Saturday, December 20, 2008

Ginger Spell on Disability 411

Several years ago, I read a passage that has stuck with me and become my own day-to-day mantra: “There are no mistakes in life, only lessons. It is only when we fail to learn the lesson that a mistake occurs.”

That thought also echoes the adage of, “If you always do what you always did, you always get what you always got.”

With those ideas in mind, let me ask a question. What do we learn from proofreading with a spellchecker? When we use most spellcheckers, we get the screen popping up the correct spelling of words, one word at a time, with no real feedback on what we’re doing wrong. If we’re not learning from our mistakes, er lessons, then we are destined to repeat them.

So, how about a spellchecker designed not to look at just the single word and be a preventative measure, like most are today, but instead, looks at the whole sentence and contextual use of the word, and seeks to teach the user where he is making errors?
And, what if this novel idea worked as a plug in for Microsoft Word, easily the most-used word processing program?
And, best yet, what if it were free?

If this sounds like an interesting tool, then check out the latest episode of the
Disability 411 podcast.
In Episode 58, Beth interviews Miki Feldman-Simon of
Ginger Software,
The company which has developed Ginger Spell, the very spellchecker that I just described above. It is marketed for being a “new technology for people with dyslexia.”

It doesn’t correct just spelling mistakes. It also corrects misused words, basically words that are spelled correctly but not in that context. How we do it is we look at the context of the sentence. The software uses breakthrough technology that looks at the context of each sentence and works out what the writer or the user was trying to write according to the context.

At the moment we correct spelling and misused words, but in the beginning of next year we’ll also be correcting grammatical errors which will make a huge difference to people making not just spelling mistakes but say, people for whom English is a second language who make a lot of grammatical errors.

What the software also does by correcting the whole sentence, it’s making the whole way people work a lot more efficient. Instead of going back and looking word by word, it is much faster to correct full sentences. So, if it takes someone an hour to write, and this is the feedback we’re getting from users right now, instead of it taking them a half an hour or an hour to write a few sentences before, it’s very quick and very efficient. you click one button and it corrects all of the mistakes within that sentence. You click another button, it corrects all the misused words and you just continue working.

It’s just a much better way to use the time and the accuracy is a lot higher than any other spell checker. If you really have difficulty writing and you make unusual spelling mistakes, which a lot of people who have learning difficulties or who have dyslexia do, normal spell checkers can’t correct the unusual mistakes that they make. Our software, because it looks at the context of the sentence can correct these unusual mistakes at the sentence level. It’s much more accurate and it’s much faster and easier to use.



The learning of lessons comes in reports that Ginger Spell will generate. This is where Ginger Spell is different by offering lessons, not mistakes. The user can learn where and how he is creating errors and, once these areas are identified, can work to fix these in the future.

To use the Ginger Spell plug in, the user will need to set up a log in account. That lets the program generate the individual report for that particular user, which can make this a very useful tool for university writing labs, or even for student computers operated by the DSO.

Does this sound like an interesting tool? Check out the link above for the D411 show for more of the interview with Miki. Also, go to the Ginger Software page to download and try out Ginger Spell for yourself.

And, remember…, no more mistakes, only lessons.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Developers of WebAnywhere screen reader recognized for technology collaboration

Hopefully, the following recognition will allow insight to continue.

The 3rd annual Mellon Awards for Technology Collaboration (MATC) recognized the great work going on at the University of Washington on
WebAnywhere,
The cross-platform, cross-browser, web-based screen reader on the go.

The MATC recognition provides a $50,000 award to the university, which will hopefully be used for the continued work on this insightful, open source software.

If you’re interested in trying out this innovative and evolving assistive technology , go to the official
WebAnywhere home page.

And, in case you missed it, a few months ago, I interviewed
Jefferey Bigham,
the contact person for WebAnywhere, several months ago here on Access Ability.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Personal update

Sorry about the lack of posts of late. Aside from the Thanksgiving week break, during which I was gone for a 6-day cruise with my family, I’m also working on a couple of projects. Both of these undertakings are similar in that they involve me teaching assistive technology.

First, I have recently begun working with a local school district to teach their blind and visually impaired students how to use the JAWS screen reader and some other assistive technologies in which I’m well versed in. I’m so impressed with the range of skills the students possess, not to mention their desire to learn. I’m doing this a couple of days a week with students from elementary to high school age. The teachers and administrators keep thanking me for doing this, but I keep feeling that I should thank me for being able to contribute to the education of these kids. Maybe I’m idealistic, but what I teach them might be the very skill that helps them excel in college or land that job they want. Only time will tell what dividends are realized out of my time investment with these students.

The second undertaking I’ve been working on is a structured curriculum for teaching VI professionals on how to teach their students how to use JAWS. I was contacted a couple of weeks ago by a VI professional from another school district. He asked if I could teach him and a fellow colleague on how to instruct their students on this. He said that they have to know several different technologies to fit a variety of skill sets and visual acuities, but doing this usually means being a jack of all trades and master of none. To teach JAWS, though, one must have more of a skill level than what they have and he said that the practical experience I have is a very sought after skill.

Doing both of these teaching projects has sparked an inspired fire within me. Using JAWS and other assistive technologies are skills I’ve learned out of necessity, but mastering these and staying up to date on latest innovations in assistive technology was a self serving method for me to maximize my experience and abilities. However, I’ve realized that I have become a resource on using various technologies that many of my friends who are also users of these turn to when they need help or looking at purchasing new equipment. It is that realization mixed with a desire to help that have pushed me to embark on my latest efforts.

The down side of all this is that I’m winding up with less time to write here on Access Ability. Don’t worry, though. I’m still here and will be tending this fire as well. It may be a bit less frequent, but writing here will definitely be something I continue. After all, it was a passion to share resources that drove me to begin this blog in the first place, and that fire still burns.

I just feel that I needed to let regular readers of this blog understand why I’ve been a bit absent of late.

More soon…

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Leader Dogs giving away Trekker Breeze

How would you like a chance to win a Trekker Breeze?

In an effort to promote its Trekker Breeze training initiative, which incorporates the functionality of GPS with orientation and mobility skills,

Leader Dogs for the Blind,

Is giving away a Trekker Breeze.


In addition to the contest, Leader Dogs is also featuring both trainer and student blogs where the writers will chronicle their Trekker Breeze experiences on the Rochester, Minnesota guide dog school's web site.

The drawing is open to everybody, not just Leader Dog students. There is also a brief survey to inquire what drew participants to the post. To enter, go to the official
contest web site.
The drawing will take place on Dec. 19, 2008 and the winner will be notified by email.

For the uninformed, the Trekker Breeze is a lite version of Trekker, the powerful accessible GPS navigation system, manufactured and solde by the assistive technology company
Humanware.

Trekker Breeze offers the important benefits of GPS orientation tools. It enhances independence and confidence in travelling. Users can record routes as they walk them with sighted assistance. Routes can then be previewed and activated for future use. As they walk by, users receive audible information such as street names, intersections and reference landmarks. In case they are lost, they can retrace their steps. They can also reach favorite destinations with turn by turn instructions from their current position. The product makes it easier to travel alone and allows people to discover and enjoy their surroundings.



When I trained with Boise, my current dog from
The Seeing Eye,
my training partner was a big user of various assistive technologies. He traveled to Morristown with two suitcases, one of which was nothing but his gadget bag. One of these gadgets was the original Trekker, which he insisted I check out on one of our walks in town.

The information Trekker provided was incredible. It told me of so many different shops and street demarkations that I never knew about, even with the robust information provided by several trainers on the same route. If the Trekker Breeze gives the same user feedback with as much eas of use, it will be a great prize to whomever wins it. Hopefully, that will be me!

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Blind Planet aims to be one-stop blindness resource

If you’re interested in news, products, and information specific to blindness, you might want to bookmark the
Blind Planet
Web site, which bills itself as, “The best blind community on the net,.”


“Our mission is to provide the world with a one-stop resource for blindness-related information, podcasts, tutorials, mailing lists, web sites, and almost anything else that would be useful to the blind community.”

Welcome to The Blind Planet! The Blind Planet is a rapidly-growing web site that offers a lot of valuable information for the blind community, and / or for those people who are interested in learning about blindness and how blind people go about their daily lives. Regardless of whether you are blind, sighted, a novice or a professional at technology, or are just searching for help and / or information on a particular topic, you will definitely find the Blind Planet to be one of your favorite web sites very quickly.



I first learned about the site because somebody read a blog post here by clicking on a link originating on the Blind Planet site. Intrigued and curious, I checked it out. After perusing the site and its
News Aggregator
I added it to my own RSS feeds.

Besides my own blog feed, the Blind Planet News Aggregator includes feeds from several of my regular favorites, including
Blind Bargains,
Blind Cool Tech Podcast,
Fred’s Head Companion,
The Ranger Station,
Top Tech Tidbits for Thursday,
And
Wayne’s blog.

