Teaching iDevices to Blind Users–the Amazing Rita Howells

Inspired by her own experience, Rita Howells has joined a team of instructors who are blind to create free online trainings for individuals with vision impairments to master the iPhone and iPad.

A woman using a tablet seated at a table with cats in foreground.
Rita Howells

When Rita Howells retired in 2012 after 33 years working in the field of vocational rehabilitation and blindness, she was not yet an avid iPhone user. She’d been a general vocational rehabilitation counselor, a vocational counselor for blind adults, a manager of a rehabilitation division in Illinois,  and then an administrator for blind services for the southern 34 counties in Illinois. Throughout her career,  she’d watched computer technology for herself and her clients evolve and then remain fairly static. Clients going to work were mostly trained on computers operating Windows with JAWS (an expensive screen reader program), and later NVDA (a free screen reader program).  She knew this ecosystem well because most employers used it. Apple was out there, but she’d had little experience with its operating system. Yet.

At consumer conferences, a revolution was underway. It seemed like everyone had an iPhone or an iPad, “Something running VoiceOver,” she says.

Rita Howells wanted in.

iPhone’s Accessibility Revolution

Until the iPhone, the nascent world of mobile “smartphones” made her feel, she says, “Like a kid in a candy store where only the hard candy is within reach.”

Before the iPhone, there was no way to send text or email. There was Sprint Mobile Speak software which ran on a Nokia phone that was tactile and allowed making calls, but there was no screen access, no feedback. “Meanwhile sighted users were all standing around typing messages,” she says.

With the release of the iPhone 3 in 2009, everything changed. VoiceOver, Apple’s built-in screen reader, made accessibility native to a mobile device for the first time. “It meant consumers, sighted and visually impaired, could use the same phone and pay the same price for the same features,” she emphasizes. Consumers with visual impairments could access what was, on other “smart” phones, just a silent unforgiving screen. iPhone demanded touch and gestures to make its screen work and VoiceOver and Siri gave feedback.

So long as you knew how to use it.

The Learning Curve Proves Steep

Newly retired, Rita Howells bit the bullet and bought an iPhone 4. “And I was horrible at it. I called a friend, Dan Thompson, for help, and I had to use my landline to call him!” she laughs. “Dan is totally blind and had the patience of a saint with me trying to learn how to navigate with Voiceover. He walked me through it.”

Thompson had also just acquired his first iPhone. “So we ended up spending so much time calling each other, competing–who could send the first text? The first email?–that my husband said, ‘I’m going to drive you up there and lock you in a closet together to work this all out!'”

Eventually, she landed at her local Apple Store for instruction where a retired teacher at the Genius Bar took on the task of learning everything about iPhone accessibility and learning from Howells. She would visit with a two page single-spaced list of tasks she wanted to master. Together they’d plug away at each function using Apple’s support page.

Rita’s iDevice Advice Meets The Tech Juggernaut

Hooked, Howells never stopped making single-spaced lists for the iPhone. These days they are lists of instructions.

Rita’s iDevice Advice is a regular email sent to subscribers through the Illinois Assistive Technology Program (as well as through a listserv popular with blind adults). A teacher at heart, she is also offering free live webinars through The Tech Juggernaut (TTJ), a company started by Matt Vollbrecht.

Vollbrecht, Howells says, is a superstar. “He’s so on fire with everything Apple that he began his own company automating smart homes in his local area to blind and sighted consumers” (Vollbrecht is also blind).

In his spare time, he hosts The Tech Juggernaut podcast and website where he has organized a team of volunteer teachers to bring iOS device expertise to more users with vision impairments. He reached out to Howells through a listserv and last January Howells joined him to teach VoiceOver to 50 people from around the globe.

The Tech Juggernaut, Howells stresses, offers something truly remarkable for free. Webinars are conducted live via Zoom conferencing software. They are packed with instruction, and each presentation is followed by a question and answer period with his team of volunteers.

“I’ve become an interpreter,” Howells explains, “because his curriculum could really take 6 months. But everything is recorded. People can back up and listen and learn step by step.” All Tech Juggernaut recordings are archived at iTunes U and available via the iTunes app. “There’s lots of opportunity for practicing.” (Vollbrecht is also available for one-to-one training for a fee for those who request it.)

VoiceOver: Once You Get It You Can Fly

Why has Vollbrecht been able to attract volunteers to help with his company’s effort?

“Because this stuff is life-changing!” Howells is emphatic. “You can do anything. Every Apple app is native-accessible, any app or update they release. You can interact with family, participate in the world. Once you’re in you’re in. Once you get it you can fly.”

It’s the “getting in” that’s the hurdle.

Although blind users benefit by iPhone’s simpler interface and its app ecosystem, just like everyone else, “the learning curve is steep because they are used to pounding on equipment.” [Think braille writer.] “I have to show them the screen is not pressure sensitive,” she explains. Admittedly, learning hand-over-hand is best. Outside of webinars, Howells teaches friends with a cookie sheet for a display, with tactile representations for icons and to exaggerate gestures and navigation. 

The biggest challenge is learning VoiceOver navigation. Howells is teaching VoiceOver for The Tech Juggernaut because they realized his audience needs this proficiency before learning specific functions. 

“The only drawback I have seen with discovering the world through using my iPhone is a reaction by my husband. He told me he’s considering changing his name to ‘iTony’ so he will get some time with his wife!”

Rita’s Personal iDevice Advice

Beyond sending messages and making phone calls, what was immediately revolutionary for Howells with her first iPhone?

“The Calendar app. iPhone’s native calendar app is accessible via VoiceOver and Siri. I can speak a quick calendar entry and put in location reminders. Siri gives immediate feedback confirming entries. Before the iPhone, I’d used a Word doc with a screen reader.”

Favorite apps today?

“Seeing AI with its OCR capability [for quickly reading printed text aloud] and the Weather Gods app for its audio feedback. But any native iPhone app is VoiceOver accessible and great for productivity.”

Favorite Web resource for iDevices?

Applevis.com. AppleVis is the gold standard for resources for accessibility. It’s independent of Apple. It’s where blind users learn if an app is accessible and find apps they need and want. It’s also where developers go to learn how to create accessible apps.”

Topic of her first iDevice Advice?

“Clean your screen!”

For real?

“Yes! People are always handing me their phones to show them something and they’re sticky and filthy. I carry wipes with me everywhere.”

Learn about upcoming The Tech Juggernaut webinars including “Learning Voiceover In and Out” January 13 through April 1, 2020, with Rita Howells. (Direct all questions to info@ttjtech.net.)

Join the iDevices email listserv idevices+subscribe@groups.io.

Find free iDevice instructional videos from the Hadley Institute for the Blind and Visually Impaired.