Thursday, October 8, 2015

Can I Connect? Connection Possibilities Without Smart Phones for People with Visual Impairment

For this post, I am pleased to present an article from "long time reader, first time writer," Dan Fendler. Dan is an AT Specialist in Delaware, and he knows his stuff. Of all of the people I know/read/follow in the field, Dan has to be one of the best. He has a great understanding of the field. In asking him if I could post his article, I wanted to know how I should refer to him. He said, "AT Specialist-In-Perpetual-Training." I think that's what makes him so good and ahead of the AT game. 

So I present to you his article looking at alternatives to smart phones for individuals with visual impairment. And for those of you looking to get away from a monthly cell bill, there's some great info for you in here too!


Can I Connect? Connection possibilities without smart phones for people with visual impairment 

By Dan Fendler, University of Delaware 


Look around you. Practically everyone these days uses some type of smart phone. The phones have become a staple of everyday life. Whether used for basic business functions, like keeping a calendar or email, or for social interaction through LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other apps that help you stay in touch with your world, the phones are everywhere. What may be more important to some, many smartphones have remarkable features that can really benefit people with visual impairment. 

However, what if you simply cannot afford the cost of a typical monthly smartphone bill. Typical data usage carries a significant monthly cost. A young man who came into one of our Assistive Technology Resource centers put it this way: when faced with the high cost of his smart phone data plan, he had to choose between paying rent and keeping his phone. He gave up his phone. 

Apple’s Accessibility Features 

In June of 2009, Apple changed the world of smartphones forever by announcing the addition of an accessibility feature in their operating system (called iOS). The feature, called VoiceOver, was introduced in the iPhone 3GS. Apple describes VoiceOver this way: 

VoiceOver is a gesture-based screen reader that lets you enjoy the fun and simplicity of iOS even if you can’t see the screen. With VoiceOver enabled, just triple-click the Home button to access it wherever you are in iOS. Hear a description of everything happening on your screen, from battery level to who’s calling to which app your finger’s on. You can adjust the speaking rate and pitch to suit you. 

For people with a visual impairment, there is little argument that this feature has been a real game changer. Once inaccessible to many, iPhones were now accessible to people with a visual impairment, even those who were blind. 

These features are truly amazing, but help only if you could afford the price of a monthly smartphone data plan. Most smart phones require voice, text and data plans. 

Sustainable Smart Phone Options 

Is there a way you can benefit from the accessibility features of a smartphone without incurring a costly monthly bill? There just might be. 

Lloyd Schmidt, a Delawarean who is blind, does not have a cell phone. He does carry an iPod Touch, which gives him all of the conveniences of a smart phone when he has an internet connection. 

“At home and in many other facilities, I connect to the internet through a wireless Wi-Fi,” Lloyd said. “This gives me the opportunity to make and receive telephone calls, send and receive emails, and use the various apps on the device. I can do all of this without having a monthly bill!” 

Lloyd continued, “I can make and receive calls with FaceTime, Skype and GV phone. I have all of these apps on my iPod Touch.” 

The accessibility features found in Apple’s iPhone are also available in their other tablets and music players. The iPad, the iPad Mini and al iPod Touch all run on the same operating system (iOS) and have all the same accessibility features built in, including VoiceOver. 

Wireless Hotspot Availability 

To determine if you could survive without a cell phone, you should evaluate how you use a phone today. For the iPod Touch to be a viable solution, you would need reliable access to the internet. Lloyd indicated that he has experienced some challenges contacting DART (the bus service in Delaware). 

“Since I use Paratransit, sometimes it’s hard to get Wi-Fi since there is no Wi-Fi at the connecters,” he said. He has found that “Wi-Fi is available in all libraries and most state office buildings. It is also available in many restaurants and convenience stores.” 