For me, the News Aggregator does meet its intended mission of being that one-stop resource, at least for reading my favorite blindness related blogs and web sites.
See if it does the same for you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

AccessApps offers free assistive technology applications to run on USB jump drive

(Thanks to the
Fred’s Head Companion
for the following assistive technology resource.)

AccessApps
is a site that has more than 50 assistive technology and learning applications. The beauty of this site is that these titles will all run on any computer, directly from a USB jump drive with no need to install software on the host computer.

The site, based in Scotland, will allow you to select the various software applications and download them in one suite. There are even step-by-step tutorials and video guides on the site’s “Help” page to get you up and running.


AccessApps is an initiative developed by the Scottish JISC Regional Support Centres in cooperation with
JISC TechDis
. It consists of over 50 open source and freeware assistive technology applications which can be entirely used from a USB stick on a Windows computer (

here is a full list of applications on offer).

AccessApps will run without needing to install anything on a computer and provide a range of e-learning solutions to support writing, reading and planning as well as visual and mobility difficulties.



What are you waiting for? Go get ‘em!

Friday, November 07, 2008

Interview on No Limits 2 Learning Live

Pardon me, but its time for a little self promotion.

On Wednesday, I was interviewed by my friend Lon Thornburg
On his
No Limits 2 Learning Live
BlogCastRadio program If you enter on the link above, the webcast will stream, but there is also an option to download the program if you prefer to listen to it later.)

On this program, Lon asks me about a variety of issues from personal adjustment to blindness to what it takes for a blind student to prepare for college. I get to discuss some of the issues most important to me, most particularly planning, self advocacy, and accessible texts.

I first met Lon through a comment left here on the Access Ability blog and we’ve gotten to know each other through email correspondence since then, but this is the first time we’ve actually talked to one another. I hope its not the last! Lon is a well qualified assistive technology expert in Oregon whose passion for helping shines through in everything he does. I’m truly proud to call him my friend.

Be sure to keep up with Lon's regular writings and reflections on his
No Limits 2 Learning
Blog. He writes on a variety of assistive technology matters and ties in some of the most important and compelling aspects of working with students.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Brain Computer Interface continues to evolve

I’ve previously posted about the research involving technologies which allow the Brain to interface with a Computer. One link I provided was the work that Hitachi has made with its
Brain-machine-interface,
As well as the
Project Epoch,
A brain computer interface that lets computer gamers interact using only thoughts and facial expressions.

The programs that allow a person the ability to operate a computer by thought are complex applications that execute computer commands using only normal, human thought processes. This research offers great hope for people who have limited or no motor function, as well as tons of potential for future variations of what it can do.

Now, here’s the latest update on this technology.

If you missed it this past Sunday, the CBS news magazine
60 Minutes
had a report on the latest innovations in this revolutionary technology. When that web page loads, do as the Aerosmith song of a few years back instructed, and “Just Push Play.”

In the video, Scott Pelley reports on two people who use brain interactions with a computer to interact and communicate. The first person we meet is Scott Mackler, a husband, father, and neuroscientist who was diagnosed with ALS nine years ago. Mackler uses an external cap of electrodes to operate the computer and engage the Brain Computer Interface to respond to Pelley’s questions during the interview.

The other person shown in the sequence is Cathy Hutchinson, who was paralyzed after a stroke some years ago. She has a different variation on her interaction with the computer, though. While Mackler was connected via the cap of electrode arrays on the outside of his head, she is directly connected to the computer with electrodes that have been implanted in the motor cortex of her brain. She uses a plug on her head to connect to the Braingate system on the computer. She makes the computer respond to her commands just as if she were operating a mouse with her hand. She has even operated a wheelchair using the Braingate.

Click on the link above and watch the video. It is truly fascinating. This shows what can be done when we push the limits of what is possible. The advances this technology is creating remind me that the potential for mankind to succeed is virtually unlimited.

As a final note, a tip of the hat also goes to CBS for showing great insight to providing accessible material. For those who are deaf or hearing impaired, or just prefer to read the text instead of watching the awe-inspiring video, the network also offers a
text transcript.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

On beautiful homes, cars, and wildflowers

On a recent evening, I was talking with my father-in-law, who was telling me about a new neighbor who had recently visited their home for the first time. The neighbor commented, “This is just beautiful in here, its like a museum. From the outside, people would never know just how beautiful it is in here. You should invite people in and let them see just what a beautiful home you have.”

It immediately dawned on me that that man’s words apply just as well to people. From the outside, strangers don’t know what lies inside. If they are not invited to come inside, they’ll never come to know what beauty lurks just out of view.

I think of my group of friends and how each one is such a unique person, with his or her own, distinct attributes, and how easily these would be overlooked by anybody who does not take a moment to get to know the individual. Several of my friends have various disabilities and I know how socially isolating having a disability can be, which only serves to magnify the matter of being closed off from the outside world.

Too often, life is like the world is a car speeding down the highway and not noticing the pretty, lone wildflower idly sitting there. The world will never notice if it doesn’t slow down and look.

But, maybe if there were a flagman signaling the car to stop and directing the world’s attention to that bloom, then the world might notice it.

While that wildflower doesn’t have a flagman to bring attention to it, we as people do. We can let people know who we are just by inviting them into our world.

Because the important thing to note here is that, in actuality, you are that wildflower.

Open the door to your life and say hello to people. Let them know who you are. Let the world see the beauty that lies within, the museum of who you are.

I don’t mean that you have to be an open book and talk to every person you meet, but when presented with the opportunity to have a conversation, don’t be afraid to be the person to initiate it. People are social beings and we thrive in the company of others. Its lonely without outside interaction.

Open your personal doors, invite your neighbors in, and let them see just how beautiful your home is.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Two Resources for Writing College Papers

Here are two useful web sites which should serve as great resources for any student needing to write college papers. Thanks to the fine folks at
Fred’s Head Companion
for these links.

Punctuation Made Simple


First, there’s a great writing tool for all, particularly any student with a writing or cognitive disability, at
Punctuation Made Simple.

The site, hosted by The College of Arts & Sciences at Illinois State University, has links specific to using colons, semicolons, commas, and dashes.

Big Dog's Grammar


The second resource is
Big Dog’s Grammar,
which touts itself as, "Basic English grammar with interactive exercises."

The site has links for MLA style, pronoun use, active/passive voice, and various forms of modifiers, as well as some other nuggets of wisdom.

It also has an option to read the web site in Spanish, an alternative I think would be a great asset for Spanish speakers who are taking English classes.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Call to advocacy for accessible information

I just received the following in an email from The Victor Reader Stream Newswire and felt it needed to be shared. It is a call for users and providers to raise your voice and be heard by contacting your country's representative to the WIPO. Hurry, though, as they will meet in ten days!

******
Message from the DAISY Consortium...

Dear DAISY Members and Friends,

The World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) will be considering a copyright treaty proposed by the World Blind Union (WBU) at the WIPO November 3 Standing Committee Meeting. The treaty, called "WIPO Treaty for Improved Access for Blind, Visually Impaired and other Reading Disabled Persons" is available online at:

http://www.keionline.org/misc-docs/tvi/tvi_en.html

We are asking all of you to contact your country's representative who will
be attending the WIPO Standing Committee meeting and advocate in favor of this draft treaty. We need you to act now, because the meeting will take place in ten days.

Information and links to supporting documents are provided immediately below in this email. We also offer some guidance on who to contact in your country and some assistance finding the right person.

On the front page of the DAISY Website under "Recent News" is the link to an article that provides further detail. It also contains links to the draft treaty in HTML, DAISY 2.02, and in DAISY 3. DAISY home page:

http://www.daisy.org

Direct link to the news entry:

http://www.daisy.org/news/news_detail.shtml?NewsId=458

The WIPO Standing Committee will be meeting November 3-7, 2008 and the WBU proposed treaty is the first substantive item on the agenda. The agenda can be found at:

http://www.wipo.int/meetings/en/doc_details.jsp?doc_id=108373

DAISY Members and Friends should send their email letter in support of the proposed treaty to the department/minister that is going to represent their government in the SCCR/WIPO meeting. This information can normally be found within the department of foreign affairs and education in your country. If anybody has difficulties finding their SCCR representative we have provided names of those who attended the last meeting. This can be found at:

http://www.keionline.org/misc-docs/tvi/wipo_delegates_sccr16.html#toc17

If you are unable to find the name of the representative in your country at the link provided above, please contact Judit Rius Sanjuan
judit.rius@keionline.org

and/or Thiru Balasubramaniam
thiru@keionline.org

The treaty proposal put forward by the WBU is an extremely important document which addresses information access on an international level. We suggest you familiarize yourself with the proposal, and ask that each of you contact the government representative in your country who will attend the SCCR/WIPO meeting. Background and talking points are available at:

http://www.keionline.org/misc-docs/tvi/tvi_memo_en.html

Best

George Kerscher, Secretary General, DAISY Consortium
George Kerscher Ph.D.
Access to information is a fundamental human right in our Information Age.

