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.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Mom Not Otherwise Specified, a blog worth your time

I've been meaning to write this for a couple of weeks, but a painful oral surgery whose effects lasted through the Thanksgiving weekend had me slowed down. Sorry about the delay in getting this here.

A couple of weeks ago, I was reading my tweets and was told about a very worthwhile blog post. I'd never heard of the blog, but relied on the credibility of the person I was following and went to check it out. Man, was I floored!

The blog was one called
Mom - Not Otherwise Specified
and is written by, well, a mom who writes
"On raising a son on the autism spectrum, progressive politics, pop culture, and coffee addiction."

But, it is so much more than that. The writer grasps the different emotional perspectives of her son, as filtered through his autism, and relates them so vividly in her writing. This blog is very well written and I would encourage the mom to keep on writing. After some period of time when you've gathered enough material, I believe it would make an awesome book. Yes, you write that well.

If you've not read her blog before, do go there on the link above. Just read the latest post (Nov. 7, 2009) about her son meeting country singer Dierks Bentley, and I think you'll understand why I'm such a fan of her writing.

Additionally, if you've never heard of Dierks or his music, I think you'll be a big fan of his after reading this. Dierks totally rocks for how well he took on his job.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Why I've not been blogging as much: hint-- "tweet, tweet"

I've not blogged as much lately as I'd like to and have noticed a downward trend in the number of posts among blogs I follow. I also follow many of the same bloggers on Twitter, where I notice many of these folks actively tweeting. Yesterday, there was a tweet asking where all the assistive technology bloggers have gone. I echoed that sentiment to myself, but then sheepishly answered myself, "Well Access Ability isn't really just about assistive tehcnology." Still, I know I've been blogging less since I started using Twitter.

Okay, a lot less.

I must tip my hat to one blogger, who covers assistive technology and so much more, and hasn't quit blogging, despite being very busy on Twitter as well. Michael McCarty at
Fred's Head Companion
still gets the job done. (Great work there, Mike, because I follow both Fred's Head and your personal tweets, and, as a result, I know how busy you are.

Okay, so what shifted me into high gear on Twitter. Let me share an insight that people who don't tweet don't know. Many tweeters use a client, which means a software program like we use a program for downloading our email or listening to music. The problem for blind computer users are that out of the many Twitter clients out there, most aren't accessible to screen readers. But, with necessity being the mother of invention, along come some blind computer programmers and now there are some.

The Twitter client I use is
which, I must say, is one awesome program.

I use this very similarly to how I use my email client. I often get into and follow other conversations, just like in email. The tweets post on my Twitter profile, but I download them in my Tweets" buffer. With a keystroke, I move to my Direct Message," "Sent," or "Replies" buffer." It is a very seamless transition to begin using this and I've found it easy to learn.

One really sharp feature is that it doesn't have a user interface, or UI. This means it runs in the background and has no window open while its operating. Every four minutes, Qwitter will check my page and see if there are any new tweets, automatically download them, and chime to notify me what just came in. It is customizable, with different soundpacks available to signal the different messages one can get. I'm showing my playful side when I tell you I've got the Super Mario Brothers soundpack running.

It is freeware, but the designer does take Paypal donations. After using Qwitter for less than two weeks, I felt this was definitely a product I'd pay for and sent him some money. After all, designing and tweaking this software is worth something, and there is an actual cost for the webspace to host this great program.

There are other accessible Twitter clients out there. Two others I'm aware of are
Accessible Twitter
While I don't use these two products, I know other keyboard users who do and seem to like them just as much as I do Qwitter.

So, the answer is yes, tweeting has taken me away from blogging as much as I used to. I'm still connected to many of the same, fine sources as before, only now we're communicating 140 characters at a time.

How about you, are you you on Twitter? Follow me at:

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

New iBill electronic banknote identifier hits the mark on many fronts

One of the first questions I had after realizing that I was blind was, "How will I be able to tell my dollar bills apart?" I soon learned about electronic bill identifiers, but they seemed large and cumbersome, not to mention still rather expensive. As a matter of fact, I used to say that I've not found a note teller for the blind which I thought was both practical and affordable.

However, that's all changed, if what I read is to be believed.

Orbit Research
has introduced the iBill talking banknote identifier

The iBill is built on a key-fob design, measuring only 3.0 x 1.6 x 0.7 inches and weighs 1.5 oz. It runs on a single AAA battery which should last more than a year, according to Orbit Research. The unit should be easy enough to operate as it has only two buttons. And, the brochure claims most bills are recognized in less than 1 second, with an accuracy rate of better than 99.9%.

That takes care of the logistics, size and speed. So, what about the price for this electronic wizardry?

Get this, its only $99. That's right, less than a hundred bucks.

I felt that Humanware found the correct pricing threshold when they introduced the Victor Reader Stream. At the introductory price they delivered a quality assistive technology product for an affordable cost in what is all too often an over-priced market, one where the consumers are often on limited incomes. If the iBill is as good as advertised, then Orbit Research might have done the same here.

I'm just writing this based on the literature and haven't actually tried one out. I'd love to take one of these for a test spin and introduce it to some of my peers and colleagues, and see what their thoughts are. Perhaps, I might be able to get a review unit from Orbit Research. Stay tuned and I'll let you know of any future interaction with one of these units.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

DePaul program innovates hope for students with chronic illnesses

The School for New Learning might share the same initials with Saturday Night Live, but there's nothing funny about what they're doing at DePaul University.

This interesting and innovative
is targeting students with chronic illnesses, giving them opportunities to work through episodic, debilitating outbreaks of their disabilities, which, in any other circumstance, would have been the end of the students' class, semester, or, quite possibly, their entire academic career.

In this
Associated Press article,
you can read about some of the students who are achieving through this opportunity when they would have been otherwise academically frustrated and stymied.

I've had several friends who were classmates that appeared to have no disability on most days, but when their days turned gray and their recurring disability, like severe chronic fatigue syndrome or rheumatoid arthritis, flared up, it was totally incapacitating and caused them to miss class and assignments. Thanks to patient professors granting extensions, they were able to keep up with most classes. However, there were some times when these missed classes and assignments would force them to drop the class or take an incomplete, just because they weren't physically able to keep up with the pace due to their disability.

If more colleges and universities had programs like SNL, the occurrence of academic failure due to a disability would become a footnote in history, much like other disability related access problems prior to the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"I'm a person with a disability. I'm not less of a person because of that. I can DO less because of it, but coming to that acknowledgment was painful

Patrick Holaday , SNL student with severe chronic fatigue syndrome.

As with the student cited above, there are aspects in the different student stories highlighted in the news article which have a common theme of working through denial and, finally, acceptance. I've been a big fan of applying Elizabeth Kubler-Ross's grief theory to disability and feel encouraged to see others are like minded.

Congratulations to DePaul for putting their faith in their students' abilities and seeing beyond their disabilities.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New resources for accessible college textbooks

Its been crazy with summer vacation and all that fun stuff, but school’s back in now and that means back to some more regular blogging here.

As a former blind college student, I know the value of, and appreciate, having accessible textbooks. If my books were not available in an accessible format from RFB&D, which was often the case with each progressive year of college, , I would scanned my texts into accessible documents myself using Kurzweil. It meant several hours per book, but once scanned in, I could access and read the book just as well as any other student. It took extra time and effort for me, but at that time, getting something in an accessible format from the publishers was akin to squeezing blood from a stone. It wasn’t happening.