Consider how, when and where you use your phone today. If you simply must be connected 24/7, this option is probably not going to work for you. However, there are a growing number of Wi-Fi hotspots available today. If you are a Comcast customer, you might be aware that they are setting up wireless hotspots all over the country. In fact, if you had your Comcast equipment updated in the past year, chances are good that your home or business is now one of those hotspots. The controversial nature of these actions aside, this opens up many possibilities that did not previously exist. For more details on the controversy or to find Comcast hotspots in your area, Google “comcast xfinity hotspot” or click this link for a map of available hotspots

Useful Apps for Vision 

With widely available internet access, it is possible to use of many apps designed for those with visual impairments. Apps that run not only on the iPhone, but also on the iPad, Mini and iPod Touch as well. Location sensitive apps like GPS LookAround and BlindSquare; identification apps like TapTapSee, ColorID, and EyeNote; document converting apps like the KNFB Reader; and environmentally sensitive apps like Light Detector. It is possible to make phone calls with FaceTime, Skype or Talkatone. 

Lloyd shared some of the iPod apps he uses regularly: 

“Some other apps that I use are: audio recorder, note pad, phonebook, appointment calendar, money reader, BARD book reader, light detector, newspapers, whitepages, Smartphone Alternatives - 10/8/2015 3 music and podcast player, as well as a web browser to browse the internet, and a few accessible games. There are two cameras to take pictures of print and OCR software to read the print. 

I can type and share documents with others using an app and access them from anywhere using Dropbox, Google drive, and Evernote. I can also access them from my home computer and any other computer since they are located on the internet.” 


If you think this might be a viable solution for you but still have questions, please feel free to contact me at I would be happy to help answer any questions you may have. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The Simple Things

I deal with a lot of people with "print disabilities." Typically, when we think of people with print disabilities, we think of people who are visually impaired or people with learning disabilities which make reading print difficult. However, part of the definition of a "print disability," includes difficulty physically accessing print. So if I can't turn the pages of a book, I'm also considered to have a print disability.

Seems simple enough, right?

And so does the solution. I can just grab my handy dandy tablet/Chromebook/laptop, some digital text, and I'm off the reading races!

Unless. . . I don't tolerate digital text well.

But that's easy too! I can just create audio files and then. . . hmmm, that's a problem if I'm not big on audio.

So what do I do if I have trouble physically accessing text?

I recently ran into this issue at work, and the solution was surprisingly. . . simple.

Photo of Marvin's hand holding a plastic binding comb.

This is a plastic binding comb. I had seen them, but never knew what they were called. You might not have seen it separate or even outside of a Kinko's, but this is one. Here's a picture of one in place in a book.

Photo of Marvin holding a binding comb and one in place binding a book together.

To use the binding comb, we had the original binding cut off of the book. We usually do this so that we can scan a book when we can't get a digital copy of from the publisher or our usual sources (NOTE: DO NOT DO THIS AT HOME. We only do this for a student who has purchased a copy of the book. Their copy is what we cut and scan). Once we've scanned the book, we have it prepared for re-binding with a binding comb.

So what's so magical about this binding? How can it possibly be assistive technology for someone with a print disability?

I recently worked with a person who has difficulty physically manipulating a book.  We had provided him with digital copies of his books because of this.  However,  he began developing severe migraines after reading digital text for a while.  Yes,  even after using the Nook Paper White.  The digital text was actually becoming a bit of an issue.  A regular text book could work if. . . it would just stay open.  

Do you see where we're going with this?  Light bulb moment hit yet? 

Well,  since his books needed to be cut to be scanned anyway,  we re-bound them with binding combs and suddenly,  we had a book that would stay open without the student having to hold it open.  
Picture of a book bound with a binding comb laying open on a table. The book does not need to be held open.

Just that simple thing of re-binding the book made the difference for the student in making the book usable. 

In our high-tech age, we forget the power of a simple, low-tech solution. Assistive technology doesn't only have to be a tablet/Chromebook or on a tablet/Chromebook. There are a lot of great assistive technology devices that come in those flavors, but not all of them do. As long as it helps an individual improve or maintain their functionality, it fits the definition. In this case, it's the comb binding and the rebound book. The "K.I.S.S." (Keep It Smart and Simple) Principle is often forgotten in assistive technology in favor of "cooler or flashier solutions." We can't be afraid to embrace the low-tech solution. Start there and end where you need to. 

Friday, March 6, 2015

Guest Blog Post!

Happy CSUN 2015 Week Everyone!

I'm coming to you from sunny San Diego! The conference has been great. This year was a little different. I presented with Jason Carroll from TextHelp. Our presentation was titled, "Looking at Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education." 

