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Thursday, August 13, 2015

AXS Map: Crowdsourced Accessibility Reviews of Businesses



AXS Map is an app available for iOS and Android that allows users to rank the accessibility of local businesses. Using the location of the device users can search for nearby businesses and rank the accessibility of the location in very basic terms. More detailed accessibility information and information for people with a wider range of disabilities would improve the app.

While accessibility standards established by the government are exact and technical, AXS Map uses a star rating system. For example, a businesses that is easily accessible to people with disabilities would earn a five star ranking. The app also allows users to rank a business based on the noise level, which can be helpful for people with hearing impairments, and by light which can be helpful for people with visual impairments.

I was recently involved in a "Mapathon" were a group of people used the app to map parts of the city. This experience helped me understand the value of the app, as some businesses had serious accessibility issues such as numerous steps with no ramps.

The data that is inputted through the app or the website can then be viewed by people interested in the accessibility of a business. For example, a person with a physical disability could check the app to make sure that a coffee shop had a ramp.

If the AXS Map platform becomes popular it could even prompt businesses with poor rating to make improvements.

While the concept behind AXS Map is good, the implementation is a little rough. The app is not intuitive to use and can be frustrating. However, it does work once you get familiar with the interface. The app also requires users to enter their email which could steer some users away.

To use AXS Map visit AXSMap.com or download the app for iOS and Android. Click here to download the app for iOS and click here to download the app for Android.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Inspiration Maps Updated with iPhone Support and More

Inspiration Maps displayed on iPhone 6

Inspiration Maps iconThe mind mapping and outlining app Inspiration Maps, which was previously only available on the iPad, is now available on the iPhone as well. The app is a valuable tool to help students organize their ideas and start the writing process. Users can drag text boxes around the screen to easily produce webs of ideas. Inspiration Maps is particularly helpful when writing about complex topics that require a well planned and organized essay. Inspiration Maps can be also be helpful when beginning an essay to visualize the structure that the written piece will take.

With the larger screen iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 plus in makes sense to bring the app to the iPhone. If you are concerned about not having enough room to effectively use the app on your iPhone, a free version is available here.

The update also makes in easier to select multiple text boxes or images at the same time. Now users can press and hold on the screen in order to lasso a group of images.

The updated app is available for $10 is the App Store. Click here to download the app. Click read more below to view more screenshots of Inspiration Maps for iPhone.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Bright Future for Apple Accessibility with Lisa P. Jackson in the Lead

Headshot of Jackson wearing red shirt

Apple recently updated the bio of Lisa P. Jackson to reflect her new role overseeing accessibility at Apple. This expands her previous responsibilities of overseeing environmental initiatives at Apple. Ms. Jackson's official title is now Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives. Apple CEO Tim Cook has been vocal regarding his views of the importance of accessibility. This new management change, which puts a Vice President level executive in charge of accessibility for the first time, seemingly reaffirms Apple's long-standing commitment to accessibility.

Apple has been a leader in accessibility. Its products include superior accessibility features out of the box. Features such as VoiceOver, Speak Selection, Zoom, AssistiveTouch, and Switch Control give people with disabilities equal access to Apple products at no additional charge.From personal experience I can say that these features are truly life changing and positively impact many people.

Even considering Apple's past success there are areas for possible improvement. One example involves training sales people about the accessibility features. On recent trips to Apple Stores, I have had some experiences that are not consistent with Apple's commitment to accessibility. For example, the Apple Watch on display had its accessibility features disabled. While Apple likely wants to limit confusion for customers who do not use accessibility features, this does not promote equal access. Part of the magic of the Apple Store is being able to walk up to a shinny new product and try it out. With the accessibility features disabled, and the sales people unfamiliar with how to enable these features, users with disabilities don't have an opportunity to fully explore the product. Apple should be showing off these features, not hiding them. Apple would be doing a great service to its customers with disabilities to prepare its store employees to talk about accessibility features as well as they talk about other features.

Ms. Jackson has proven herself to be a very capable leader.  She has the ability to continue Apple's accessibility superiority and solve existing challenges. Her work on environmental initiatives has been very successful, propelling Apple towards the top of the technology industry in terms of sustainability. The future of Apple product accessibility seems bright, and I am excited to see what innovations come next.

To read Lisa Jackson's full bio from Apple click here. Photo credit: Apple.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Apple Watch Accessibility: Possibilities, Challenges, and Unknowns


When the Apple Watch launches next month it will mark the launch of Apple's first new product category since the iPad. The iPad was a game changer in terms of accessibility, bringing numerous features designed for people with disabilities at launch. How will the Apple Watch compare and what are some of the challenges and possibilities for the Apple Watch related to accessibility? A lot of questions remain unanswered, but the wait will soon be over.

Apple Watch is rumored to include built-in software accessibility features when launched, however these reports have not been confirmed by Apple. It would make sense and align with Apple's patterns if they included features such as VoiceOver and Zoom in the Apple Watch. While the inclusion of these features seem likely, how these features are implemented will be key for people with disabilities.

The Apple Watch could prove beneficial to people with various disabilities. Apple has already demonstrated the navigation capabilities of the Watch which include providing distinctive taps when a wearer needs to turn left or right while walking. This feature could aid blind and visually impaired users when navigating unfamiliar areas. Additionally, the device could help remind users to complete daily tasks like taking medication. The watch, which can be used for Apple Pay purchases and other forms of authentication could benefit users with physical disabilities who cannot handle a credit card for example.

Just like with the iPad, app developers will likely be key in coming up with unique assistive apps. The initial developer tools have some limitations that could hold back developers, but hopefully useful assistive apps will still be made available.