Senior Officer, Accessible Information
Recording For the Blind & Dyslexic (RFB&D)
http://www.rfbd.org

Secretary General, DAISY Consortium
http://www.daisy.org

Co-chair Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI), a division of the W3C
http://www.w3c.org/wai

Board Representative to the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF)
http://www.idpf.org

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Hybrid Assistive Limb is a lifestyle changer

Its not quite the Six Million Dollar Man, but we’re getting there.

There is a new exoskeleton called the
Hybrid Assistive Limb,
or HAL, which uses censors on the skin connected to electric motors to increase the user’s strength tenfold.

It works by using sensors applied to the skin that detect the faint electrical currents sent by the brain through the nervous system when it commands a particular activity. These sensors are connected to a computer that interprets the signal and then sends its own command to electric leg and arm braces. Upon detection of the appropriate electrical nerve signal, HAL moves a split-second before the leg muscle itself.



The exoskeleton is being marketed and leased as a rehabilitation tool. That’s a great start, but the ability to add strength times ten to limbs which are not usually cabable of normal power just screams out to me that this would be a lifestyle changer to many. Just think about the difference this can make to people with limited motor strength or to people who are weakened by aging. I’d bet they would think this product was worth six million dollars.

One question I might have concerns the HAL's use with people who have central nervous disorders. Being it relies on nerve impulses, I would think that this might preclude its use for that population. However, despite that one holdback, HAL still fits a broad category of people who would probably find it a great difference maker in their lives.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Blind Sight: A camera for visually impaired people

In the time before I became blind, I always had a camera around. Since my accident, that hasn’t changed. These later cameras were usually for capturing images that could be later shared with those of the light-dependent persuasion, but it was also a method for grabbing some memories for myself. The thing was, the pictures were always only as good to me as the descriptive abilities of the person telling me about them.

In my experience, most blind people tend to use cameras, which I do think is interesting. Even though we can’t see the photos, we do like to have them to capture special moments and share with family and friends.

Somebody else has taken note of that and worked to create
Touch Sight: a camera for the blind.

I originally learned about this product through an email, but looked it up online. Here’s some information from the web site.

“Touch Sight is a revolutionary digital camera designed for visually impaired people. Simple features make it easy to use, including a unique feature which records sound for three seconds after pressing the shutter button. The user can then use the sound as reference when reviewing and managing the photos.
Touch Sight does not have an LCD but instead has a lightweight, flexible Braille display sheet which displays a 3D image by embossing the surface, allowing the user to touch their photo. The sound file and picture document combine to become a touchable photo that is saved in the device and can be uploaded to share with others–and downloaded to other Touch Sight cameras.”

One interesting aspect discovered by Chueh in his research is that holding the camera to the forehead is the optimal position for this device. He discovered that “at the Beit Ha’iver (Center for the Blind) in Herzliya, Israel, the instructor who teaches a photography course for the visually impaired discovered that holding the camera to the forehead, like a third eye, is the best way for them to stabilize and aim the camera. The instructor also found the visually impaired have no problems estimating distances, since their sense of hearing is especially sharp. Every rustle of wind in the trees catches their attention and can be used to judge distances. Other senses come into play as well. The heat of the sun or a lamp in a living room, for example, signals a direct source of light. They regularly use their non-visual senses to feel the world and manifest it into a mental photograph.”



After reading that information, there are some thoughts that occur to me about this camera.

*The sound recording is a good idea to give a contextual reference to the picture. I’m not sure that three seconds gives enough time to say much, but I’m certain that can be tweaked in future revisions of the product. And, the recorder being activated with the shutter means the person taking the picture needs to think about what to say before engaging the shutter.

*I like the ability to share the files. It might mean uploading the files for others to share, but wouldn’t it be great if it included BlueTooth by design?

*The display with refreshable Braille makes me think this will not be cheap. Given the cost of existing Braille displays for electronics, I shudder to think what this will mean for the price of this device.

*And, being that cameras take only two-dimensional photos, I’m supposing there will be some limitations of the pictures that this camera can render and display in Braille. Unless the Braille display gives some depth in the height of the cells, there will be no depth perception, but only a raised line drawing.

Still, this is a big leap in a direction that might seem contrary to most folks. Then again, most folks haven’t been around gatherings of blind people such as annual conventions of the national blindness advocacy groups or at classes at the various guide dog schools. If so, they would know that blind people often have and use cameras, even if they can’t see the pictures they take. That might be history as this product evolves.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

Happy Rebirth Day; A matter of attitude

Okay, I’ve already acknowledged today’s date in my first post. For anybody who doesn’t know me, today is personally significant to me. It was this date, 15 years ago, that changed my life forever. It is the reason I’m writing this blog today. It is the day I was involved in an auto accident that blinded me and caused a ripple of events in my life that changed the way I do so many things.

Today is also the day I mark as my rebirth day. I was reborn that day in almost every aspect, short of a trip down the birth canal. I had to learn to walk and talk again after a two-month coma. I had to learn how to eat again, only this time I couldn’t look at my food as I got it onto the fork or spoon—a real feat when eating jello for the first time! I also had the chance to rethink my education and career choices. It was a freedom to start all over again and that is how I saw the events in my life, a real opportunity.

I truly believe it is that attitude of seeing that change in my life as an opportunity, not a curse, that has led me to find the level of fulfillment and success in life that I have. I’ve had many academic and personal achievements, but the best thing I’ve done is to find my wife of almost ten years as the result of that fateful day.

I am very happily married to a darling woman and we have the best 6-year-old son anybody could hope to have. I might add that I never would have met my wife if I hadn’t been through the changes of 15 years ago. I was speaking at a youth conference and talking about making good choices following my accident, and she came up to me afterward to follow up on something I had said about learning how to cook while blind. She is a high school Foods teacher and had a 10th grade student who was blind and wanting to learn how to cook. On that day, more than 11 years ago, we began a strong friendship that is the foundation for our marriage today.

The day of my accident, October 9, 1993, isn’t only significant to me. It was also the same day that
Marcus Engel,
A young Missouri man in his first semester of college,was also involved in an auto accident. Marcus went through more surgeries in the next year and a half, most of these above the neck, repairing the effects of a drunk driver when he struck the vehicle Marcus was traveling in.

No matter how good those surgeons were, though, they couldn’t save Marcus’ sight. Yes, that’s correct…he was blinded in an auto accident on the very same night I was. We were in accidents separated by a couple of states and about three hours, but our fates were joined on that same date.

And, continuing down that idea of fated pathways, we met about a year and a half later, when we were both at
The Seeing Eye,
In Morristown, New Jersey, getting our first guide dogs together.

We became friends and created a bond there that has kept us in touch with each other in many ways since then and I continue to count Marcus as a good friend. We have both also progressed a long way from those early days of adjusting to the blindness and the changes in our lives. We are both now married and have created well-balanced lives that I don’t think either of us could have ever foreseen 15 years ago.

In my life before that auto accident, back when I was a Texas prison supervisor, I used to tell my staff at shift briefing that the quality of their day will very likely be the result of their individual attitude. I believed that statement then, and believe it even more so today. Life really is all about attitude.

I don’t know what your plans for today are, but I will go out with my wife and son this evening and celebrate today. For me, it is special, but, then again, that is just my attitude.

Getting back into the groove

Today is October 9, exactly one full month since I made a regular, non-hurricane post here. To regular readers, I say, “I’m sorry about that prolonged absence.”

I’ve been out of sorts here. First, there was a water pipe which burst inside the guest room closet of our home that upset the apple cart. That took about a week and a half to get things situated, preparing for the repairs to the sheetrock, baseboards, and carpet. Then, this hurricane appeared and smashed that apple cart, leaving way too much in its aftermath. The hurricane set off the house repairs to our home for a few weeks, and only last week did we get our final repairs finished when the carpet company installed the new flooring.

My problem is that I am a creature of habit and work great within structure. I thrive in a routine and that’s exactly what has been lacking around here of late.

I suppose, though, since my son went back to school last Monday, and the home repairs are all finished, that it is time to get back to business here at Access Ability. So, I’ll be working to post more diligently in the coming days. I sometimes take a little effort to get going once I fall out of my routine and a month off is a long time. Bear with me, though, and we’ll get there.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Realization of past week

After reading, posting, and replying to the two comments that were left on the last post, I checked my blog’s Site Meter statistics. That is when I realized that this was something I haven’t done in several days. Its one of those subconscious routines we get into, doing something as a daily course of action that we don’t even think about, but do it almost religiously. I like to see what posts are generating the most traffic, learn where my visitors are coming from geographically, and to see where a post might be linked to.

What I also realized was that this routine was a small and insignificant thing to do in light of the events of the past week down here. It was so insignificant that I hadn’t missed checking any of that information. I’ve been much more interested in keeping up with news and events that affected my community and areas where I have some emotional ties, and not interested in my blog statistics.

