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.