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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2009 Issue  Volume 10  Number 5

In This Issue

The Revolutionary New iPhone

We evaluate Apple's iPhone with VoiceOver--Darren Burton

Is a Netbook Computer Right for You?

Shopping for a small computer? We help demystify the options--Bradley Hodges

Lexmark marks a Path Toward Accessibility: A New Solution for their Multifunctional Document Centers

We report on exciting new access to office equipment--Darren Burton

Book Review: Using the Accessible iPod, by Anna Dresner

We review this must-read resource from National Braille Press--Deborah Kendrick

The Man for All Programs

We present an engaging interview with Jamal Mazrui, a well-known leader in the access technology field--Bradley Hodges

Editor's Page

AccessWorld News

Product Evaluation

The Revolutionary New iPhone

Over the past year, AccessWorld has reported on significant improvements in accessibility that Apple has made to its Mac and iPod line of products, and the American Foundation for the Blind presented Apple with a 2009 Access Award for these accomplishments. With the release of the revolutionary new iPhone 3G S, Apple has done it again, this time in an even bigger way. Apple's VoiceOver screen reader, which has been part of the Mac computer operating system for several years, is now part of the new iPhone, and Apple has developed an ingenious "gesture" technology for interacting with the iPhone's touch-screen interface. Moreover, the accessibility comes at the same price our sighted friends and colleagues pay, so there's no so-called blindness tax. This article describes how this new interface works and evaluates how well it can access the many applications included on the iPhone 3G S.

Description of the iPhone 3G S

Available in the United States with service from AT&T, the iPhone 3G S is available with two levels of onboard memory. The one with 16 GB of memory costs $199, and the 32 GB model costs $299. You have to have a data plan with the iPhone, so your monthly service costs will be higher than that for a simple voice plan. Check with AT&T for the various service plans. The iPhone measures 4.5 by 2.4 by 0.48 inches and weighs 4.8 ounces. Its touch screen features a high-contrast color display measuring 3.5 inches diagonally.

The touch screen is the key to controlling the iPhone, but it also has some physical buttons. The Home button, which is used to bring up the iPhone's home screen, is a round, slightly concave button at the bottom center of the iPhone, just below the active area of the touch screen. The Screen Lock button, on the right side of the top panel, is a long, skinny button used to lock the screen so you do not inadvertently interact with the touch screen while it is in your pocket. On the top left panel is a switch to turn the Vibrate Alert on, and just below that switch is a Rocker button for adjusting volume. There are other physical features of the iPhone that are not buttons. These features include a standard 3.5-mm headphone jack, which is on the left side of the top panel, and the earphone, which is on the top of the touch screen. Also, the bottom panel features the speaker on the left side and the phone microphone on the right side. Between them is Apple's standard iPod/iPhone jack, used to connect the iPhone to a wall outlet or your computer for charging or syncing data. An Apple USB cable is included to connect your iPhone to your computer, and the cable conveniently connects to a standard two-pronged electrical plug included with your iPhone, allowing you to charge it from an electrical outlet. A set of ear buds is also included, and it has on its cord the same three-button control that comes with the iPod Shuffle Third Generation, another iPod that has VoiceOver features. In addition to activating some of the iPod applications' (apps) features, the ear bud's control button answers and ends calls and has a built-in microphone for phone calls.

In addition, the iPhone 3G S has three built-in electronic sensors. The proximity sensor knows when your face is next to the iPhone and automatically sets the sound output to come from the earphone if your face is next to it or from the speaker if it is not. The accelerometer senses when you have turned your iPhone sideways and automatically adjusts the display to a landscape orientation. It is also used in the iPod app's "shake to shuffle" feature, allowing you simply to shake your iPhone to play your songs in a shuffled, random order. The magnetometer is used in the Compass app to find true north.

The iPhone Home Screen

The iPhone's home screen features icons for the various apps that come loaded on the iPhone, as well as several status indication icons. The status icons along the top edge of the touch screen indicate such things as your signal strength, service provider, wifi connection strength, the current time, and battery strength. Below these status icons and taking up most of the rest of the screen are icons for all the various apps that come with the iPhone, such as messages, calendar, camera, and iTunes. I discuss the apps further later in this article. Along the bottom of the home screen are icons for the four main apps you will use most: Phone, Mail, the Safari Web browser, and the iPod app.

The iPhone's home screen shows icons for various standard apps, as well as status indicators such as signal strength, service provider, current time, and battery strength

Caption: The iPhone's home screen

VoiceOver and Gestures

Apple's VoiceOver screen reader and its accompanying gesture technology are how a person who is visually impaired accesses the many features of the iPhone. Sighted people also use gestures on the iPhone, but VoiceOver provides a unique set of gestures that allow a person who is blind or has low vision to use the phone. You pay nothing extra for VoiceOver, and it is built into all iPhones, not just the ones a person who is visually impaired would use. You can turn VoiceOver on when performing the initial setup and registration tasks for your iPhone. You do so using the iTunes software with the iPhone connected to a Mac or PC, and the process is entirely accessible on both the Mac and a PC using a screen reader or screen magnifier. VoiceOver can also be turned on using the settings on the phone itself, but sighted assistance is needed to do so. VoiceOver features an easy-to-understand speech synthesizer with a female voice, and you can adjust the rate of speech as well as the typing echo as you enter characters. It speaks in 23 different languages, with multiple dialects for some languages.

You may now be thinking to yourself, "OK, it speaks, but how do I control what it speaks if I have to use a flat touch screen with no buttons?" This is where VoiceOver's gestures come into play. If you know where an icon or button appears visually on the screen, you can just touch that position on the screen, and the button or icon will be highlighted and its name will be spoken. You can then "double tap" anywhere on the screen to activate the button or launch the application indicated by the icon. For example, I know that the iPod icon is on the bottom right-hand corner of the home screen, so I tap that area, hear the word "iPod" spoken, and then double tap anywhere on the screen to launch the iPod app. If you do not know where a button or icon is on the screen, you can drag your finger or thumb around the screen to hear the various elements on the screen and to learn their positions. You can also "flick" your finger left or right on the screen to move from element to element. For example, I know the Messages icon is near the top left-hand corner of the screen and the rest of the icons are in a grid layout on the screen. I can move my finger around that area until I hear the word "Messages" and then just flick my finger from left to right anywhere on the screen to move to the next icon. Continuous flicks move me through all the icons in the grid in a left-to-right, top-to-bottom manner. Flicking right to left moves you back through the grid in the reverse direction. When I hear the name of the icon I want, I can launch the app by double tapping (two quick taps with a finger) anywhere on the screen.

Here is a brief description of several other gestures for controlling the iPhone.

  • two-finger tap: stops VoiceOver from speaking what it is currently saying.
  • two-finger double tap: answers and ends phone calls or starts and stops music.
  • two-finger flick down: reads from your current focus to the bottom of the screen or to the end of a Web page.
  • two-finger flick up: reads from the top of the screen to the bottom.
  • three-finger double tap: turns VoiceOver speech on or off.
  • three-finger triple tap: turns the "screen curtain" on or off, allowing you to hide the display from sighted onlookers.
  • three-finger flick: moves you from page to page in apps or web pages.
  • split tap: used as an alternative to the double tap, and is described further in the section on typing on the iPhone.
  • one-finger flick up and down: used to adjust some settings and to move by elements selected by the rotor.

