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Monday, December 29, 2014

Apple's New App Return Policy in Europe is a Big Deal for VoiceOver Users


Recently, Apple implemented a new 14 day no questions asked return policy in many European Union (EU) nations according to 9to5mac. The new policy allows customers to receive a full refund on App Store purchases within 14 days of receipt.

While this new policy is an important safeguard for all consumers, it is a major development for App Store customers who rely on accessibility features, such as VoiceOver, in order to use their devices. VoiceOver is a built in screen reader that allows blind and visually impaired users to use iOS devices and Macs.

While browsing the App Store, it is extremely difficult for VoiceOver users to determine if the app they are interested in purchasing is accessible. This often leaves the customer playing a guessing game with their money. For example, without the return policy a VoiceOver user who wanted to purchase a $20 app would need to hope that the app was accessible with VoiceOver otherwise their $20 purchase would be useless. Even if the app is inaccessible and unusable refunds are typically not granted.

The new policy allows VoiceOver users to download apps that may or may not be accessible without the risk of wasting money on an app that is totally useless for them. If the user downloads an app that is not accessible, they can simply return the app within two weeks and receive a full refund. In effect, this allows for a two week trial period for apps which will allow users to see if the app fits their needs. For VoiceOver users within the EU this will take the guesswork out of purchasing apps.

Unfortunately, the new return policy is only available in certain EU countries and is not applicable to customers in other countries. Hopefully, Apple will extend the policy to all customers regardless of which country they are in. Until that time, users in other countries will have to hope that the apps they are downloading are accessible.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

KNFB Reader App: Amazingly Fast and Accurate



The KNFB Reader is a text recognition app that is shockingly fast. Take a picture of a newspaper article or practically any printed text and within a couple of seconds the app will be reading the text back to you. A "couple of seconds" is no exaggeration, the KNFB Reader app is that fast. For people who are visually impaired or have difficulty reading, the KNFB Reader is perfect for accessing printed text.

Once a document is properly framed, only one more step is necessary to start reading the document. Simply press the take picture button and within seconds the app will recognize the text within the document using optical character recognition (OCR) and begin reading it with text-to-speech. No need to crop or adjust the image, once the picture is taken the app does all the work. All recognition is done locally on the device so personal data is never transmitted over the internet.

The KNFB Reader app has a number of features that help users capture images of text. For users who are blind and visually impaired the app offers a "field of view report" which offers spoken feedback to help frame the document in the view finder. This feature will let a users know how many corners of the document are within the field of view and if the document is tilted. In addition, the app offers automatic picture taking mode which will automatically snap a picture of a document when it is properly framed.  The app also includes the ability to capture multi-page documents with batch mode. The field of view feature worked well with loose paper documents, but I did not have success using the automatic capture feature with books.

In addition to using the device's built in camera to capture images, users can also import image based PDF documents and JPG files to be recognized with the app. For example, using the "open in" feature of Google Drive will allow a user to import an image to be recognized and read with KNFB Reader.

Text is can be highlighted word-by-word or line-by-line as it is being read aloud by the text-to-speech voice. Users can adjust the layout and appearance of the text and change the speaking rate of the text-to-speech voice. Only the default iOS text-to-speech voice is available, so users hoping to use another voice will have to export the text to another app. The built-in text reader also lacks the ability to highlight or annotate the document, so once again users looking for this functionality will need to export the text to a different app.

While the KNFB Reader app is faster and more accurate than competing products such as Prizmo, Prizmo does include some useful features that KNFB Reader does not. Prizmo, which is significantly less expensive, includes the ability to export PDF documents. This means a user can take a picture of a document, have the text recognized and any images on the page retained by Prizmo, so that it looks identical to the printed page. KNFB reader, by contrast strips away images, and only retains the printed text. If PDF export is an important feature to you, Prizmo may be a better option. Click here to learn more about Prizmo. 

If you are looking for a text recognition app with great speed and accuracy, I think you will be quite pleased. If The KNFB reader fits your budget, you won't be disappointed. KNFB Reader costs $100, to download the app from the App Store click here. It is compatible with the iPhone 4S and newer and the iPod touch fifth generation. Click read more below to view screen shots of the app.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

MotionSavvy's UNI Tablet: A Break Through in Sign Language Communication



For people who use sign language to communicate, interacting with people who do not know sign language can be an enormous challenge and create barriers for people who are hearing impaired. Until now, the best alternative might have been writing out notes on a piece of paper. However, an upcoming product from a company called MotionSavvy hopes to offer a better solution.