In the coming days, as electricity gets restored to more Houston area businesses and households, as fuel stations get more regularly replenished, and as schedules get back into more of a norm, life will no doubt creep back into more routine pathways of completing tasks. That includes my own. For now, with my family, ours is the only one of three homes with electricity, making it a haven of resources, of sorts. That’s okay, though, as it allows more familial gatherings and sharing of activities.

As those points of progress come to pass in the coming days, I’ll be back here more regularly, getting back to the task of sharing resources and news. (And, no doubt, following those oh, so informative statistics.) Until then, I’ve got more post-Ike recovery news to read about as we recover.

See you soon…

Friday, September 19, 2008

After the storm: recovering after a large-scale traumatic event

I live in the Houston area and, if you didn’t notice, we had a little storm this past weekend. Of course, I jest when I say, “that little storm.” It was almost a week ago when I lost electricity, several hours before Hurricane Ike made landfall on the island city of Galveston. It took a few more hours for that hurricane’s eye to come inland and pass over my part of northeastern Houston, but hit it did.

I was one of the lucky ones who had my electricity back on Saturday night. That left only about two million other Houstonians without power, more than half of whom are still without it today. I got my internet connection back a couple of days ago and have been steadily catching up on news as the Bayou City and the surrounding areas recover from this devastating storm.

I was lucky in so many ways aside from having my electricity restored so soon, but before moving to the section of town where I now reside, I lived and worked in some of the most affected areas of this storm. My wife and I have previously owned homes in both Clear Lake and Seabrook, and frequently enjoyed the short, five minute drive to dine at the Kemah Boardwalk. During my final year of grad school, I worked as an LPC intern at Shriners Burns Hospital in Galveston. My family also enjoyed many, frequent trips to Galveston for brief getaways, and have sailed out of there for three cruises. Each of these locations --Clear Lake, Seabrook, Kemah, and Galveston—are along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and were struck violently when Ike came ashore. You can see then, that we’ve got many emotional ties to the affected areas, as well as several good friends who still live around there.

So, you say what’s that got to do with this blog, aside from the obvious connection to myself? Let me explain…

I spoke to one of those good friends who still live in the Clear Lake area last night. This was actually the third time I spoke to her this week. The first time was when she returned my call to check on her. She had gotten back to her home after evacuating for a couple of days. She returned to find her home without electricity and some tree limbs down, but otherwise intact. She sounded very drained, both physically and emotionally, which most would expect after what she had just been through. On a scale of one to five, with one being the worst emotional state, she was close to a one.

The next time I spoke to her was two days later. Her power was back on and she had been shopping at Sam’s Club. She was her normal, energetic self. On that one to five scale, she was pushing a solid five.

Then, when I spoke to her last night, she was back down fluctuating somewhere between those two extremes. She was full of self-doubt, anxious about the way things were going, and even questioned her ability to make sound judgments. She wondered what was going on. She asked me if this was normal, if she was normal.

What had caused that shift back downward to happen?

First, she and all the supervisory staff had been called to work. As a supervisor, she had been told to be a nurturing parent to her staff, and was urged to reach out to check on her staff. At no time did the higher ups acknowledge that the supervisors were dealing with any of these same emotional issues from the hurricane that they were supposed to acknowledge and tend to. Nobody from above reached out and checked on her. The supervisors had evacuated as well as anybody that worked for them. Just because they were supervisory staff didn’t make them immune from the same feelings they were being told to nurture with their staff. However, the administration at her institution seemed to overlook the fact that the supervisors are people who have to manage that same emotional upheaval, just as their subordinates.

Let me say that this woman is a strong and passionate leader. She knows the rules and regulations regarding her profession, but never forgets that she and her staff are people first. If anything, she is one who leads with her heart.

What also happened was that my friend was missing the fact that the only thing that was normal was to feel abnormal. There are still long lines to get gas, often with waits of sometimes several hours; most homes in Houston still don’t have electricity; all the schools are closed; many grocery stores are open, but often haven’t restocked perishables; of the open grocers, most of these are operating on emergency power. Drive through any neighborhood in Houston at night and, most likely, it will be only the car’s headlights lighting it. The streetlights are out, as are most of the traffic lights. She cannot go anywhere that things are normal yet.

That probably describes the underlying reason for what my friend felt. The fourth largest city in America is not normal and she felt that she had to be back to normal just because she had electricity and goes back to work next week. We’re still recovering and things won’t be fully normal for some time to come.

Yes, my friend is normal, feeling the normal emotional swings that we all do when managing traumatic situations in our life. She has just watched the community she has lived in for decades get hammered. People she knows have been hit harder than either she or I. We all deal with these situations in our own ways, but underneath it all, we all feel the mood shifts.

The higher ups where my friend is employed would do well to recognize that we are all impacted by these events. The administrators would do well to heed their own advice and be nurturing parents to their supervisors.

The bottom line in this is that we are all affected by a major traumatic event such as a hurricane. The personal impact will vary from one individual to the next, but we all feel something when an event of this magnitude strikes home. Some people lost everything, some a bit, and some very little when it comes to physical things. Aside from those who lost their lives in this tragic event, we will all recover from it.

The critical factor in this emotional recovery process is exactly the same as it is with physical recovery after a destructive event of such scale – time.

So, don’t rush it. The old saying is that time heals all wounds. Give yourself time to recover after major trauma. Likewise, also give your friends and family time to recover. Reach out to one another, give a quick shout out and say, “How are you doing?” just to let somebody know you care.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

2008 Paralympics underway and moving right along

Last night, I watched The Late Show with Jay Leno and his featured guest, Michael Phelps, the winner of eight gold medals at the recently concluded 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. Phelps sounded exhausted. The ratings and media frenzy about his record-setting feat at this year’s Olympics were impressive, to say the least.

If you haven’t heard, now that the Olympics are over, it is now time for the
2008 Paralympics
to take place. Actually, the
opening ceremonies
took place this past Saturday.
Patricia E. Bauer
Offers up a collection of links to different reports on these ceremonies.

With the opening pageantry complete and the games underway, I present the following round up of related Paralympics information.

This page from
The Canadian Broadcasting Center
Has several links on it for Paralympics coverage, including video and event schedules.

For informed reporting from within the disability community,
Disaboom
Has an entire
team of bloggers
reporting on the activities from Beijing.

For some local flavor, The Houston Chronicle reports on
Jordan Mouton’s quest for Judo gold.

Mouton, who has been blind since her early teens because of a genetic degenerative eye condition known as rod-cone disease, took up judo several years after she had to quit soccer as her vision declined.



Finally, for a perspective of understanding that equality is something that Paralympic athletes insist upon both on the field and off, read this New York times piece about how Tony Iniguez And his peers
fight for equal funding from the USOC.

Iniguez is one of many Paralympians who criticize the United States Olympic Committee for providing less direct financial assistance and other benefits at lower levels to Paralympic athletes than to Olympians in comparable sports. The committee awards smaller quarterly training stipends and medal bonuses to Paralympic athletes. Benefits like free health insurance, which help athletes devote more hours to training, are available to a smaller percentage of Paralympians.

Friday, August 29, 2008

NLS continues its progress in digitizing book collection

The following press release was just issued by Missouri’s Wolfner Library regarding the awarding of a contract for the manufacture of cartridges that will be used to distribute digital books from the
National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS.)

The unwritten word of this release being issued means that the NLS is moving to the final leg of preparing the books for wider distribution. By having the books available on distribuble cartridges, the books will be available in a format that can be mailed, not requireing the reader to have a computer or internet connection. If they are awarding this contract, then another contract to make players for these cartridges can’t be too far away. After all, what good are the cartridges if consumers don’t have a player.

Granted, people using playback devices such as the Victor Reader Stream already have the capability to insert and play the cartridges, but they can play the files without a cartridge if they’re able to download them from the internet.

But That’s not who the NLS is looking to serve with these cartridges. By making the digital collection available on cartridge means that the NLS is looking to make the books available to a wider audience, such as those who do not own a digital player and still use the 4-track tapes. The purpose of the NLS program is to make books available to those who have a print disability. That mission includes making the accessible books available at no cost to the consumer. If the consumer wants to purchase their own playback device, then they are free to do so. But there are some who can not afford that luxury and rely on the playback devices that are issued by the NLS.

The digitization continues!

Here is the press release:

Subject : Northstar Systems Inc. to produce digital audio cartridges for the talking-book program


Northstar Systems Inc. of Rancho Cucamonga, California, was awarded a contract on August 22, 2008, to manufacture USB flash-memory cartridges for use in distributing recorded audiobooks to patrons of the talking-book program by the Library of Congress on behalf of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS), Washington, D.C.

The initial contract funding of more than $6.2 million will enable Northstar to manufacture audio flash cartridges on which NLS will record both new and existing titles over the next year. The base contract covers three years with a unilateral government option for four additional years. The books recorded on these cartridges will be distributed to the net work of 128 libraries that serve approximately one-half million blind and physically handicapped individuals through the United States and its territories.