With this in mind, I’m glad to share the latest news regarding accessible textbooks. With the two new services, its good to see the options for gaining accessible textbooks vastly improving.

The AccessText Network
Is now running in beta mode.
The AccessText Network facilitates and supports the national delivery of alternative electronic textbooks to higher education institutions for students with documented disabilities.

That statement is a short and concise definition, but perhaps a little clearer version of the program’s mission is offered in an August 19, 2009 article in
The Wired Campus.

While the program is in its beta stage until next year, 367 offices are testing it free of charge, and eight publishers that are part of the association are footing the bill. When AccessText goes live in July 2010, members will pay between $375 and $500, on a sliding scale based on the institution’s size. At that point, Mr. Hildebrand hopes that colleges will be able to share materials with other approved institutions, with permission, instead of several schools duplicating efforts by scanning books that another member may already have.

This is similar to the service which has already been offered for several years by the
Texas Text Exchange (TTE),
Hosted by Texas A&M University.

While the TTE is similar to AccessText, as it is open to all colleges and universities, it is different in that there is no interaction from the TTE site with textbook publishers. The e-texts hosted on the TTE servers are scanned and produced by participating consortium members and shared with other participating entities.

And, one more big difference is that the TTE does not charge schools to participate. You might want to go back and see what AccessText is proposing once it out of beta.

As for the AccessText Network making texts available directly from publishers, I don’t see that as quite the big plus its made out to be, except perhaps for the largest universities. In my experience, direct interaction with the textbook publishers from the campus Disability Service Office was usually quite quick and easy using the online request forms provided by publishers such as Pearson and the like. They were very happy to overnight the CDs with accessible files to my office, too.

Those two are not a school’s only options for accessible textbooks, though.
The other new method I want to share with you is that
Has also created an alliance with the textbook publishers to make their works accessible.

Bookshare is a web-based digital library that gives people with print disabilities the same ease of access to books and periodicals enjoyed by those without disabilities. Bookshare allows a book to be scanned once and then shared with many qualified individuals who require digital formats that are easy to download, search and navigate.

Fruchterman told the attending members of the press about how the new Bookshare University Partnership Program is uniting universities throughout the country to increase the number of accessible post-secondary textbooks to students with print disabilities. These disabilities include blindness, low vision, physical disabilities and severe learning disabilities.

The final decision for which method to use is up to the various colleges and universities in need of accessible textbooks. My job is just to share the latest news here. Good luck on your decision making.

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Cars for the blind? The proof of concept is already here

I've previously thought about a world where cars were all fully computer-driven and fully interactive. Wouldn't it be easy if cars were automated, completely taking the human factor out of driving. Cars could communicate with signs and markers along the roadways, making turns to arrive at their destination, as well as communicating with other cars so that all cars stay proper distances from one another. It might make driving boring for sighted drivers who want to prove they can handle the challenges of the road, but it would be a much safer road for all. I truly believe this could be achieved with today's technology.

Apparently, according to this
article in The Atlantic,
I'm not alone in that idea. As a matter of fact, the article takes this idea to the next level where a driver can be blind using today's technology. Better yet, the other cars on the road don't have to be automated!

Don't laugh; apparently its already been proven if what is reported there is true.

The only problem with the whole idea is the other drivers on the road. If one of them suddenly cuts in front of the automated vehicle, requiring a quick, evasive action, one has to wonder what will happen. Again, it is that human interaction that makes driving dangerous, not the automated car, even when the driver was blind. If all the cars were automated, then the poor decisions of the other drivers wouldn't be a factor.

Then again, what if the computer of the automated vehicle failed in the middle of a trip, while motoring down the road. That would result in a real crash, not just a system crash. How do you reboot from one of those?

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

One-armed golfer has powerful drive, even better delivery

What if you were an up and coming golfer, good enough to hang with some peer named Tiger, and then something happened that changes how you look at life, much less your swing and game?

Perhaps, the bigger question is what does a golfer do when he loses an arm?

And, then what does that golfer do when he realizes the bigger lesson and message in his personal loss?

To find out the answers to these questions, check out the Houston Chronicle article about
Larry Alford.

I can personally relate to the painful details of Alford’s story, although the specifics are different, much of his story and mine are the same. Except, I don’t take my message to the golf course. I once read that there are no mistakes in life, only lessons, and that the only mistakes occur when we fail to learn the lessons. It sounds like Alford is taking the lessons and paying them forward, one powerful stroke at a time.

Friday, July 03, 2009

GW Micro comes out swinging-- announces BookSense pricing, enters NLS digital book player arena

I’ve been using and loving my Victor Reader Stream since late February of last year. I’ve been hooked on it since day one. The reason I believe this quickly became Humanware’s best-selling product of all time is that they provided a tool that was needed at a time when it was needed most. And, they did it, and kept the price where this was the most bang for one’s assistive technology dollars, by including the most necessary features while leaving off those which were peripheral and/or overly costly. In that process, they created a product which I believe ranks amongst the most revolutionary of assistive technology products for blind people.

All that said, I knew Humanware wasn’t going to be the only maker of products that could read books from the National Library Service. I knew of at least two more products coming down the pipe, but the Stream was here almost a year and a half ago, and it was ready to change lives. Also, nobody knew the exact pricing of these alternatives, either.

The reason I’m writing about this today is that another of these products, which is aiming for a similar launch and reception by the blind community, has hit the ground, and released pricing that can make them a competitor with the Stream.

The product I’m speaking about is the
manufactured by
GW Micro.

At $499, the pricing of this product is higher than that of the Stream, but it isn’t out of the stratosphere, especially for a solid assistive technology product. It also comes with features the Stream doesn’t.

If you’re interested in looking at how this digital book player compares to the Stream, you might want to check out
Wayne Merritt’s comparison.
Wayne keeps his overview brief, but he does offer a link for a fuller comparison of the competing products.

Personally, I'll be keeping my Stream. It is still going strong and appears that it will continue to do so for a long time. However, if something were to happen where it broke and I was facing the need to invest in another player, though, I'd have to look both ways before crossing the digital book player street. What GW Micro is sending down the street sounds pretty inviting.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Accessible Event makes meetings and seminars open to all participants, no matter their disability

I’ve been waiting on the following unveiling for a while and am impressed by the results, not to mention, the potential this offers for the future.

The folks at
Have rolled out their latest accessibility tool.

As its name implies,
Accessible Event
Makes meetings, seminars, conferences, and other events where participation is contingent on the accessibility to all the participants, truly open to everybody.

You can check out the June 23
press Conference ,
which is, of course, presented as an Accessible Event.

And, if that isn’t enough and you’d like another demonstration of how this neat tool works, check out the Serotek demo of a
staff meeting.

This is a service Serotek is offering to people who have a need to make their program accessible. It is something that I can see a distinct need for for at colleges, universities, and even public schools. There are also the distinct commercial applications at trade shows and conventions. If you’re a presenter and want to sure accessibility, check out Accessible Event. It will provide the ultimate delivery of your message to all audience members.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Access Ability is now on Twitter

Okay, call me slow, or whatever, but I’ve finally caught up to the latest hot thing on the web. Well, sort of.