The solution does not look like the advanced piece of assistive technology that it is, but rather looks like a thin tablet with a Leap Motion device attached to the front. The Leap Motion senses the motion of the users hand to recognize signs using multiple cameras. Once the table recognizes the signs it can display the signed phrase as text on screen or even as spoken words with text-to-speech. This allows the other person that does not know sign language to understand what is being signed. Then the other person can speak into the tablet and speech recognition technology will allow the words to appear on the screen for the hearing impaired person to read.

This technology can allow deaf and hearing impaired users to communicate with other people that do not know sign language without an interpreter or slow hand written messages. However there are some limitations that should be expected from a first generation product such as the UNI. Users will not be able to use their existing tablet with the software and will need to purchase both the Leap Motion device and accompanying Windows tablet and case through MotionSavvy. Also, the system may have difficulty interpreting the nuances of different sign language styles. Additionally only American Sign Language (ASL) will be supported initially. Luckily, MotionSavvy will include a feature to allow people to teach the device how to recognize new signs. With a feature called CrowdSign, the signs imported by one user can be shared with other users of the system. This will allow the library of recognizable signs to increase quickly provided users are willing to create and share their imported signs. However, because of the upkeep needed to maintain the CrowdSign features, users will need to pay a monthly fee to use the UNI tablet.

The MotionSavvy UNI tablet is expected to be released in early 2015. At this time, details on pricing are unclear, but MotionSavvy has said that the UNI will sell for more than $500 when released.

Monday, September 22, 2014

New in iOS 8: Hands-Free Siri and Improved Dictation


Apple's voice activated features have received some new features as part of iOS 8. Siri is a virtual voice activated personal assistant that can answer your questions, call your friends, check the weather, and much more.  Now it can  be activated hands free by saying, "Hey, Siri." Previously, users would have to press and hold the home button to activate Siri.

The new feature will allow people with physical disabilities to easily activate Siri. The hands-free activation feature does have one major caveat: the device must be plugged in and charging. Users who need or want to access this feature on- the- go can purchase a battery case to utilize this feature. It is possible that future iOS devices will not require a power source to use the "Hey, Siri" feature.

In addition, when dictating a question to Siri or dictating text into an app the recognized words appear almost instantly after being spoken. To use dictation bring up the keyboard and then press the microphone icon next to the space key. With words appearing as you speak it is easier to identify mistakes which makes the dictation process faster. Dictation can be a useful feature for people who struggle with spelling and people who have difficulty using a keyboard. These features are available for devices running iOS 8.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

New in iOS 8: Greyscale Mode

Altered image not an iOS 8 screenshot

iOS 8 includes a new greyscale mode that could benefit people with visual impairments. The new mode is included in addition to inverse color which was previously available. The new option will reduce the bright colors and possibly reduce glare to make the screen easier to see. Greyscale and inverse color can be enabled simultaneously for further visual changes. Even for people without visual impairments greyscale maybe made the screen slightly easier to view outdoors.

To enable greyscale navigate to Settings > General > Accessibility > Greyscale. Please note that the above screenshot is an altered colored screenshot.

Friday, September 19, 2014

New in iOS 8: Improved Guided Access with Timers and Touch ID Integration


Guided Access is one of the many iOS features being enhanced in iOS 8. Guided Access is used to keep a someone on a single app using  a password. For example, if you want your child to read a book and not watch a video you can lock them into the reading app, eliminating the ability to navigate to other apps. With Guided Access enabled, a child or student will need a passcode in order to enter another app. To learn more about Guided Access click here.

One of the enhancement allows users to end a Guided Access session with their finger print using Touch ID. Similar to how third-party developers can implement Touch ID authentication, Guided Access will also take advantage of finger print reading technology. Instead of entering a passcode, users with a Touch ID enabled device will be able to end the session simply by placing their finger on the Touch ID sensor. This feature will simplify the processes of ending Guided Access and potentially eliminate the frustration resulting in forgotten passcodes.

The other enhancement allows students and parents to set a time limit. After the time expires the app will not respond until the correct passcode or finger print is entered. Periodically a small message appears showing how much time is remaining. This feature could be perfect for test taking by ensuring students stop answering questions after the allotted time expires, or for setting a time limit for playing games- when the time limit is reached, the app will not respond.

To enable Guided Access navigate to Settings > General > Accessibility > Guided Access.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

New in iOS 8: Built-in Braille Keyboard for Six-Dot Input


iOS 8 includes enhancements to VoiceOver, the built-in gesture based screen reader for people with visual impairments. One of the improvements is a new built-in Braille Keyboard for Six-Dot input. The new feature is similar to the BrailleTouch app released a few years ago with one major difference; the built-in option can be used to enter text into any app directly. The option can be enabled in the VoiceOver rotor. The Braille keyboard will offer VoiceOver users who are familiar with Braille an alternative, and possibly much faster text entry method. iOS 8 will also offers third-party keyboards such as Fleksy which could also offer significantly faster text input for VoiceOver users.

