Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Back-to-School Guide for Dyslexic Students: Apps and More (Repost)

Credit: Apple

Note: this post originally appeared last year and with back-to-school season in full swing these apps and tools can still provide a huge benefits for dyslexic students. Some updates have been made.

With the school year fast approaching (or already in full swing) here are my favorite apps and products for accessibility. Hopefully these apps and products will help make the school year successful for those needing assistive technology to support their reading and writing. This list is geared toward students with dyslexia but many of the apps and products can also benefit other students. To learn more about any of these products or apps click on the accompanying link.

Kurzweil 3000

Kurzweil 3000 is a versatile reading and writing program for Mac and PC. With Kurzweil students can read scanned and digital documents with high quality text-to-speech and synchronized highlighting. This gives students with reading difficulty the ability to listen to text and improve comprehension. Kurzweil also allows students to annotate documents using text notes, audio notes, highlighting, and circling. Test taking is also a breeze with Kurzweil thanks to its “fill in the blanks” function which allows students to answer test question directly on the digital document. Kurzweil 3000 is not only for reading help but also includes a number of helpful writing features such as mind mapping and word prediction. Click here to learn more about Kurzweil 3000.

Bookshare

Bookshare is an essential service for people with print disabilities. Bookshare.org provides accessible e-books for qualified students. Members can choose from over 200,000 downloadable titles including many textbooks. Bookshare books can be downloaded in a DAISY format for use with text-to-speech software or in a Braille format. Similar to Kurzweil, the combination of text-to-speech and highlighted text can greatly speed up and reading and increase comprehension for qualifying students. Thanks to a grant from the United States Department of Education Bookshare is free to U.S. students.  Click here to learn more about Bookshare.

Learning Ally

Learning Ally is another provider of accessible books for the blind and dyslexic. Learning Ally mostly provides human narrated audio books for their members. Learning Ally is also expanding to provide “VOICEtext” books which include human narration and highlighted text. The highlighting of “VOICEtext” books is not word by word like in Bookshare and Kurzweil, but rather is paragraph by paragraph. Learning Ally books can be read on iOS and Android devices using the Learning Ally Audio app. Click here to learn more about Learning Ally.

Click read more below for more great apps and products.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Indoor Navigation System Will Soon Guide Blind Passengers at SFO


Imagine how difficult it would be to navigate a bustling airport terminal as a person with a visual impairment. Navigating security, finding baggage check, and finding the correct gate all while trying to make a last minute flight is daunting for even the most seasoned travelers. San Francisco International Airport (SFO) will soon implement a system to help guide blind and visually impaired travelers from curb to gate. Starting with Terminal 2 this fall, the airport will install some 500 iBeacons for a trial. Current solutions such as GPS do not work well indoors because they are unable to provide precise location information, but beacons allow more precise locationa. When a user with the indoor navigation app walks by a beacon it communicates with the user's smartphone and transmits the location. With the location information sent from the beacon, the app can then guide users to restrooms, restaurants, boarding gates, baggage claims, and even charging stations. Initially the app will only run on iOS devices, but Android devices will likely follow. The system runs off Bluetooth technology which should have minimal impact on battery life. For blind users, points of interest and navigation instructions are read aloud using VoiceOver.

If the trial in Terminal 2 is successful, it is likely that the program will expand to more terminals and more airports. This system, powered by a company called indoo.rs, is a promising development for indoor navigation. In the near future, it is conceivable that similar systems will help people with visual impairments navigate shopping malls, schools, or hospitals. The technology will also benefit sighted users who have trouble finding locations in the vast terminal. If your traveling through SFO Terminal 2 this fall give it a try.

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Redbox to Make Some Kiosks Accessible to the Blind


Popular video rental service Redbox agreed in a settlement to make 4,000 of their 35,900 kiosks located in California accessible to people who are blind or visually impaired. The service, which is commonly found in supermarkets and other public areas, is inaccessible to blind or visually impaired users. As part of the agreement, Redbox agreed to add headphone jacks, text-to-speech output, and tactile keyboards to kiosks. The roll-out of accessible video rental boxes will be gradual and is planed to take longer than two years. In the interim, Redbox has also agreed to provide phone support to help blind customers navigate the rental process. It is not clear if Redbox plans to add more DVDs with audio descriptions to benefit its new larger customer base of visually impaired users, but such a plan would seem to make sense. The settlement deal will inevitably increase Redbox's potential customer base by providing access to more people with disabilities. Unfortunately, the settlement seems to only cover a small fraction of Redbox kiosk in California. Hopefully, other kiosk companies will make their services accessible as well.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Too Much Background Noise when Recording Lectures with Smart Phone or Table Built-in Microphone? Check Out the Ampridge MightMic


Mobile devices are convenient tools that students use to record classes and lectures, reporters use to record news conferences, and business people use to record meetings. Some use note taking apps like Notability, Remarks, or Livescribe+ to augment their notes with audio recordings. The benefits of recording the audio can be minimized by poor quality recordings from built-in microphones.

