Friday, September 23, 2016

New in iOS 10: Magnifier

Magnifier captured an image of a keyboard and user applied yellow/blue high contrast mode 15x magnified keyboard key using Magnifier

Apple's newly released mobile operating system includes a new accessibility feature called Magnifier. The feature uses the device's built-in camera to enlarge objects placed in front of the camera. This can be helpful for people with visual disabilities who need to read small print. The feature can be enabled by navigating to Settings > General > Accessibility > Magnifier. Once enabled, Magnifier can be accessed by triple clicking the home button.

Magnifier's interface looks very similar to the camera apps interface with a few notable changes. One change is that Magnifier has a freeze frame button rather than a shutter button. Pressing this button freezes the image instead of taking a picture. Magnifier also has a zoom slider that is large and always visible on screen. The zoom slider allows users to zoom in further than is possible with the camera app. Magnifier allows users to zoom in up to 15x compared to 5x with the camera app (iPhone 7 Plus has optical zoom). However, the further a user zooms in the more pixelated the image will become. Magnifier also includes several high contrast options that can be applied before or after a freeze frame is captured.

Magnifier has several advantages over taking a picture with the camera app and then enlarging the image from the camera roll. The first advantage is that freeze frames are captured in full resolution. This means that users can zoom out after the freeze frame is capture. In the camera app, once a picture is captured using zoom there is no way to zoom out again. Another advantage of Magnifier is the high contrast modes that are available. Lastly, opening Magnifier by triple clicking the home button means that it is faster to launch than third party magnification apps.

There is one feature that unfortunately is not included in Magnifier which is the ability to save freeze frames for viewing at a later time. For example, if a person uses Magnifier to read a conference agenda the person may need to take multiple freeze frames of the agenda through out the day because only the most recent freeze frame can be saved.

It also may be difficult for some people to capture crisp images with Magnifier. At 15x zoom, even the slightest shake can make the image blurry. I wish Apple had added a capture timer to Magnifier. This could help eliminate minor shaking that occurs when a user reaches for the freeze frame button.

Overall, I think Magnifier will be greatly appreciated by people with visual disabilities and older people who have trouble reading small print.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

New in iOS 10: Software TTY Calling

Software TTY call on iPhone

Apple's updated mobile operating system, iOS 10, includes many new accessibility features. One of these features is Software TTY calling. TTY calling allows people who are deaf and people with hearing disabilities who cannot communicate using voice calling to communicate with people by using voice calling through relay services. The TTY user with a hearing impairment types a message and a relay operator reads that message aloud to the person on the other end of the phone call, who does not have a hearing impairment. When the person on the other end of the phone call speaks the relay operator types what is spoken and the text then appears on the TTY device.
physical TTY machine
Previously, this communication method required a physical TTY machine such as the one pictured above. These machines are large and much less convient to carry around than an iPhone. With iOS 10, Apple is building the functionality of a TTY machine into the iPhone. This eliminates the need for people who rely on TTY calling to have a physical TTY machine.

Software TTY calling on the iPhone works much like an iMessage conversation with a few differences. When software TTY is enabled, the user makes or receives a phone call through the Phone app. Once the user dials the number and presses send the user has the option of placing the call as a voice call, TTY call, or TTY relay call. TTY relay calls will be placed using the relay number specified in settings. If the user chooses one of the TTY options they will be able to access the TTY interface which resembles an iMessage chat. iOS even suggests TTY abbreviations above the keyboard during the conversation such as GA for go ahead and SK for ready to hang up.

With voice calling on the iPhone users can press the home button during a call to access other apps while still talking to person on the other end of the call. I frequently use this feature when placed on hold. While on hold I will check my email or read the news. However, with software TTY calling, users are not notified when new TTY messages are received while using other apps. For example, if  software TTY users wants to check their email while on hold they will not be notified when the next message is received. This means that TTY users might miss incoming messages when multitasking. I would prefer that the feature send notifications when the user is multitasking to alert the user that a new TTY message is received. Much like iMessage sends notifications to users when a new message is received. This would allow TTY users to multitask without fear of missing a message.

The software TTY feature of iOS 10 is a great addition to the iPhone. I think it will be viewed as a major upgrade for TTY users. iOS 10 users who want to enable software TTY should navigate to Settings > General > Accessibility > TTY and then switch on software TTY. This menu also gives users access to other TTY settings such as setting the relay number. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

New Add-On for OneNote Benefits Students with Dyslexia

Microsoft OneNote Icon
Microsoft recently made a new add-on available for its OneNote software which aims to help students with dyslexia. The add-on works within Microsoft's note taking software and is currently available to download as a beta. Once installed, a new tab appears which gives users the option to read content using text-to-speech or dictate using speech-to-text. While both of the features have been available before it is nice to have a free option that can be used directly within OneNote: an application that many schools and parents already have installed as part of the Microsoft Office suite.

The text-to-speech reader mode is called "immersive reading mode" and includes some handy features. When activated the reader fills the entire screen with text from your OneNote notebook. While reading text is highlighted as it is read aloud. Users have the option to change the background color and text size in order to create a more comfortable reading experience. The add-on also includes the ability to highlight nouns, verbs, and adjectives in different colors; a feature that could be helpful for younger students. Microsoft even includes the ability for users to break words up into syllables.

It is exciting to see the fruits of Microsoft's enhanced accessibility initiatives. While the new features are not novel they seem easy to learn. Since the "Learning Tools" are free for OneNote users and easy to learn they may prove to be a great starting point for people new to assistive technology. Microsoft seems to be increasing their focus on accessibility. Recently, the company announced a new Chief Accessibility Officer and a reorganization of accessibility teams. Hopefully, with the new reorganization, "Learning Tools" is just the beginning of Microsoft's accessibility improvements.

The "Learning Tools" add-on available as a free download for Windows. Click here to learn more and download the add-on.

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 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.