The cartridges purchased under this contract will permit all NLS recorded books to be issued on either 512 MB or 1 GB cartridges. This will enable each recorded book to be contained on a single cartridge, greatly improving the current patron's experience of receiving multiple four-track cassettes. In addition, Northstar is obligated to furnish participating libraries and interested patrons with blank cartridges at prices fixed in the contract. Specific procedures for purchase by these parties are being determined.

Northstar has a manufacturing network that includes plants in Ireland, Japan, Taiwan, China, and Singapore, providing a total of one million square feet of production space.

The corporation is an active member of the Bluetooth Special Interest Group, SD Association, USB-IF Committee, Compact Flash Organization, and MemoryStick Organization.

In June 2008 contracts were signed with Shinano-Kenshi Corporation Ltd./Plextor-LLC of Culver City, California, to begin production of digital talking-book players and with LC Industries in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, to produce mailing containers for the cartridges.
This Northstar Systems contract is the final agreement necessary for the conversion of the national talking-book program from analog to digital.




Richard J. Smith, Director
Wolfner Library
Missouri State Library
P.O. Box 387
Jefferson City, MO 65102
Phone: 573-522-2767
In Missouri: 800-392-2614
Fax: 573-526-2985
Email:
richard.smith@sos.mo.gov

Web Site:
http://www.sos.mo.gov/wolfner

Blind Bloggers group offers resource for problem solving

This news is not directly related to DSS at colleges and universities, but does relate to issues of web accessibility, and is very particular to myself as a blogger who is blind.

Blind Bloggers
is a new group on
Google Groups,
which is just what its name states, a group for bloggers who are blind.

Boy, does this bring back memories. I recall some issues I used to have when I first began blogging where I needed to ask somebody a question about using Blogger with a screen reader. Thankfully for me, I knew two people, both blind screen reader users, who helped me solve problems as they arose. This group is one of those “slap yourself on the head” kind of ideas, where you say, “Now, why didn’t I think of that?” The group gives a gathering place for those who have some knowledge to share with others who might encounter similar problems. It is yet another resource to reach for.

For background, the Blind Bloggers group spun off a conversation on the
Accessible
Google group.

The question was raised if a group existed for blind bloggers. One of the now 13 members of the Blind Bloggers group was seeking a resource to resolve some problem she was having and it was an issue that might be typical for bloggers who were blind.

Voila! A star was born.

(Thanks to
Tim O'Brien
for starting the group and letting me know about it.)

We now resume our normal blogging day.

Update: Target settles lawsuit over inaccessible web site

If you haven’t already heard,
Target has settled with the National Federation of the Blind
On the lawsuit brought by the disability rights group over the inaccessibility of the Target web site.

Target Corp. will revamp its Web site to make it more accessible for the blind and pay $6 million in damages to plaintiffs who joined a class action lawsuit against the retailer, under a settlement announced yesterday with the National Federation of the Blind.



The national retail giant did not admit any wrong in the settlement and company officials have stated that they made improvements to the Target web site after the filing of the lawsuit.

"The NFB is very hopeful that this will be sort of a wake-up call to companies to pay attention to the issue of accessibility and that it is in their best interest to make their Web sites accessible to the blind," said Chris Danielsen, an NFB spokesman.



Speaking as a person who uses a screen reader, I’m personally very pleased to see this whole matter settled. First, the matter illustrates how businesses that operate on the web impact the lives of blind and visually consumers. Secondly, the settlement means this has been resolved and we can move forward from here. Progress is being made, albeit one step at a time.

For me, “Do the right thing” is a personal mantra, one that I believe in and pass along wherever and however it applies. In this case, Target began by not doing the right thing, but by application of the proverbial stick, they’ve come to see the light and do the right thing. Unfortunately, it is going to cost them some money in the process. They should’ve tried to take the carrot approach and just done it right when they first found out their site was inaccessible.

Update: 09/02/08

Its been said that in a compromise, neither side is fully happy. Maybe that explains why, since the news of the Target settlement has had sufficient time to make the rounds on the internet, opinions of this case vary. To understand some of the contrast, here are two different takes on this matter.

First, in The LA Times article supporting
E-commerce for the blind,
the editors posit:

It's good business -- and it's the law -- for companies to make their websites fully accessible to the visually impaired.



And, to take a differing viewpoint, read
NFB/Target Settlement Falls Short
On Disability Nation, where the editor offers the following:

While the costs for providing training may be somewhat realistic, the payments that Target must make to the NFB over the next three years cause me to wonder about their real purpose for being involved in the case. Target is to pay the NFB $50,000 immediately and then another $40,000 within 12 months. This is followed by additional payments of $40,000 over the next few years. According to the settlement it appears the total of these payments will be $210,000. These payments are to cover the costs that the NFB will take on in monitoring the accessibility of the Target site. Combine this amount with the figure they will receive for providing Target employees with technical training on accessibility and you arrive at a figure likely at or above a quarter of a million dollars.



I’m certain more discussion of the accessibility issues and agreement between these two parties will come in time as the dust settles on this matter. And, I’m just as certain that even more dust will be stirred up in its wake as other sites fail to understand the legal implications of this suit.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A great resource for finding, researching, and downloading books

One of the recent
Fred’s Head Companion
Posts has a very comprehensive listing of resources for finding, researching, and downloading books. It is the digital equivalent of the mini tour school libraries used to give students.

Be warned, this post is long, but there is an incredible amount of information offered up. It is worth your time and effort to check it out. This would be a great reference page to bookmark for any college student, whether they have a disability or not.

Its even a good resource for coordinators of the DSO. How can you teach something if you don't know the resources that exist? This is the perfect site to direct your book-seeking students to, which will empower, not enable, them.

Kudos to Michael McCarty and the fine folks at Fred’s Head Companion for a job well done.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Disability 411 Episode 56 features interview with Kelby Brick

The latest episode of the Disability 411 podcast is hot off the press.

One of the big announcements is that the web site can be reached with an easier to remember address,
http://disability-411.com
.

Please make sure to notice the dash in the site’s address. Some address harvester had taken the even simpler to remember Disability411.com domain already, so it wasn’t available. And, if you have a bookmark for the old address,
http://disability411.jinkle.com,
don’t worry—that domain still works, too. Beth just tried to make it easier for listeners to remember.

And, no, I’m not plugging the show because it has a guest submission by yours truly. There is some fantastic news in
Episode 56
Of particular interest to Deaf consumers.

This show features an interview with Kelby Brick, of
GoAmerica.com,
Who discusses the latest news in Deaf communication, the ability for Deaf consumers to get 10-digit phone numbers.

If that doesn’t make sense, then check out Episode 56 and see why that is really big news. I think you’ll understand why this communication evolution is another technological step for the Deaf community. For further information about this historic breakthrough in videophone relay signing, check out
Kelby's announcement
on the Go America site.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

National Federation of the Blind to distribute free, white canes nationwide

The
National Federation of the Blind
is undertaking an “historic initiative …the largest effort ever of its kind to provide white canes to individuals who are blind or have low vision.”

In an action I’ve never heard of before, the NFB is offering
Free white canes across the USA.

It is estimated that 109,000 of the 1.3 million legally blind people in the United States use a white cane. By supplying canes free of charge, this program provides the opportunity for all blind Americans to have a white cane and to participate fully in society.

The National Federation of the Blind will provide a straight, light fiberglass cane to any blind individual in the United States or Puerto Rico who requires the cane for personal use. Canes are available in the following lengths: 53, 55, 57, 59, 61, or 63 inches. Individuals may only request one free cane the cane for personal use. Canes are available in the following lengths: 53, 55, 57, 59, 61, or 63 inches. Individuals may only request one free cane in any six-month period.



Here is the link to
apply for a free NFB cane.

This is also a well-timed campaign to help raise the awareness concerns that come with
White Cane Day,
which is coming up on October 15.

Most blind people have a white cane provided to them by their respective blind rehabilitation agency, but as anybody who has used one of these knows, with use, white canes do get banged up and bent and need to be replaced. This is a good two-fold effort of the NFB to provide a service to their target community and also promote their organization.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Study putting pancreas cells in patient's arm; impact could lead to diabetes breakthrough

Some promising research is being conducted right here in Houston for people with diabetes.

Doctors at The Methodist Hospital are experimenting with a new treatment for the diseased or injured pancreas in which they remove the organ and implant its insulin-producing cells in the patient's arm or leg.



While it might sound like a wild idea,”
Putting pancreas cells in the arm,
Is really very logical, according to Dr. Craig Fischer, the lead researcher of this project.

The research, conducted on the first patient a month ago, is part of an ongoing inquiry into how best to prevent diabetes in a person whose pancreas has been removed because of pancreatitis, trauma, or benign or early-stage malignant tumors.

The work could also speed up national efforts to use stem cells, the building blocks of tissue, to cure Type 1 and Type 2 diabetes.



I have several friends and one young, family member with diabetes, so I understand the impact this can have on somebody’s life. I’m personally praying for finding a cure.

Ghotit offers free tool for students with dyslexia

Get it? Ghotit? Good!

The
Ghotit
software is a free application, which is web-based for now, and may be useful for students with dyslexia or related disabilities.