I’m talking about getting on the tweet train. That’s right, Access Ability is now on Twitter. You can follow me at:

Be patient, please. Give me time to figure out what I’m doing here, but I want to keep what I tweet pertinent to what Access Ability is about. I don’t figure you really want to know what kind of sandwich I’m eating right now, so I’ll be trying to focus on the content.

Its crazy, but I’ve already got people following me and I’ve not even posted anything there yet.

See you on Twitter!

Thoughts on more access spinning off of iPhone 3.0's accessibility

I’ve still not even checked out the iPhone, with its new, whizbang 3.0 OS offering out-of-the-box accessibility, but I’m here to tell you that there is a lot more than buzz going on about this in the blind community. There is thought and reflection on where this can go from here. To wit, I share two recent blog posts.

First, an intelligent thought is offered by T. Reid in his cleverly titled piece
Accessibility, There’s An App For That!

T. begins by looking at the idea of reading Amazon’s Kindle books on the iPhone, using the already available Kindle app with Voice Over, which would beat the Kindle’s own, now-neutered text-to-speech potential. He also looks at other possible apps that might come from innovation. Read his post to see his thoughts.

And, my good friend Marcus Engel has also stepped into the reality of technology and finally claimed some geekiness wherein he proposes the idea of an
App to run NLS books on the iPhone.

Now, that idea Marc is proposing isn’t just an idle thought. He’s already stepped up to the plate and initiated communications that might get something going here. Read his post to see what I mean. Also, make sure to write an email of your own, encouraging the development of this possible app

Good work, guys!

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Apple gives iPhone accessibility for the blind and does it the right way

In case you missed the groundbreaking news this week, the Apple Corporation has pounded the table and slammed its fist down, announcing heretofore unimagined accessibility for blind people to the iPhone and its popular touchscreen display. I’ve ragged on Apple enough in previous postings about not including accessibility for the blind amongst the many features that it offered on this chic and trendy device, so I feel obligated to give my props to the home of the Mighty Mac for doing it right.

Not only does Apple include accessibility to the iPhone with the upgrade to the 3.0 operating system, but they do it for free. It is built-into the software. That means that there is no additional “accessibility charge,” a price blind people have been subjected to in the past to gain access to information that sighted folks get for the original price of a product. This fee has come in the form of screen readers and service maintenance agreements that hit wallets that are very often already strained. So, a tip of the hat to Apple for not only providing accessibility, but just making it part of doing business.

I have heard that somebody questioned whether the Nokia N82, which is the phone I and several of my friends are using, has become obsolete with the advent of an accessible iPhone. I don't buy that. I think the N82 is a greatly accessible phone, in my own experience the most accessible phone I’ve ever had, and its already bought and paid for. There are aspects of it that nothing on the market can touch, at least not yet, so it is not obsolete. However, it is expensive in itself, just under $300 at best pricing, and also requires an expensive, third party screen reader for nearly $300 to be accessible. With a screen reader, at best prices, one will spend close to $600 and up to $900 from vendors to get an N82 with a screen reader on it.

Now, along comes Apple offering an iPhone for $199 with a built in screen reader. What Apple has done here is put pressure on the market to, not only ante up, but to matche their raise.

As they say, only time will tell. Let’s see what happens. It is indeed an interesting time to be a blind person and experience the wonders of advancing technology.

With all that said, below I offer a roundup of some of the writings on the web about the iPhone’s accessibility.

Here’s the official Apple iPhone Accessibility page where they spell out the use of Voice Over:

Also, here’s the Apple guide on how to use different features on your iPhone.

Here’s the Serotek blog where Mike Calvo shares his thoughts on Apple doing it right. Also, make sure to read the first comment on that post

Here’s the Ranger Station’s Post announcing the news. Ranger 1138 is a knowledgeable and experienced “dude in the assistive technology industry” whose insight I truly appreciate and trust.

Here is the Fred’s Head article from the American Printing House for the Blind. It is drawing its information from Apple, but seems to add some personal thoughts as well. The writer of this blog is a savvy writer named Mike McCarty and I personally dig his thoughts on technology and seemingly endless resources of information related to blindness and low vision.

And, finally, here’s Darrell Shandrow’s Blind Access Journal post, where he’s collected a few people’s reactions—some in awe and others basically taking a "wait and see" stance, as it sounds like his first couple of commenters are as well.

Like I said, only time will tell what evolves from Apple’s investment in accessibility.

Update 06/11/09

Here’s one more post from Mark Taylor’s Candleshore blog. It is not the original work of the blogger, but contains commentary from one person on an email list. However, these are the thoughtful reflections of a person, whom Mark leaves unidentified, but pledges is “one of the most respected names in the field of assistive technology for the visually impaired.” The comments are a good starting point for a discussion of what the pros and cons are of the iPhone versus other tactile smart phones.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The latest happenings on the Disability 411 podcast

I want to catch you up on the latest happenings at one of my favorite podcasts,
Disability 411,
Hosted by Beth Case.

On the home page, the first posting you will see is a Adobe Flash file of the new D411 promo. I like it. The dialogue features an interaction between a man and woman and is created with synthesized speech. Like everything else Beth puts herself into, it is very professionally produced. I also like that she mentiones three of my favorite people-- Marcus Engel, Mark Zupan, and Sarah Whitlock --in her list of featured guests.

On the most recent D411 episode,
Show 63,
Beth interviews Daniel Berkowitz of DigiLife Media on the subject of eText production.
The title of the show says it all, What is eText?” It is the first of a three parter, so check back for more soon.

If you read much about accessible texts, you might already recognize Dan's name. He is also a contributing member to the
Access Technologists Higher Education Network,
so it should come to no surprise that he is knowledgeable of eTexts.

When I worked as a college disability service coordinator, one of the hallmarks of my time there was that I implemented a push into eTexts for our college. It was beyond me why, in this digital age, a school was not getting material in the most accessible format for its students. Before I arrived there, they were paying readers to record the students’ texts onto cassette. That was a good method for providing access to texts in earlier decades, but this was 2006 and I could see no excuse for that to still be happening in this day and age when more accessible solutions were omnipresent. When I began researching for the push into a digital change for our students, Dan was one of the names I was regularly finding as a resource.

And, as always, there are transcripts available for every audio file Beth posts, even the new promo.

So, go catch up with the latest on D411 and stay tuned for more with Dan Berkowitz.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Security fix in Windows 7 may negatively impact computer accessibility for all Windows users

I’ve known about the following matter for almost two weeks, but have taken a wait and see attitude about writing it up here, to see if anything came out about it on the assistive technology front. I know the subject has trickled out some in A T circles, but I have still yet not heard anything mentioned anywhere about the impact of this change on accessibility products such as screen readers that run off portable, USB thumb drives.

Also, one has to wonder how will the use of Serotek’s wonderful, U3 Smart drive accessibility tool, System Access Mobile, be impacted?

The information I’m worried about is from the Technet blog Security Research & Defense, which touts itself as, “Information from Microsoft about vulnerabilities, mitigations and workarounds, active attacks, security research, tools and guidance,” so I give it some credibility. The subject is a new security fix in the latest release candidate of Windows 7, in a post titled
AutoRun changes in Windows 7

In a nutshell, the post cites that the Conficker virus, and other types of malware, have been spreading via the autorun function in Microsoft Windows. To remedy this from occurring, they have instituted a security fix in Windows 7 that will no longer allow the autorun function to come up when USB devices are plugged in.