The Rotor

The rotor is a gesture that warrants a section of its own, because it provides additional ways to navigate through information on the screen. It is like a virtual knob you turn to select the way you navigate through text and other elements on the screen. You turn your thumb and index finger on the glass just like you would grip and turn the volume dial on your stereo. As you "turn" this "knob," you hear the names of the various elements by which you can move. When you hear the element that you want, you flick up and down to move by that element. For example, if you are using the Notes app, which is a simple word processor, the rotor moves between two choices: words and characters. You then flick up or down to move forward or backward by word or by character. When you use the Safari Web browser, the rotor can choose between many more elements, including headers, form elements, links, nonvisited links, visited links, images, words, and characters. It all depends on which elements appear on the page you are currently viewing.

Typing and Entering Phone Numbers

When you type or enter a phone number on your iPhone, a virtual QWERTY keyboard or 3 by 4 numeric keypad appears on the screen. You can use several of the gestures described earlier to use these virtual keyboards. You can highlight a character by dragging your finger or thumb around the screen or tapping where you think a character is, or you can find a character and flick around until the actual character you want is highlighted. Then, you double tap to enter the character. However, I have found the split-tap method to be the most efficient for me. Split tapping is an alternative to double tapping, using one finger to highlight a character or icon on the screen and then tapping with another finger anywhere on the screen. I use my thumbs and quickly move my right thumb around the screen to highlight the character I want and tap with my left thumb to enter the character. Entering information on an iPhone is definitely something that requires some practice.

Other Accessibility Features

The iPhone includes other built-in accessibility features. It has a setting for a white-on-black display for those who prefer reverse contrast and a Zoom feature that allows for up to 5X magnification (which is discussed further in the section on low vision accessibility). It has a Mono Audio feature that sets it to play both channels of the stereo input in both sides of a headset in case you have lost hearing in one ear. The iPhone also has a Voice Command feature allowing you to use your voice to place calls or to play music.

Built-in Apps

In addition to VoiceOver, I counted 21 other apps that come with the iPhone and all of their features are accessible. This is a list of the apps as they appear on the home screen: Messages, Calendar, Photos, Camera, YouTube, Stocks, Maps, Weather, Voice Memos, Notes, Clock (including a world clock, alarm, stopwatch, and timer), Calculator, Settings, iTunes, App Store, Compass, Contacts, Mail, Safari, and iPod. Oh yes, there is also a Phone app.

I have had a great time testing and learning to use these apps since I got my iPhone in June, so much so that my wife has begun calling herself an iPhone widow. I do not have room to describe all the apps here, but I will mention my experiences with some of them.

Accessing and entering data in the Calendar and Contacts apps was easy to do. However, I have found it much easier to enter my appointments and contacts on a Mac or PC and sync them to my iPhone. Making calls directly from the contacts app is easy to do. However, there is a minor bug that sometimes occurs when editing a contact on the iPhone. If you are inserting or deleting a character in the middle of a person's name or phone number, it sometimes inserts or deletes at the end of the name or number. Apple is aware of this bug, and I hope it will be fixed in the next software update.

The author is listening to the iPhone's speech output with a wireless device, while he performs a sync operation

Caption: The author syncing playlist to his iPhone

I travel a good bit for my work, and the Weather app is easy to use to enter the city I am going to and find a quick five-day forecast. The Maps app is also handy for getting directions when travelling by car, and it provides walking directions. The Notes app is good for jotting down a quick note, but I found using the Voice Memos app is faster than tapping out a note. You can also send a voice memo as an e-mail to your friends.

The iTunes app is used to access the iTunes Store, and it is easy to use to search for and buy music, audio books, movies, and television shows. It does, however, sometimes lose focus when downloading a long file, such as a movie or television show, so I usually put it down and wait for the file to finish downloading. The built-in iPod is an excellent app, and everything is accessible, including the Search feature. It is easy to use for listening to music and reading books from audible.com. I am admittedly no judge of musical fidelity, but the ear buds sound great. However, I prefer using a Bluetooth headset for added convenience.

I also use the Mail app and the Safari Web browser a significant amount when I travel or am away from my computer. The Mail app is a great way to check my e-mail on the way to work. We did find a bug that makes it difficult to gain focus on the proper form fields when you initially set it up to access your e-mail account, but it is a one-time-only problem. Also, if you are using a POP or IMAP account, iTunes will configure your e-mail automatically. Safari is a great tool to Google an important fact, especially when I am arguing about sports history with my poker buddies. The rotor is a great way to navigate a Web site quickly, especially one that has been properly designed. However, using the rotor to navigate by header initially did not work on some Web pages. It appears Apple fixed this bug in a later software release.

The Phone app is probably the most difficult to get used to, and if you borrowed my iPhone to make a quick call without ever having used one before, you would probably find it frustrating. Even after I used it for about a month, I found it to be somewhat difficult to dial a call in a noisy environment or in a stressful situation where speed is important. The ear buds can help you to hear VoiceOver's output better in such situations. Also, it could be the way I am tapping, but I have found ending a call with the two-finger double-tap method to be inconsistent. However, pressing the Screen Lock button or the middle button on the ear bud controller always successfully ends a call.

One tricky task to accomplish on the iPhone with VoiceOver is using interactive voicemail answering systems many businesses use where you have to press 1 for sales and 2 for customer service and the like. As soon as the call is placed, you have to activate the virtual keypad quickly by double tapping the keypad icon and then press the correct digit to access the department you want. You must do so amid conflicting speech coming from the other end of the call, and you have to do it before the system times out. This may sound like a daunting task, but there are a couple of techniques to get the job done. First, if you know ahead of time the digit you need to press to access, such as 2 for customer service, you can program it into the number you are dialing by placing a comma followed by a space and then a 2 in the phone number form field. You can also memorize exactly where on the screen the keypad icon appears and double tap that spot as soon as the call is connected. You will also want to use the speakerphone or ear buds or a wireless Bluetooth earpiece, because the touch screen is not active when you hold the phone to your face. Perhaps Apple could include a setting in the next software update to allow for the keypad to appear automatically when a call is placed.

Third-Party Applications

As you may have gleamed from Apple's television commercials for the iPhone featuring the tag line, "There's an App for That," literally thousands of third-party apps are available through the Apple app store, ranging from diabetes management to online gaming. Many are free, and most cost only a dollar or two, but a tiny fraction are pricier. I tested only a handful, but you can learn about more than 100 accessible apps at the following link: http://www.lioncourt.com/voiceover-compatible-iphone-applications.

Here is a list of five apps I tried with a brief description of their function and accessibility.

  • iFitness: This application is an extensive fitness-management software with several built-in workout routines as well as the ability to create custom workouts. It has a database of thousands of exercises in dozens of categories and gives detailed text descriptions of each. I have not tried all the features, but all that I have tried are accessible.
  • Kindle: This is Amazon's Kindle book-reading software for use on the iPhone. I bet you have already guessed it is totally incompatible with VoiceOver.
  • Wonder Radio: This app lets you search for and play thousands of radio stations from across the country, and it is mostly accessible except for a couple of unlabeled buttons. You can also browse categories of stations, and I find it great for listening to sports events.
  • Shazam: This is a cool app that identifies the song and artist of any song that you may hear playing. Just hold your iPhone near the speaker, and in about a minute, it displays the name of the song and the artist, along with buttons to do things like buy the song, watch a YouTube video of the artist, and read a biography of the artist. It is completely accessible.
  • Docs to Go: This app is used to send Microsoft Word documents and Excel spread sheets to your phone for viewing and editing. Unfortunately, this is an inaccessible app.
  • The Lexmark Accessibility Solution: Although this is actually just a Web interface to a Lexmark multifunction copy machine, not an app, it is completely accessible to use with VoiceOver. It is a unique accessible interface for accessing the many copy, scan, fax, and e-mail functions of a Lexmark machine that has been installed on your network. You can read more about it in my other article in this issue of AccessWorld, Lexmark Marks a Path Toward Accessibility: A New Solution for their Multifunctional Document Centers.