Ghotit offers unique writing and reading online services for people who suffer from dyslexia, dysgraphia or people who are not native-English speakers.


The program appears to be a souped-up spellchecker. The designers are continuing to implement advances under the hood to make the application more robust. Recent additions to the features of this browser-based application include compatibility with Apple’s Safari 3.1 browser and text-to-Speech service. (At this time, the TTS is only availble using the Internet Explorer browser.)

And,
A Ghotit plug-in version,
is coming soon which will let the tool run within the application the student is using, instead of requiring a browser window to be open as well. According to information he’s received from the developer, Lon Thornburg reports that this version will be free as well. (See Lon’s post for more information on how to obtain this future version at no cost.)

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Legal changes coming to refine definition of service animal

I’ve written here previously about the importance of colleges and universities acting proactively to enact policies between service animals and other types of assistance animals. I can personally recall the discussion we had at my college in regards to service versus therapy animals. Here's some reasons to compel your school to do the same.

If you were not aware, the U.S. Department of Justice is reviewing the federal guidelines that govern access, including some proposed language changes in regards to the definition of a service animal.

My apologies for not getting this information up sooner. The deadline for action on this is Monday, August 18, 2008. So, please act quickly on this.

What follows is a letter that
The Seeing Eye, Inc.
sent to its more than 1,700 graduates, urging them to provide the DOJ with firsthand input from service dog handlers. It shows the sometimes subtle distinctions that a few words can make in proposals and policy.

The law will be tempered, so keep up on it. If your school has a policy in place, you will do well to stay abreast of this matter and keep your policy in line.

***


Dear Seeing Eye Family,

We need your help! The U.S. Department of Justice is seeking public comment on its newly proposed definition of a service animal. The Seeing Eye sent its own comments to the DOJ last Friday, and we urge you to join us by doing the same by the August 18 deadline.

Numbers count! It is vitally important that the DOJ hear as many comments as possible. In fact, this legislation is as significant as the early advocacy work that Morris Frank did for the dog guide movement decades ago. The fight isn't over, and our position needs to be heard. Submitting your comments is one of the most important things you, personally, can do for yourself and all other U.S. dog guide users.

The areas that seem to be most in need of revision are outlined in our letter below. Simply stated, we ask that the DOJ eliminate the phrase "minimal protection" in the new definition; require that the same behavior and training standards developed for dog guides be applied to all service animals; delete the "do work" wording by emphasizing task training as a defining factor in qualifying animals as "service animals;" and include a request that more guidance on taxi and private transportation access be added to the regulations. (See the Seeing Eye comments below to further illuminate these points, or to access a copy of the DOJ's Notice of Proposed Rule Making in either text or PDF format, you can go to
http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=DocumentDetail&o=090000648062a604

You can submit an electronic version of your comments at
http://www.regulations.gov/fdmspublic/component/main?main=SubmitComment&o=090000648062a604
but you must do so by August 18.

Your comments can be as simple as, "I support The Seeing Eye's position on service animals," but even better is to write your own opinions on all or some of the issues addressed in our public comment.

You will have an option to insert comments directly into a field on the form or send your comments as an attachment. We advise you to write your comments first before logging onto the site because if you are on the web page too long, it will "time out" and you will have to start over again. You should also be aware that all comments, including your own, will be made available for public viewing online at
http://www.regulations.gov

The remainder of this email contains the text from The Seeing Eye's submitted comment. Thank you for joining us in this effort.

Sincerely,
Jim Kutsch

****




August 8, 2008

Dr. James A. Kutsch, Jr., President
The Seeing Eye, Inc.
P.O. Box 375
Morristown, NJ 07963-0375

Re: Revisions to Service Animal Definition
Docket ID: DOJ-CRT-2008-0015-0001

The Seeing Eye, the pioneers and innovators of dog guide services, has been providing specially bred and trained dog guides for blind citizens of the United States since 1929. Through the efforts of one of our founders, Morris Frank, and other early graduates of our program, The Seeing Eye was instrumental in gaining access to all places of public accommodation for people traveling with dog guides. Today, as more and more people turn to animals for improved health and quality of life, The Seeing Eye commends the U.S. Department of Justice for its efforts to clarify its present regulatory language regarding the use of service animals. We particularly welcome the emphasis on maintaining control of the service animal at all times in public settings, the requirement of housebreaking and the Department's effort to formalize its position on emotional support/comfort animals.

In response to the NPRM published in the Federal Register on June 17th, The Seeing Eye offers the following comments for the Department’s consideration:

1. In response to question 9, The Seeing Eye believes that providing "minimal protection" should be removed from the proposed definition of a service animal.

The Seeing Eye is in agreement with the concerns expressed by the Coalition of Assistance Dog Organizations (CADO). We also concur that alternative language can be substituted for "providing minimal protection" while still adequately representing the tasks of specific service animals. For instance, despite the fact that dog guides provide minimal protection to their handlers every day, e.g. stopping at changes in elevation or maneuvering around obstacles, the Department has successfully included this concept within the definition of the tasks under "guiding individuals with impaired vision." Thus, providing minimal protection is intrinsically stated within the tasks that the animal performs.

2. In response to question 10, The Seeing Eye believes that the Department should eliminate certain species from the definition of service animal.

The Seeing Eye agrees with the need for the Department to establish a practical and reasonable species parameter as part of its definition of a service animal. While we have no expertise in the breeding, training and placement of species other than dogs, The Seeing Eye believes that only animals that are capable of meeting or exceeding the same high training, behavioral and safety standards as that of Seeing Eye® dogs are suitable for public access. Some of these standards include the animal's ability to calmly, quietly and consistently perform its specialized tasks in public, to urinate and defecate on command and to lie quietly beside its handler without blocking aisles, doorways, or otherwise be obtrusive in public settings.

3. In response to Question 11, The Seeing Eye believes that the Department should not impose a size or weight limitation on service animals.

The Seeing Eye agrees with the comments submitted by CADO and further adds that it would be difficult, if not impossible, to enforce such a regulation.

4. The Seeing Eye is opposed to retaining the term "do work" in the definition of a service animal and urges the Department to form the basis of the service animal definition on task training.

The Seeing Eye is aware that, over the last several years, more than half of the Department's settlement agreements involving the "reasonable modification" requirement under Title III involved a public accommodation's refusal to permit a service animal's entry in a place of public accommodation. These claims make evident the need for concise, measurable guidance for those seeking a distinction between legitimate service animals and those used for emotional comfort or support.

We appreciate the Department's attempt to provide the broadest feasible access to individuals with service animals by using the term "do work" in its definition. However, given the fact that this term has historically been the source of much confusion and misinterpretation, we respectfully ask that the Department eliminate this language from its newly proposed definition. The Seeing Eye believes that the newly added examples of tasks performed by service animals effectively and adequately expand the meaning of service animal to include the varied services provided by working animals on behalf of individuals with all types of disabilities. Moreover, task training elevates the animal's status from a non-task trained animal to a trained service animal that is more likely to consistently mitigate its owner's disability in public and be easily identified by the tasks it performs. Again, service animals that are suitable and appropriate for public access must be held to extremely high standards.

5. The Seeing Eye urges the Department to include specific language about denial of service by private transportation providers to people who use service animals in its regulatory language.

One of the most common complaints we receive involves taxicab drivers who refuse to transport our graduates and their Seeing Eye dogs. Many drivers claim to have allergies, fears or religious beliefs that prohibit them from allowing dogs into their vehicles.

We realize that this issue is not addressed in the NPRM, but, nevertheless, we ask that the Department consider incorporating text into the proposed regulation guidance that specifies that allergies, religious beliefs and fear of animals are not valid excuses for denying access to passengers with service animals.

The Seeing Eye appreciates the opportunity to comment on the proposed service animal revisions. We applaud the Department for its outstanding work and believe that with the incorporation of the comments noted above, the revised regulations will promote the responsible use of access rights and prevent the erosion of societal tolerance for dog guide and other service animal teams in places of public accommodation.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Review of TALKS Premium 3.52 mobile screen reader

Here’s the second half of my review of my Nokia N82, wherein I discuss the use of the Nuance TALKS screen reader. When I purchased this Smart Phone, I did so with the full intention of operating a screen reader on it so that I would get the full benefit of the phone’s functionality.

My previous experience with a text-to-speech (TTS) solution on a mobile phone was running the TALKS screen reader on a Nokia 6620. AT&T has a Center for Customers with Disabilities and at that time, offered to reimburse the cost of TALKS and discount the phone’s high cost if I committed to a two-year contract. Getting assistive technology for free and a 33% discount on a high-end Smart Phone was a no-brainer for me.

That was three or four years ago and I really liked the feedback that TALKS gave me. It allowed me to have unprecedented access to the information displayed on my cell phone. On top of that, it used Eloquence, my preferred speech engine, for TTS. I also bookmarked the TALKS web site for figuring out how to use this nifty technological wonder.

