Everyone and their grandmother use a smartphone these days. The full-colour, poker-card-sized touchscreen was a technological marvel when the first iPhone appeared a decade ago; today we take it for granted everyone knows how a smartphone works.

There’s one group of smartphone features that we overlook the most: The Accessibility features. Features such as reading what’s on the screen text out loud, and Siri/Google Now/Cortana converts your speech into commands and text on the phone.

Features like these are what allows Chia Hong Sen, 20, who was born without sight, to use the same phone as the rest of us. If fact, it’s what empowers him to function independently many aspects of life.

Photo of Hong Sen, 20, a software developer who also volunteers to teach blind students how to use smartphones

By using smartphones and other now-common assistive technologies, Hong Sen has been able overcome various barriers, and even to pursue his interest in IT at Temasek Polytechnic. He was the school’s first student who is completely visually impaired. Now a proud graduate, he is developing an app to help other students with special needs navigate the school campus.

Hong Sen also volunteers at the Singapore School for the Visually Handicapped, teaching the visually impaired how to use their smartphones.

Hong Sen shares his experience with assistive technology and how it can pave the way for inclusion.

Q: How did you get acquainted with assistive technology? How has it had an impact on your life?

The IT industry is an ever-changing industry. It’s the same for assistive technology: In the past we used Braille typewriters, now we are using electronic versions. In a way, assistive technology has helped me in the sense that it allows me to do what my [sighted] peers are doing. And no one could have imagined smart phones would evolve the way they did.

When I started to use smartphones a few years back, I had to learn how to operate it on my own by going online to research. Now that I’ve gained this knowledge, I’d like to pay it forward by teaching those people without the benefit of sight who want to learn how to use a smartphone, how to navigate different layouts of the screen, and to navigate from page to webpage.

Q: Can you walk us through how you navigate the smart phone? Most of us simply rely on the touch-screen function.

Instead of the usual way of tapping on an icon to open an app, a user who is visually impaired needs to know the app’s position on the screen before we can open it, which can be challenging. Assistive technology like the ‘accessibility services’ option changes the way we use the phone. A voice from the phone guides users through series of finger swipes and gestures, allows them to navigate around the interface of the phone and even open an app. Touch any part of the screen, and you hear what is under your finger. Gestures such as double tapping will open a specific app.

Q: What is the one technology that you can’t do without?

The screen reader is definitely something I use almost everyday on mobile devices and computers. It converts text to speech and reads the content of the screen out aloud for me to hear.

Q: You’re even developing an app to help others who have disabilities. Tell us more about it.

This app allows students with disabilities and special needs to get assistance within the school. It uses Wi-Fi access points to identify the user’s current location within the school building, so staff of the school will be able to locate them when they need help or in cases of emergency.

Q: Do you think assistive technology can help to foster inclusion? How?

What assistive technology does is it gives me access to mainstream technology that most people use. I feel included because I can do what my other friends are doing.

In the past, carrying out a simple task on the computer was tedious and we needed to go through so many steps to accomplish it. Nowadays with assistive technology it is so much simpler. If it can trickle down to more areas of our lives, for instance, to give us information on our surroundings, it would empower us to move around on our own.That would be inclusion on the mobility front.

In many ways, assistive technology allows us to connect with the everyday activities that other abled people are doing and allows us to participate in more aspects of life.

By the way, we thought you non-blind readers might want to see the blind-friendly features of a smartphone in action, so we’ve embedded a video showing exactly that by one of the favourite YouTubers in our office, The Blind Movie Critic: