Archive for April, 2010

My Apple Journey

April 30, 2010

the technology market has exploded over the past 30 years. It’s hard to believe that the first computer was the size of an average room and now we have computer power in our pockets in the shape of smart phones. But the technology for me, as a blind person is very different. I want to take you on my journey through the UK educational system and the support I received in the form of technology and how I and my computing preferences have changed.

When I was in primary school, the computers we used were the early macintoshes. I remember watching things on the screen but my partial vision was difficult to be capable with a mouse. Independent computer use was not at all possible but I was taught to touch type on again, a macintosh when I was around nine or ten years of age. There was no audio output and so I relied on my learning support assistant to tell me if I’d typed something incorrectly do other functions such as save or print.

When I reached high school, information technology was a compulsory class until year nine and again, my teachers had to be the screen reader and controller for me. Hasten to add, I didn’t learn much and my IT skills were minimum at this point.

I remember seeing the jaws screen reader when I was fourteen or fifteen and thought, wow, how cool would it be to be able to use a computer independently. But not until I was sixteen would I know how great that concept would be.

Sadly, I did not get jaws to begin with as there were other kids who would utilise the magnifiers so to save costs my local education authority purchased a licence for supernova, a basic screen reader and magnifier. at least it was then.

The internet was out of reach at this point and only when I went to the US did I discover the net and all it could offer as there were computers with jaws in the disabled student services lab. I learned jaws very fast and was delighted with what I was able to do on the computer. Sadly though, my personal computer still had supernova on it and when I got home, I struggled doing all of the things I’d been used to doing in the computer labs.

When I returned to university in 2006, after being exposed to Tiger on the mac and hating it, I was glad to get jaws and have the full accessibility again. The Tiger story is a rather sad one. I was being shown the system by people who had never used a mac before either, with a manual in their hands and no clue how the system worked let alone the screen reader. so I dismissed the mac, rather ignorantly and returned to windows and jaws.

However, I was getting increasingly tired of system crashes, viruses despite the antivirus software on my PC and the constant inability of jaws to work without a bunch of scripts. The nano was announced to be accessible and I had pined for such a cool music MP3 player for a long time then. However, I knew jaws and iTunes did not work very well together and looked into buying another windows computer and window eyes which I knew was slightly cheaper. My sony Vaio was slowing up and I needed a new computer too but when I looked at the cost, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford it. So I longingly listened to a podcast on the nano and heard the guy demoing it was a mac user. I thought, if he can use a mac, so can I. So, I researched the mac and voice over, visited the Apple retail store and played with a macbook and two weeks later I brought it home with an iPod nano.

That was almost nineteen months ago and I have never looked back. My productivity is way above what I could achieve on windows; my typing has improved thanks to voice over’s ability to inform me of misspelled words; I have access to far more applications without scripting than ever before and my headaches have been cut down dramatically. If I have an issue with the mac or its accessibility, all I need to do is contact Apple’s great customer service people or their accessibility team. No more worrying about system crashes, if it should happen I can reinstall the OS with no worries independently and if that should fail, Apple care is there to help.

The mac experience hasn’t only moved my technology preferences toward Apple for computing but now for touch screen phones. I now can openly walk into an Apple store and buy most products with the confidence that the product will work out of the box. And when I should get it home, I will be able to set it up and be off within minutes without the headaches windows and its third party screen readers presented for me.

But moving to Apple also changed my attitude about accessibility. Before, I would assume a product to be inaccessible to the blind but now, with Apple’s products at least, I have faith that they will do their upmost to make the products as accessible as possible from the start.

Once the macs became accessible with voice over, they continued to develop it. We waited for the fourth generation iPod nano to become accessible and the third generation iPhone and iPod touch but with the iPad, the first generation was accessible. It shows that Apple have committed and continue to commit themselves to their policy of universal access, delivering accessibility to all of their users to the best of their ability at no extra charge.

This is probably the greatest point for me and one that makes me extremely happy I moved to the Apple mainstream world.

Would I go back?

If Apple bizarrely took away their accessibility features, I would have no choice but given that choice, no, I will not go back. I will do everything within my power to not be subjected to the instability, virus prone, and most importantly expensive side of the blind specific world. If I can use mainstream products, I will and all of my technology is Apple.