There are tons of games and other fun stuff in the app store, but there are also some serious apps, and the iPhone has the potential to be the platform for many apps that could positively affect the lives of people with disabilities. There is already an augmentative communication app that helps people with speech-related disabilities to communicate, and there are several diabetes-management apps. Although the diabetes apps are currently only for manually entering data regarding your diabetes regimen, there is real potential for wirelessly communicating with and controlling medical devices, such as blood glucose meters or insulin pumps. In fact, some manufacturers of insulin pumps are already working on wireless connectivity to cell phones.

Battery Issues

I did some informal battery testing on the iPhone and found that it takes about two hours to charge from no battery power to a full charge when using an electrical outlet and about three hours when connected to a computer. It takes longer if you are actively using the phone while charging the battery.

The life of your battery's charge depends on what you are doing with the iPhone. When I played media on the iPhone, such as a song, audio book, or movie, I got about 8½ hours of battery life, regardless of the type of media.

In standby, with the screen locked and VoiceOver running but not in use, I got about 1½ days of battery life, compared to a standby battery life of about 5 days with VoiceOver turned off, so VoiceOver does eat up significant battery life, even when not in use. Although you can turn Voiceover's speech off with a three-finger double-tap command, VoiceOver is still actually running, and battery life is not increased. There is currently no gesture command to start or stop VoiceOver completely. However, you can purchase from Apple extra battery packs and battery-based chargers to extend your usage. You can also extend your battery life by turning your iPhone off completely by pressing and holding the Screen Lock key for about 5 seconds.

Low Vision Accessibility

In addition to VoiceOver, the iPhone has other features that can accommodate people with low vision. One is the high-contrast display itself. Its 94% contrast ratio is the highest we have ever measured in our AFB TECH Optics lab. You can learn more about our optics lab and contrast measurements in Lee Huffman's article in the July 2009 issue of AccessWorld, Combating the Small Visual Display Invasion: AFB Works to Set a Display Quality Standard. The "White on Black" feature can assist those who prefer a reverse display, and the "giant" font available for e-mail displays your messages in a 14-point font when in landscape orientation, which, when shown on the high-contrast display, can accommodate people with mild vision loss. The iPhone's Zoom feature allows you to magnify the entire screen up to 500%. There are gestures to use to adjust the magnification and to pan around the screen.

We have so far done only limited testing on the Zoom feature with Lee Huffman, AFB TECH's low vision tech expert. Lee's initial thoughts are that it could be useful for a person who may need just a little bit of magnification, but perhaps not so much for a person who needs a great deal of magnification. The problem with magnifying a small screen display is that the more you magnify the screen, the less information fits on the screen, and you have to do a lot of panning around to view all the screen information. Lee found it difficult to learn quickly how to use the Zoom feature for panning around the screen, efficiently and effectively, and he sometimes experienced what he called an "old- style window-blind effect" when panning. When he would pan in one direction and then lift his finger, it would quickly flip back to its original position like an old window blind. He also mentioned the panning would sometimes move in a somewhat jerky manner. Lee said he prefers using the VoiceOver feature, rather than Zoom, because it was much easier to learn to use. However, he was quick to caution that he was able to test Zoom only for a couple of hours, and a person may be able to practice and get used to using Zoom more effectively and efficiently if he or she really wants or needs to.

One note of interest is that you cannot use Zoom and VoiceOver at the same time. Many people with low vision like to use speech and magnification simultaneously. However, the two apps use some of the same gestures, and it may be difficult to add the gestures to make it possible to use them together.


The iPhone's documentation is available in accessible PDF at http://www.apple.com/accessibility/iphone/vision.html. You can also find an accessible html version at http://help.apple.com/iphone/voiceover. The manual is also included on the phone itself, bookmarked in the Safari Web browser app.

The Bottom Line

We do not often use the term "revolutionary" in AccessWorld, but it does apply here. Apple's unique interface for accessing a flat touch-screen interface is not only important for accessing the seemingly unlimited apps that are available for the iPhone, but it proves the point that it can be done. This gives us hope of finding solutions for the many inaccessible touch screens many of us face in our daily lives. The third-party apps open up a myriad of possibilities, and Apple has done a great deal of work to make it possible for developers to design their apps to be compatible with Voiceover. They have created accessible Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) in iPhone OS 3.0, and the iPhone Software Developer Kit (SDK) costs only $99. You can learn more at the iPhone Dev Center: Resources for Making Your iPhone Application Accessible. Perhaps our community can approach these third-party vendors to work with us on the accessibility of their apps.

This is certainly a brand-new concept in accessibility, and there may be a learning curve for many people. However, most blind people I have spoken with about their use of the new iPhone have reported being up and running quickly. I definitely learned to use it quickly, but it is my job to do so, and I do not think the iPhone left my hands in the first two days. Some people may not get it as easily, so the rehabilitation and education professions may need to develop some training systems for using this new iPhone.

One great thing about the iPhone is it is a software-driven device, and Apple has shown a real desire to keep developing more accessibility. By the time you read this article, Apple will have already been at work fixing some of the minor issues with the iPhone I have pointed out in this article (see the Addendum at the end of this article for information on a later software update that adds to the accessibility of iPhone functionality). Apple has been working on significant improvements to the functionality of VoiceOver on the Mac, and it was included in the recent release of the Mac's new Snow Leopard operating system, to be reviewed later in AccessWorld.

New iPods

Apple has also released two new accessible iPods: the iPod Touch Third Generation and the iPod Nano Fifth Generation. The iPod Touch Third Generation includes VoiceOver and the same gesture technology described earlier for the iPhone, making it completely accessible. Basically, it has the same apps as the iPhone but without the phone. It also has a feature that allows you to learn and practice using gestures. The Nano Fifth Generation is the same size and shape as the iPod Fourth Generation, which was previously reviewed in AccessWorld, but it now has a built-in speaker, FM radio, and video camera.


As we were about to post this article, Apple released the software version 3.1 update for the iPhone, and we want to report briefly on the significant improvements in accessibility provided by this update.

