Saturday, May 29, 2010

Get your news how you want it from NFB Newsline

Fifteen years ago, I was still pretty newly blinded, and going to college, but this was before I was using a computer, much less understanding all the wonders of this fabulously interconnected world wide web. At that time, my options for getting news were the television and radio, or having somebody read the newspaper to me. Then, the
National Federation of the Blind (NFB)
Came along with a nifty, dial-up feature for getting news over the phone called
NFB Newsline.

The concept for NFB Newsline was simple—have the text of the latest and current issues of some newspapers available to be read by a screen reader over the phone. I believe there were initially only four newspapers available as options. The NFB sought out co-sponsors in the various states, and had people who were blind submit documentation verifying their visual disability to become enrolled into the program. Approved users wer issued an identification number and password. With that, the user could then call the nearest number they offered and, by using phone button presses as commands, have any of the newspapers read with a screen over the phone. Navigation and personal options, such as reading speed and voices, were easy to learn and manage. They presented the news like you would normally read the newspaper— first by section, then by headlines, and you enter on the story whose headline interested you. Just like a sighted person does with a newspaper. It was an ideal way to get news and I loved it.

Than along came my first computer with a screen reader, and the internet, and more news and information than I ever got over the phone on NFB Newsline. To be honest, I pretty much forgot about this fine service that had filled the news void in my life for a period.

Time moves on and along the way, I’ve kept up with different technologies, including portable digital talking book players. And, leave it to NFB Newsline to figure more ways to make news relevant. They have continued to evolve what they offer.

Today, for those who prefer to listen to news over the phone, there is still NFB Newsline. If interested in this, you can call 1-866-504-7300 for more information.

One really neat feature is that you can find the television listings for your area.

However, there is also
NFB Newsline Online,
A more robust, richer service than ever before. Users can log in and read the news online. No, I’m not running for office with the NFB, but what they have become today is a much more inclusive service, setting out to meet the changing needs of their consumers.

What’s more, users today have access to not just the small handful of newspapers they initially began with. Far from it. There are more than 300 newspapers available to read. And, if that’s not enough information for you, there are also magazines, both state and national, there, too. For me, Texas Monthly was a great find to discover.

And, if you prefer, they will also email your newspapers and magazines to you.

However, understanding that we are in a mobile society with access to these great digital book players, they have also further adapted NFB Newsline to go with you. You can download the newspapers and magazines with a quick transfer to your device. I was really impressed at how fast and well the NFB Newsline software connected and transferred my subscriptions.

From the NFB Newsline Online web site:

Would you like a newspaper with your morning cup of coffee? NFB-NEWSLINE® just added its 300th publication AND it's still growing. Five Spanish-language newspapers are now available to all subscribers. The service handles thousands of phone calls each day for individuals across the country who now access daily newspapers and magazines as never before. The toll-free centralized call-in center provides service on demand to any subscriber. This also enables those who cannot read conventional print to have access to all content offered on NFB-NEWSLINE® when traveling throughout the United States twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

Every day, a subscriber can choose that day's, the previous day's, or the previous Sunday's issue of any newspaper in the service. On NFB-NEWSLINE®, the user can easily choose which newspaper, section, and article to read using a standard touch-tone telephone. The menu provided allows the user to change the speed and voice settings, spell out words, or search for a particular word or subject.

Arts and culture, science, health, national and international news are available on NFB-NEWSLINE® through magazines. Just press Option 7.

So, if you want your news, you can get it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t see it. Also, you don’t have to be able to use a computer to get it, nor a digital book player, but if you do use either of these, they are additional ways to get your news with NFB Newsline.

Kudos to NFB Newsline for adapting with changing technologies.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

2010 TAER conference: Presenting and being presented to

Last week, I was in San Antonio to attend the annual conference of the
Texas Association for Education and Rehabilitation of the Blind and Visually Impaired,
Or TAER. I was there to present with the VI professionals from the school district where I do assistive technology training with the blind and visually impaired students.

Being I didn’t arrive until Thursday evening, I missed hearing the keynote by Jonathan Mosen. Thanks to his lovely wife Julia, I was able to get a digital copy of his brilliant speech on Twitter.