Do I believe competition is goood?
Of course. Providing it is done well and done fairly, competition is what makes the world work so well.

Do I believe anyone else can do this?

Sure, if they wanted to but most companies do the bare minimum that is required of them.

Do I think companies making assistive technology have a place in the world?

While other companies refuse to implement accessibility, yes of course. Apple products will not be for everyone, that I understand. They work great for me and for many others but I think far too many people are comfortable with what they know and are afraid of trying something new so they bas it. Companies who provide assistive technology will deny Apple’s great accessibility to be an exaggeration to save their own skins but it is down to us as the consumers to spread the word. If someone tries it thoroughly and still wants windows, go back to it but at least give the macs, the iPhones and such a chance.

Where is my own technology heading?

At this present moment continuing with Apple. With the prospect of getting an iPad and a second macbook later this year, I can’t imagine moving away from Apple for my computer and communicational needs.

I love Apple. Not everyone does or ever will but I really wish all of those people who refuse to give Apple a chance would do so and then make their own informed opinion. And for those new switchers who continuously run back to windows, research a little, you may find the mac has an answer. With the increase of macs being bought every year, more and more developers for mainstream products are considering the mac. No longer is the world going to only revolve around windows, slowly but surely the market is shifting and with major products used within the workplace such as microsoft office being utilised on the mac, time will only tell where this takes us.

I for one think the world is ready and waiting to see what Apple will surprise us all with next.

Strangely enough, my journey began with the macintosh and I hope it continues with the company I praise so much for what they have done for me as a blind, avid, technology addict.


Apple and the blind world

April 20, 2010

With the increase of mainstream accessible products from Apple, it was only time that the “blind organisations” decided to put their opinions into the mix. However, I don’t think some of these people are very well informed.

An article on the RNIB Website has continued my thought pattern of situations that have occurred in recent months, with not only British “blind organisations” but those of other countries.

Assistive technology was necessary for years and due to low market demand, prices are high. Whether you agree with those prices or not, they are fact and it would seem little can be done to change that. However, Apple has made a commitment to accessibility in the majority of its product line, only the Apple TV and IPod classics remain out of touch for its visually impaired end users but all of its computers, third gen IPhones and IPod touches, fourth gen nanos and shuffles and now the newly anticipated IPad boast accessibility features for a huge group of disabled customers from various backgrounds.

Not only are these products accessible, and yes, RNIB, out of the box, but they are no more expensive than our sighted peers would have to shell out for. Similar tablet devices, and I say similar because there are few that can be compared to the IPad, would be able to boast the same level of accessibility without third party software and the price tag, although a little more than what people would want to pay is no more than what everyone else will be paying.

For once as a generation, we are able to buy a mainstream product and not be penalised because we our visually impaired.

The article has some fair pointers, I say fair as I am A, not a low vision user and B I haven’t touched an IPad yet, about certain features or there lack of. The screen reader component is relatively accurate to all attempts and purposes, I realise this as I have A heard someone else recount their IPad experience and B use an IPhone and the experience sounds similar but it almost feels that this article is doing what it can to put off users without “lying”.

One issue I take strongly to is the “not accessible out of the box” line. This is ludicrous. If any of you have used an IPhone or an IPod touch or indeed the mac, or the IPod range, you will know all of these products only require you and your computer to get them going. Unlike a PC computer or a smartphone from another company you can literally plug your apple product in and get it going independently. For RNIB to say it is not accessible out of the box is a blatant understatement and I’m sure they know this as later on they write the accessibility features can be activated in Itunes. Well, RNIB, I’d like to point out you need to link the device to ITunes in order to register it and in that summary section you can indeed activate your chosen accessibility feature.

It almost feels like they are picking as can they honestly say that any product from Nokia or the windows side of the world has automatic turn on accessibility features. On the windows platform alone, you need sighted assistance to turn on narrator or someone to assist you closing apps when you need to install software so I deem the Apple line up as “accessible out of the box” as a completely accurate statement.

RNIB, like other organisations are sticking strongly to “blind specific” products as a rule. Yes, they may acknowledge these products exist and indeed recommend the IPhone on their list of accessible phones, but do they promote them as a viable alternative? I’d say no.