Once you turn the Braille keyboard on six positions will appear on screen representing the six Braille dots. When the device is held with the screen perpendicular to the floor it automatically enters screen away mode. When using this mode the user faces the screen away allowing three fingers from each hand to contact the screen. As the user begins to type the six virtual dots automatically reposition themselves to compensate for changes in your grip. The dots can also be recalibrated by holding down the three right hand fingers and then the three left hand fingers immediately after. This positions the dots directly under your fingers.

When the device is set on the table or another flat surface the Braille keyboard enters tabletop mode. This mode would seem to be ideal for an iPad can can also be used on smaller devices. It does take some care to ensure that the keyboard does not switch between tabletop and screen away mode accidentally. In both modes typing did seem difficult on the small screen, but some practice seemed to improve typing speed. This new option allows typing with contracted or uncontracted Braille. When typing a swipe right adds a space and a swipe left deletes the last character typed. This new method of typing is very sensitive a will likely require practice before mastering. If you use this feature frequently, it maybe helpful to purchase a case that boarders the screen to avoid trying to type on the bezel.

To enable the Braille keyboard go to Settings > General > Accessibility > VoiceOver > Rotor > Braille Screen Input. Then, when VoiceOver is enabled, rotate the rotor until Braille screen input is selected. It exciting to see all the new third-party keyboard options for iOS 8, but for VoiceOver users, Apple's own Braille keyboard maybe the most exciting of all.

New in iOS 8: Start Text-To-Speech Easily with Speak Screen


iOS 8 includes some new accessibility features and many improvements to existing features. One of the new features is called Speak Screen which allows users to quickly have text on the screen spoken aloud using text-to-speech. Speak Screen is included in addition to Speak Selection which allows users to highlight text and press speak to have content read aloud.

Unlike Speak Selection, which requires text to be highlighted first, before reading the text aloud,  Speak Screen does not require users to highlight the text they wish to have spoken. Especially for longer articles or emails, this highlighting process could be time consuming and frustrating.

Speak Screen solves the problem by speaking all text on the screen with a simple two-finger swipe down from the top of the screen. After swiping down with two fingers, text starts to be read aloud with text-to-speech, and the Speak Screen menu appears on top of your current app. This menu allows you to stop and start speech, adjust the text-to-speech speaking rate, and navigate through the text being spoken.  Instead of having to re-highlight text if you want to hear a paragraph again, Speak Screen offers simple navigation buttons. The menu can also be hidden to allow full view of the screen and accessed again through a small floating button. Just like Speak Selection, Speak Screen has the option to highlight text as it is spoken, making it easier for sighted readers to follow the text as it is being spoken.

Just like all of the accessibility features in iOS 8, Speak Screen can use the Alex text-to-speech voice which many users prefer. While Alex is a very high quality text-to-speech voice beware, it takes up almost one gigabyte of storage. Speak Screen can also be activated through Siri by saying "speak the screen." To enable Speak Screen on a device with iOS 8 go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Speech and then toggle on Speak Screen. Speak Screen is only available for devices running iOS 8 or higher.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

New in iOS 8: Vastly Improved Zoom


In previous versions of iOS, zoom was only  a simple full screen magnification. With iOS 8, Apple has vastly improved zoom with partial screen window zoom, filters, and smarter magnification options. Zoom is a vital feature for people with low vision and its new features in iOS 8 makes it even more useful.

One of the most noticeable enhancements is the ability to magnify certain areas of the screen while leaving the rest of the screen unmagnified. As opposed to full screen zoom, the zoom lens allows for more easy navigation while still allowing certain important areas to be magnified. Users can change the size of the magnified area and pan around the screen in order to magnify different areas. An option is available to add a zoom control to the screen which acts like a virtual joystick for controlling which areas of the screen are magnified.Within the magnified area, users can apply filters to make viewing easier.  The filters available are inverse colors, greyscale, low light, and greyscale inverse.


As pictured above, iOS 8 allows users to choose not to magnify the keyboard. This can make typing on software keyboards much easier while still allowing the text being entered to be enlarged. When the keyboard is magnified some keys are cut off requiring panning to type, iOS 8 eliminates this problem. Zoom also includes the ability to follow the VoiceOver cursor focus. Meaning when the VoiceOver cursor is focused on an app or button, that app or button will be enlarged in the zoom window.