Our presentation was simple, but robust. We discussed how I had come to the district with expertise in various assistive technologies 18 months ago, what we have done in that time with four students in particular, and how this training has been tied into other aspects of the students’ education. We highlighted this with a slide show of the students using the mix of technologies to execute a scavenger hunt.

The scavenger hunt was different for each student, with the design of an O&M lesson focused on their individuality. One student who is an aspiring singer and guitarist, was given the task of making a trip to a music store in a local strip mall, comparing prices of different items, and, finally, executing a purchase. Another young man, whose goal in life is to pursue adventure, had his outing presented in a Mission Impossible theme. He was given a clue by his VI teacher of where to go for his next clue. It was on a particular computer in the library, where he was to find a document with his name on it, and read it using his
Jump drive version of the System Access screen reader. That clue then directed him to locate an assistant principal who handed him a Victor Reader Stream, which was loaded with one audio note directing him where to go next. His later escapades involved him using his magnifier, telescope, and Braille, all culminating in a trip to a local toy store, where he also finished off the excursion with a purchase.

Our presentation was received by an overflow crowd which exceeded the seating capacity of the room. Our worst critiques were that there weren’t enough chairs, but many others were asking for us to make this presentation again at next year’s conference.

When we finished our presentation, we took questions from the audience. One of the most requested items was information about Serotek’s
Keys for K-12 program.

We happily directed the interested parties to the proper web site and I expect that there will be an uptick in requests from Texas. It is such a service to our youth that Serotek is providing and I will continue to shout this from the hilltops until I go hoarse.

Following the workshop, we went to the luncheon in the hotel’s ballroom. The food was very good, but took a second place to the activities that went on during the meal. The packed room exploded with applause each time an award was presented to a small cast of award recipients. I was very impressed with the various recipients for the student scholarship, the parents award, and educators who were recognized. These were all very noteworthy people who had accomplished much.

During the awards presentation, one moment made me take pause. One of my group was called up as a presenter and two of the others stood up behind me. Then the words flowed out, describing things I’ve achieved and I was called up to receive the
Julia L. Young award.

This award is in honor of Julia L. Young, who provided leadership in the development of the visually handicapped children's program of the Texas Commission for the Blind and gave direction and guidance to that program for many years. The award is presented to an individual who has done outstanding work with children who are visually impaired in Texas. Examples include: special education teachers, regular classroom teachers, caseworkers, therapists, volunteer workers, and other individuals providing direct services to children with visual impairments.

I am a man who is very quick witted and can speak off the cuff on most occasions, but they really surprised me on this one and left me speechless. Given the recipients of the other honors that day, I am definitely humbled and felt myself to be in rare company. Thank you for finding what I do worthy of this recognition.

But, this post is not about me. It is about the dedicated professionals in TAER and the kids they serve. Thank you for inviting me to be part of the program this year and sharing of yourselves with me. The bottom line is like I said when accepting my award, “Its all about the kids.” These children are the future and it is in our best interest to teach them the best that we can.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Review of Tom Sullivan's Adventures in Darkeness

I’m at aloss for finding the right superlative to describe last night.

It seems like “great,” “awesome,” or even “fantastic” just seem like overused modifiers in today’s digital world where everybody’s favorite web-connected device is their means of sharing thoughts with the world, and people toss those words about like so many handfuls of Tic Tacs. Those words also don’t begin to grasp the powerful, slap you in the face directness of what
Tom Sullivan
had to say during his presentation of Adventures in Darkness to the gathered group at the

University of Houston’s

Cullen Performance Center.

If you are unfamiliar with Tom Sullivan, click the link above and learn who he is.

I can tell you he is an author, actor, producer, entertainer, Olympic athlete, Harvard graduate, Wrestling Hall of Fame inductee, recipient of the Will Rogers Lifetime Achievement Memorial Award, and so many other accomplishments and honors. I can also tell you he is a man who happens to be blind. That last bit of information is just the punctuation mark on the previous listing of awards and acknowledgements.

The presentation was sponsored by the UH School of Optometry and the women of the Delta Gamma sorority, so Sullivan targeted his comments to future vision specialists and the sorority of his wife. However, he always made sure to include others who might be in the audience, but he tried to ensure that his words had the most impact for the future vision professionals.