  • Triple-click home: You can now press the home button three times quickly to toggle VoiceOver, Zoom, or White on Black on or off. You can also use the settings to choose which of these accessibility features you want to toggle with the triple-click Home command. This is handy if you want to share your iPhone with a sighted person or to save on batteries. Also, thanks to Mike Calvo and Serotek's Serotalk Podcast 23, we learned that this feature makes it possible to use the Hue Vue color identifier app that is available at the App Store. You can find the podcast at: http://serotalk.com
  • Cut, copy, and paste: You can now use cut, copy, and paste while in the Notes application. The rotor gesture now has a choice for edit, and you can flick up and down to choose to select the current word or to select all. You can then choose cut or copy and paste the selection somewhere else. For example, you can paste a phone number or e-mail address you have jotted down into the phone app or e-mail app. You can even copy and paste a phone number that uses alphanumeric digits, such as 1-800-DOMINOS. Also, when pasting into an edit field, you can double tap to toggle the insertion point between the beginning and end of the field.
  • Undo: You can now shake your iPhone. Flick left or right to choose the action to undo, and then double tap. For example, you can undo your edits to a note.
  • Additional rotor settings: In addition to the Edit feature mentioned earlier, there are now additional rotor settings that you can use on web pages. The Static Text setting allows you to flick up and down to move quickly to blocks of static text, text that is not a link, form field, or other page element. The Zoom setting allows you to flick up and down to increase the magnification of the page.
  • Navigating a list index: Some web pages have lists that have an alphabetical index along the right side, and you can now conveniently move through the index with VoiceOver. It is a great way to scroll quickly through your songs and artists on the iPod app, especially if you have hundreds or thousands of songs loaded. You simply touch the list index directly to select it and flick up or down to move through the index. Or you can select the list index and double tap and slide your finger up or down to move through the index quickly.
  • Opening links in mail messages: In Mail, you can now double tap and hold down on a link. The address is displayed, and you can choose to open the link in Safari or copy the link address to the clipboard.
  • Editing videos and voice memos: You can use VoiceOver gestures to trim the beginning or end of videos and Voice Memo recordings. It allows you to choose the amount of time, in seconds, that you want to trim. Also, when you pause a video or memo, it tells you how far you have progressed as a percentage. With this information, you can do the math and be very accurate with your trimming.
  • PDF file support: VoiceOver can now read PDF (portable document format) documents that are attached to e-mail messages. You simply double tap on the button for the attachment, and it appears and VoiceOver begins reading it. Of course, the PDF has to be accessible. Just as with Adobe Reader on your computer, image-only documents do not work, and documents with bizarre layouts are difficult to comprehend. Another limitation is that it reads the whole document straight through from beginning to end, and if you stop, you cannot start where you left off. You can read by word or by character, but there are no other navigation options.
  • Voice control using a Bluetooth headset: You can now enter spoken Voice Control commands through a Bluetooth headset in addition to the ear buds and built-in microphone.
  • Saving photo and video e-mail attachments: You can now save photo and video attachments to your camera roll albums. You just touch and hold the image attachment and tap Save Image.
  • Compass: VoiceOver now automatically announces the compass heading when there is a change in direction of 5 degrees or more.
  • Battery life: The battery life between charges has also been significantly improved with this software update.

This Product Evaluation was funded by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, WV.

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Access Issues

Is a Netbook Computer Right for You?

The new generation of small notebook computers, often called netbooks, are cheap, light, and wildly popular. But are these devices a good choice for those of us who rely on assistive technology?

The convenience offered by a 2- or 3-pound netbook or a manageable laptop with a full-sized keyboard is as welcome as it is for sighted colleagues who use the same machines. If you have contemplated shifting from a desktop to a portable computer, you should give some thought to the selection and configuration of a screen magnifier, screen-reading program, or other specialized technology. Here are some observations that we hope you will find helpful.

Size Matters

Although the lines among laptop, notebook, and netbook computers are fuzzy, here are some helpful identifiers to assist in separating the classes of systems.

Laptops are the largest portable computers that you will encounter. They offer screen sizes of 15 inches and larger. They also include fast processors that are comparable to standard desktop computers. Optical drives, formerly CD-ROM drives, are integrated into the computer. They commonly offer three or more USB ports; full audio in and out connections; and connections for external video monitors, including both VGA for the traditional computer monitor and HDMI connectivity for the current generation of household television sets.

Laptop systems with screen sizes greater than 15 inches often use screens in the 16 by 9 aspect ratio. This important change facilitates viewing of the increasingly popular letterbox formats such as Blue-Ray and high-definition television. An additional characteristic of the 16 by 9 screen machines is that their keyboards often include the full complement of keys of the traditional desktop keyboard. For those who use screen readers, the availability of a number pad on a laptop is a welcome convenience.

Product shot of HP laptop computer. Laptop has a full keyboard, including number pad.

Caption: A typical laptop

Notebook computers are typically smaller than laptop systems, with screens ranging from 12 inches to 14 inches, and include the traditional 4 by 3 screen of earlier computers. Like laptop systems, they include an optical drive, three or more USB connections, and at least a VGA video connection and have processors that are comparable to less powerful desktop systems. The keyboards on notebooks do not usually include a number pad; however, they offer separate Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys.

Product shot of IBM notebook, which has a full-sized keyboard but no number pad

Caption: A typical notebook

The netbook, the new kid on the shelf, has received a lot of attention for good reason. These machines are available in sizes small enough to rival traditional notetakers for people who are blind. Most of them feature a 10-inch screen and have remarkably similar technical and physical characteristics.

Product shot of HP netbook, including a pencil to show scale. The netbook is just slightly wider than a sharpened pencil is long.

Caption: An example of the new kid on the shelf, a typical netbook

Most netbooks are based in the Intel Atom processor, the slowest and most efficient of the current line of processors in use. Thus, certain compromises have been made in the name of efficiency and battery life, and this is what these machines are all about. The form factor of products from at least half a dozen manufacturers, including HP, Toshiba, Dell, Asus, and Samsung, is remarkably similar. The keyboards are a fraction of the size of a full-size notebook keyboard; 90% to 94% is typical. USB ports, usually three in number, offer connectivity. A card reader is also typical. Audio in and out is handled by two connections that serve double duty in some instances. No optical drive is included, requiring the purchase and configuration of a separate outboard drive. The keyboard may not include separate keys for Home, End, Page Up and Page Down. These keys require the use of a function key in combination with another key. Screen navigation or review tasks, which use the Control, Shift, and Home keys, require pressing four keys at the same time in such machines.

Netbooks are amazingly inexpensive, ranging from $299 to $499. The devices rely on Windows XP for the operating system, rather than Windows Vista, now the standard on most notebooks and laptops.

Screen Readers and Magnifiers on Laptops and Netbooks

Any Windows screen reader or screen-magnification program that supports the Windows XP or Windows Vista operating system should work on a laptop or netbook as it will on a desktop PC. Netbook audio support is similar to the built-in audio found in the larger laptops. We at AccessWorld have not received reports of difficulty with text-to-speech synthesis on these machines. Some special drivers, which are not common on larger computers, may be used to accommodate the reduced size and capacity of the Intel Atom processer.

At least one manufacturer, System Access (www.serotalk.com) offers a version of its screen reader and magnifier that is intended specifically for netbooks that operate the Intel Atom processor. The limited version is priced substantially lower than the company's flagship product, which also works on the Atom machines. Check with the vendor who sold you your access technology or with the manufacturer directly before you purchase this version.

If you are contemplating the use of an optical character recognition (OCR) program, you should also check with your manufacturer before you make a purchase decision. The Kurzweil 1000, for example, will work on Atom-based netbooks. According to the company, the speed will be slower on the less powerful netbook computer than on a fast laptop. Some portable flatbed scanners are available from manufacturers, such as Canon, and make excellent companions to a netbook.

Proprietary Add-ons and Trial Software

Firing up a netbook, notebook, or laptop for the first time will reveal the add-on programs, free trial programs, and proprietary utilities that are associated with your new purchase.

Free offers include preinstalled services that want to tempt you to sign up for service by offering 30 days free. Norton Antivirus and McAfee Antivirus are common. It is always a good idea to install and maintain a full arsenal of defenses against unwanted viruses and spyware. We suggest that you investigate which program or programs will work best for you in advance and install them before you go online. It is generally advisable to have the free software offerings removed or to remove them yourself before you use the computer with speech or magnification.

Custom enhancements, such as the HP Desktop Assistant and Toshiba's management tool, an inaccessible bar that floats beside the desktop, are offered by manufacturers to increase the value of their brand in comparison to the competition. Although this is an understandable strategy, many people who use screen-access technology find that these add-ons are often inaccessible baggage that detracts from the experience, rather than enhances it. As with free trial software, we suggest that you remove these applications unless you have specific knowledge that they are both useful and accessible.

