Friday, February 20, 2009

Merging technologies is an accessibility solution to consider

Today, I’m sharing a technology pairing that is working well for both myself and the students I train on assistive technology.

For Christmas, I received an HP netbook, one of those slimmed down, ultralight notebook computers. It has a 16 GB solid state hard drive, making boot up and shutdown go faster than on a computer with a conventional hard drive. It weighs in a just under 2.5 pounds and has a 10-inch display screen. What It comes with is a 1 gig processor and 1 Gb of RAM, with 2 USB slots and an SD card reader. I also enjoy the built-in B/G WiFi and count this as a big addition to my personal computing experience.

What it doesn’t have is either a CD or DVD drive, which probably accounts for the trimmed weight and compact size. It does come with a recovery CD of the Windows XP Home operating system, just in case it ever crashes. To install the CD, though, will require using an external, USB disk drive. I don’t have one of these, but hope I won’t ever need one.

One of the best things on this HP model versus other makes is that the keyboard is 92% of the size of regular HP notebooks. That fuller size, versus mashed-together keyboards on other makes, really helps screen reader users who require a keyboard for operating the machine.

I’d heard that one could run a screen reader on these netbook computers and wanted to put that to the test. Being I’m a
user by practice, I slapped the latest version of it on there and authorized it. It takes a little while for JAWS to start when booting up, but once it does, the machine runs along very well. My biggest hangup is getting used to the JAWS laptop configuration on this while using the desktop configuration at home. I recently purchased a USB keypad to let me use the more comfortable desktop configuration on this. I haven’t hooked that up yet, but will in the next few days.

Yes, with JAWS, This is a perfect road machine for me. When I travel and need a computer, I’ve got one that won’t break my back to carry. Neither did it break the bank, costing only $399. It does the primary tasks I want when away from home—surfing the net, email, and document writing. Any heavier jobs I wouldn’t usually do away from home anyways.

Still, I’ve also installed several of Jim Kitchens’
Kitchensinc games,
As well as some from other gamemakers, For my own entertainment. I use these myself, but also with the students I teach on assistive technology. I’ve yet to meet a blind or visually impaired student who knew that there were computer games made for folks who couldn’t see the screen. There are learning aspects to many of the games, but even for those which are just fun, these easily fall into the extended core curriculum.

The primary drawback of this netbook is that the battery only gives it about three hours of juice. I understand that HP is supposed to offer a supplemental 6-cell battery that will last longer than the current 3-cell model.

Aside from working well, this sleek, little thing looks great. My wife liked mine so much, she bought herself one, too.

Just this week, one of my students also received his own HP netbook, identical to mine. However, instead of using JAWS, he is using the thumb-drive version of
Serotek’s System Access Mobile,
Which is also running great for him.

My final comment on these netbooks is that, for blind students who need technology with a screen reader, they offer a very affordable alternative to the expensive, stand-alone electronic notetakers like the Pacmate or Voicenote, which run into the thousands of dollars. Granted, adding a screen reader like JAWS adds to the cost, but if you enroll your student in Serotek’s
KK-12 program,
That doesn’t need to be the case. The student will get a computer that gives the power of a full computer in a lightweight and easily-toted netbook that looks good to his/her peers. That also includes full Windows functionality, not the Windows Mobile version like on Pacmate. If there are additional programs that the student needs to run on the product, the compatibility will be near 100% on these as compared to to an “iffy” chance for compatibility on products like the Pacmate or Voicenote.

This post isn’t meant to slam those stand alone notetakers, but the more mainstream we can make products for our students, the better off they will be. Accessibility doesn’t need to come in a proprietary product., which has so often been the case in the past. Granted, Windows Mobile is better than a proprietary operating system, but it still isn't the full Windows package that one can get on a netbook.


Mike Calvo said...

Hello Ron:
Great blog! I also love, and advocate the use of the several netbooks on the market. I really like both the HP1000 you wrote about and the new HP2140. I wanted to drop you and your readers a line about a couple of recent changes at Serotek.