These new zoom options are just one of many exciting accessibility enhancements included in iOS 8. The improved zoom will benefit many users with visual impairments and is a huge improvement over zoom in iOS 7. To enable zoom go to Settings > General > Accessibility > Zoom. For more screenshots of zoom in action click read more below.

Apple Releases iOS 8 with Major Accessibility Improvements



Today, Apple released iOS 8 the latest software update for iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. The new software, which is available for free, includes many new features and enhancements, including new accessibility features and tools that will allow developers to make the next generation of apps. Apple has not stood still in terms accessibility and as a result, iOS 8 is truly the most accessible and inclusive iOS version to date.

Some of the most exciting new accessibility features are included in iOS are ready to use right after updating. These features are developed by Apple, and most are found under Settings > General > Accessibility.

Speak Screen is one of the new accessibility features that allows users to quickly and easily have content on the screen read with text-to-speech with a simple two finger swipe down gesture. Unlike older versions of iOS which required users to highlight sections that they wished to be spoken, Speak Screen does not require any highlighting. Users can even ask Siri to “speak the screen” to start text-to-speech.

Apple’s highly acclaimed screen reader, VoiceOver, also received some substantial updates. Now, VoiceOver users can enter text using a system-wide virtual six-dot Braille keyboard. Zoom is also vastly improved with windowed magnification and filters. Guided Access and AssistiveTouch have seen smaller improvements.

In addition, all accessibility features that use speech will now be able to use the Alex text-to-speech voice that many Mac users enjoy. All of these features are included with the iOS 8 update. Stay tuned for in depth information about the features discussed above in the coming days and weeks.

With iOS 8, Apple has given developers tools to make the next generation of great apps. Hopefully, assistive app makers will be able to take advantage of these new features to help people with various needs. Developers can now make system wide keyboard apps. iOS keyboards will now be able to enter text into any app if the developer updates the app for iOS 8. For example, Fleksy and SwiftKey are expect to receive an update shortly to enable text entry into any app. Developers can also add the ability to unlock their app using Touch ID finger print recognition for devices with Touch ID. Lastly, developers can create extensions to allow their app to perform functions within other apps. For example, a translation extension could be used within Safari to eliminate the need to switch apps.

These features open up a whole new world to app developers and it will be exciting to use some of the new apps that take advantage of these new developer features. While some apps have already been updated to take advantage of the new developer features in iOS, many have not been. Check back to read about some apps that are taking advantage of these new developer features in ways that can help people with disabilities.

iOS 8 is a free update that you can download now. Stay tuned to the Assistive Technology Blog to learn more about the new included accessibility features and about apps that take advantage of the new developer features.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

What a Larger Screen iPhone Means for Accessibility



The general consensus is that Apple will introduce new iPhones with larger screens in a few days. With many people with disabilities using Apple's flagship device for their accessibility needs a change can have a large impact on users. From a software prospective iOS 8 will offer many accessibility improvements, but hardware is also an important aspect of accessibility. The larger screen will certainly benefit some users with special needs, but may also cause problems for others.

Users with low vision may benefit the most from the larger viewing area. On current iPhones, with large text enabled, only a small amount of text is able to fit on screen. A larger screen will allow more text to fit on screen requiring less scrolling for users who prefer or require large text. The large screen will also give VoiceOver users more space to use three or four finger gestures.


On the other hand a larger screen iPhone may pose a challenge. Users with physical challenges may have a difficult time reaching all the controls. Also users who prefer using their phone in one hand and users who can only use one hand to operate their phone may find it difficult access all areas of the screen. It is possible that Apple will come up with a software solution to these possible challenges, making one handed use a breeze. 

When Apple introduced the iPhone 5 it claimed that the larger screen was a perfect size for one handed, use so it will be interesting to see how the next iPhone is marketed.

People who use Apple devices as assistive devices should be excited about the company's upcoming announcement. Regardless of any hardware changes Apple's iOS 8 includes unmatched accessibility features for people with a variety of needs. The potentially larger screen size will likely benefit most users. The benefits and trade-offs of larger screen phones has been explored with Android phones for years, and hopefully Apple has been able to iron out any lasting challenges. Aside from the form factor, Apple may introduce new software or hardware features that impact people with disabilities at their event. Stay tuned for information about how Apple's announcements impact accessibility.