Their sister organisation is not even aware that macs are a viable option. And plenty of IT technicians that are allocated to the blind community either do not know or in fact refuse to train on macs. Slowly, through user demands, I’m aware that several higher education students have received macs through funding but I believe this is more to do with the individuals demanding it rather than it being posed as a viable alternative.

Apple has committed to their accessibility since 2005 and continues to implement its features and invent new ones on its increasing line of products so when will these organisations that are meant to be supporting the VI community catch up and offer the lower cost, potentially alternative solutions? Or will these organisations never take the chance of moving toward a medium where both mainstream products and “blind specific” products are offered as equals? For the time being, I’m saying it’s up to those of us who use these products to advertise their benefits and demonstrate the facts.

Opening The Door with Apple’s IPad?

April 1, 2010

With the launch of Apple’s next big thing on the US horizon, it is hard to escape the many articles either reviewing or speculating about the IPad.

When it was announced back in January that the IPad, otherwise known as the much anticipated Apple Tablet, rumours began to fly about all kinds of things. For those of us interested in the accessibility, Apple did not fail to deliver, including the much loved and used voice over feature on the IPad.

Since its introduction last June, the voice over feature on the IPhone and IPod Touch consequently in september, has enabled thousands of visually impaired users to utilise the products as freely as their sighted counterparts with no extra cost. Despite everyone being uncertain whether it would be introduced last year, it has possibly become an assumption that Apple would not leave out this excellent, innovative feature. And even as the IPad was launched, we soon learned that voice over was indeed featured on there too.

However, questions began to rise in conjunction with a new Apple store launching and what it would mean for the visually impaired and dyslexic users of the IPad and its technology. IBooks promise to potentially open up doors never as open as before. As true that there are organisations in many countries around the world that offer merely a fragment of printed materials in alternative formats, the amount of that content available compared to the general market is miniscule.

Enter the IPad

At launch, this product seemed as though it could be the answer to many avid readers’ dreams. Especially those with a “print impairment”. If the voice over stretched to the IBooks feature at least. However, anyone who has been around this debate for the last year or so, will know that there has been many fights about whether Text to speech is actually a violation of audio copyright.

Most of us sensible people would state that audio books are completely different to those read by a screen reader. However, the author’s gild did not agree with that notion and filed a suit against Amazon and its Kindle reader last year to ensure a feature was available to authors/publishers to turn off the speech functionality of the Kindle if they so desired.

granted, I realise that this protects the content somewhat from hackers but as no expert in the matter I will comment no further on this except to say, while you’re keeping the hackers out you are also blocking millions of readers from accessing the material because of an impairment. Even though the Author’s gild still seem rather adamant about the reading aloud situation, I’m not entirely certain Apple will back down as easily as Amazon did.

Apple’s policy of universal access would completely be in disarray if Apple allowed the voice over feature to be turned off on certain books. Not to mention the fact that it should be an individual’s right to choose how they read a book. For those who are print impaired, walking into a bookstore and picking up a book is not an option. Audio books are only on occasion made in comparison to publication of print books so Ebooks seems like the most viable option to not only avid readers but to students alike.

Imagine, trying to study and be unable to get hold of the core text because it is simply not available in the format you need. Thousands of print editions but no other alternative and if there is, I.E. an Ebook you are unable to read it because the devices capable of doing so have been blocked access because the author’s gild deem your screen reader as equivalent to a human voice.

It does seem Apple have not gone into this with their eyes shut, they rarely do but after reading and rereading the statement on their Ibooks feature page where it says,
“iBooks works with VoiceOver, the screen reader in iPad, so it can read you the contents of any page.” and maybe I am reading too much into this but it says can read the contents of “any page”. That suggests that the DRM ability like so many other devices has protected against the “print impaired” users accessing the books does not exist here. Apple does not state, will read all the content on an unprotected book’s page or anything to that affect. So, I do conclude that Apple have
A. Thought this through and
B. are keeping to their universal access policy.

The IPad, along with being a potentially fun and innovative way to do work on the go or watch movies in the car could also possibly open up the reading and studying world for millions of people that has remained firmly closed because of simple red tape.

Welcome the IPad and yet another product from Apple that just keeps making me and many others love their products more.