That wouldn’t bother me, except that this includes thumb drives that give portability to screen readers and allow users to use virtually any computer. The post does share the difference in autorun and autoplay, which makes sense, but it is pretty clear that this will keep the latest version of Windows from running portable applications from a jump drive, but still allow them to run when launched from a CD or DVD.

And, if you’re sitting there grinning, saying that you just won’t upgrade to Windows 7, the post also states that this fix will be made available to Windows Vista and XP as well. I don’t see how we’re going to avoid this change. I don’t know when this will happen, but figure it will come as one of those Windows automatic updates.

I’m not a total geek, so some of the language in the article is not always clear to me. It does raise the issue of U3 smart drives, which I use in training students on using System Access, but I’m not totally clear how that will be affected. I’m happy to append this post with more information if anybody would care to enlighten me.

I know that there are other options, such as System Access’s ability to burn a CD to run the program, but I have liked the portability of just popping in a thumb drive.

I’ve been using thumb drives for access for a couple of years for my own use when away from home. When training, I’ve actually begun to carry around three drives in my pocket. On one, I have System Access; on another, I have JAWS, which I use with a couple of students; and, on my most recent addition, I’ve got NVDA, the open source, screen reading program, which I demo as a free alternative.

I hope I’m not coming across as some Chicken Little on this subject. Its just that I know there are many applications which run on thumb drives, including many assistive technology programs and I’m just trying to either get some answers or discussion going on a matter that I’m afraid is going to negatively impact computer accessibility for many.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The future is near: NLS pilot digital talking book program to become Braille and Audio Reading Download

Here’s an update on the digital talking book program from the

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

I’ve posted here before, talking about the great benefits of the program and also sharing that the digital talking book program was in a pilot phase. Also, that some time in the future, that this would transition away from being a pilot program.

Well, the future is now, or it will be as of April 30, 2009.

Braille and Audio Reading Download
Or BARD, (the acronym it will be heralded by,) will be operational as of April 30, 2009

For your information, the BARD’s URL is:

Here are the details from the informational email sent out by the NLS:

Users who know their passwords will be able to log on to the new site; users who rely on their browsers to remember their passwords will need new ones (follow instructions in Section II). All user accounts will be migrated to the new system, so you do not need to reapply. All materials previously downloaded will remain usable, so you will not need to redownload your reading material.

1. Unlimited downloading. The BARD service will no longer limit the number of books and magazines that you may download. Any account holder may download any item at any time. During heavy demand, however, NLS may limit the number of simultaneous downloads for each account.

2. New logon page. The site login will now use a form rather than a dialog box. It is the same type of logon found on most internet pages and should be immediately familiar to users of other sites. This is an important note for screen-reader users.

3. New search functionality. BARD searches will yield more effective results. The use of multiple search terms will return only results containing all of the terms.

4. New "Most Popular Books" list. By selecting the "Most Popular Book" link from the home page, users may access a list of the top twenty most downloaded books on the BARD service in the last ninety days. Fiction and nonfiction titles will be listed separately.

5. Redesigned magazine section. The "Recently Added Magazines" link will now display links to only the most recent issue of each magazine. Magazines older than one year may be accessed from each title's magazine archive. Links to the archive are at the bottom of each magazine's page.

Section II. Take the following steps to access the new site:

1. You must know your login ID and password to log on to the new site. For all users, your login ID is your e-mail address.

2. If you know your login ID and password, you will not need to do anything. Simply access the new site,,
starting Thursday, April 30.

3. If you have forgotten your password, you must obtain a new one before you can log on to the new site. Since the new site has a different address from the pilot site, you cannot rely on your web browser to automatically log in to BARD.

4. If you do not know your password but you are able to automatically log on to the pilot site because your browser knows your password, you must choose a new password. To do so, select the link "Update My Settings" from the site home page. From the settings page, select the first link, "Change Your Password." Enter your new password twice, and then select the "Change Password" button. Remember this new password to access BARD.

5. If you cannot log on to the site because you do not know your password, you may have a new one sent to you. Access the password recovery page at
Enter your e-mail address and then select the "Send Me a New Password" button. A new temporary password will be generated and sent to your e-mail address. Once you retrieve the password, log on to the site and choose your new password. Remember this new password to access BARD.

6. If for some reason you are not able to use any of these options, please send a request for a new password to
Because of the anticipated large number of requests, please expect your new password within two business days.

The last day of availability of the pilot site will be Tuesday, April 28. The service will not be available at all on Wednesday, April 29, to allow user accounts to be migrated to the new site, which will be available on Thursday, April 30.

NLS appreciates all who have participated in the pilot test. Your feedback has allowed us to continuously improve the site and to plan future expansions, such as the inclusion of braille books. Though the pilot phase is ending, we remain open to your feedback about the BARD service. Please send your comments to

Send questions or requests about the book and magazine collection to your library.

Friday, April 17, 2009

A web site especially for college-bound teens with disabilities

One of the issues I try to stress most to high school students I work with is how different college will be for them, as opposed to their K-12 experience. So, you can imagine the smile I got when I found a web site designed specifically for college-bound teens with disabilities.

Aptly titled,
Going to College,
The web site (developed by
Virginia Commonwealth University)
proclaims itself “A resource for teens with disabilities.”

The site breaks down into three primary areas of focus:

My Place – where the student will do some self analysis to identify strengths and learning styles to help in goal setting.

Campus Life – describing what the student can expect at the college and what professors will expect, as well as accommodations and assistive technology.

Planning for college – how to proactively prepare today for college tomorrow.

Its great to see something so unique as this put together. Now, all we have to do is spread the word about it.

(A special thanks to the
Disability Studies, Temple U.
blog for this valuable information.)

Carlo Lingiardi offers insight to adjustment process following onset disability

as a result of writing this blog,I’ve met several people, and today, I want to share one of these people with you, as he’s also begun his own blog. I feel his writings reflect a good and honest perspective of what it is like for somebody going through the dynamic process of adjustment to life after a traumatic, onset disability.

While pursuing one of his interests, competetive bicycling,
Carlo Lingiardi,
Had an accident which forever changed his life.

Previous to the accident, Carlo had been an executive with an international shoe company. However, the October, 2005 accident resulted in Carlo being in a coma for two months. The traumatic brain injury he received has left him using a wheelchair, unable to walk by himself, and he is also now blind to some extent.

One of the treatments Carlo is most optimistic about is hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT). He writes about this regularly and his hope and faith in this treatment can’t be overlooked.

You will also notice that his family is one of the constant subjects in Carlo’s writings. He echoes one of the earliest understandings I had about an onset disability – we don’t function in a vacuum; what happens to an individual impacts the lives of all those who are around him.

I wish Carlo well in his pursuits and pray that his recovery delivers what he is hoping for. I’ll be following his progress as he writes about them in the future.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Two scholarship resources for students with disabilities

This is just a brief post to share scholarship information I recently learned about.

has a irectory with over 125 scholarships for students with disabilities. Check it out and see if there are some that fit your needs.