First, let me toss out the only statistic I recall Sullivan mentioning. I want to put it here, because its significant. Granted, I don't know the source of his information, but am trusting it to be accurate.

The divorce rate among married couples in the United States

The divorce rate of married couples in the United States when they are parents of a blind child

Whoa! I told you it was significant.

Sullivan built his presentation around a few scenes from his most recent book, Adventures in Darkness: Memoirs of an 11 year old blind boy. If you were smart like me, and bought the commercial audio version of this book on CD, you already have an idea what this presentation was about, because Sullivan read the book on that version. And, then you also know how he did the voices of his dad, “Porky,” as well as Helen Keller, who he met at the Perkins School for the Blind, and his childhood tormentor, Eddie Mullins, when he taunted the fenced-in 11 year old by calling him “Blindy, Blindy.” He brought these same voices with him last night to give a lively emphasis to his presentation.

In last night’s audio smorgasbord, not only did the audience get to feel the emotional ride of Sullivan’s lifetime, it was also augmented by additional audio and video. The introduction from the Dean of the School of Optometry was followed by a video of Sullivan engaging in some of his favorite past times including him playing golf. Sullivan took the stage during that point and began playing the baby grand piano, serenading the audience with one of his inspirational original tunes. As he finished that song, he delved into his first story about the Perkins school. He played a few more songs through the presentation, scattering them about as he spoke.

His first story was about the last of eleven times he was kicked out of the Perkins school. It involved an escapade when he and his two best friends climbed out of their rooms, shimmying down a rope made of tied bedsheets, to go make off with one of the boats the school had. They made good on their escape, managing to go boating for more than seven hours until they were in Boston Harbor. Unbeknownst to those three lads, this was the busiest shipping port on the East Coast at that time. He gave a very gripping account of how they were nearly capsized by a passing freighter and their final safe boarding by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Through it all, Sullivan instilled a message of courage and daring, with an added soundtrack of sound effects to accompany his narrative. I personally loved it when he described how he played baseball by himself, and he added in the audio of a big league ballpark. Later, as he told the story about the boxing match his dad arranged between he and Eddie Mullins, the audio accompaniment had the sounds of punches hitting as he told the story. These were also emphasized by a bright light flashing in perfect time with each loud and distinctive punch.

His words drove home some basic messages. There were two that I took away. Don’t build fences to keep blind people safe, a point of discussion we just had at work earlier that day. Sullivan highlighted this when telling about his next-door neighbor inviting him to his yard with three simple words, “Want to play?” Also, dream big and don’t place false limitations on yourself. That last thought is a personal credo of mine, so I did a personal, internal “Whoop” when that was really hammered home.

I first heard of Tom Sullivan in the 1980s when I watched the movie If You Could See What I Hear, based on his autobiography of the same name. Little did I know at that time that I’d later share that same punctuation mark of being a man who happened to be blind in identifying my life.

I loved the movie, and there were a few memorable moments I’ll never forget. One is the scene mostpeople recall when you mention Sullivan. It’s the scene where, although he’s blind, he’s driving a car with some drunken friends in it, and he tells the police officer who pulls him over, that he had to drive, because “I was the only one who was sober.”

The other memborable scene in the film was given a brief showing during last night’s presentation. It is near the end of the film where Sullivan is home alone, watching the children. When he gets distracted by a phone call from Johnny Carson, who is calling to invite Sullivan to appear on The Tonight Show, and the girl slips out unnoticed, then falls in the pool. While Sullivan told this story to us, the screen onstage behind him showed the actor Mark Singer diving into the pool and searching for his daughter. He drove the point home to the audience about how scary and futile it felt searching for her, and the importance of listening for the faintest of sounds.

As last night’s presentation drew to a close, there were flashes of that same daughter on the video screen, now grown and skiing with Sullivan. Of course, the man skis! What did you think; blind people don’t ski?

In conclusion, let me share my heartfelt recommendation to see Tom Sullivan if you ever get the chance. If you see he’s speaking somewhere near you, it will be worth your trip to go see him. Also, if you’re looking for an engaging and entertaining speaker with a message, there is information for arranging bookings on his web page linked above.