However, finding resources for support soon became difficult. As far as I knew, this was the only screen reader available for mobile phones and once I purchased the unit, I was basically on my own for figuring out how to use it. First, I misplaced the CD that came with the screen reader. AT&T offered nothing to help me out and the web site I had bookmarked soon began giving me that dreadful 404 message, “Web page could not be found.” That experience made me wary about ever using TALKS again.

So, when I was looking at purchasing a new phone a couple of months ago, I wasn’t so sure about getting one with TALKS. I looked at Mobile Speak, TALKS’ primary mobile screen reader competitor, which AT&T now features, offering it for only $89. However, because AT&T no longer sells TALKS nor do they sell the N82, they also do not have a license to support the N82 with the Mobile Speak screen reader. That meant if I wanted to change to Mobile Speak for my TTS solution, I was going to have to pay full retail, about $295, for it.

I spent some time doing some web research and found that I could get a handset license transfer for TALKS, which included an upgrade to
TALKS Premium
For only $99 from
TalkNav,
A U.K. company.

I read over the associated web sites and found that it seems that today’s support for TALKS might be better if I opted to do this. I said, “What the heck, its only $10 more than the AT&T subsidized offer,” and jumped on it. And, I found there were additional reasons that supported sticking with TALKS.

That explains how I got back on the TALKS train. Let me now delve into my thoughts about the latest version of TALKS Premium 3.1.

The Good


Of course, the familiarity of the Eloquence speech engine remained a strong selling point for me. My biggest concern was figuring out the keystroke combinations to perform commands with TALKS. This was resolved by receiving TALKS user’s guides in both audio and MS-Word format. Now, I can easily go in and figure out what to do if I inadvertently change some of the TALKS settings. This user support was what I was missing in my first go-round with TALKS. Primo!

TALKS Premium 3.1 is so much more than what I had the first time around. This package includes the Zooms screen magnifier, which would be a great tool for anybody who is low vision. Being I’m totally blind, it wasn’t anything major to me personally, but this is definitely a good thing to know for discussing this as an access solution for other people.

The ability to label icons is a big thing, though. Just as on most computer programs, mobile phones often rely on visual icons to present information and controls. On my PC, I have the ability to label graphics with JAWS, so it is a good feature to find this included in TALKS. And, this is one feature that their competitor doesn’t have.

In my previous experience with TALKS, just running the program on the phone was a battery killer. My Nokia 6620 couldn’t be turned on for eight hours without dying. And, that wasn’t even using it to talk. Just having it turned on and in standby mode, drained the battery. That’s not the case today, though. Whatever improvements were made with the TALKS program or the phone, it is all for the positive. I’ve gone more than three days without needing to recharge the N82. What a nice change that has been.

Though I am not a Braille user, TALKS does support the use a Bluetooth Braille display with the N82. For some people, I can see where this would be another strength of the TALKS application, particularly in meetings where the user could mute the audio and still access the displayed information.

The Bad


There is only one gripe I have with TALKS. It gets hung up sometimes and repeats what it is saying continuously. It is basically a hiccup, sounding like so many CD players used to be like in the early days, when a smudge on a CD or a slight bump would cause the player to get hung up on a word or note. I am not sure how long TALKS will go on hiccupping, because when it does this, I always press another button to perform some other operation. This works to make it quit repeating. Also, TALKS doesn’t do this all of the time, just sporadically. Still, its buggy in that regard.

Overall Thoughts


Three to four years ago, I got TALKS on the 6620 so that I could have access to the number of incoming calls, feedback on the numbers I was dialing, and the ability to know the battery and signal strength on my phone. These features were things I’d never known on previous phones and were exactly what I was looking for from a mobile screen reader. In that regard, my previous experience gave me what I wanted. Trading that off with the battery drain left me feeling a little lukewarm, but I still like the accessibility that I’d never had on a cell phone. The biggest downside was not having any kind of accessible user’s manual.

All that is history with the latest incarnation of TALKS. I enjoy its robust abilities and receiving the support material in various formats is a definite plus. With TALKS Premium 3.1 operating on the N82, I’m able to do so much more than just those rudimentary tasks I used to do on the 6620. I breeze through the menu-driven Symbian operating system, easily going to the various folders and applications I want. I operate the powerful 5-mega-pixel camera in both image and video modes, looke over the songs and play music with the music player, and I’m looking forward to doing so much more after I get a Bluetooth keyboard.

I have played a bit with the internet on the N82, connecting on open WiFi signals when I’m out and about. It has been encouraging to be able to read the latest news headlines on my default home page. There is so much more potential for me to use this with that Bluetooth keyboard. I personally dislike typing in letters from the keypad, finding it monotonously slow and mentally dulling. So, with the ability to type on a keyboard, I should find some smoking, new horizons on this phone, all made very accessible with TALKS.

Also, when I get the keyboard, I will more easily use and manage my contacts on the N82. This will lead to so much more personalization of the phone for me, as well. I love using the Goldwave audio editor and will assign specific, personalized ringtones to each of my contacts. But, I need to get this where it is a practical task first, meaning I need to get that keyboard soon.

One feature of the N82 that I’ve yet to explore is its built-in GPS application. A friend keeps asking me if I’ve tried it out yet, and when I reply in the negative, he chides that this is one of the best features of the phone. Perhaps, but I’ll use it when I’m interested and feel comfortable that TALKS will provide accessibility to the information just as well as it does in other applications on the phone.

Other aspects of the phone that I’ve not yet attempted are viewing documents in the N82’s included office package. While the phone will display them, I’m not certain if TALKS will read the Microsoft Word documents, Excel spreadsheets, or PowerPoint presentations. I will take on this task at a later date and possibly provide an update to this product review.

Finally, I am not certain if that hiccupping that TALKS sometimes presents is a unique problem, or it is something other users are experiencing. If it is a common bug, then Nuance should be able to remedy this with an update. If it is an individual problem, though, I can either just live with it or try re-installing the software. Either way, I perceive this as only a minor flaw at this time.

The price for the handset transfer was a great deal for me. However, if somebody is a new user of this mobile screen reader, then the initial cost would be approximately $295, the same as the retail price of Mobile Speak. I've not used Mobile Speak, so I can't offer a comparison between the two. For me, though, TALKS was the right choice.

The Bottom Line


I envision seemingly endless potential ahead for me in this new Nokia. It is such a powerful phone, with many features I find attractive. The key to enjoying these features, though, lies in the accessibility TALKS is providing. I am very glad that I made the decision to try TALKS one more time. Not only was it a very affordable TTS solution, but it also offers the comfort of familiarity and a well-supported user experience.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Code Factory releases DAISY reader for Symbian mobile phones, includes 30-day free demo

Wow! The tech staff at Code Factory never slow down. They've released a DAISY reader for mobile phones such as those from Nokia that are running the Symbian operating system. They promise that a version is on the way for Windows Mobile as well.

This news is a great innovation in several aspects.

  1. Allows people with print disabilities the ability to access DAISY documents and books on their mobile phone without needing to purchase some other, free standing hardware device

  2. one of the most usable features the product offers students is it allows them to place bookmarks for specific locations, including the ability to include voice annotations to accompany the bookmark

  3. Does not require a screen reader to operate, but does work in conjunction with either the Mobile Speaks screen reader or those produced by other companies
  4. Includes adjustable font and color configurations, maximizing usability by users who are dyslexic

  5. Automatic unpacking of books from Bookshare.org, eliminating the need for a seperate unpacking utility.



Below is the Code Factory press release which I've copied from the email announcement. Or, go to the
Code Factory page
for a version that includes working links.


--
Caroline Ragot - Marketing Director
Tel. +34 93 733 70 66 - marketing@codefactory.es
Mobile DAISY Player V2.0
Mobile DAISY Player V2.0, the only DAISY Book reader for Symbian 9 Phones is available!
Download the free trial
Barcelona (Terrassa), August 8th, 2008
Code Factory, the world's mobile accessibility provider, today announced the release of version 2.0 of Mobile DAISY Player, the only DAISY reader to work with mainstream mobile phones.

This release is just one more way in which Code Factory shows its commitment to enabling reading on a mobile device as an easy and pleasurable experience.

"We at Code Factory have always realized that mobile devices have the potential to give blind and visually impaired users unprecedented access to reading material wherever they are”, explains Eduard S├ínchez, Code Factory's CEO. "Mobile DAISY Player has a unique role to play in allowing access to books from many different sources on many different mobile phones. A short time ago, a blind or visually impaired user was at a distinct disadvantage in that he/she had to carry large Braille volumes, many cassette tapes, or a specialized player if he/she wished to read on the go. With Mobile DAISY Player, however, a blind or visually impaired user, with a DAISY book, has an even more portable method of reading than his/her sighted colleagues, since he/she can carry many books on a mobile phone which he/she would be carrying in any case."



Why is Mobile DAISY Player unique?


• Mobile DAISY Player V2.0 is the only accessible application which reads DAISY books on Symbian Mobile Phones. A version compatible with Windows Mobile devices will soon be released.