Proprietary tools are another class of software that you may encounter on a new system. Netbooks, by virtue of their size, try to pack lots of functions into a small package. They often rely on specialized software to do so. For example, when I connected the headphones on the Toshiba Netbook that I recently purchased, using the standard audio output, a popup item required me to select headphone or line level and then to click OK. While my screen reader recognized the choices, the OK button was not identified. A quick trial-and-error session revealed the correct "custom control" for "OK."

Over the past few months, we have received anecdotal reports from many individuals who, for the most part, are happy with their netbook choices. Asus machines appear to provide useful tools and software features and Toshiba and Acer less so.

If you have an issue with the inaccessibility of a custom utility, it may be possible to change the software that controls a particular function. An example is the management of wireless connections. On many systems, wireless management defaults to a proprietary application provided by the manufacturer. This application can be changed by going to the Network Connections option in the Windows Control Panel and selecting Wireless Network Connection. Information available in the dialogue box will guide you to finding and selecting the option to allow Windows to manage wireless connectivity of the system.

For more technical adjustments, such as selecting the processor speed and setting the battery-conservation settings, there may be no other option than to interact with the manufacturer provided applications. In many netbook systems, a number of functions are performed by means of the function key and a number key. Making note of these keys can also be useful as you customize the machine to meet your needs.

Purchasing from the Best Source

Laptops and netbooks are often purchased online. For the experienced user of assistive technology who has access to good information about the characteristics of a computer, an online purchase can be convenient and satisfying. However, if you need to be able to ask some specific technical questions and to try the machine for yourself, where you buy can be as important as what you buy.

Big box stores and computer centers typically offer the most choices in one place. Best Buy defines "big box" and, as you would expect, offers many choices to try in the store. More specialized retailers, such as Micro Center, offer a large inventory; I counted more than 10 netbooks on a recent visit. The additional advantage can be in the depth of knowledge of the sales staff. A salesperson who sells systems to business and advanced users may have a body of knowledge greater than the generalists at an office superstore.

As with any successful technology purchase, some advanced planning and data gathering can go a long way toward avoiding a poor choice and dissatisfaction with your new computer.

Try them all. In an orderly manner, try each of the systems you are considering. Check out the feel of the keyboard and the location of the controls and commonly used keys. See the checklist presented later for specifics.

Take your screen reader on a thumb drive or try System Access or System Access to Go (www.satogo.org) in the store. A membership is free. Even if it is not your primary screen reader, System Access will give you a clear impression of the behavior of a particular machine compared with others you are considering.

As was mentioned earlier, it is important for you to find out what free software is included. If the machine you are interested in includes proprietary applications and utilities, can it be returned for a full refund if these applications are inaccessible or interfere with the operation of your assistive technology?

Netbook Laptop Checklist

Here are some questions to consider:

  • Will this machine support my access technology? Check with your vendor or manufacturer. Generally, most machines will run assistive technology in a manner similar to a desktop.
  • Is this machine powerful enough to run the programs I need? Simple word-processing, e-mail, and web browsing will run smoothly on the most modest processors. Video and audio editing, games, manipulation of large files, and other complex tasks may be unpleasantly slow on netbooks.
  • How is the keyboard on this machine? Be sure you can perform specialized tasks, such as table navigation with speech, or zooming control with screen enlargement. If a keypad is a necessity, is it easy to use and reach? Are the Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down keys usable in combination with Shift and Control?
  • Can I hear and understand the audio? Some speakers, especially in netbooks, are difficult to hear. The HP DV2, a 12-inch netbook, has an especially easy-to-hear speaker for speech.
  • Can I configure the machine myself, or do I need assistance? As was mentioned earlier, addressing the management of unwanted or proprietary software is one of the most important considerations. If you are not comfortable with this task, purchasing from a source that also offers fee-for-service support may be the best option.
  • Who will install my access technology? If you are comfortable installing and configuring your access technology, you are ahead of the curve. If you have concerns about installation on an unfamiliar system, arranging for assistance at the same time that preinstalled and unwanted software is removed is advisable.
  • Do I know which optical drive will work with this machine? Not all optical drives work equally well on a given machine. As a general proposition, devices of the same brand should be the most compatible.
  • Can I connect peripherals at my desk? Many users want the full complement of monitor, desktop keyboard, speakers, printer, and scanner when the portable is at the office or home. If the USB connections are not sufficient to support your devices, will a USB hub do the trick?
  • How long will the battery last on a charge? This is a significant question for netbook users who often choose the technology for extended mobile operation. Three hours are typical on standard battery packs, and seven to eight hours are not uncommon on larger battery packs. For larger machines, the battery life may be significantly shorter.

Sources of Information

A UK-based site (www.trustedreviews.com) is an interesting and potentially useful source of in-depth reviews. The reviewers do not hold back. Since netbooks are so similar, their reviews are detailed. The current video reviews are easy to locate on the page. The commentary is useful and includes a description of the physical layout of each machine. In addition, www.blindcooltech.com offers many reviews of netbooks and other portable options.

The Mac Option

The release of Apple's Snow Leopard operating system has focused increased attention on the Macintosh as a viable alternative to Windows-based portables, including attention by those of us who use screen reading or screen magnification. Recent price reductions in the Macbook laptop line have spurred sales of these machines. Starting at about $995, Mac notebooks are more expensive than Windows machines. However, when you add the price of a screen-access program to the price of even a modest Windows system, the total expenditure may shift significantly in favor of the Mac.

It is important to consider whether the Mac, using the free Voiceover screen-access program, can satisfy your computing needs. Many web sites and articles address this issue with reviews and demonstrations.

While text editing, web browsing, and e-mail functions are all supported by the suite of applications that is included on every Mac computer, we are not aware of specialized OCR offerings that are comparable to Freedom Scientific's OpenBook or to the Kurzweil 1000 package. As with Windows, off-the-shelf OCR programs may be accessible and effective alternatives.

The Macbook Pro laptop, priced at $1,200 and up, includes some innovative navigation technology. With Voiceover, the use of gestures means that for the first time the touchpad can become an effective nonvisual element. Although AccessWorld has not yet evaluated this technology, we have observed that similar gesture-based navigation of the iPhone is a compelling advancement

If you are interested in exploring the Mac option, VoiceOver can be activated on any system that runs Snow Leopard. Resources and information are growing on the web, and many users have provided personalized information by means of lists.

On the high end, the combination of a powerful MacBook and a product called VMWare Fusion allows you to run Windows, including your access technology, as a virtual machine on a Macbook. In this ultimate configuration, you can enjoy the best of both worlds, Snow Leopard with VoiceOver and Windows when you need it. Be advised that the price is also high end. Expect to spend upwards of $1,400.

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Product Evaluation

Lexmark Marks a Path Toward Accessibility: A New Solution for their Multifunctional Document Centers

In 2006 and 2007, AccessWorld published a series of four articles that evaluated the accessibility of multifunction printers (MFPs), examining the large stand-alone units as well as the smaller, less expensive desktop units for offices that may not need a large workhorse copy machine. Those articles pointed out that most of the features and functions of the desktop units were not accessible to customers with visual impairments and that only two manufacturers of the large machines had designed solutions for these customers. The Xerox Copy Assistant software, which is placed on a separate PC, provides access to only some of the machines' copy features, and Canon's Voice Operation Kit, loaded directly on the copy machine itself, provides access to some of the machines' copy, fax, and e-mail functions. This article introduces the Lexmark Accessibility Solution, a new solution for MFP accessibility. The Lexmark Accessibility Solution is a web-based interface for using the copy, fax, scan, and e-mail features of many of the small, medium, and large multifunction machines.