Friday, January 08, 2010

Inclusion: 2010 Consumer Electronics Show featuring off the shelf accessibility

I’m a little geeky and get excited each year when the annual Consumer Electronics Show , or CES, starts. However, I’m more excited by two announcements from this year’s CES, currently going on in Las Vegas. Usually, we see technology for people with disabilities launched at annual conferences for that specific market, but this year, two companies are using the CES to announce and demonstrate their products. This fact makes the point that the needs of today’s consumers with disabilities are getting more of an intentional focus. After the paragraphs sharing about these two innovations, I will share why these announcements are so landmark.
(The links are courtesy of

The first product I will share is the
Ocean Blue
set top cable box which features fully accessible menus and on-screen information for the blind. This information of video programming has been available to sattelite and cable users for many years, and developed into some monstrous remotes, most of whose functions were lost on those who could not see the screen. Not any more, though. (The above link has a Flash video which will launch upon opening, which will give you a full working demonstration of their product.)

In the past, have cable providers thought their customers who are blind didn’t need the same information that their sighted customers had full access to? It doesn’t have to be that way any longer. Ocean Blue collaborated with the UK’s Royal National Institute of Blind People to develop this fine, workable solution that means access for all without people who are blind having to find some other solution to find access to the otherwise freely disseminated on-screen information. And, for the cable companies, they can offer more actual information to their customers, as well.

And, the second product I’ll offer up is the
Blio e-reader.
(This CNET web interview features both text and a Flash video you can launch, which will let you hear or see a demo of the Blio actually in use.)

The Blio is the latest innovation from Ray Kurzweil, a name very familiar in the various disability circles as he is associated with many reading innovations over the past 35 years. Now, Kurzweil is taking the knowledge base he’s accumulated over the years and integrating this into one of the latest technology trends, e-books.

There was quite a buzz at the CES about the many different e-book readers from the various book sellers and tech companies. What sets the Blio apart, though, is that it does what all those others can’t—it makes e-books accessible to all readers, including the blind. And, to top it off, the Blio does for sighted readers what the others also do not—gives them full color presentation and web-integrated abilities.
There are a few facets that set Blio apart from the other e-readers.

First, the Blio is not another hardware device like the other book sellers are hawking, which will almost always be exclusively tied to that one bookseller’s service. Instead, the Blio is computer software. Initially, Blio can be installed on Windows-based computers, as well as the Apple iPhone and iPod Touch, and Kurzweil is wanting to make it available on other operating systems.

Secondly, Blio also comes with more than a million books available for free when you install it.

And, finally, is a feature the other e-readers can’t match, the price. The Blio is free.

Now, let me tell you why these two products mentioned above are big announcements for assistive technology, specifically, but, more importantly, in regards to off the shelf accessibility. Why is this off the shelf experience important, one might ask. It is important because nobody should have to pay an additional cost to use the products that he purchased for the same price as everybody else. It would be like selling a bicycle to people, then saying, you have to pay an additional cost to make the wheels unlock and let them roll for you. That bicycle analogy is the way it has been for people with disabilities in the past when they have had to purchase additional software or hardware just to use the off the shelf computer, which they purchased for the same price paid by everybody else. However, because this population has a disability and has an additional need not addressed by the computer, this segment of the population had to pay what basically amounts to a disability tax to purchase the access devices.

Only recently, have companies begun to embrace the idea of off the shelf accessibility. One of the first products I found this way was the Olympus DS 30, DS 40, and DS 50 models of its digital recorders and music players. These voice recorders came out of the box with talking menus already installed, which were activated on startup. The user could turn these off if he didn’t want them. And, one of the biggest leaps into accessibility was the one that Apple made last year when they included Voice Over, their built-in, fully functioning screen reader, in many products from their line of Mac computers, the iPhone, and various models of their, now ubiquitous, iPods.

Now, with the launch of Ocean Blue’s set top box and the Blio, you might hear a loud rumble taking place in thepopulation of people with disabilities. That rumble is chanting, “Hurrah! The digital revolution is here!”

Monday, December 28, 2009

Final thoughts on the iBill by Orbit Research

I must have been a really nice boy this year, because Santa was really good to me. I got a portable USB hard drive and the latest Jimmy Buffett CD, and I wanted both of these, but he also made sure I got one thing I really wanted…the iBill, the new talking banknote identifier by Orbit Research.

