Friday, March 28, 2008

Free assistive technology is a budget-saving reality

Assistive technology used to be a big budget killer for many Disability Service offices, but today, it needn’t be such a burdensome service of the DSO. As a matter of fact, there are a lot of assistive technology components which are free.

If you need inspiration, take a look at the example being put in place at
Ohio State University.

Funded by a Department of Education grant, the DSO at Ohio State is providing students with USB thumb drives, which load a self voicing menu upon insertion in a computer. The student can then select which assistive technologies they want to use. The thumb drive also maintains all of the student’s settings and configurations, furthering simplicity of use.

Aside from just describing the tools that are being employed, the article has links for each of the free assistive technologies being used.

This assistive technology news is courtesy of

EDUCAUSE is a nonprofit association whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology.

Membership is open to institutions of higher education, corporations serving the higher education information technology market, and other related associations and organizations.

Resources include:

• professional development activities
• applied research
• strategic policy advocacy
• teaching and learning initiatives
• online information services
• print and electronic publications, including books, monographs, and the magazines EDUCAUSE Quarterly and EDUCAUSE Review
• special interest collaborative communities
• awards for leadership and exemplary practices

The current membership comprises more than 2,200 colleges, universities, and educational organizations, including 250 corporations, with more than 17,000 active members.

Computer and web accessibility: All About Attitude

I once envisioned having my Chevy Silverado tricked out with a custom fade paint job and lots of sporty features from wide tires and rims to wood-trimmed interior with smoked glass. This truck was also going to feature an appropriate phrase emblazoned across the tailgate. The rear graphic would have a large, capital letter “A” and have three words running off it which read, “All About Attitude.”

Aside from being just a splashy paint job reflecting my thoughts on my ride, that phrase can also be applied to the area of computer and web accessibility. If a developer begins with the attitude that something cannot be done, such as making an application accessible to assistive technology, then how hard will he/she really try to make that take place?

On the flip side, though, if developers approach their work with the attitude that accessibility can be achieved, then isn’t that going to be more likely to work towards more positive solutions for everybody?

It is not being a pollyanna, but approaching one’s work with a positive attitude towards accessibility which leads one to conclude that the developer is willing to take that extra time to seek solutions and not throw in the towel at the first sign of resistance. If one believes that something can be achieved, then it seems logical that they will work diligently to reach that goal.

Of course, I’m not on a soapbox without cause. I just read an interesting post on the BarrierBreak blog regarding
making Flash accessible.
This post emphasized the importance of that same attitude in realizing the achievements of this consulting firm.

From the blog post:
“I’ve just come back from CSUN, 2008 and again had the same thoughts through most of my meetings. Mos people didnt even think that flash could be made accessible.”

“I was sitting there and wondering why is this the case? Accessible Flash is surely a possibility and actually is not as painful as most people think it to be. I think largely the problem is not knowin what is possible and then not knowing how to implement it.”

The author of that post, Shilpi Kedia, then goes on to offer a link to illustrate some examples of accessibility that BarrierBreak has achieved.

So, if they can make Flash accessible, why can’t others?

I find it interesting, and a bit discouraging, that the author was at CSUN, the showcase for accessibility solutions and that she found that negative attitude to be so pervasive. Instead of saying, “We can’t make it accessible,” developers can learn a lot from that one simple, but very noticeable point in the BarrierBreak blog post: Accessibility is all about attitude.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Disability viewed as an aspect of multiculturalism

There’s an interesting post about people with disabilities on a blog targeting multicultural marketing and advertising titled,
Is the disabled market the next multicultural opportunity?

The post begins by discussing basic aspects of web accessibility with regards to Section 508 and the Americans with Disabilities Act, then goes on to support that explanation with information that should make every marketer, pollster, and politician take notice. Those paying attention should include our candidates for the upcoming presidential election.

The pure logistics echo what most in the disabilities service field know:

“So how big is this market? According to the aforementioned Census report - 51.2 million people (18.1% of the population) had some level of disability and 32.5 million (11.5% of the population) had a severe disability - About 10.7 million people ages 6 and over needed personal assistance with one or more activities of daily living (ADL) or instrumental activities of daily living (IADL)”
“- Among the population 15 and older, 2.7 million used a wheelchair. Another 9.1 million used an ambulatory aid such as a cane, crutches, or walker.”
“- Approximately 7.9 million people 15 and older had difficulty seeing words and letters in ordinary newspaper print, including 1.8 million people who reported being unable to see .”