Built-in microphones tend to do a poor job of isolating sounds which results in background noise that makes the desired sounds difficult to hear, especially for people with hearing impairments.

The AmpRidge MightyMic microphone plugs directly into the headphone jack of any smartphone, tablet, or computer that supports microphone input. It proves an alternative audio output jack so users can still plug in headphones while the microphone is plugged in. Its compact size makes it easy to use in class and makes in relatively discrete. The MightyMic microphone works well with an iPhone and is only slightly longer wider than the width of the phone. The microphone  even worked fine with my bulky iPhone case. Once plugged in you can angle the microphone towards the front of the room to capture the most important sounds. In my testing, the MightyMic microphone was on par with the built-in iPhone microphone for close range recording, but worked considerably better than the built-in microphone in a classroom or outdoor long range environment. The MightyMic microphone reduced background noise resulting in better sounding audio playback. If you frequently record classes, lectures, or meetings and are less than satisfied with your device's built-in microphone, the MightyMic mic is a good option to give your sound a boost. If you're looking for a big improvement in sound quality quality you may have to look towards more expensive options.

The Ampridge MightyMic retails for $70 on AmpRidge.com. Also included in a protective carrying pouch and foam protective cover.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How Apple Could Improve the App Store for VoiceOver Users

Potential  Feature for App Store
Would you buy a song that may or may not play, a car that may or may not fit in your garage, or a remote that could or could not work with your TV? Probably not, but a similar problem is facing VoiceOver users (and users of other built-in accessibility features) every time they look for a new app on the App Store. This user base is growing quickly due to high quality accessibility features that Apple builds into every iOS device. Currently, the App Store offers no way for users to know if the app will be accessible before hitting the buy button. For VoiceOver users, this means throwing away money if the app turns out to be inaccessible. While the issue of app accessibility has been getting a lot of buzz lately, hopefully Apple can implement some solutions to the problem before and until app accessibility is virtually ubiquitous.

One way to help users know if an app is accessible before hitting the buy button is to add an accessibility report to the apps App Store page. Just as App Store pages prominently displays if an app is compatible with Game Center. This report could be generated during Apple's app review process and consist of a simple rating scale to help users determine if the app is accessible for their needs. As Rene Ritchie of iMore.com suggested, maybe Apple would decide not to recommend any apps that are not fully accessible.

There are other solutions such as allowing developers to create an app accessibility preview alongside the full blown app previews coming with iOS 8. Developers could walk users through how the app interacts with VoiceOver or other accessibility features directly in the App Store using audio and video.

Hopefully Apple and app developers continue to keep in mind when updating their products.

Monday, June 30, 2014

High-Tech Utensil Helps to Counteract Tremors and Stabilize Food



For many with tremors eating can be a daunting task. Each bite is a challenge because the tremors make it difficult to steady the food in order to eat. This can extremely frustrating in the privacy of one's own home and very embarrassing when eating in public. A company name Lift Labs has a solution, mechanical utensils that counteract tremors and steady food. Lift Labs claims that this technology can cancel out 70% of the tremor to reduce spills, making eating easier. The Liftware device runs on a built-in battery and starts working when it is lifted off of the table. The mechanical stabilizing technology in the utensil's handle steadies the food even with unsteady hands. Users can switch between a fork and spoon attachment depending on what they are eating. The attachments are interchangeable, making cleaning easier and allowing users to switch between a fork and spoon. Liftware sells for $295 on Lift Labs website. Click here to order. Liftware has the potential to increase independence for millions of people with tremors.


Click read more below to view more videos of Liftware in action.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Happy Birthday VoiceOver


Five years ago, Apple did what seemed impossible; making the smooth glass of the iPhone touch screen accessible to the blind. A seemingly impossible task made possible by one of Apple's greatest software innovations; at least in my mind and the minds of millions of others with disabilities. Apple's solution was VoiceOver, a screen reader like no other before. VoiceOver uses touch gestures instead of keyboard shortcuts and other more desktop friendly inputs that had been used before. Simply put, VoiceOver allowed millions of blind and visually impaired users to experience the magic that was iPhone. In some ways, VoiceOver is to accessibility as the Model T was to transportation: both brought new opportunities to the masses.

VoiceOver has come preinstalled on every iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch for the past five years. Blind and visually impaired users can purchase a device off the shelf and have access almost immediately. Apple often says “built-in, not bolted on” when talking about accessibility which is definitely accurate in respect to VoiceOver. Thanks to VoiceOver blind and visually impaired users were as much a part of the smartphone revolution as any other user group. Over the past five years Apple has refined and updated VoiceOver and has added new accessibility features to help users with a wide variety of disabilities. Apple devices pushed the entire smartphone and tablet market to become more accessibile to more people.