Now that I have the true iBill, I can compare it with the pre-production unit I had, and also make comparisons with what the manufacturer promised on the
Official iBill web page.

The very first thing I checked out was the battery compartment door. I had been told about the existence of this problem by the company and, as they promised, had problems trying to get the darn thing open. As a matter of fact, I never got the door open on the review unit. I was told that if I wanted to open it, they could give me assistance, but I decided that I’d pass and see how the next gen model developed.

Well, all I can say is that they’ve got this fixed very nicely. That door is a problem no longer. With a simple intentional push, I can easily get to the single AAA battery contained inside the iBill.

Opening that door also let me see how well they’ve got the door secured, too. The user’s manual said that this door was secured with rubber strings so that it didn’t accidently separate from the unit and get misplaced. That door just hangs in place and lets you do your work with the battery. Nice.

And, speaking of the user’s manual, I hadn’t thought about how the company gets this to the user. It comes on a mini-CD, packaged inside a protective, plastic sleeve. The mini-CD has five items on it. There are two folders, one contains the audio version of the user’s manual, and the other is a folder of pictures of the product, which has 8 files inside. The remaining items are the iBill Quick Start Guide text document, and the iBill User’s Manual as both a pdf and text document. Additionally, there are large print copies of the two documents in the iBill’s package as well. All of these versions are promised to the user by Orbit Research.

Note: The file inside the first folder with the audio version of the user’s manual is a file extension .CDP and I was initially puzzled why this file type, which I’ve not heard of previously, wouldn’t play in my computer’s CD/DVD drive. After reading up on the file extension, it is related to something called the Sony CD Architect Project. (I should’ve been tipped off by the mini-disc, a Sony brainchild.) Anyhow, after reading up on the file extension online, I found that if I just put the minidisk into a regular CD player, it would play.

With all that said, the audio version of the manual is done very well, presented in a professionl manner by a female reader.

So, what else do I have to add to my initial review of the iBill? Nothing. My initial review posted just prior to this is on target with the exception of what I note here. They fixed what they said they would do and offer everything they promise in the multi-item list on the company web page. Great job, Orbit Research.

And, thanks, Santa!

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Review of the iBill talking banknote identifier

I previously posted the news announcing the introduction of the iBill electronic banknote identifier, and now, I offer my review of this latest piece of assistive technology for the blind and visually impaired.

I’ll admit that when I first read that
Orbit Research
was offering this tool at size, weight, speed, and price thresholds that I have never heard of previously, I was skeptical. I thought to myself that this must be a bit of exaggeration on some part. Surely, this device couldn’t do everything they advertise and they can still sell the unit for only $99.

Well, the people at Orbit Research were right.

If you want to listen to my podcast of the review and hear a demonstration of the iBill in action, its on

I’ll boil the iBill down to a few words: Compact, lightweight, fast, accurate, easy to use, and, most importantly, in the realm of assistive technology, affordable.

The iBill is small enough to carry in your pocket. Measuring 3 inches wide (just wide enough to insert the end of a bill) by 1.6 inches long, and less than ¾ of an inch thick, it fits easily in your pocket or purse among your keys and USB jump drives. When you hold it, the iBill fits handily in your palm.

And, being lightweight is another one of its feature facets. At just 1.5 ounces, you hardly even realize the iBill is present until you need it.

The iBill has only two buttons on it to operate the unit and change between the five output settings, the iBill is very simple to use. It comes with both a quick start guide and a user’s manual, both of which are well written with clearly defined directions, and easily explaining the unit’s design and operation.

I tried the iBill with bills in denominations or $1, 5, 10, and 20. I’ll give the iBill the benefit of the doubt and figure it will do as well on the $2, 50, and 100 denominations that I didn’t use.

I intentionally tried to test the limits of the iBill. I first inserted each bill correctly, making sure the corners and edges were smooth and flat. It correctly identified each bill I gave it in about one second. The iBill literature claims a recognition speed of one second. Check.