For anybody whose profession is in marketing and advertising, they should consider:
“The next question is whether this is a lucrative market for companies to consider. put out an article in 2002 that people with disabilities maintain an aggregate income that exceeds $1 trillion, with $220 billion in discretionary spending power. “

And, finally, the piece offers up a good perspective of the scope and strength of the population of people with disabilities—
“To put all of this data in perspective, the disabled market is larger than the 44 million+ Hispanic population that spends $575 billion (according to Synovate’s 2004 U.S. Hispanic Market Report).”

Given the attention that the presidential candidates, especially those from the Democratic party, have been paying to the population of Hispanic voters, that last paragraph should resonate very loudly for politicians, as well as voters with disabilities. This group of individuals have the power of a very sizable voting block. It is up to you to use that power.

If you are not registered to vote, do it. When any runoff elections take place, vote. And, finally, hit the polls in November and make your vote count.

After you are registered to vote, there is one more thing to consider. The strength of the larger population relies on acting as a group in a unified manner. Become active in disability rights organizations. Read up and understand the issues that are going to impact your life. Write to your senators and representatives to let them know which way you want them to represent you. If they don’t vote to support your interests, get active in supporting a candidate who will support what is important to you.

Friday, March 07, 2008

More information about Abilene Christian University and possible accessibility of iPhone/iPod Touch

This is an update to the post I originally wrote last week about
Abilene Christian University
(ACU) giving iPhone and iPod Touch players to incoming freshmen. Due to the new information I have to share, I’m writing this as a separate post.

Just to let you know, I still have not received a reply to the email I sent to Lynne Bruton, ACU’s media contact person, in which I inquired how the university planned to address the accessibility concerns for any freshman students who are unable to use the Apple products due to a physical disability.

Perhaps the reason I have not heard from her is that Ms. Bruton Does not consider a blog traditional media. One would believe that a university that is so quick to embrace technology such as the Apple devices would similarly acknowledge a blog as new media as well. Even if the university does not want to acknowledge this blog, one would at least expect that they would want to address a concern as legitimate as a question about the accessibility of the university’s implementation of a required technology .

After all, when the school has
developed nearly two dozen applications
for use on the iPhone and iPod Touch that will need to be used by both students and faculty alike, the device becomes an integral and mandatory part of participating in the university’s programs. It would seem obvious that accessibility for everybody would be an important concern. However, my query about the university’s plans to address these needs continues to go unanswered.

All is not lost, though. There was a big announcement on the Apple technology front which may be of interest to the administrators at ACU. Apple chief Steve Jobs held a press conference yesterday to announce the release of the beta of the
Apple Software Development Kit,
or SDK, which will allow third-party (a.k.a. non-Apple) software developers to create software applications that will run on the iPhone and iPod Touch. This means that somebody with a concern about accessibility might already be creating the applications that will allow access to the Apple devices for those who are physically unable to use the touchscreen.

The full version of the SDK won’t be released until June. This means that users won’t be able to access any of the programs developers have created until then. Let’s see…June is just two months before August, when fall classes traditionally begin. That timeline might work for ACU to get some accessibility modules in place for the Apple products. Then again, it also might not.

To further spur innovation in this area, Kleiner Perkins, a well-established venture capital firm in the Silicon Valley, has set up a
$100 million fund
to invest in new companies who are seeking to develop iPhone applications.

Are you listening, ACU?

Note: I sincerely promise that I am not on a quest to bash Abilene Christian University. I had sought input from the university to offer their plan on addressing accessibility concerns with the Apple products. I am just asking for a reply. Anybody in authority at ACU may feel free to
contact me.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Adventures in Education offers useful student resource

I firmly believe that we are only as strong as our resources. This is true for all of us, but particularly so for students, both with and without disabilities, who are preparing to head to college.

With this thought in mind, I offer a powerhouse resource in the
Adventures in Education
Web site.

The bilingual site offers a litany of information for students, ranging from middle school up through college level, and their parents. There are also links for education professionals.

From the web site:
“From college planning advice to financial aid information to career guidance, AIE has the reliable information students and parents need to make the right decisions for the future. Get FAFSA help and financial aid assistance, learn about college admissions, and search scholarships for free.”

Features of the site include links for calculators, financial aid calendars, and even a text-only version of the page.

