Category Archives: Daily life

The Power of Accessible Technology

As promised, I am here to give you an update as to what has been going on in my life and how vital accessible technology is to me at this time.  For several reasons, my husband and I decided to pull our daughter out of school and give home schooling a try.  Not that she wasn’t doing well enough, we just felt that things could be better for her.  We had thought about and researched other possibilities, but home schooling seemed like the best option for her and for our family.  I definitely did not see myself as someone who would be a good candidate for a home schooling Mother, but this year has been fantastic and I love learning right along with my daughter and having fun with it too.

I will say that the only reason we even considered trying it out was the abundance of resources available to me as a teacher on the internet.  In fact, there is so much information that you could literally spend hours and days just scratching the surface.  I think at last count I have 82 websites bookmarked in my favorites just for home schooling.  From on-line learning curriculum possibilities to free printable worksheets, I felt empowered and passionate about taking on home schooling.  I used technology to meet other local home schooling families, getting to know them and learning about group events through e-mail lists.  We connected with a weekly co-op that we really like and I would have never known about them if it weren’t for the internet.  I even enjoy the occasional read on a few home schooling blogs.  Now if only the computer could just drive a car already!!  Though as you probably know, that possibility is not so far off, given the recent story of Mark Riccobono, the first blind man to independently drive a car.

We decided to start our school year out with an on-line tool called Time4Learning.  This would not be my only resource for curriculum, but it was something to build on.  The student interface is not very accessible, with its use of improperly tagged flash content.  However, the teacher/parent areas were done very well.  The material that I needed was available in accessible PDF, even the reports of my student’s progress and test scores.  I could easily browse the chapters of each subject, and using the descriptions provided go out and find other support materials to print or discuss with her to add meaning to her learning.  I could find reading books or audio books for us both to enjoy.  There were so many possibilities that it was hard choosing just a few for each course subject.

As I mentioned earlier, we found our co-op on line and access to materials needed.  The website for Classical Conversations, which is the national title of our co-op’s curriculum, definitely has a lot of room for improvement in their accessibility.  However, at the beginning of the school year, they were kind enough to provide me with an electronic copy in PDF format of the parent/student manual I needed.  I don’t know that they have worked much with people with disabilities, so it has and will continue to be a learning experience for them as well.  They use a lot of music to teach and this has worked brilliantly for both of us.  The availability of materials to print is wonderful.

We also attend a TaeKwonDo class, which has a great website as well.  I can find her schedule, event details, etc just by going on line.  The instructor is always willing to provide accessible materials so that I can help her with some of the knowledge she needs to memorize, though I am not too helpful when it comes to her forms, sparring, or breaking boards.  Maybe they’ll put out some TaeKwonDo YouTube videos with very detailed audio descriptions.

My iPhone has also been fantastic in providing ways to teach and learn.  I can download educational apps, many of which are accessible, such as one that tells information about all of the U.S Presidents.  I can get books for her to read, math games, etc.  I can navigate around town to our events using GPS, weather we walk or take the bus.  I also use my Braille Sense note taker to download books from Bookshare and can read them to or with her with ease.

I probably make it sound like everything is perfect and accessible.  However, there are still many barriers I face.  There are several websites, files and technologies, even some of which I have mentioned that  I would like to see become more accessible.  My point for now, is to show just how enabling access to technology can be.  Ten years ago, I would have never considered most of what I have discussed possible.  Additionally, the overall willingness of people to help however they can has been wonderful.  At times I feel that I am not only educating my child, but also others who had not previously been aware of the need for accessible technology.  I also know that if not for accessibility and all those who work tirelessly to reach out and include all users in the technological experience, I would not be able to provide a full and rich education to my daughter, weather in or out of the school system.  And while there is still work to do to improve the accessibility and usability of technologies, I am very happy with our progress to this point.  What a fun and fascinating time we live in!

JAWSLite?

So many of you know how difficult it is to afford, load and use a full version screen reader.  Even if you overcome the financial burden, sometimes you encounter situations where it is hard to run and use the software.  What if you are on another computer?  What if the full version takes up too much memory to run?  How about when running the full version causes system conflicts and your computer locks up or freezes?  What if you are just wanting to test your website for accessibility using a Screen Reader, but don’t want to fork over thousands of dollars or reboot your computer every 40 minutes with a demo version?

