Dedicated to Improving the Lives of Blind and Visually Impaired People

A Good Time for Watches for People with Vision Loss

by Daniel Parker, RDPFS Intern

For people with vision loss, timekeeping has changed markedly in the last 15 years. With smartphone screen readers announcing hours and minutes every time you wake them up, you might think the old watches would be rendered obsolete. However, having a discreet way to know the time can be important in classrooms, workplaces, and events where announcements would be disruptive or impractical. Fortunately, when it comes to watches and other personal timepieces, we have more options than ever. The traditional talking watches and Braille watches are still on the market at a range of prices, but Braille watches are generally more expensive. You can find them at variety of places such as Amazon (as indicated in the links above), MaxiAids and LS&S. The least expensive talking watches are simple quartz digital watches with large numbers and plastic cases, requiring the user to set the time manually. So-called “atomic” watches are also sold, which are controlled and set by radio signals from actual atomic clocks. Most talking watches have an alarm function, and many also provide an optional hourly announcement. While convenient, they have the same disadvantages as smartphone time announcements. So-called “Braille watches” are, for the most part, not actually Braille. These have a hinged crystal that, when opened, presents an analogue watch face with hands pointing to dots along the face. Typically, the largest dot is at the 12:00 position; middle-sized dots are at 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00; and smaller dots indicate the rest. Other watches, called “tactile” or “magnetic,” accomplish the same thing with two ball bearings at different positions on the face according to the time. One disadvantage of both of these designs is that the small scale means that an analogue watch with dots cannot tactilely display exact minutes, which can be important for transportation schedules, work events, and other activities.

The Advent of Smartwatches

Smartwatches are another option emerging during the last few years, including products like the Apple Watch, Samsung’s Galaxy Watch, Fitbit’s various devices, and many others. Fitness trackers, wearable mobility aids designed for blind people, and other offerings are also included here, so long as they keep time. Many of these devices allow the user to know the time via vibrations on the wrist. For example, the Apple watch uses two groups each of long and short pulses to convey units of ten hours, additional hours, ten minutes, and additional minutes. It also tells time by giving only the hours and quarter hours (“terse”), or by giving digits in Morse Code. Samsung’s system is similar, although others may vary in their implementation. These can also chime or vibrate every hour, half hour, or quarter hour, which can be helpful during daily activities. Some smartwatches have extensive screen reader support built in, while others, such as Fitbits, are accessible through their smartphone app or through the installation of an app on the watch itself. Lastly, a device called the Dot Watch is a smartwatch with a four-cell Braille display that tells time, announces notifications and includes many other basic smartwatch features. Here is an AccessWorld Magazine review of the Dot Watch, written before native support for Braille displays was included on the Apple Watch. Whatever device you choose, whether it is basic or smart, always be sure to have a way to keep time reliably. You can find more information about any of these products in the links above. The Apple, Samsung, and Fitbit links go to pages that discuss each of their accessibility features.