if I can be sure that they will be able to use it on their own as I don't live near them to help them day to day.

Posted by: steve at November 6, 2005 01:05 PM

As to the poster's comments above regarding Section 508, I don't think you are going to find a leg to stand on with legal action under this law with iPOD accessability. There are exceptions to 508, and Section 508 law only applies to the Federal Government, except for the portion regarding the Telecommunications Act.

Now - Blackberry, that's another story, since the unit does have phone capabilities, the device should fall under Section 508 both because it is a telecommuncaitons device, and because the Federal Government is procuring the units and service for their Federal workforce. Any E&IT procured by the Federal Government must be compliant save few exceptions. Now, since an iPOD interface - or RIM BlackBerry interface, for that matter - does not exist on the market for the Blind user, it meets one of the few exceptions. This doesn't mean that the companies cannot take strides in developing the "screenreader" interface, it just means that they don't have to. BlackBerry has given me their VPAT documentation supporting their 508 compliance, but I haven't recieved anything from RIM, which is the software component. They are based in Canada. Even though Canada doesn't have Section 508 law, it is still the Federal Government's responsibility to procure E&IT that meets compliance requirements (...if available on the market...). Again, companies can invent whatever MP3 player they like and put it out on the market even if the product is unaccessable, since we are talking about the general public and 508 doesn't apply. The guidelines for accessable design should be followed - but as you can see, they are not.

It is a shame, especially since there are so many uses of an MP3 player for a Blind or low vision professional - ripping MP3 audio from documents scanned through OpenBook software, digital recordings from meetings and seminars, audio notes, you name it.

Posted by: government gal at January 25, 2006 04:38 PM

I have a blind son. He uses an accessible device called a bookport as an MP3 player. It takes any size Compact Flash card, so is limited to the biggest CF card you can buy, but has an easy to use voice interface and menu system that makes it easy to find the music tracks he wants. I'd also like to get him an ipod, because it would be easy to amnage his allowance on iTunes, but itunes itself is very inaccessible, although there is a screen reader script available for it from England.

Posted by: Roger at February 9, 2006 01:24 PM

OK, I am blind. I just want to say that the bookport is rather nice, but not the recording in it.

Posted by: mike at February 15, 2006 06:27 PM

Why is everybody doggedly clinging to the iPod, waiting for Jobs to throw them a bone, as if it were the first and only portable audiofile player on Earth? Once you break free from the iPod, your choices for voice navigation, while not necessarily stellar, are miles ahead of anything on the iPod (mostly because the iPod comes with... NONE). In addition, Apple's slick click-wheel interface is a complete pain if not looking at the screen, especially due to the inherent context-dependent nature of something so fundamental as the volume control.

(Hint: If the only "improvement" iPods have come out with since their inception is more visually-centred players, they ain't planning on giving you nothing.)

Posted by: Eric Vinyl at April 27, 2006 01:48 PM

I have an MP3 player made by Napa, which whilst not being able to access the menu it does have easy to feel buttons, 3 down each side. On one side it has Vol up, vol down and stop and the other has next track, previous track and menu and on top it has the duel play and pause button. The big draw back is that it does not have a rechargeble battery.

Posted by: Eamonn at July 23, 2006 05:10 PM

I know this a late comment to this post but:

The IPod does now qualify under section 508 due to the fact that it is now being used in schools to play audio books to students with reading problems, such as Dyslexia. The schools get all sorts of federal money. Apple has really droped the ball when it comes to accessibility on many of the products, as another reader had stated. The fact that Mac OS X Tiger had VoiceOver was nice but most of the Applications that came with my Mac Mini did not work with it. Namely AppleWorks, VoiceOver saw nothing in the program and so I called Apple support and asked them what should I use as a WordProcessor. They told me "TextEdit". Now it is a fine editor for text and other simple files it does not allow you to really format and work with a document in the ways you can do with Microsoft Word, Writer, AppleWorks or any other full featured program. Yes e-mail works and Safarie mostly works. I have not seen the new programs in ILife 6 nor will I soon. I sold my Mini to a friend for his son who is use to using a Mac at school. He loves the little thing and has an Ipod Nano.

Another Issue with the IPod is that Apple also ignored the Safty factor when designing the IPod interface. More then once my driver had to or saw someone else in a car fiddling with an Ipod well driving down the highway. It should have speech so that when driving, walking or doing other tasks it can be navigated without the need to look at the screen. Can you Imagin what would happen if someone got into an Acident while driving and then actually admitted they were trying to use the Ipod Interface. If the person didn't get sited for stupidity for looking at a device other then car instumentation while driving, simularly to people who get into accidents why using a cell phone. Maybe somebody ought to sue Apple over that. Come on stupider things have went to court and won, McDonalds Coffee Lady for example.

In Omaha, NE Apple opened their new store in a place where you have to drive to get to. Yes the only way to get there is by car, the shopping plaza told the bus company that they did not want service and if they did offer service the bus would have to drop off and pick up people on the other side of a busy 4 lane street. Now considering that several universities, Creighton, University of Nebraska at Omaha, and Grace University being a few. You would think they would want to be located in a place convienent for the pour college student who uses public transportation.

Posted by: Shawn L. Djernes at October 1, 2006 04:36 AM

My son is blind and I would love to get him an cousin said he would buy it for him but i really don't think he could use it without it being user friendly........for blind people...if they do have user friendly for blind people ipods please let me know and the price....thanks Lori

Posted by: Lori Facer at October 26, 2006 12:47 PM

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