It was very well received by everyone in attendance. There wasn't any crowd surfing this time or beach balls going through the crowd, but everyone seemed to get a lot from it. 

In preparation for the presentation, the fine folks at Text Help asked me to write a blog post for them. You can find it at their blog at

We had originally intended to have my tag-team partner, Rima Maldonado, beam in via a Google Hangout On Air. That's right, we were going to put on The Big Show LIVE! But alas, the conference Internet couldn't handle that much awesome so we didn't get to do it. 

I've been hearing from folks who were rather bummed out about not getting to experience The Big Show. So I talked to my accessibility compadres and we've decided to get the band back together for one more show. 

That's right. 

We're doing it. 

We'll be presenting The Big Show, "Looking At Accessible Instructional Materials in Higher Education" as a Google Hangout Online. You'll be able to ask your questions and we'll do our best to answer them. 

There will totally be prizes! (There totally won't be any prizes)
There will be cake! (There totally won't be any cake)

There will be plenty of awesome as we intend to bring #AllOfTheAwesome.

So stay tuned! Dates to be released soon via Twitter, here, and all of the usual places!

Picture of Ned Stark from Game of Thrones with the caption, "Brace Yourselves, The Big Show is coming."

Friday, February 20, 2015

Accessibility: "I do not think this word means what you think it means"

Picture of Indigo Montoya with the words, "You keep saying accessibility. I do not think this word means what you think it means."

"Ten men can be sitting at a table eating, you know, dining, and I can come and sit down where they're dining. They're dining; I've got a plate in front of me, but nothing is on it. Because all of us are sitting at the same table, are all of us diners? I'm not a diner until you let me dine. Then I become a diner. Just being at the table with others who are dining doesn't make me a diner. . . ."

I hear people speak of accessibility often.

Very often.

Very, very often.

I hear people value it, are concerned about it, are keeping it in mind when doing X. I hear that a lot of people, a lot of organizations value it. However, I believe that a lot of those same people really have no idea as to what accessibility is.

So how do we get there?

The first thing we need to acknowledge is that accessibility is more than internet accessibility. The internet is just one facet of our world. While it’s arguably the quickest growing facet, it is not the only one. I like the explanations of accessibility offered by the BBC:

"Accessibility is the word used to describe whether a product (for example, a website, mobile site, digital TV interface or application) can be used by people of all abilities and disabilities.” (

In their view, accessibility is a larger than just the web, which it is. Their best practices includes a more expansive view, but I think it can go a bit farther.

I do like the view taken by New Zealand’s Be. Accessible group. Be. Accessible states:

"Accessibility is all about our ability to engage with, use, participate in, and belong to, the world around us.

It's something that you mightn't even consider on a day-today-day basis, however for many of us, access to education, employment, and the community can be difficult and limited."

What I like about that definition is that it both encompasses the BBC view and expands it by relating it to important parts of our lives— education, employment, and community involvement. Instead of constraining people to think in only one set of terms, it provides a broader perspective.

Here’s a video from the Be Institute in New Zealand that further demonstrates this point.

The difficulty with a very broad view is that it can feel unsatisfying.

We want rules to work with.

We want guidelines.

A checklist would be nice.

The problem with that approach is that it doesn’t challenge us to think outside of our regular mode of thinking. It’s also a good way to miss things. There’s always something that’s not on the list. There’s always something that “we didn’t think about.” If we go by a list, we run into that problem. However, if we look a bit more broadly at principles and then try to apply those principles to different areas like Internet accessibility, construction, and product design. Within this bigger picture you can fit things like WCAG ( and WAI-ARIA ( Within this bigger picture, you can also fit the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, The Americans With Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), the Assistive Technology Act, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Telecommunications Act, the Fair Housing Act, the Air Carrier Access Act, the Voting Accessibility of the Elder and Handicapped Act, the National Voter Registration Act, the Civil Rights Act of Institutionalized Persons Act, the Architectural Barriers Act, and the myriad of state, county, and city accessibility statues I’ve definitely missed in this list. Even if we have to have a checklist, if it’s created with these principles in mind, we will end up with better lists than we currently have because we’re thinking more inclusively. We begin by including everyone instead of trying to figure out who we missed and then looping them back in.