Secondly, there is also the
Mouse Hole Scholarships sponsored by Blind Mice Mart .
This scholarship Is essay-based and is limited to visually impaired students, or sighted students of visually impaired parents.

Awards for the 2008 Mouse Hole Scholarship Essay Contest -- This year we have $4,198.00 available in the Mouse Hole Scholarship Fund! The two top essays, as selected by our panel of judges, will receive a $1,250.00 Mouse Hole Scholarship! The four top essays, as selected by our panel of judges, will receive a ASUS 1000 H E Net Book Computer from the Mouse Hole Scholarship Program!

I’m sure there are other scholarship resources around for students with disabilities, and will be happy to post about them here, just send me the information. I’ve learned about these two posting in the last week and wanted to share them as soon as I could.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

Reading Rights Coalition has the organized strength to petition Authors' Guild

A couple of days ago, I posted here with a petition to show interest in having Amazon make the Kindle II accessible, and I linked to the only petition I was aware of for this pursuit. However, there is a larger, more organized contingent in play than the one which had started that petition. This group is the Reading Rights Coalition, the same group which had the informational demonstration at the Authors' Guild today, which I also wrote about in that post. This group is comprised of more than 25 disability rights organizations, all unified in this goal of bringing accessibility to the Kindle II.

And, they also have a petition to push for accessibility. With the additional, combined strength of the other organizations, this group is better positioned to gather a larger group of signees.

For comparison, on the first petition I linked to, I was #900 something, and I was number 400 something on the Reading Rights petition. I signed both this weekend, obviously one before my previous post, and one after. However, the first petition had been out for a couple of weeks and the Coalition's had just been posted. The number of signees on the Coalition's petition is now just under 3,000. It is a number that is growing steadily with the combined and organized efforts of its members.

So, one more time, I call you to action. Please, go to the
Reading Rights Coalition web site
and learn more about this strong collective, then
please sign the petition.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Take action to make the Kindle II accessible

I’ve previously written here about the Amazon Kindle II eBook reader and how there was some possible accessibility because it had text-to-speech (TTS) built into it, allowing the books to be read aloud. If you’ve missed it, since that posting, there has been a lot of turmoil over the TTS availability, primarily that the Author’s Guild challenged Amazon on making their eBooks to instantly become audio books.

Pardon me as I haven’t blogged very regularly of late and have missed the discussion that has followed, but let me make up for it by giving you the latest, and ask you to do your part and take action.

First, please help the movement to see the fledgling TTS on the Kindle II expand to a fully accessible screen reader by signing the
petition asking Amazon to make the Kindle fully accessible.

Being Amazon is working to position itself as the dominant seller of all books, this only makes good business sense to bring accessibility to the product they tout as the premiere eBook player. There is a need for this accessibility and we need to get more people to sign the petition.

And, if you’re able, go attend the April 7 informational protest at the Author’s Guild headquarters. For details, read the below press release from the
National Federation of the Blind.

* * * * * *
Chris Danielsen
Director of Public Relations
National Federation of the Blind
(410) 659-9314, ext. 2330
(410) 262-1281 (Cell)

Reading Rights Coalition Urges Authors to Allow Everyone Access to E-books
Informational Protest to be Held at Authors Guild Headquarters
New York City (March 30, 2009): The Reading Rights Coalition, which represents people who cannot read print, will protest the threatened removal of the text-to-speech function from e-books for the Amazon Kindle 2 outside the Authors Guild headquarters in New York City at 31 East 32nd Street on April 7, 2009, from noon to 2:00 p.m. The coalition includes the blind, people with dyslexia, people with learning or processing issues, seniors losing vision, people with spinal cord injuries, people recovering from strokes, and many others for whom the addition of text-to-speech on the Kindle 2 promised for the first time easy, mainstream access to over 255,000 books.

When Amazon released the Kindle 2 electronic book reader on February 9, 2009, the company announced that the device would be able to read e-books aloud using text-to-speech technology. Under pressure from the Authors Guild, Amazon has announced that it will give authors and publishers the ability to disable the text-to-speech function on any or all of their e-books available for the Kindle 2.

Dr. Marc Maurer, President of the National Federation of the Blind, said: “The blind and print-disabled have for years utilized text-to-speech technology to read and access information. As technology advances and more books move from hard-copy print to electronic formats, people with print disabilities have for the first time in history the opportunity to enjoy access to books on an equal basis with those who can read print. Authors and publishers who elect to disable text-to-speech for their e-books on the Kindle 2 prevent people who are blind or have other print disabilities from reading these e-books. This is blatant discrimination and we will not tolerate it.”

Mike Shuttic, president of the Association on Higher Education and Disability (AHEAD), said: “AHEAD envisions educational and societal environments that value disability and embody equality of opportunity. This vision of AHEAD is directly aligned with the efforts of this coalition. Although much rhetoric is made about potential obstacles and problems that exist, the basic goal is clear and simple––access for everyone. And why create something that prevents it?”

Mitch Pomerantz, president of the American Council of the Blind, said: “Removing the text-to-speech features closes the door on an innovative technological solution that would make regular print books available to tens of thousands of individuals who are blind or visually impaired.”

Andrew Imparato, President and Chief Executive Officer for the American Association of People with Disabilities (AAPD), said: “It is outrageous when a technology device shuts out people with all kinds of disabilities. AAPD works to remove barriers to accessibility and usability in technology, and we don’t expect to see people with disabilities singled out by having to pay more for access. New technologies, such as electronic books, should be available to everyone regardless of disability.”
Paul Schroeder, vice president of programs and policy for the American Foundation for the Blind, said: "Those of us with print disabilities have long dreamed of a world in which books and media are available to us at the same time as everyone else. The Kindle 2 offers that possibility for the first time. We hope publishers and authors come to see that text-to-speech is simply an alternative means of access to print."

Dr. Peter Blanck, chairman and university professor at Burton Blatt Institute at Syracuse University, said: “As electronic books become the norm, denying universal access will result in more and more people with disabilities being left out of education, employment, and the societal conversation. We will all suffer from the absence of their participation and contribution to the debates that occupy us as a society.”

George Kerscher of the Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium, said: "The DAISY Consortium envisions a world where people with print disabilities have equal access to information and knowledge, without delay or additional expense. Authors and publishers surely must share this vision. Now that the issue of human rights has been explained, and the opportunity for larger sales are known, I urge the Authors Guild to reverse their position on text-to-speech and join us in actively encouraging all publishers and reading technology developers to open the world of reading to everybody. Authors, join us on the picket line."

Steve Jacobs, president of IDEAL Group Inc., said, “Not only is text-to-speech important to people who are blind, it is critical in providing quality educations to millions of young people who rely on text-to-speech to learn effectively. This includes students with autism, learning disabilities, mobility disabilities, and cognitive disabilities that impact their ability to acquire information with their eyes only. I remain hopeful that the talented members of the Authors Guild come to understand the potential negative impact of disabling the text-to-speech function on their e-books and reconsider their position.”

Cynthia D. Waddell, executive director of the International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet (ICDRI), said: “The mission of ICDRI supports the removal of barriers in electronic and information technology and the promotion of equal access. ICDRI welcomes the text-to-speech functionality being offered by the Kindle 2 since it increases mainstream access to books for the first time in history. We question why the Authors Guild demands that it be turned it off since many more books would be sold if text-to-speech was turned back on. Not only does this feature benefit persons with disabilities, but it also helps persons for whom English is not their native language. In an increasingly mobile society, flexibility in access to content improves the quality of life for everyone.”