I recently learned about a petition that is now circulating to submit to Freedom Scientific, the manufacturer of the Screen Reader JAWS for Windows.  It would be fantastic if FS really looked into the option laid out in this petition to make a JAWSLite.  There is definitely more tough competition out there in the Screen Reader Market, with Serotek’s System Access, and NVDA for Windows, both having versions available for a smaller price.  System Access can be run from any computer, right from the web browser, without the need to load the software onto the machine.  NVDA is open source and free, and while their support for popular applications may be limited now, there is a great potential for that piece of assistive technology.  With that in mind, take some time and have a look at the JAWSLite Petition and even sign it.  So far there aren’t a ton of signatures, but we can change that.  It may be all for nothing, and yet big things start with small actions!  If enough of us get behind this, perhaps we can help FS continue to stay competitive in a growing marketplace of screen reading options!

iOS 4 IS Here!

This week, the newest version of the iPhone was released, as well as an update to the operating system for iPhone 3 and 3gs products.  Anticipation has been high for several months and rumors circulating regarding just what the new version has in store for customers.  Having recently converted to iPhoneism, I was amazed at the idea that the phone would do even more than I had discovered over the past 2 months.  I could spend hours detailing the countless apps I have found that are accessible and fun to use.  There are even applications such as the barcode reader Digit-Eyes which further the independence of blind people.  To those who are reading who may be scared or skeptical of this product’s accessibility and ease of use, I am here to say you probably won’t be sorry or disappointed with the iPhone!

The new operating system has implemented several features that people seem to really like, from folder management, to the ability to play third party music apps while doing other things on the phone.  But from my perspective, even more amazing are the lengths Apple has gone to in making this product accessible to people with disabilities.  They had already made history by being the first company to release a fully accessible phone that did not require you to buy expensive external software.  Now, they have gone even further, almost as if they read my mind in some ways and added accessibility features I had merely wished for inside.

A really fantastic new feature is the ability to use my iPhone with compatible Bluetooth Braille displays!  In my experience, pairing the devices went very well.  I am now able to read e-mail on my phone using my Brailliant 40, select messages, edit my typing, read books, etc.  I will also most likely be able to mute speech and read quietly, though I have not tested that yet.  I am so excited about this, partly because for several months, my Braille display has not been easily usable with JAWS 11 and I have been unable to get it working.  What a fun thing it will be to demonstrate this feature while testing websites and such!  I plan on having someone take a picture of me using these two devices together and posting it here, so watch for that.

Touch typing is another feature now built into the phone which I love and it makes keyboarding faster at least for me.  Simply put, rather than double tapping or split typing to write, I can slide my finger along the screen and when I find the character I want, I just lift my finger and it is added.  Also when typing, if you hold your finger on a letter and are not sure what it is, you are given a word beginning with that letter so that there is no mistaking a v for a b, n for an m, etc.  The indicator when a character is typed is much more audible as well.  You can also now use the phone with Bluetooth keyboards which I have not had a chance to test since I do not yet have one.

The iBooks application is another great feature that is also accessible.  You don’t need a Kindle now, you just buy books directly from your phone and can read them on the screen.  This works beautifully with Voice-over as well, I can have it read a page at a time, the entire screen and turn pages automatically, or of course with my Braille display.  While I don’t see this quite taking the place of Bookshare, it is yet another very viable option for reading.

I am literally learning new things constantly and I know I have left some wonderful features out.  There are a few places you can go for some great information.  First is of course the Apple site itself.  Next, there is an article from the Mac-cessibility Network that details the new accessibility features of iPhone iOS 4 and they also have a Mac-cessibility Podcast you can subscribe to for discussion and info.  Lastly, if you are visually impaired and want to get lots of tips and discussion, you can join the Googlegroup for Visually Impaired iPhone users.  I know that as I continue to discover accessible apps and features, I will have much more to write on this topic.  Feel free to add your thoughts and comments; I look forward to learning from you all as well.  If you are an iPhoner, happy playing!  If you have not yet joined the masses, find a friend or neighbor and just play with it for awhile with Voice-over on, just be warned, you might like it a lot!