• Reading books in Mobile DAISY Player V2.0 is very easy: simply create a folder on the memory card, usually known as (E:), called "books", and copy each of the books into a subfolder of that books folder. Book content is generally either downloaded from the web or available on CD, in either case, copy all of the book contents into the destination folder.

• Includes support for DAISY 2.0 and 3.0 formats, allowing access to a wider variety of content and providers.

• Automatic unpacking of Bookshare.org books, making it unnecessary to install and run a separate application just to decompress Bookshare files.

• You can record your own voice annotations as bookmarks within the content. These voice notes will appear in the bookmark list, and the sound recordings will be heard automatically when the book is in normal playback mode.

• Configurable font sizes and screen colors have also been implemented to provide maximum readability of on-screen text, especially for dyslexic persons.

• Mobile DAISY Player can be used with or without Code Factory’s world-leading screen reader, Mobile Speak. When combined with Mobile Speak, Mobile DAISY Player becomes a fully-accessible e-book solution, providing speech feedback of the screen prompts and menus as well as speaking the book contents. For those users who do not need a full-fledged screen reader, Mobile DAISY Player can still take advantage of the Nokia’s built-in text-to-speech support on S60 phones to read text content. In either case, Mobile DAISY Player is an independent product, and is licensed separately from Mobile Speak.

• Two modes of navigation: the normal reading mode and the virtual cursor mode. The normal reading mode is active when the book is in continuous playback mode, and is playing either audio or text content. When playback is paused, the virtual cursor mode is active, allowing you to navigate the text content of the book, if any, using the screen reader.

• Rewind and forward in cassette or digital mode.

• Mobile DAISY Player can be used with other screen readers, although other screen readers may not offer the same level of integration as Mobile Speak, particularly when reading text books. For example, all of the normal screen prompts and menus will be accessible within Mobile DAISY Player. However, other screen readers may not recognize the book text as a special type of content, and may attempt to read it at the same time as Mobile DAISY Player. For this reason, we recommend that users of other screen readers temporarily mute speech while in book reading mode, and then resume speaking when switching to other applications or when using the application menus. Mobile Speak does recognize the book contents and will mute itself automatically during playback.



Apart from all these unique features, Mobile DAISY Player V2.0 also includes:


• Variable playback speed allowing audio content to be reproduced faster or slower than the speed at which it was recorded without changing the sound’s pitch.

• Variable navigation levels (e.g.: by chapter and/or by page).

• Quick and easy navigation to any point in the book.

• Support for text-only, audio-only, or mixed-mode books.

• Ability to set bookmarks to favorite places in the content.

• Auto-bookmark and resume to last point in the book.

• Variable volume level.

• Customizable Text-To-Speech support via Mobile Speak.


Mobile DAISY Player 2.0 supports the following Nokia Symbian 9 phones: 3250, 5320, 5500 Sport, 5700 Xpress Music, 6110 Navigator, 6120 Classic, 6121 Classic, 6124, 6210, 6220, 6290, E50, E51, E60, E61, E61i, E62, E65, E66, E70, E71, E90 Communicator, N71, N73, N75, N76, N77, N78, N80, N81, N82, N91, N92, N93, N93i, N95, N95 8GB, N96.



Visit http://www.codefactory.es/downloads and install Mobile DAISY Player on your mobile phone and it will automatically work free for 30 days. While using a trial license, you cannot change the date or the time of the phone. Changing the date or time will automatically lock the trial license, without any chance to recover it. Please make sure that the time and date are set correctly on the phone before installing the software.


To buy Mobile DAISY Player, contact your closest distributor:
http://www.codefactory.es/en/purchase.asp?id=54


Don’t miss the Reading on the go competition, more than $20000 worth of prizes to be divided among ten winners. To learn more go to http://www.codefactory.es/en/page.asp?id=251. To join the competition, go to
http://www.codefactory.es/en/page.asp?id=251. To join the competition, go to http://www.codefactory.es/contest .
http://www.codefactory.es/contest .



About Code Factory
Founded in 1998 and headquartered in Terrassa/Barcelona, Spain, Code Factory is the global leader committed to the development of products designed to eliminate barriers to the accessibility of mobile technology for the blind and visually impaired. Today, Code Factory is the leading provider of screen readers, screen magnifiers, and Braille interfaces for the widest range of mainstream mobile devices including Symbian-based and Windows Mobile-powered Smartphones as well as Pocket PC phones and PDAs. Its product line is the only one to support phones working on the GSM, CDMA and WCDMA networks. Code Factory's success lies in giving excellent customer support and in responding immediately to the needs of its end users.

Among Code Factory’s customers are well known organizations like ONCE, and carriers such as TMN, Vodafone, SFR, Bouygues Telecom and AT&T. The company also collaborated with leading TTS providers and Braille manufacturers, thus enabling Code Factory to provide excellent text-to-speech technology in many languages for Mobile Speak products, and to incorporate support for over twenty wireless Braille devices into the software.





For more information, feel free to contact Code Factory S.L.:


Code Factory, S.L., Rambla d'Egara 148 2-2, 08221 Terrassa (Barcelona)
Tel. +34 93 733 70 66, info@codefactory.es, www.codefactory.es
Code Factory, S.L. - 2008

Updated: Yahoo makes accessibility progress, but CAPTCHA remains inaccessible

While the opening of this post might sound negative, this is actually a post to acknowledge Yahoo for some advances in user accessibility which were recently added to their email operations.

Its been a while since I wrote about the inaccessible process which
Yahoo
Has in place for setting up new accounts. In the past, I’ve aired publicly my problem with
Yahoo’s inaccessible CAPTCHA verification process,
And later added to that, when I wrote about
Yahoo’s acknowledgement that it was inaccessible.

Those two previous posts were about only the problems blind people have using Yahoo’s set up procedures. Once the account was set up, the account was accessible enough to read one’s mail and delete unwanted mail. It was also fairly easy to press the “Create New Message” button, then write and send mail.

However, there were still some problems I didn’t write about in using some of the various buttons on the site, such as those to reply and forward selected messages. It was often a hit-and-miss process on whether these buttons would work when activated with the JAWS screen reader. Most often, though, it was miss as nothing would happen. I have to think that this was a problem with the web site, because executing button commands on other web sites has never been an issue for me.

Today, I’m back to give an update on some progress the Yahoo Mail site has made on usability by users with screen readers. Unfortunately, that is not relating to the CAPTCHA situation. That problem still exists.

I use a Yahoo Mail account for my contact information on this blog. It allows me to freely give out my email address online and not worry about my home email inbox getting inundated with spam. (Yahoo Mail does seem to have a pretty good, although sometimes inconsistent spam filter.) For the most part, I use the Yahoo account to receive news alerts to which I subscribe. But I also receive email via my blog contact information to which I’d like to reply. That is where the problems used to arise.

In the past, When I would hit the “Reply” button, it would do nothing. The next option I had was to forward the message to my home email, but when I hit the “Forward” button, it was equally impotent using a screen reader. The only option I had left was to copy the message sender’s email address and paste it into a message using my home mail client.

This entire process was both frustrating and cumbersome, and seems like such a ridiculous concept in this technologically advanced age. After all, isn’t the purpose of advancing technology to make life’s tasks simpler?

The good news is that Yahoo Mail has worked out the button bugs. It is a fairly simple task today to use all of the button commands on my account. This slight shift in accessibility was silent and implemented without any fanfare a few months ago. I would think that Yahoo would want to bang its drum when it enables accessibility, so it is beyond me why they didn’t make any announcement on this technological advancement. It had to be an intentional fix, because the Yahoo developers definitely changed something.

So, congratulations to Yahoo Mail for making their web site more accessible and usable to their visually impaired clients who rely on screen readers to access their accounts. And, another round of applause for addressing an issue which I’ve not noticed much negative press about on the web.

This is a good start. Now, if Yahoo could just show such effort in incorporating an accessible CAPTCHA solution. (Hint to Yahoo developers: accessible solutions already exist. Email me at my
Yahoo account
And I’ll be happy to reply to you with more information!)

Update 08/11/08
I am appreciative of the submission of an anonymous commenter for his/her shared observations on Yahoo! mail. I believe these thoughts echo the complimentary nature of this post and feel compelled to share these insights. Screen reader users pay attention to the first point about these changes only relating to the "Classic" version of Yahoo! mail.

One thing I would point out to the readers is that many of the changes that you talk about are in the "Classic" version of Yahoo! mail and not the "New" version.

My personal favorites are alt plus 3, alt plus 6, and alt plus 7 for compose mail, reply, and reply to all respectively. The addition of headings at important parts of the page makes navigation a breeze. JAWS users will appreciate the ability to use table reading keys to move up and down within folders of messages.

I have been a Yahoo! mail user for almost ten years both before and after I started using a screen reader. It is a great service made even better by the addition of these keystrokes.

The lack of an alternative to a visual CAPTCHA is another story and one that I just cannot grasp. This really needs to be addressed by the entire industry.



Thanks for that added perspective!