In 1995 Dr. Norman Coombs, a blind professor of history at the Rochester Institute of Technology and chairman of EASI: Equal Access to Software and Information wrote that the rapid adoption of a graphical user interface (GUI) would close the door on computing for the visually impaired. This was in largely in response to the Microsoft's Windows OS, but his point was well taken regarding all GUI based computing. Speech output systems, at that time, were based on character recognition and didn't work with a GUI that relied on icons and graphics. He wrote that many impaired users had lost their employment or found their positions downgraded because they could not function in the new GUI based environment.

Jump to 2010 and the introduction of the iPad. Many solutions were created along the way, but comparing that early state of affairs to what is now available on the iPad dramatically shows how far the field of assitive technology has progressed. ATMac, posted a round-up of disabled user's experiences with the iPad, which according to the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the UK was found to be highly accessible and probably the best mobile device on the market.

The National Federation of the Blind (NFB) has commended Apple for including VoiceOver capability in the iPad allowing just about everything displayed on the screen to be read aloud. This enables blind users to use the device as soon as it's taken out of the box, and proves that touchscreen devices need not be a limitation to the blind. Using VoiceOver, every action from screen dim, to screen lock is spoken along with built in hints. The implementation of what would be useful to the blind community is effective and useful.

This is in direct opposition to the blind community's reaction to the Amazon Kindle, which does not allow the use of voice to aid in navigating one's way around its menus without assistance. It's not good enough to have downloaded text read if you can't actually get to it or even turn pages while unassisted. Both the NFB and the American Council for the Blind have sued Arizona State University and sent complaints to five other universities that have been involved in pilot programs geared to replace textbooks with eBooks. Amazon has stated that the Kindle would be more accessible to the blind by the summer, but the iPad did it from day one.

To understand just how deeply Apple has considered the blind community, Mac-cesibility has published an excellent series of articles on how the iPad's use of VoiceOver along with the advantage of having a larger screen than the iPhone or iPad Touch has created a functional and useful interface for the non-sighted. The use of audio feedback for screen actions along with an enhanced set of gestures not found on the iPhone creates a very user friendly experience. The series goes on to cover, in depth, the use of Mail, Safari and iBooks using VoiceOver. The findings are that although the iPad isn't yet perfect for the visually impaired, the interface is excellent and "it will be a compelling alternative to far more expensive devices from assistive tech companies." They note that the iPad is a new category of device that really can't be compared to netbooks or eBook readers, and with the wide variety of already available iPhone/iPod Touch software, a user can accomplish just about anything on day one. This is not the case with any other mobile device.

In an article published in Accessworld from the American Federation for the Blind, Bradley Hodges wrote about his first 24 hours with the iPad and found it to be not perfect, but hearing a book in iBooks was a transformative experience and said that "the advent of accessible iBooks will be viewed by future generations as one of the landmark events in the life of the blind." Brian Payst, writing for The Stuff at the University of North Carolina, was quite impressed with his test of the iPad for the visually impaired and although he thought it would be helpful for a sighted person to help with setup and getting accustomed to the interface, the learning curve, is short and and mastering the gestures is fairly easy.

The RNIB found that the combination of accessibility features built into the iPad was impressive. The use of pinch-to-zoom, the ability to display white text on a black background and VoiceOver made the iPad quite usable but they would welcome pinch-to-zoom becoming universal. As it stands, zoom (which magnifies the screen 200% by default) can be used anywhere, but only some apps support the easier to use pinch-to-zoom. Hopefully Apple won't deny third party developers this ability on the grounds of API infringement as they are now doing with pinch-to-expand.

The iPad has also become quite beneficial for the speech disabled. We reviewed the excellent Proloquo2Go app for the iPhone/iPod Touch last October, and since then it was re-written as a Universal app bringing full screen resolution to the iPad. The app has always been quite flexible and customizable and running it on an iPad takes that to a new level. The increased size of the icons alone, can make it easier to use for users with impaired sight. For others, the ability to get 64 icons on the screen at one time, increasing the number from the iPhone's 16 icons, will be quite a welcome addition.

Apple has built more accessibility features into the iPad than any other Apple product. These include the ability to use an external keyboard and the reliance on a touchscreen interface that is cognitively easier to use than one that is mouse driven. Third-party developers have found the iPhone OS to be an excellent platform for building assistive, augmentative and enhanced viewing and communication apps. Containing all of those features working together, the iPad, which has already been highly praised by every assistive technology site I've encountered, will become even more valuable for the impaired community. The iPad is only two months old, and what has already been done is remarkable. Given a bit of time, it may become the most accessible and least expensive assistive computing device ever made.

This article was originally published on Tuaw.