The Lexmark Accessibility Solution

Priced at $499, the Lexmark Accessibility Solution is a Web-based interface available for 20 of Lexmark's MFPs. It is an embedded Java application that is installed as a flash file on the MFP, and you use your browser to link to the machine and configure the job you want the machine to perform. Lexmark worked with assistive technology companies to ensure that the software was designed to be compatible with a wide variety of assistive technologies. On a PC, it is compatible with GW Micro's Window-Eyes and Freedom Scientific's JAWS screen readers. It works with Freedom Scientific 's Magic and AI Squared's ZoomText screen magnifiers. It also works with the Web browser on GW Micro's Voice Sense and Braille Sense PDAs (personal digital assistants). If you use a Mac, the Lexmark Accessibility Solution is compatible with Apple's Safari Web browser using the Mac's built-in VoiceOver screen reader. It is also compatible with the voice-recognition software that some people with mobility impairments use on their PCs. As I was evaluating this product, I was also evaluating Apple's new iPhone 3G S, which now has the VoiceOver screen reader built in, and discovered that it was also compatible with the Lexmark Accessibility Solution. You can read my article on the new iPhone in this issue.

A visually impaired employee using the Lexmark app on her iPhone to control the copy machine

Caption: Using the iPhone to operate the Lexmark

How Does It Work?

Instead of using the touch-screen interface on the Lexmark MFP as your sighted colleagues would do, you use your Web browser to link to the IP address of the MFP where the Lexmark Accessibility Solution is installed. For convenience, you can place a shortcut on your desktop or bookmark the address in your browser. When the Lexmark Accessibility Solution comes up, you interact with it just like you would any accessible Web page on the Internet. It has properly tagged headers, links, and form fields that you use to configure the job you want to perform on the MFP. When you submit all the parameters of your job, a message appears telling you to go to the MFP to load the paper and to enter a code for the job. You then put the document that you want to be copied, faxed, scanned, or e-mailed face up in the document feeder or face down on the scanner glass and enter the code on the MFP's tactile keypad. The code is always the pound key followed by a number--usually 1--unless you have configured more than one job at a time.

The home screen has links to all the major functional categories of the MFP, including copy, fax, e-mail, scan to FTP, and scan to PC. To print a file, you simply use the print dialogue of your word processor or other application, so you do not have to use the Lexmark Accessibility Solution to print. You activate the link to the category that you want to use, and a group of properly tagged form fields that are used to configure the features you want to use appears. These fields represent nearly all the features and functions of the MFP, providing access to over 70 controls for configuring your document.

Not all the Lexmark MFPs have all the same functions, so the Lexmark Accessibility Solution will show only the functions that your particular MFP has. For example, if yours does not have a stapler function, then the staple field will not appear on the Lexmark Accessibility Solution. Also, the Lexmark Accessibility Solution accesses most but not all the functions that sighted users can access via the MFP's touch screen interface. The list of functions that it cannot access is limited to those options that require input via the touch screen, such as these:

  • Auto Size Match
  • Book Original (scan type)
  • Custom jobs
  • Manual feeder
  • Secure PDF (portable digital format)

After you configure all the settings that you want for your job, you press the Submit button. However, for settings that require you to enter a numeric value, such as the number of copies that you want, you have to hit the Save and Continue button. Doing so can add a bit more time to your task, but, according to Lexmark, it was required to enable the Lexmark Accessibility Solution to work on GW Micro's Voice Sense and Braille Sense PDAs because of a Javascript problem. To save time on a task that you perform often, you can save a job's settings and access it again later with one click on the main function screen.

Other Features

With the Lexmark Accessibility Solution, a user with low vision can adjust the way the interface is displayed on the screen, allowing you to choose the font size and colors that are used without a screen-magnifier application. It also has a link to an MFP status page, where you can learn if the paper tray is empty or if the fax line is disconnected. The version that we tested had a problem with this status page refreshing every 15 seconds, which forced JAWS constantly to move to the top of the screen and away from where we were reading. However, we reported that problem to Lexmark, which immediately fixed the problem for their current version. The home screen has a convenient link to the manual. It also has a convenient "bread crumbs" way of informing you where you currently are in the interface, with links to the parent pages that are used to get you to your current position.

The MFPs

The Lexmark Accessibility Solution is compatible with 20 of Lexmark's MFPs, ranging in price from $999 to $11,099. The MFPs range in size from the desktop, which measures about 19 by 17 by 16 inches to the larger floor models that measure about 43 by 26 by 28 inches. They come in color and black and white models, and all have a touch screen interface as well as a tactile keypad. You can go to the Product Information section at the end of this article for the complete list of compatible MFPs.

As with nearly all MFPs, the basic maintenance tasks, such as changing paper and clearing paper jams, can be accomplished nonvisually on the Lexmark machines. However, these tasks require some initial sighted assistance and practice to learn to perform them.


The manual for the Lexmark Accessibility Solution is embedded in the software, and you link to it from the software's home screen. It is a fully accessible HTML interface, and we were able to use it with all the devices that we used to test the product. Each page of the application also has a Help button to access more information.

Is Everything Accessible?

Although nearly everything is accessible, we did find a few issues when testing the Lexmark Accessibility Solution. Some error reports and the fax transmission confirmations are presented on inaccessible paper printouts. However, you can use the Scan to PC function to send the printouts to your PC and use your OCR software to read them. By the way, the Scan to PC feature is a great way to do a batch scan of a large amount of printed material and then use your OCR software to read it. MFP configuration is not an entirely accessible process because it requires some interaction with the MFP's touch screen. However, this is a one-time-only task that is done when it is installed on your office's computer network. We had a little trouble setting up the e-mail function, but our problems were with determining the proper settings for our office's e-mail system. The setup process itself is accessible, except for the final step of entering your e-mail password on the MFP's touch screen. Again, though, this is a one-time-only process.

The Bottom Line

The Lexmark Accessibility Solution is a solid product that provides access to more MFP features and functions than people with visual impairments have ever had. There are still some minor accessibility gaps, such as the printed feedback regarding errors and confirmations of fax transmissions, but that is also true of the other solutions.

In our 2006 evaluations of the Xerox and Canon solutions, one of the reasons why we preferred the Canon solution was that the individual user interacts with the machine, not a separate PC wired to the machine. However, even though the Lexmark Accessibility Solution relies on a separate device for the interface, it provides access to more features and functions. In addition, we did not encounter the problems that are associated with using a separate computer for the interface that we found when testing the Xerox system. The Lexmark Accessibility Solution even has several advantages of its own. The fact that you can use such a wide variety of devices (PC, Mac, Braille Sense, iPhone) provides a great deal of flexibility. Also, creating a job on your PC or PDA and then just entering a code on the MFP does not tie up the machine while you are configuring the job. Furthermore, you start the job at the machine itself, so you always know which paper output is yours. My sighted colleagues also liked using the Lexmark Accessibility Solution because they could quickly configure their jobs at their desks and did not have to use the touch screen on the MFP.

We congratulate Lexmark for taking the initiative to create this access solution in a product category where there are few options for accessibility. It joins Xerox and Canon as the only companies in this field that have developed accessible interfaces. We at AFB TECH love it when we find more choices in the world of accessibility.

Product Information

Product: Lexmark Accessibility Solution.