With all the potential benefits there are some challenges that stem from the device's small screen and buttons. First, the "digital crown," which is a small dial on the side of the Apple Watch, could pose challenges to users with physical disabilities and dexterity challenges. The "digital crown" which is used for scrolling and zooming may be difficult if not impossible for some people to operate. It will be interesting to see if Apple will devise a software solution to this potential challenge. Similarly, the small screen with small icons may prove difficult to press for some users.

Apple's new "force touch" gesture could also prove challenging for users with physical disabilities to preform. A "force touch" is a harder press on the touch screen display that invokes distinct actions from a lighter tap. From Apple's demonstrations, this gesture seems vital to the operation of the watch so hopefully a software solution will be available for users who are unable to preform this gesture.

Hopefully the Apple Watch will follow in the iPad's foot steps and be a game changer in terms of accessibility. If you are thinking of purchasing the Apple Watch, but have doubts about your ability to interact with the device due to a disability I would strongly recommend heading to an Apple Store in April to try one out.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Voice Dream Writer: Word Processing Plus a Whole Lot More




Voice Dream has become a well-known name in the assistive technology community because of Voice Dream Reader: a text-to-speech reader available for iOS devices. Now the developer has released a new app called Voice Dream Writer which aims to support writers with special needs. Voice Dream Writer has features that can benefit people with a wide range of needs including people with dyslexia and people who are blind or visually impaired. People without disabilities can also benefit from the app. For example, english language learners could benefit from spoken feedback and other features offered by Voice Dream Writer. 

The text-to-speech feedback is designed to help writers find mistakes in their writing. The style of text-to-speech reading can even be changed to help writers focus either on spelling and grammar, or on content and organization. The app also offers easy access to an outline view that can help with organizing a document. Other features allow users to look up words phonetically or look up words by its meaning. 

The text-to-speech feedback can be accessed as users type so they can verify that a word or sentence was entered as they intended. This helps writers identify words or phrases that looked correct, but upon hearing them read aloud sound incorrect. The app will also read back text that has been dictated to help users insure that their voice was transcribed correctly.

When it is time to review a document, Voice Dream Writer includes some very thoughtful features for editing. The app includes two customizable proof reading modes that use text-to-speech to help with the editing process. The first is designed to help writers edit the content of their document. In this mode words are read back using text-to-speech sound natural and smooth: as they would when reading a book with Voice Dream Reader. This allows writers to focus on the content and organization of their document. 

The second mode reads text back in a somewhat choppy manner which allows users to focus their document at the micro level. This mode is ideal for editing spelling a grammar because the lack of flow with the text-to-speech voice makes it easier to focus on each word rather than the overall content of the text.

Each proofreading mode is customizable with options to announce misspelled words, spell homophones, and speak punctuation and capitalization.

Similar to Voice Dream Reader, Voice Dream Writer includes the ability to change the visual style of the app. Font size, character and line spacing, margins, text color, and background color can all be changed. Additionally, users can change the text to speech voice and speaking rate to match their preferences. Text-to-speech voices purchased in Voice Dream Reader are available in the Writer without an additional purchase. The pronunciation dictionary also syncs between the Writer and the Reader if both are installed on the same device.

Text files can be imported from iCloud Drive or supported third party services such as Google Drive or Dropbox. Unfortunately, users can only import text files and not Microsoft Word files. Documents can be exported as HTML, RTF, Microsoft Word, or Apple Pages format.

Click read more below to continue to read the review of Voice Dream Writer. Some of the most innovative and helpful features will be described below.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Keeble Keyboard for iPad: Flexible Text Input for Users with Special Needs



Keeble is a virtual keyboard for iPad made by AssistiveWare. The app is only available in English for iPads running iOS 8 and above. As a result of new features available in iOS 8 the Keeble keyboard can be used in almost every app on the iPad including mail, Safari, and messages. Keeble gives users a number of customization options to make text input easier for users with special needs such as motor challenges, dyslexia, and other disabilities.

One option available is the ability to change the appearance of the keyboard. Users can change the color of the keyboard which could be helpful for users with visual impairments. The higher contrast colors can be more easily seen compared to the white and gray colors of the default iOS keyboard. The layout can be change from a QWERTY layout to an ABC layout if desired.


Keeble also includes word predication to speed up typing; especially for Switch Control users. The word predication features is slightly more advanced than iOS 8's built-in word prediction. Keeble allows users to change the number of predictions offered above the three offered by the default iOS 8 keyboard.

Keeble also allows users to change how the keys respond to taps and presses. This is especially useful for users with motor challenges that may cause accidental taps or presses on unwanted keys. Hold duration can be set to change how long a key must be held before that character is entered. With this option enabled, quick accidental taps will not be registered. Additionally, the backspace repeat can be customized to avoid accidentally deleting text. A "select on release" option is also available which will enter text on release of a key instead when the key is pressed.

The last customization option allows users to turn on spoken feedback of the text they type. Feedback can be given letter by letter, word by word, and/or sentence by sentence. This feature allows people with dyslexia or poor spellers to confirm that what they words they think entered are the words that they hear being spoken back to them using text-to-speech. While this feature is useful it can only be enabled and disabled via the apps settings. If there was an option to turn on and off auditory feedback directly, it would be much easier to access the feature when needed and disable the feature when not needed. Users can totally turn off the iPad's speakers but this will also mute all other audio output. There is space on the bottom right of the number and symbol entry keyboard where quick access to this setting could be added.

The Keeble app costs $15 on the App Store. To download the app click here. Click read more below to view screenshots of the Keeble keyboard.

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.