James Love, director of Knowledge Ecology International, said: “Knowing full well that not everyone can see, the Authors Guild wants the right to be seen, but not heard. By bullying Amazon to change the technology of Kindle 2, the Authors Guild will either deny access to people who are disabled, or make them pay more. By attacking disabled persons in this way, the Authors Guild is attacking everyone who would otherwise benefit from the contributions this community has the potential to offer.”

James H. Wendorf, executive director for the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said: "Access to the written word is the cornerstone of education and democracy. New technologies must serve individuals with disabilities, not impede them. Our homes, schools and ultimately our economy rely on support for the future, not discriminating practices and beliefs from the past.”
While the Kindle 2 is not currently accessible to blind users, Amazon recently announced on its Kindle 2 blog that it is currently at work on making the device’s navigational features accessible to the blind.

The coalition includes: American Association of People with Disabilities, American Council of the Blind, American Foundation for the Blind, Association on Higher Education and Disability, Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, Burton Blatt Institute, Digital Accessible Information System (DAISY) Consortium, Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), IDEAL Group, Inc., International Center for Disability Resources on the Internet, International Dyslexia Association, International Dyslexia Association––New York Branch, Knowledge Ecology International, Learning Disabilities Association of America, National Center for Learning Disabilities, National Disability Rights Network, National Federation of the Blind, NISH, and the National Spinal Cord Injury Association. In addition to the April 7 New York City protest, the coalition will participate in the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 25-26.


April is Autism Awareness Month

Get ready. I’m going to try and get some posting done.

Because it is after April 1, you know I’m not fooling when I say that April is Autism Awareness month.

For authoratative information and resources about this subject, check out
The National Autism Society
Autism Speaks.

Also, for some insightful reflection on what the designation of Autism Awareness Month means to one person, check out the Disaboom post titled,
Can We Get Some Actual Help Here?

As an aside, while on that Disaboom post, go to the comment area at the bottom of that post, and check out the accessible CAPTCHA they offer. The audio is very clear and informative, down to the case of the letters it is asking you to input. It is also missing the bothersome background noise that is too common on other audio CAPTCHAs. I’m not sure if that is working well at screening out spam replies, but I didn’t see any comments posted, so I’ll assume its working. Are you listening to this,

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Latest edition of Disability 411 podcast now posted

Its been a while, but I’m back.

The latest edition of the
Disability 411 podcast
is now available.

It features yours truly as the guest interviewer and the interviewee is

Stephen Kerr,

A disc jockey and Assistant Program Director at
KKMJ, Magic 95,
In Austin, TX.

The reason for the interview is the technology evolution across the radio industry regarding the adoption of tuchscreen computer programs to operate radio stations. You see, Stephen is blind, and the introduction of this type of technology could easily stop his career in its tracks if not for insightful adaptation. Check out the interview and see how Stephen has managed to stay abreast of the changes in his long-time profession and the accessibility he has implemented.

And, if you’d rather read the interview, rather than listen to the podcast, Beth, as always, has the
Episode transcript
Available as well.

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.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Kindle II offers text-to-speech promise, but Authors' Guild wants TTS turned off

It seems that as technology developers innovate, they also challenge old ways of thinking.

Case in point is the upcoming release of the
Kindle II E-book reader,
A second-generation technology product designed and sold exclusively by the online retail giant Amazon.

One of the innovations that the Kindle II has over its predecessor, and the one creating all the ruckus here, is the reader’s built-in text-to-speech (TTS) ability. While it is originally intended to give sighted readers the option to continue their reading indulgences when involved in activities such as driving, which would otherwise mean they would have to engage their eyes and hands elsewhere and stop their reading, enabling the TTS would allow them to continue reading right where they are. As anybody who uses TTS knows, the ability to take your reading material with you and keep on reading hands-free is a big plus.

So, what’s the problem you ask? It comes from the
Authors' Guild.
The union has thrown up a big protest, challenging that by using TTS on their writers’ printed materials, this effectively makes them audio books. The Guild asserts that Amazon has only paid for the E-book rights, not the audio book rights.

This presents a significant challenge to the publishing industry. Audiobooks surpassed $1 billion in sales in 2007; e-book sales are just a small fraction of that. While the audio quality of the Kindle 2, judging from Amazon's promotional materials, is best described as serviceable, it's far better than the text-to-speech audio of just a few years ago. We expect this software to improve rapidly.

We're studying this matter closely and will report back to you. In the meantime, we recommend that if you haven't yet granted your e-book rights to backlist or other titles, this isn't the time to start. If you have a new book contract and are negotiating your e-book rights, make sure Amazon's use of those rights is part of the dialog. Publishers certainly could contractually prohibit Amazon from adding audio functionality to its e-books without authorization, and Amazon could comply by adding a software tag that would prohibit its machine from creating an audio version of a book unless Amazon has acquired the appropriate rights. Until this issue is worked out, Amazon may be undermining your audio market as it exploits your e-books.

I’ve heard about the Kindle II’s TTS option for some time now, but only recently have I begun to look into it. Wouldn’t you know it, just when I begin to get interested, folks want to turn it off and make the device inaccessible.

Just hang up another “Blind folks not allowed” sign here!

And, the blasted thing isn’t even available yet. It won’t be shipped until February 24.

I’m not even certain if the Kindle II’s TTS is a full-functioning screen reader that would read the web pages and menus, which the user would need to access to order and download books onto the unit. However, if the Authors' Guild has anything to say about it, I might never find out.

Do these people really think readers want to listen to a synthetic, mechanical voice reading to them if they don’t have to? In this vein, I agree with
at the
Access Technologists Higher Education Network.

Being a provider of alternate format, I can tell you that no one wants to have to listen to the electronic voice of a text-to-speech conversion unless their disability requires it. Even the best voices still sound monotone, despite some of the recent advances in voice technology that have occurred. If you don't need text-to-speech, you won't be using it, I can pretty much guarantee. Listening to a book via text-to-speech technology is not the same as having an audio book. Audio books are highly produced, using a human reader. Most of us have experienced traditional audio books in one form or another. Text-to-speech, as good as it is, is not ever going to replace traditionally-produced audio books for the majority of listeners.

Amen, Susabelle. I use TTS in various forms, but when I read a book, give me a professional recording over the machine any day. My downloaded, digital books from the

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

are, without a doubt, my preferred medium for reading over anything on TTS. My Victor Stream could read any book from,
(if I paid to subscribe to this accessibility solution,) or any book I might scan into a MS-Word document, But those options would require me to listen to the TTS to read to me. If I can get the book from the NLS, though, where a person is actually reading the book on a digital recording, I’m there without a second thought.

The thing is, that not all books are available from either the NLS or Bookshare. Sometimes, especially with new releases, blind people, like anybody else, want to read a book when it is first released. If we can’t get it through our usual channels of accessible materials and want to pay our money, then why couldn’t we get it in an accessible digital format from Amazon? After all, I happily spend my money to get the latest audio book on CD when I just can't wait for an accessible copy. With the Kindle II, there is that potential, but not until the Writer’s Guild stops stifling innovation.