Manufacturer: Lexmark International, 740 West New Circle Road, Lexington, KY 40550; phone: (859) 232-2000; web site: www.lexmark.com/accessibility.

Compatible MFPs.

X463de, X464de, X466de, X466dte, X466dwe, X651de, X652de, X654de, X656de, X658de, X734de, X736de, X738de, X738dte, X860de 3, X860de 4, X862dte 3, X862dte 4, X864dhe 3, and X864dhe 4.

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Book Review

Using the Accessible iPod, by Anna Dresner, National Braille Press, hardcopy braille, DAISY CD, Portabook CD, text CD, or for download, $15.

If you have been thinking about buying an iPod, particularly since the news hit the streets last fall that iTunes and some iPod models are now usable by people who are visually impaired, my advice to you would be, first, buy this book! With the publication of Using the Accessible iPod, Anna Dresner and the National Braille Press have, once again, produced exactly the needed missing piece to complete a popular picture for technology consumers who are blind or have low vision. Yes, iTunes and some iPod models now talk. However, while the least experienced sighted user of technology can take an iPod, load it with music, and create playlists to blast from the iPod deck on his or her dashboard on the way home from work, the process is far less straightforward for the new iPod customer who cannot see the computer screen. With her trademark clarity and patience, Dresner provides complete information and step-by-step instructions for capturing the accessible iPod experience.

Beginning at the Beginning

In this book, Dresner includes everything a visually impaired consumer needs to know to use iTunes and the "talking" iPod successfully. Beginning with which products to purchase, and how to download and install iTunes to make it work properly with a screen reader, she then moves through all the tasks an iPod user may want to accomplish. You will learn how to set up your iPod to make it talk (it does not talk right out of the box, but takes, instead, the voice of your chosen screen reader on your computer to create voice tags) and on to downloading, transferring, organizing, and playing the content you want to hear.

Sections are devoted to downloading and playing audio books, podcasts, and other content from sources other than iTunes as well. In each case, information is provided in manageable chunks, along with step-by-step keystrokes for computer users who are blind or have low vision.

You will learn how to build and manage your iTunes library and how to create various kinds of playlists. There is often more than one way to accomplish the same task, and Dresner takes the extra time and space to explain the options.

Because not all iPod products are made equally, sections are dedicated to each product that is capable of speech. The iPod Nano, for instance, has its own controls and a screen. The Shuffle, on the other hand, has only one switch on the unit itself and is operated primarily from the controls mounted in the right earbud cord. The book includes detailed physical descriptions of each product, along with individualized setup and operating instructions.

Along the way, there are loads of informative tidbits that will prove especially beneficial to those who are new to handheld players. Managing battery life, for example, selecting the right USB port, and disconnecting your device without damaging it or its content are the kinds of tips that are sprinkled throughout the book that will be useful to the reader beyond the use of an iPod.

If you are wondering what prompted my advice that the would-be purchaser of an accessible iPod should buy and read this book first, consider Dresner's comments under the heading "Registering and Setting Up Your iPod:" "When you first get your iPod, don't turn it on until you have connected it to your PC and configured it unless someone sighted is available." The reason for this warning, she further explains, is that one must first select a language on the unit, and since there is no speech on the unit out of the box, it would be easy for a user who is visually impaired to inadvertently select a language other than the one he or she wants. If such a mistake is made, nary an audible word will be heard from the iPod!

For tips like this and the kind of keystroke-by-keystroke help only another computer user who is visually impaired can give, it may be easier on your budget to spend $15 on the book before you plunk down $79 to $200 for an iPod itself. If you have already selected and purchased an iPod, Dresner's book can make getting acquainted with it a much less painful process.

Available Formats

Using the Accessible iPod by Anna Dresner, National Braille Press, $15. Available in two soft braille volumes, DAISY CD, Portabook CD, text CD, or for download in any of the available formats.

To order: www.nbp.org or call 888-965-8965.

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The Man for All Programs

Jamal Mazrui may already be familiar to some readers of AccessWorld. For the rest, a dip into the vast repository of unique and important programs that he makes freely available will likely be awe inspiring and valuable.

Jamal was born in Uganda. His parents were educators, his father a professor of political science and his mother a teacher of language. His parents met while his father was in graduate school in England. When one talks with Jamal, the influence of his British mother's upbringing contributes, charmingly, to his passionate and thoughtful way of communicating.

Life for the young Jamal changed dramatically at the age of 8, when the family fled strife-torn Uganda and the political upheaval of Idi Amin. The Mazrui family first settled in California, where Jamal's father was a professor of political science at Stanford University. Several years later, the family moved from California to Michigan when Professor Mazrui accepted a position at the University of Michigan. Jamal lived the life of a normal teenager until a second dramatic change took place. At age 16, he lost his vision to a rare hereditary condition. The same disorder also resulted in severe vision loss for his brother.

"I was so fortunate that I had a wonderful mentor in those days. I realized that I needed to continue my plans and move ahead, rather than sit around and not do what I had always intended to do," Jamal recalled. Indeed, the impact of his mentor and the community of blind people did the trick. Jamal attended Princeton University and graduated with a degree in operations research, followed by a master's degree in public policy from Harvard University.

"Public policy was always my intended career," Jamal told AccessWorld. Despite the challenges that so many people in his situation face, Jamal persevered. It was as a graduate student that he had another encounter that changed his life—this time with his first accessible computer. "I became obsessed with getting [the PC] to do everything possible. It started with what could I do with a word processer macro. Then I became interested in d-base programming." Suddenly he had twin passions: public policy and programming.

With his new master's degree and an interest in programming, Jamal set about finding a job. However, he did not have the same success finding employment as his Harvard classmates, which he found disheartening. "I thought that having an Ivy League education would make blindness less important. I found out that blindness was very significant because everyone else got jobs, and I didn't."

Jamal wanted his professional work to be in the mainstream and his service to the community to be a voluntary effort. "One of the best ways to change attitudes is to see a blind person doing work for which he was paid and that is unrelated to disability," Jamal said.

Eventually Jamal obtained a position programming for Advocate Development, which produced not-for-profit software. "The company didn't make it, so I moved to the Kennedy School at Harvard, where I was in charge of alumni records."

Like many other organizations in the mid-1990s, the Kennedy School shifted from DOS to GUI (Graphical User Interface)-based computer systems. At Harvard, this change caused a shift to Windows-based MS Access. Despite many attempts to design workaround solutions, none of the screen readers of the time worked well. Ironically, at the point of getting more responsibility, Jamal found that the technology that had provided opportunity and employment had betrayed him.

The advent of Windows meant that Jamal had to reconsider his plan to keep his disability-related work an advocacy effort. In 1995, Jamal went to work as an analyst for the National Counsel on Disability, a post he held for four years. In 1999, he moved to the Federal Communications Commission, where he is still employed. His work includes both disability and non-disability aspects.

In addition to forcing Jamal to obtain new employment, the Windows era inspired him to begin creating the many programs and utilities that so many computer users and professionals who are visually impaired depend on. He said, "I started to develop techniques of searching for tools, a Windows version of the d-base." Jamal also wanted to know whether in addition to a tool's accessibility, the end result was accessible to the user. He also wanted to develop programs that were useful to both visually impaired and sighted people.

After a number of years, Jamal had a breakthrough with a product called JAWS Script Exchange, which allows the creation of a self-executing package of JAWS Scripts. WinDig, a program that analyzes all aspects and every property of a program and creates a report, followed. Jamal went on to create special tools, including developer-oriented tools. He created a site called nonvisualdevelopment.org, which now includes more than a dozen programs for developers and end users. In addition, Jamal makes available 70 Window-Eyes scripts.