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 is 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.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Ginger Page for iPhone: Powerful Spelling and Grammar Correction



Ginger Software, the maker of the powerful spelling and contextual grammar checker "Ginger" has released an iPhone app called Ginger Page. Ginger's technology can correct mistakes that common spell checking software would not detect. Ginger does this by analyzing the context of the text being written. For example, if you are writing about drafting a school essay Ginger will suggest that you use "write" instead of "right." From my testing, Ginger also seems much better at suggesting and correcting punctuation than other editing software. Ginger Page can also read your writing back to you using text-to-speech, which can be a powerful proof reading tool, especially for those with dyslexia. Once you have completed your writing, you can share it by text message, email, or open it in another compatible app.

While the Ginger correction software is very good, the app has some notable omissions. Ginger Page is only available for iPhone which is perplexing for a writing focused app. The iPad's larger screen would make the writing experience much easier. Also, Ginger requires an internet connect to correct your writing. You can still type into the app without an internet connection, but no corrects will be offered. 

Since, Ginger Page is a free app its a no brainier to download it if you need extra spelling and grammar help. Click here to download Ginger Page. Watch the above video above to see Ginger Page in action and click read more below to view screenshots of the app.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Apple Begins Hosting Free Accessibility Workshops


Recently, select Apple Retail Stores have started hosting free accessibility workshops. The hour long sessions are instructed by Apple Store employees and cover various accessibility features included in iOS 7 and OS X Mavericks. Workshops are divided based on the user's needs and include hearing, vision, and physical and motor skills. These workshops will presumably cover features such as VoiceOver, Assistive Touch, Switch Control, and more.

These workshops are a great way for Apple customers to learn about helpful accessibility features that are already built into their devices. The workshops will also offer users of Apple's accessibility features an opportunity to get their questions answered in person. The training of the workshop instructors will be key to a successful experience. Hopefully, these workshops will be offered in all Apple Stores in the near future. While accessibility specific workshops may not help Apple's bottom line, they demonstrate Apple continued commitment to accessibility.

Click read more below to view descriptions of the available sessions.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Google's Project Ara Smartphone has Tremendous Accessibility Potential



Google's futuristic modular smart phone has the potential to dramatically change how we think of electronics. The still unreleased phone call Project Ara has a interior metal structure with slots for different components to connect. For example, modular components could house a camera, battery, touch screen display, or speaker. These components snap into place making a relatively standard looking smartphone. Consumers could purchase components and assemble them to make a personalized smartphone. The phone allows consumers to exchange a component for extra battery power or a more powerful camera depending on the situation.

With such customizable hardware, the Ara phone could adapt to fit the needs of people with various disabilities. If users have a hearing impairment they could add a louder speaker component. Conversely, if a user is deaf there is no need to waste space with a speaker when the space could be used for something more useful. The possibilities are almost limitless. A blind user could possibly opt not to have a touch screen display in favor of a refreshable Braille display. Users with dexterity challenges could add a tactile keyboard.

While Project Ara sounds promising for people with disabilities, the implementation is key. Will third party hardware developers make specialized components for people with disabilities at an affordable price? Can Google successfully configure Android to work properly with any assistive add ons third parties make?  Project Ara phones won't be available for for many months, but the project offers some exciting possibilities.


Click read more below to learn more about Project Ara.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

EU Regulation Requiring Hybrid and Electric Cars to Make Artificial Noise Will Improve Safety for Blind Pedestrians



Hybrid and electric cars pose a major safety challenge for pedestrians. The cars, which use electric motors, make very little noise, making them almost impossible for blind pedestrians to detect. Electric cars are gaining in popularity due to their energy savings and improving affordability. In response to the increased threat quite electric cars are posing, the European Union (EU) is preparing to mandate electric and hybrid cars have noise alerts for pedestrians. By 2019 cars sold in the EU will be required to include audio alerts. While the implementation of the rule is still four years off the importance is sure to only grow as electric cars become more and more popular.

America has yet to require audio alerts for electric cars, but legislation has been proposed. Hopefully, the EU's changes will spur electric car makers to add audio alerts to their cars and improve the safety for pedestrians everywhere. As seen in the above video some cars such as Nissan's electric car already offers pedestrian alerts.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Learning Ally Audio Update Includes Background Audio Support



Learning Ally, a provider of audio books for the blind and dyslexic, recently updated their iOS app. The free apps allows Learning Ally members to listen to their audio books while on the go. The new update brings a valuable  new feature to the app. Now, the app allows users to listen to their audio books while using other apps at the same time, a feature commonly called background audio. The update provides a more consistent experience for users who have come to expect background audio support in all apps. With the update users can listen to an audio book while looking up information on the internet, reading a note page, or even responding to an occasional text message. Along with background audio support comes the ability to control playback using control center or a headphones with a remote. The update is available for free and is compatible with iPhone, iPad, and iPod Touch. To take advantage of the app users must be members of Learning Ally. To learn more about Learning Ally click here.