Perhaps it is the cost that the guild is looking at. E-books sell for less than audio books. I can't think of any new release on CD that sells for the price of any E-book. The guild isn't mincing words when it discusses revenue streams, so maybe that is what this is all about. If you want to listen to it, pay for the audio book.

Here’s to hoping that the Writers’ Guild gets their collective noses out of the old technology and understands the off-the-shelf accessibility promise that the Kindle II brings to the millions of Americans with print disabilities. I truly believe Amazon is on the right side of this argument, but that doesn’t mean they won’t cave to the writers’ demands to disable the TTS function on their books. After all, what good is an E-book reader without content? Fight the good fight Amazon and do the right thing here.

For further reading:

The National Federation of the Blind replies to the Authors' Guild.

Betanews: Is text-to-speech a threat to audiobooks ?

Kindle II F.A.Q page
Where they discuss “experimental technologies” such as the TTS, and that they plan to grow, not diminish these.

Friday, February 06, 2009

The library is now open: Google Books Mobile employs OCR and adds unintended accessibility

This latest bit of news is, well, hot off the press.

on-going quest to make the world a more searchable place, and to make all discovered content available for viewing on whatever device one is using, whether that is a computer or mobile phone, the internet search giant has learned to embrace a tool of the assistive technology trade, namely optical character recognition, or OCR.

This all came about in Google Books latest quest to put
1.5 million books in your pocket.

One of the great things about an iPhone or Android phone is being able to play Pacman while stuck in line at the post office. Sometimes though, we yearn for something more than just playing games or watching videos.

What if you could also access literature's greatest works, such as Emma and The Jungle Book, right from your phone? Or, some of the more obscure gems suchas Mark Twain's hilarious travelogue, Roughing It? Today we are excited to announce the launch of a mobile version of Google Book Search, opening up over 1.5 million mobile public domain books in the US (and over half a million outside the US) for you to browse while buying your postage.

While these books were already available on Google Book Search, these new mobile editions are optimized to be read on a small screen. To try it out and start reading, open up your web browser in your iphone or Android phone and go to

What the fine folks at Google found when taking this endeavor mobile was that the page images Google Books serves up as pictures of individual pages on a computer are quite “unwieldy” on mobile phones. To solve the dilemma, they have employed OCR to extract the text of the book pages and display this content just as it would show any other web page.

And, in the above post, Google also clearly illustrates some of the inherent imperfections blind OCR users have known about for years. Yes, some times the text comes out as gibberish. It isn’t perfect, but it works more often than not.

So, here’s the really big news in all this. Even though it was an unintended result, Google Books has finally made its material accessible to blind screen reader users. And the best news in all this is that these folks don’t even have to be using the web on a mobile device with a screen reader. All they need to do is access the
Google Books Mobile site

I just tried it on my pc and it works great. I searched for Mark Twain and clicked on
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

While it took some time for Google to discover the added value of universal design, perhaps they can now begin to see it for the benefit that it truly is. If they had just used this OCR presentation method from the inception of Google Books, the “Blind Folks Not Allowed” sign wouldn’t have been necessary.

So, even though it was an unintended result, hat’s off to Google for finally bringing accessibility to Google Books. Yes, the library is now open.

SeroTalk at ATIA: bringing wide array of assistive technologies together

This information has been out on the web for about a week and I’m a little late writing about it, but the richness of the resources offered makes this worth even a delayed posting.

A week ago, the assistive technology professional trade group ATIA held its annual conference in Orlando. While attending there, Serotek’s
SeroTalk Blog
Set up recording equipment at a table to interview professionals from whichever company wanted to sit down and chat up their latest offerings.

What they put together was a compendium of resources that only rarely occurs—
35 Interviews from ATIA 2009.
Not only are there almost all of the usual big names in blindness-related assistive technology, (one obvious name is missing, see if you can figure out which one) but there were also several others that weren’t as well known. The blindness-related products run the gamut from screen readers to magnifiers, to the latest offerings from APH, and even some federal, state, and regional blindness resources.

What makes this collection stand out even more, though, is that while it was hosted by Serotek, a blindness-related technology company, they also included the following interviews that weren’t necessarily related to blindness:

  • * Dynavox discussing their interactive AAC speech generating devices

  • * InfoGrip talking to listeners about keyboards, tracballs, and switches

  • * sharing about assistive technology act programs across the U.S.

  • * UltraThera giving a Demo of PointScribe Software for Helping Persons to Improve Handwriting

  • * ProxTalker sharing about their AAC devices to help people who can’t speak

  • * Quilsoft giving a Demo of WordQ Predictive Text and SpeakQ Speech Recognition software

  • * Jim Fruchterman Discussing a Project Called Raising The Floor to Create Universal Access

  • * Talker Inc Augmentative Communications Device for the Speech-Impaired

Drive on, Serotek! Keep on bringing the different communities together and making things happen in the world of assistive technology.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Captioned Phone gives people with hearing impairments an accessible phone to use

I just love it when I hear about assistive technology in the mainstream media, not just on those usual online sites where I go to find this information. I mean, when you go to a web site dedicated to assistive technology and its use by people with disabilities, its not really any big surprise to learn about the latest tech innovation.

So, you can imagine my surprise on Sunday night when I heard an ad for a
Captioned Phone
In an ad on one of the local, Houston-area television stations.

Here’s the
ad that played.

Granted, what is being spoken in the ad isn’t a perfect description of everything that is being displayed on the screen, but even a blind dude like me can get the general message of what is going on during that ad. There was some additional print information from the ad that my wife read to me, but the information provided in the audio was pretty evident on describing the product. It basically uses voice recognition and speech-to-text technology to provide a real-time caption to the conversation the user is having.

Ideal for people with some degree of hearing loss, the Captioned Telephone (CapTel) works like any other telephone with one important addition: It displays every word the caller says throughout the conversation. CapTel phone users can listen to the caller, and can also read the written captions in the CapTel's bright display window.

On the web site, CapTel’s Benefits are described as:
  • Calls are made in a natural manner, simply dial the telephone number directly for the person you are calling

  • Users enjoy natural telephone conversations, and can check the captions for added clarity

  • Everyone can use the CapTel phone simply turn off the captions feature to use it as a traditional telephone

  • Captions appear nearly simultaneously with the spoken words

  • The CapTel phone includes an amplified handset and tone control for clarity

If you’re interested in learning more about this revolutionary phone, check out this
or read the
FAQ page.

While the ad I caught was sponsored by CapTel Texas and
Relay Texas,
There is also a
Availability page
To see where else this program can be found across the United States.

And, for you Texas residents, here’s a great final note:

Texas residents may qualify to receive a free CapTel telephone through the state’s Special Telecommunications Assistance Program (STAP). Or, Texas residents can purchase a CapTel phone directly.

New project lets users share Braille books

It makes sense that people who create something would prefer to see its use maximized and not limited to only one user. It also makes ecological sense that we should recycle where we can.

With those two points in mind, there is now,
A web repository for the free exchange of Braille materials, sponsored, obviously enough, by the
National Federation of the Blind

NFB ShareBraille is a free service provided by the National Federation of the Blind to promote the use and vitality of Braille. To trade your Braille books or to request books from other NFB ShareBraille users, simply create a free account and start exploring the available titles.”