The inclusion of VoiceOver and other built-in accessibility features has allowed the App Store to boom with assistive apps to help the needs of people with disabilities. Not only did VoiceOver show that accessibility was possible on a touch screen phone, it gave developers a foundation to build great accessible apps. Basically, VoiceOver created a customer base for apps that helped the blind, which drove demand and increased the supply of great accessible apps. Another app gold-rush of sorts, but this time with apps tailored to people with disabilities. These apps are opening up new possibilities for disabled iOS users.

On this fifth birthday of VoiceOver, Apple continues improve its accessibility offerings. Apple Keynote events routinely focus on a person with a disability being aided by an Apple product; it is clear that Apple cares about accessibility. New accessibility features come with every release of iOS, allowing users with different needs to get the most out of their device. However, no software is bug free and users are encouraged to email accessibility@apple.com with suggestions or comments. And a many developers still do not support accessibility features in their apps. It can go a long way for users to tweet or email a developer asking for enhanced accessibility features. With Apple releasing “new product categories” within the year as CEO Tim Cook is often heard saying, hopefully accessibility remains at the forefront. VoiceOver has opened doors for millions of blind and low vision users, what other five-year-old can say that?

Happy birthday VoiceOver!

Amazon Announces Fire Phone with Advanced Image Recognition and Built-in Accessibility

Courtesy: Amazon.com

This week, Amazon announced there first smartphone called Fire Phone. The Fire Phone has a number of flashy, maybe even gimmicky, features along with a few features that may have serious accessibility implications. The phone which starts at $200 and starts shipping on July 25th runs Fire OS 3.5.0 similar to Amazon's Kindle Fire tablets. The operating system includes a number of built-in accessibility features including features to help blind, low vision, mobility impaired, and hearing impaired users. For blind and low vision users, the Fire Phone includes a screen reader which allows users to navigate the screen without seeing it. Assuming the Fire Phone uses the same text-to-speech voices as the Kindle Fire tablets, the text-to-speech voice used is very high quality. For low vision users, the Fire Phone includes a zoom mode and high contrast support. Closed captioning, mono audio, and hearing aid compatibility (HAC) are features included for users with hearing impairments.The Fire Phone also includes features for users with mobility challenges including dictation and improved one-handed usability. It is very encouraging to see Amazon include accessibility features in to their Fire Phone. Click here to read a full overview of all the Fire Phone's accessibility features. Amazon, once reluctant to support accessibility, has shown a new dedication to accessibility for users with disabilities. Hopefully, this continues in future updates to the Fire OS as well as to future products.

In addition to dedicated accessibility features, the Fire Phone has a couple of mainstream features that could be potentially beneficial to people with disabilities. The first of these features is called Mayday. Mayday is currently available on newer Kindle Fire tablets allows users to quickly connect and chat with technical support directly from their device. Simply by pressing the easy to access Mayday button users are atomically connected. Technical support staff can access certain device functions to assist users with a variety of questions. Support staff can even virtually draw on the screen to draw your attention to certain buttons. In my testing, I was able to connect with Mayday staff in under a minute and the staff was knowledgeable and friendly. The support personnel were even knowledgeable about accessibility features. This feature could be great for users with cognitive challenges who need assistance using certain features on their phone.

The second feature is called Firefly. By pressing a dedicated button on the side of the device and pointing the camera at an object the Fire Phone can identify that object. Amazon demonstrated this feature at their even and it worked very quickly. Firefly could be used by the blind to identify objects and differentiate objects of similar size and shape. For example, to identify if a can contains chicken soup or sliced peaches. Similar to iOS apps like TapTapSee, Firefly is Amazon's attempt to make buying merchandise through Amazon an easier process.

The Fire Phone seems promising, but it is impossible to determine its true value in terms of accessibility until it is released next month. Until then, click read more to view videos of the Fire Phone in action.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Kindle App for iOS and Android Adds Whispersync for Voice


Amazon's Kindle app for iOS and Android was recently updated to integrate audio books from Audible. The update, which is available for free, allows users to seamlessly switch between reading the Kindle text version of a book to listening to the Audible audio version of a book. For example, if you read part of the book and then switch to the audio version the recording will pickup right where you left off. The new feature even allows users to listen to the audio book while following along with the text version. Audio speaking rate can be increased or decreased according to user preference. Unfortunately, unlike Immersion Reading on Kindle Fire tablets, the Kindle app for iOS and Android does not highlight the text as it is being read allowed. While this may not be an inconveniences for some users, it could be a major omission for users with tracking difficulty. For now, users will need a Kindle Fire tablet to take advantage of the full Immersion Reading experience. To learn more about Immersion Reading click here. There is one another major caveat: price. In order to take advantage of Whispersync for Voice or Immersion Reading on a Kindle Fire, you must purchases both the Kindle and Audible versions of a book. This can become extremely expensive for the occasional reader let alone a book worm.