I tried to see if the product would give incorrect readings if the bills had folded or wrinkled corners. When it couldn’t identify a bill, it beeped to let me know it was trying to figure it out, but after about 3-5 seconds, it gave me an “Error” message. It never misidentified a bill. If it couldn’t recognize a bill, it announced, “Error.” The iBill brochure says it is 99.9% accurate. Check.

The output settings on the iBill include low, medium and loud spoken audio, a vibration mode, and a tone mode. The spoken audio modes were very acceptable for different settings and announced clear, easy to understand spoken denominations in a female voice.

The tone mode worked very well to identify the bills, too. There is a low tone in sequences of 1, 2, and 3, tones for $1, 2, and 5 bills, and a high tone in that same sequence for $10, 20, and 50 bills, all respectively, as well as a low-high, low-high sequence for $100.

However, Where I see this as a powerful tool, besides as a quality bill identifier for those of us who are totally blind, is as an equally great product for anybody who is deafblind. With the vibration mode, there are sequences of short or long pulses in identical sequences of the tone mode to quickly identify the different denominations. There’s even a very long pulse for an error message.

The iBill I tested was a pre-production review unit. I was told that there was a design change to the battery compartment cover, as the pre-production model’s cover was difficult to open. I didn’t need to change the battery, as they had a brand new one installed, but was curious to see how difficult it would be to open. After trying several times, I never did get it open, so I hope the new model is easier to open.

I also demonstrated this product to several visually impaired students and professional staff members who work with these students. With a brief introduction, all but one of the students was able to quickly make the iBill work. The one who had the most difficulty was the only one who was totally blind. All were impressed with the design speed, and accuracy of the iBill.

The only constructive feedback anybody offered was a suggestion that there might be an inset on one of the rear corners where a key ring might be attached. This was suggested as possibly aiding in orienting the user to the iBill. There were no complaints about how the iBill operated.

To conclude, let me compare the iBill to previous models of similar products. In the past, I’ve handled a bill identifier that was probably three times the size of the iBill and several times the weight. That device was bulky and not easily carried in one’s pockets. Additionally, the lowest price I’ve ever seen for one of those units was $189. On those three fronts the iBill charges to the front of the pack, and it does so with a hard to beat accuracy rate and identification speeds faster than the KNFB Reader Mobile. For giving independence to people who are blind and visually impaired, this is a product that should find its way to one’s toolbox of assistive technology.

If you're interested in this product, the first shipments of the iBill are going out next week, just in time for Christmas. Those who have already contacted the company are being processed first. There will also be an online order form on the company's web site in the near future, so that you can order the product directly. I've told Santa to grab me one and even he had to leave his name and phone number. Even jolly old Saint Nick has to wait to get one of these.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Amazon working on Kindle accessible for blind and visually impaired

Well, its finally happening.

Amazon is working to make an
accessible Kindle book reader
for blind users. Its not happening overnight, but is projected to be out by summer 2010.

This is indeed good news. Those of us in the blind community have seen the potential that was there ever since Amazon announced text-to-speech capabilities in the latest version of this affordable, digital book reader. Granted, there were no usable menus which were being read and the web interface wasn’t accessible, but the books could be made to play for blind users with some sighted assistance.

Having accessibility built-in seems to be a new concept and it shook up the Author’s Guild to think that there might be ways of reading their works in this fashion without them getting a slice of revenue for audio formats of their book. When they protested, Amazon backed off and allowed publishers to say whether their works can be played on the current text-to-speech solution, further crippling possible access by blind users.

However, this is all set to change as what Amazon is working on is more of a functioning screen reader that wil handle menus and such, giving unprecedented access to blind users on the Kindle.

This product should serve Amazon well, because there was a recent announcement where two colleges said they would not be able to use the Kindle as a platform for digital textbooks, because the current Kindle was inaccessible to blind and visually impaired students. The colleges paired with the
National Federation of the Blind
To say that this inaccessibility discriminated against these students by not allowing them access to course material. This would be a big hurdle for Amazon to overcome and allow a broader rollout as an accessible digital textbook reader at college campuses across America.

I’m anxious to see what grows from this project and am subscribed to their email list for updates. If you’d also like to stay informed on progress on this front, sign up by email at

I don’t know if it will happen, but I’ve requested a review unit of the accessible Kindle. If I can get one, I’ll share my thoughts here on Access Ability. Stay tuned.