Yes, that did say you could request a title as well as offer up what you have. I like that mentality. There’s no need to duplicate the effort if its already done.

And, yes, it did say you have to register for an account, but that’s free and relatively painless.

So, if you have material that is already Brailled and no longer needed, or want to see if a book you need is already available, get on over to the NFBShareBraille site and check it out.

Thanks to the folks at
Blind Bargains
for sharing this useful information.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Stem cell treatment reverses MS in study group

There is some very encouraging news in the stem cell newsfront.

In a recent study at Northwestern University in Chicago, patients with multiple sclerosis received treatement with their own stem cells, and
Reversed their disability.

This procedure did not use the controversial, embryonic stem cells, but instead gathered stem cells from the very patient they were later used on.

All 21 patients in the study had the “relapsing-remitting” form of the disease that makes their symptoms alternately flare up and recede. Three years after being treated, on average, 17 of the patients had improved on tests of their symptoms, 16 had experienced no relapse and none had deteriorated, the study found.

“This is the first study to actually show reversal of disability,” said Richard Burt, an associate professor in the division of immunotherapy at Northwestern, and the lead author of the study published Thursday in the British journal, the Lancet Neurology. “Some people had complete disappearance of all symptoms.”

This is great news, indeed. Let’s hope this success sparks further research and innovation.

On paydays and light bulbs

I’ve been working with a group of kids now for a period of roughly two months. Most of what I’ve been doing is teaching them how to use the JAWS screen reader, although I know there are many other fine points I’m overlooking if I say that’s all I’ve been doing with them. I have also demonstrated for each of them what the Victor Reader Stream is, and how this versatile media player can assist them in day-to-day activities. I’ve also introduced them to DVS movies and computer games for the blind, mostly those from Jim Kitchens’
Web Site.

There is more to come and I'm learning as well as the kids are. I am learning the keystroke commands for Serotek's
System Access Mobile
screen reader so that I can teach them how to use this as well. As the students turn in their application forms, they are getting their own jump drive versions of the System Access Mobile screen reader as part of Serotek's Keys for K-12 program.

The experience of teaching and empowering these young minds is incredible. I don’t think the students realize just how much they give back to me, but they pay me in denominations beyond words or anything of monetary value. It is so beautiful when the lesson we’ve been working on comes together for the student and that light bulb clicks for them. It just warms my heart each time this happens and I’ve been getting warm-hearted a lot lately. Its like the assistive technology professional I work with tells me, Today was payday and you just got paid.”

I was working with one of my elementary school boys yesterday on a lesson involving editing a document. He was learning where to place the curser to insert a letter in a word. Instead of putting it on the letter in front of which he wanted to insert the text, he would put the cursor on the letter he wanted the text to follow. Needless to say, he was getting a little frustrated. He was undaunted though, and kept trudging through the lesson, putting the pieces into place and finally finished the document just like it needed to be. It was beautiful to see that whole process happen.

While he was doing this, I was sitting back, coaching him, just grinning ear-to-ear as I witnessed learning in action. I told him that he was learning what to do as well as what not to do and attempted to illustrate with the story of Thomas Edison. I asked him if he knew who Edison was and he replied, Isn’t he the man who invented electricity, or was that Ben Franklin?” Then he went back to editing his document.

I grinned and then shared the story about how many times Edison had to work at inventing the light bulb. When a reporter asked Edison how it felt to fail so many different times, his reply to the reporter was, “ I didn’t fail those times. I just learned that many ways that the bulb didn’t work, which led me to figure out how to make it the right way.” (I wasn’t sure of the exact quote, but was paraphrasing in an attempt to illustrate the learning aspect for my student.)

Then, this boy told me, “Yeah, but he was just inventing the light bulb. He wasn’t trying to write a document like I am.”

Ka-ching! I just got paid again.

If you can’t tell, I love this job.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Blind Bargains 2009 Access Awards voting underway-- go vote

For those who don’t know about
Blind Bargains,
The regularly updated and very useful web site list daily deals of interest to those of us who are blind and into technology. I receive their daily email update, but they also offer an RSS feed to keep readers updated of the latest deals.

Besides just listing great deals on tech-related issues, last year the Blind Bargains folks began awarding the Access Awards. They kicked it off by first asking for reader input on a variety of categories regarding blind technology and access. The categories included best software, hardware, web site, blog, and others.

Well, that was last year and the sophomore nomination process is over. It is now time for the voting round in the second annual Blind BargainsAccess Awards.

I am very humbled and proud to find Access Ability nominated for best blindness-related blog. I would sincerely appreciate it if you would go to the
Voting Round page
And cast your vote for Access Ability as the best blog.

The other nominated blogs are almost all names which regular readers have seen referenced as sources of information here on Access Ability. They are blogs that I read regularly and whose authors I regard with utmost esteem. So, it is truly an honor to be grouped with these blogs which are very well respected within the blind community. I am proud to be mentioned worthy of hanging with these guys:

Blind Access Journal,

Fred’s Head Companion,

Mobile Space,

The Ranger Station.

And, aside from just voting for the best blog, please take the time to cast your vote for the other categories as well.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Guided by Love-- A Seeing Eye dog owner recounts her first

Everybody who knows me knows that I travel with a Seeing Eye dog. Hence, I have a good understanding and great compassion for these wonderful animals, as well as the legal aspects that ensure our access in the United States.

With that in mind, I want to share an article with you. In
Guided by love: A reporter recalls life with Bates, a Seeing Eye dog,
Liz Campbell recalls her first dog from The Seeing Eye. She describes in heartfelt detail, what the process was like for her to initially decide to get a guide dog, her years with her golden retriever Bates, and transitioning through the decision making process involved to get her new dog.

I tried to keep a normal routine that day — doing errands before work and walking to a restaurant for lunch. But my day was filled with tears. It was especially hard when friends came to my desk to tell Bates goodbye.

It was also, though, a day full of anticipation. I was getting a new dog soon. In fact, the next day, I was leaving for the Seeing Eye training facility, in Morristown, N.J.

I thought about a new dog and what he might be like. Could I trust him to guide me safely, as did Bates? Could I ever love him as much as I love Bates?

Liz is a government affairs reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. I first heard of her when she made a presentation at the state convention of the National Federation of the Blind several years ago. I listened as she gave a recount of what life was like for a journalism student who was blind attending Baylor University back in the days before word processors. I clearly recall the incident where she described the time when she turned in a lengthy article that numbered several typed pages, right at deadline,, only to be told that all the pages were blank. What had happened was that her typewriter’s ink ribbon had run out and, being blind, she didn’t notice that important detail.

I also met Liz a couple of years ago at the
Come Walk in Our Shoes
event, which I reported on here on Access Ability. Liz was there demonstrating the original KNFB Reader.

On apersonal note, I just recently found out that Liz was in class with my friend
Wayne Merritt,
When she was in Morristown training with her second Seeing Eye dog.

Anybody who has experienced the wonders and emotions involved in the process of getting a guide dog can certainly appreciate the tale, or should that be “tail,” of Bates. Liz’s professional talents for reporting shine through in good form as she candidly shares the feelings, thoughts, and even doubts that come to mind when pondering this process. Go back and click the link to read her entire article.

Or, if you prefer, there is also the
full version of the article,
with accompanying video and audio files that supplement her written words.