Wow, did I really say 75%?

To start off, I would like to thank Bob Garfield and all of the staff from “On The Media” for the fabulous opportunity they gave Sharron Rush and I to advocate for a cause that is vital to all of us.  We are so grateful to have the chance to bring attention to accessibility, it will help us to continue moving toward our goal of web access for all.  The interviews that followed immediately after ours were fantastic as well and I will definitely be talking more about those in future posts.  All that said, I feel I need to clarify or expand on something I stated in our interview.  I may have inadvertently given people the wrong idea about how far we are in terms of website accessibility.

This past weekend, I began my Saturday listening to the show, anxious to hear how we sounded as we brought awareness to accessibility on national radio.  I was smiling as they played the parts where I had JAWS working on the web, and as Sharron Rush talked about just how important the issue is to so many.  Then came the question from Mr. Garfield, “Desiree, as you surf the Web, what percentage of websites are accessible to you and what percent give you the kind of garbled response that we just heard?”  Desiree’s answer, “Probably 75% I can get on now.”  But what exactly did I mean by that?  Unfortunately, I neglected to clarify my answer and people who hear that may be misled!

It is true that a combination of technology improvements and awareness of the need for accessibility have made the internet a much better place for me to go.  Most sites that I visit, I can get a general idea and feel for what the developers want to offer, at least I think so.  Unfortunately, I am most times alone when I go to various WebPages and do not have the benefit of eyes peering over my shoulder to tell me all about content that I am missing out on.  I have had many experiences where someone talks about aspects of a webpage that I didn’t even know were there.  So on one hand, yes I can get onto most sites.  However, is  all of the content on that site accessible and compliant to Section 508 standards?  No, definitely not.  In fact there have been recent studies worldwide which determine that a very high percentage of current websites do not meet accessibility guidelines.

In addition, I am only speaking as the voice of an extremely experienced Screen Reader and computer user.  What I may find accessible and usable may be impossible for someone else even using my same technology to access.  I have been able to give many of my visually impaired peers some tips and tricks on certain sites because I have become familiar with them.  I also have an inborn tendency to problem solve and work around any issues I may encounter and at times it is so automatic, I forget that unless I jump through some hoops, the site and its contents would be completely inaccessible to me.

Lastly, as Sharron pointed out in the interview, blindness is not the only disability considered.  Accessibility applies to all types of challenges users may have, from deafness to dyslexia and everything in between.  While a Screen Reader may provide access to, for example a radio station site with podcasts, if there are no captions or transcripts, someone who cannot hear misses out on major aspects of that site.  While JAWS may not work less reliably if there are contrast issues, someone with low vision will find it impossible to navigate.  I could go on forever talking about the different ways in which people have and do not have access to web content, but I think you get my point.

So, the answer I should have given to the question would be that while I may find the majority of current websites basically usable, most still have a long way to go to meet accessibility standards.  I definitely do not want my overly optimistic statement to hamper the growing progress we are making in accessibility education and awareness.  I would not want people to get the idea that we are 75% there when it comes to website accessibility, because that is simply not the case.  The need for constant outreach will always be there, as new sites are being built every day and design technology is evolving.  With that in mind, we will all press on in our efforts to make the World Wide Web a more user friendly and accessible place to be!

Knowbility Hits the National Airwaves

Last week, Sharron Rush and I were privileged to be interviewed by NPR’s Bob Garfield for his show “on The Media.”  It was a fabulous chance for us to tell our story, to explain why accessibility is so vital for everyone.  We talked about not only the federal mandates and legal requirements, but the inpact accessibility has on individuals in their lives.  I got to demonstrate JAWS working on a couple of websites, as well as show how my iPhone has been made accessible out of the box.  Many listeners may not know what a Screen Reader is, much less hear one in action.  The technology is amazing, but unless the designers of websites and software develop with accessibility in mind, those technologies cannot work properly.  This interview was a fantastic experience and we have confirmed that it will air this weekend!  So check your local listings to see when and where the show is on in your area!  There is also a podcast for “On The Media,” so you can always listen that way.  If you have friends, coworkers or acquaintances who just don’t know what we’re fighting for, tell them to tune in!  We really hope that this national attention will help to further our cause and make more people aware of the importance of access for all!