First we have recently released a new version of System Access that will work on both netbooks and desktop computers running the latest Intel Adam processors. This version sells for $149 and includes lifetime free upgrades. BTW we now offer lifetime updates for all our consumer products so say bye bye to the SMA.

Ron I have always had a huge problem with the cost of Assistive Technology vs the actual platform it's running on. Sure, JFW and even System Access are great solutions that will run on this platform, but, if the computer cost's 2 or $300 and the AT costs twice that.... Well, you get the picture. This is why we offer this new version.

Keep up the great blogging!

Susabelle said...

Netbooks are cute, and they have their place, but I'm not sure I'd really recommend them to anyone who is doing heavy computing. The short battery life, small hard drive, and lack of full-service things like CD drives, can be a real drawback.

I have often sacrificed weight for functionality. My laptop is my baby and goes everywhere with me, and I use it a TON. I paid extra for 12 hour batteries. They are heavy. My laptop is definitely heavy. But it's worth it to be able to run all day without having to plug it in. It's especially great for when I'm out researching, or doing presentations one-on-one, when I don't want to have to string out a power cord.

Remember that anything you plug in is going to use power, and you will see your three hours whittled down to nothing with the addition of keypads, mice, USB drives, etc. Just an FYI.

T.Reid said...


I have been thinking about a NetBook for a while to serve as a notetaker for myself. Battery Life is the concern.

Maybe when the battery life improves I'll make the jump and maybe even with SA.
I had a problem at first going between desktop and the laptop configuration. Having used both I actually prefer the laptop config. The hands feel comfortable remaining centered on the home keys.

Be Well!

Ron Graham said...


Thanks for your thoughts on this topic.

As you know, effective Saturday morning, I’m also now a convert to System Access. Not only does your company make a quality screen reader that gives accessibility anywhere, you do so at prices that the others don’t begin to touch. When your company shifted to give free upgrades for life, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. It coincided with the time I had received my latest SMA for JAWS. The math was easy when comparing what I needed to invest here. I get a screen reader that will run on any computer, any place, any time, and all at a tradeoff cost of my next two SMAs from the shark.

But, more than this, you have a developed community for the users of your products.

Additionally, I sincerely appreciated the welcome to Serotek call, which I don’t seem to recall getting when I began using any other assistive technology. That was a very good touch, personalizing the whole experience.

And, for what it is worth, if I need to run JAWS, I’ve still got what is currently the latest version.

Ron Graham said...

Hi Susabelle,

I always appreciate your insight. You are so right about netbooks having their place. As a user of one, I wouldn’t recommend one for heavy computing tasks either.

However, for being on the road and needing a lightweight web surfing, email, and document writing machine, these are perfect. For the needs of visually impaired students, a netbook with a screen reader and an additional battery, these might very well do the trick as well.

The battery life is a known tradeoff, when compared to electronic notetakers. This is especially true when using the USB devices on a netbook. (I didn’t know that, so thanks for sharing.) However, maybe the newer 6-cell ones will make a noticeable difference and, in the meantime, I might need to go easy on the USB use.

It sounds like you have a real workhorse of a notebook, particularly the battery. And, it also sounds like you need that power and the trade off for weight is worth the power for the convenience of remaining unplugged.

Ron Graham said...

Hi T.

Thanks for your input.

I understand your concerns about the battery life. Its one aspect to consider here, to balance out your needs with what you get with a netbook. Its a question of trading lightweight portability for somewhat limited power, or needing to find a plug.

Your comments about the keyboard configuration makes sense. If you have the laptop configuration in place, then you can sit at any computer and use the same commands, especially when it feels so comfortable to you

Also, on a personal note, I’m glad to see you posting on your blog more regularly. I miss your commentary when there is an prolonged absence. I always appreciate your insights about life. You offer an strong and educated voice of advocacy, which we all need to have.