To download the app for iOS click here and to download the app for Android click here. To view screenshots of the app in action click read more below.

Monday, June 2, 2014

iOS 8 Accessibility Roundup: More Accessible Than Ever

Credit: Apple
Credit: AppleToday, Apple previewed iOS 8, the next operating system for iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. iOS 8 builds on existing accessibility features to offer some exciting new possibilities for iOS users with disabilities. Many websites will have general information about iOS 8, but this post will focus on accessibility related changes to iOS. iOS 8 includes new keyboard options, improved text-to-speech voices, improved Guided Access features, and improved Siri functionality among other accessibility related features. Apple can always add or alter features before the general release. The new operating system will be available this fall for the general public.

QuickType and Keyboard

Apple's iOS 8 will include a built in predictive keyboard called QuickType. This new software keyboard will predict words for the user as they type. Once the word you want to enter appears in the suggestion bar above the keyboard, you simply tap it to insert that word. This feature will cut down on key strokes needed to enter words which will benefit people with dexterity challenges. QuickType even takes context into account so if your typing an email it will suggest more formal language that if you are writing a text message. QuickType will be similar to the Co:Writer app, but will work across all apps on your devices.

In addition to Apple's own QuickType keyboard, iOS 8 will allow third-party developers to develop keyboards for system wide use. For example, Fleksy could be updated to work with every app on the iPhone or iPad. This flexibility gives users with different abilities the opportunity to switch keyboards to one that fits their needs. For users who are blind or visually impaired downloading the fast and accessible Fleksy keyboard may allow them to more easily enter text.

Health

iOS 8 takes big steps to help people manage data associated with their health. Users can input data into the health app through third-party health monitoring devices like a blood pressure reader or through apps. This data can then be automatically shared with doctors and other health care professionals to help insure timely and appropriate care. For instance, if a blood pressure or glucose reading was outside of a normal range, a doctor could be automatically alerted. This could help people with chronic conditions live more independently especially in their later years.

The health app will include another life saving feature called "in case of emergency card." This information card will be accessible from the lock screen and will allow first responders and emergency room doctors important health information in the case of an emergency. The card can include a photo, medical conditions, allergies, current medications, and more all to give life saving information to emergency medical personnel.

Credit: Apple

Family Sharing

Family sharing will allow families with multiple iOS 8 devices to manage their iOS devices more harmoniously. Parents will be able to set up home sharing to monitor their child's physical location or to share purchased content from the iTunes store among members of the family. Children will also have to ask parents permission before purchasing an app.

Spotlight Search

Spotlight search is an existing feature in iOS 7, but in iOS 8 it gets supercharged. Spotlight in iOS 8 will give Siri-like answers. Unlike Siri, which uses voice input, spotlight uses text input. This new form of input gives users with speech impairments the ability to type, instead of speak, queries and get meaningful results.

Touch ID

iOS 8 improves Touch ID by allowing third-party apps to unlock information using just a user's fingerprint. Touch ID is currently used for unlocking your device and making iTunes purchases. This feature already is great for blind users because it offers secure authentication without having to type, which can be a slower process with VoiceOver. In iOS 8, the ability to access third-party apps with just a finger print will expand on the already very accessible Touch ID feature of iOS 7.

Siri
iOS 8 will also bring improvements to Siri. Most notably, users will be able to activate Siri hands-free by saying "Hey, Siri." This new hands-free voice command may benefit people that have trouble activating the home button. This always listening feature is similar to Google's advanced voice search.

iOS 8 will also offer faster dictation that appears on screen as you speak. This new feature will prusumably work with Siri and in app dictation.

Much More
Credit: Apple

iOS 8 will also include features that Apple did not have time to fully preview during their keynote. The first one included in the keynote was "Braille Keyboard for direct 6-dot Braille input." Other accessibility related features include the ability to use the advanced and high quality Alex voice. The Alex voice is currently available for the Mac and many users enjoy its high quality. iOS 8 will also include improved zoom for accessibility, but no further details on this feature where offered.

iOS 8 will also include some enhancements to Guided Access. Guided Access is a feature that locks a user into a single app. This is great for teachers administering tests on an iPad or parents of kids who are easily distracted. In iOS 8, users will be able to use Touch ID to exit from Guided Access. Users will also be able to use time limits and countdown timers to control Guided Access.

Another feature listed is "Speak screen," a somewhat mysterious feature than did not garner any further explanation from Apple. Speak screen may be a brand new accessibility feature or maybe unrelated to accessibility, but the name seems to imply some link to accessibility.