One of the common elements of the site is FAFSA. There are links for finding FAFSA related answers, and even one titled, “FAFSA made easy.”

It probably won’t surprise anybody to find out that the site is sponsored by
TG Online,
A service of Texas Guaranteed Student Loan Corporation. While it might explain the drive behind the site, it nonetheless provides a good resource for students preparing to head off to college.

(Thanks to Michael McCarty at
Fred’s Head Companion
For this informative lead.)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Assistive technology review: Victor Reader Stream

I wrote here last Friday that I was going to spend some time taking my new
Victor Reader Stream
For a test drive. I’m here today to share my initial thoughts on this powerful, yet very affordable, piece of assistive technology.

What the Stream does

The Stream is a portable, rechargeable media player designed for the blind that is about the size of a deck of cards. It plays a few forms of audio files, most notably MP3, wav, and OGG Vorbis. It has a screen reader that will read the folder and file information, as well as .html and .txt formats. (The .html files will be able to be read using the associated formatting attributes.) It plays DAISY and NISO books. Additionally, in the U.S., it plays books from Bookshare and the NLS. Finally, it is also a mono voice recorder.

The unit will play approximately 15 hours on a charge, according to the manufacturer. It will take about four hours to recharge. While it is recharging, the user can use the unit.

The files can be listened to through the built-in speaker or ear buds, also shipped with the unit. My own experience finds the small speaker has sufficient sound quality for my own liking, despite the volume limitations. The Stream can also play through external speakers via the earphone jack. The unit allows separate volume levels for ear buds and internal speaker and remembers the settings.

As stated, the voice recorder is set to record in mono, not stereo, and has a decent built-in microphone. . An external microphone can also be used if preferred.

Files play on the device from a Secure Digital (SD) card. It is also shipped with a plug that will allow a USB drive to be used. However, the USB drive will be “read only” and, if using the voice recorder, these cannot be save on the USB drive; they must be saved on an SD card.

The Stream will read documents and allow the user to move by many increments, such as headings. However, I think that one of the most usable features of the product is that it has the ability to go to a specific page in a book. Just as sighted students do in class, students who are blind can enter the specific page number that their teacher/professor is discussing.

What the Stream does not do

The device will not play files in Windows Media (.wma) format. If a user rips CDs to the computer using Windows Media Player, it puts the audio files in this .wma format. To listen to these files on the Stream, the user will need to convert them to one of the audio formats the unit supports.

The Stream ships with a USB cable so that it can be connected to a pc. File transfers can be performed using this setup, but the manufacturer instructs users that using an SD card reader will be quicker. When connected to the pc, the user cannot operate the Stream.

It will not read documents with .doc and .rtf file extensions. The solution for reading these files on the Stream is simple; save the file in either .html or .txt and it can then be read by the Stream.

My Thoughts

I am very impressed by the Stream. The learning curve is only slight. Once familiarized with the button configuration, it was just a matter of playing with the device for a little bit before I felt totally comfortable using it.

So far, all I have done on the unit is read over some of the built-in tutorial and listen to music on it. There is so much more to come for me and this nifty, electronic box. I will be doing more with it in coming days, such as reading documents and books, and will write more about those impressions as they occur.

One of the Stream’s most appealing features is its price, only $329 from the manufacturer,
Which also adds on a shipping fee of $20 and sends the product 2-day delivery.
However, the savvy web shopper can find it for less, from vendors such as
Adaptive Information Systems Incorporated,
which sells the device for $299 and sweetens that discounted price by offering free shipping.

Any user of assistive technology will recognize that, whether purchasing from the manufacturer or a vendor, the price is low and affordable to people on fixed incomes. The product for that money appears to be a durable and lasting piece of accessible technology. It gives people who are blind the ability to take documents or book to meetings, just as their sighted counterparts. With the device’s ability to navigate through these, the Stream user can be on an even playing field with their peers.

The price is also friendly to the tight budgets in place at most disability support service offices. The product you get for that investment is a very user-friendly piece of assistive technology that will allow your students to have accessible textbooks at their fingertips.

The Victor Reader Stream is one of the most talked about pieces of assistive technology hardware that has come out in a long while. Add the affordability to the quality design, and you have an appealing product that can be used by many blind people. For a taste of the buzz in the blind community about the Stream, you might want to look at the recent
Ranger Station poll
About the product.

Finally, if interested in reading more information about the product, check out the official
Victor Reader Stream FAQ page.