The quote I started this post off with was from a speech by Malcom X. While the quote wasn’t necessarily written about people with disabilities, it certainly applies. We need to do more than be concerned with accessibility. We need to do more than just keep it in mind. We need to do more than make it our priority. We need to back those words up not only with deeds, but with a more clear understanding and better ideals. It’s not enough to have a space at the table for someone. You also have to feed them if you’re going to say they are diners the same as everyone else.

Picture of kermit the frog sipping tea with the caption "You say accessibility is important to you. . . in a video statement that is not close captioned."

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Closer Look at Digital Recorders

Since last semester, I've seen a lot of students needing help with note taking. I knew this was coming, so this happened before school started.

photo of empty Livescribe echo boxes scattered on the floor.

I got a lot of new Livescribe pens and notebooks to meet the demand for them. 

However, I'm finding that a lot of students are interested in using a regular digital recorder. I've heard people complain about having to listen to a lecture again, but some students are learning that recording the whole lecture doesn't mean you have to listen to it in its entirety every time. 

One digital recorder I've made available to my students is really making a difference. It’s the Olympus DP-311 digital audio recorder, and it’s a great little powerhouse jam-packed full of wonderful features. 

Picture of the Olympus DP-311 digital voice recorder.
First, it has BIG buttons for the three major recorder functions on the front face of the device. There’s the “Play” button to playback recordings, the “Stop” button to stop playback, and the “Record” button to make a new recording. This has become a go-to recorder for my students who have a visual impairment. What they like is that the buttons are easy to find because of their size and because they are slightly raised. That’s big considering a lot of the digital recorders have very small buttons that can be difficult to see let alone feel. This recorder also has a speed control. Now this is big, especially for helping a student better understand what’s being said in lecture. If I use a recorder to help with my note taking, I can slow down and replay any section I didn't understand so I can make sure I understand exactly what’s being said. 

But wait, there’s more! 

The recorder also has a noise reduction feature. So that "hum" from the air conditioning unit or the lawn mower buzzing outside the window won’t show up as loud in the recording. This is important if the person using the recorder is easily distracted or has trouble focusing. 

It has an 81-hour battery life, 166 hours of recording time built-in, and a 2GB memory expandable by the SD card slot at the top. However, I wouldn't recommend getting an SD card bigger than say 4 GB. Why not? Well, a bigger card brings the temptation to not pull recordings off of the recorder. Why pull off the recordings? So you can keep them on some sort of computing device or cloud storage for use later (save them to Evernote or OneNote). Think about how often you offload the pictures from your phone. See? You want a way to get recordings off of a device, and this one uses an SD card, so make sure you have an SD card reader or you could be out of luck. 

The only thing this recorder lacks is a USB port for quick connection to a computer. For that, you have to move up to the VN-722PC, which, while still a nice device, lacks the three large control buttons. You also get the ability to save your audio as an MP3 file or as a WMA (Windows Media Audio) file. For the extra money, having the ability to save all of your audio on a computer is definitely worth it, especially if you want to refer to past recordings.

How do I use it?

So when it comes to using digital recorders, folks who don't use them efficiently typically think that you have to listen to the entire recording. 

"Marvin, I don't have time to listen to the entire lecture again!" I know you don't. I'm proposing another way of using the recorder. 

Suppose you are recording a lecture, and at times where you feel yourself getting lost or losing what's being said you wrote down the time on the recorder? Then, when you're going over your notes, you would see those different times written down. You could fast forward or rewind to that time and listen to the lecture at that point. Listen to as much or as little as you want or need to in order to get the information you need. It's all a matter of what helps you most. The most important thing is that you are functional with whatever technology you choose.

Something to consider as well is that these same tools can be used in the workplace, similarly to how they are used in school. In the workplace, people often take notes during meetings and presentations. If that same person had issues with taking notes in school, odds are those same difficulties will be present in the workplace. So instead of "moth-balling" that digital recorder after graduation, offload the recordings and get ready to use it at work. Do make sure you get the permission of the parties in the meeting to record it, especially if the recording will be shared. This can also be an issue in school, but it's not an insurmountable one. At the end of the day, what matters is that the person needing a digital recording as assistive technology can use it.