In his quest to address current challenges, Jamal created McTwit to provide a comprehensive client for the popular Twitter service. When he described the challenge of creating a nonvisual interface for the complex functions of Twitter that is satisfying for beginning, intermediate, and advanced users, he explained, "Existing applications were very mouse driven. To begin with, it was simple, but people began to request more complete access. Beginner and advanced users may have the easiest time. The status line will describe each control for the advanced user who is familiar with the controls; you have immediate access."

Jamal has designed several tools that are of particular value to web and program developers who are blind. One is a text editor called EdSharp, an editor in the cSharp language. It is intended as a replacement for Notepad and WordPad tools for manipulating text.

Jamal described several of his more esoteric applications:

  • HomerJAX, an interface that is used to interact with an application within a browser to develop an accessible client rapidly;
  • TestPage, which generates a quick accessibility report from Internet Explorer; and.
  • Layout By Code, which allows an individual who is blind to lay out a visually satisfying site.

Despite the time that he devotes to developing programs, Jamal manages time with his family. He lives with his wife and young daughter in suburban Maryland just outside Washington, DC.

After talking with Jamal Mazrui for even a short time, it is clear that our community is fortunate to receive the benefit of his combination of talent, passion, and clear understanding of the kinds of programs and tools that so many of us count on.

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Editor's Page

For ten years, AccessWorld has carried on a proud tradition of extensive product evaluations, comprehensive reporting on new technologies, user-friendly explanations of services, along with tips and techniques on how to do many different activities. I consider myself fortunate in serving as its first Editor in Chief and in handing the reins over to a valued colleague and technology expert, Jay Leventhal, who ably took the publication to new heights over the last nine years. Jay elevated the quality of our reporting and coverage and made all of us better for his guidance. He will be missed. I salute his service to this magazine and to AFB.

Jay and I built on a tradition of excellence begun by Deborah Kendrick, the founder and Editor of the technology magazine, Tactic. I am pleased that Deborah continues to share her insights through AccessWorld.

Those of you who read AccessWorld Extra, our bimonthly electronic newsletter distributed in the months between the posting of the full publication, are aware that we are gathering your input about the news and information you most value from this technology news source. We have posted a questionnaire on our web site so that you can help us shape AccessWorld to best meet your needs and desires. We are especially interested in your ideas about how to balance the importance of comprehensive and detailed analysis with your need for immediate information. We know you want breaking news, but we also know you have come to expect the insightful analysis gained from expert testing of a technological product or service to tell you what works and what doesn't. This painstaking process takes time, but we hope you find the results of our evaluations to be worthwhile.

I've been thinking a lot about the balance of breaking news and painstaking reviews as we've tried to keep up with the technology innovations launched recently by Apple. Darren Burton has been our "go-to" guy on the iPod and the iPhone. In fact, we've added his analysis of the latest iPhone software release to the ever-lengthening article he was working on in this issue.

Obviously, much has changed in the information technology world in the ten years since AccessWorld was launched. But the innovations from Apple are of seismic proportions.

Apple has been the darling of the technology world for years, but only recently has it risen from the scourge of people with vision loss. And, wow, it has risen like a rocket!

In the past few years, Apple has revolutionized our thinking about technology accessibility. People with vision loss have relied on increasingly robust assistive technology developers to build work-arounds and add-ons to allow us to use new hardware and software, albeit with added cost to the consumer. With the launch of Voiceover and Zoom for the Mac OS, followed by the inclusion of Voiceover in the iPod and iPhone, Apple has charted another course.

Let's call this the Apple model: robust access built in and improved in conjunction with the regular product release cycle. It marks the end of what some call the "blindness tax" for access, and a potential boon for many in the developing world as well who cannot afford the cost of assistive technology. However, there are consequences, illustrated by the recent access problems resulting from changes made by Apple to the iTunes store. This model also means a shift away from the highly specialized AT model which provides dependable products from developers who work closely with our community and often share our disability.

Is this ultimately what we want? Do we expect Microsoft, RIM (of Blackberry fame), Nokia, etc. to add full accessibility into their products? Apple's foray into built-in accessibility has been greeted with enthusiasm, although not uncritical. I remember the consternation surrounding the short-lived rumor in the 1990s that Microsoft might purchase or license the screenreader JAWS, and the concern raised about the functionality it would put into a Windows voicing app called Narrator.

Should we expect mainstream companies to adopt the Apple model and build robust accessibility into their products? I invite you to join in on this discussion.

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AccessWorld News

Movies at Home for Everyone

A recent partnership between WGBH of Boston and Sony Pictures of California spells good news for movie lovers who have difficulty seeing key elements on the screen. Beginning this September, all Sony theater releases with Descriptive Video Service, when made available in DVD or Blu-Ray formats, will include an additional audio track containing the description. WGBH pioneered Descriptive Video Service in 1990, with the launch of description added to some PBS television programs. This new partnership marks an exciting new era, making first-run movies available for viewers who are visually impaired on the commercially available disks.

The descriptive track will be found in the alternate language menu and will be identified as English Audio Description. It will be activated only when the menu item is selected, so the same movie can be played with or without accompanying description. To access the menus, customers who are blind or have low vision should use a hardware DVD player with a remote control that includes a Languages button or access menus through Windows Media Player or WinDvd on a computer.

Among the first movies to be released under the partnership will be District 9, Julie and Julia, and The Ugly Truth. To view a regularly updated list of titles available on DVD that include the DVS audio track, visit the web site http://main.wgbh.org/wgbh/pages/mag/resources/accessible-dvds.html.

Online Computer Essentials Training

The Cisco Academy for the Visually Impaired offers online computer essentials courses for people who are blind or have low vision. Because of a collaboration among organizations, including Curtin University of Australia, Cisco Academy, and qualified instructors who are blind, the same course material that is taught to sighted students is presented online in accessible formats. Training can prepare individuals to work helpdesks, act as network technicians and service routers, and so forth, in one or both of the existing courses. As the name implies, Cisco equipment is used, but preparation for A+ certification includes work with Microsoft, Linux, and Apple products.

Students who are visually impaired from Australia, Egypt, India, Sri Lanka, Canada, and the United States have participated. The cost is $75 and includes certificates. For further information, e-mail caviinfo@gmail.com.

Eye-Pal Solo

The Eye-Pal Solo is a recent alternative to scanning and reading print for people who are blind or have low vision. The product consists of a two-inch-high box, where the printed page, book, or magazine is placed for scanning, and a 16-inch pole holding a camera above the print to be scanned. Within seconds of pressing the camera's button, the Eye-Pal has processed the image and begins reading the scanned text aloud via synthesized speech. Controls allow the user to start and stop reading or navigate backward or forward through the recognized text. While not as portable as some other reading devices, (the box is the approximate size of a city telephone book or large braille volume), the Eye-Pal offers some advantages for people with manual dexterity or level of perception difficulties. The camera is permanently located in the desired place above the print, and the platform itself serves as a tactile guide for the correct placement of pages. The device can hold up to four pages in memory. Its approximate cost is $2,000. While supplies last, customers who purchase Eye-Pal SOLO in September and October 2009 will also receive a free Acer Aspire Netbook computer.

For more information, contact ABISee at www.abisee.com or phone 800-681-5909.

Desktop Magnifier

A collaboration between HumanWare and the Royal National Institute of Blind People has produced the SmartView Synergy, an electronic desktop magnifier. The product can ship with a 19-inch flat LCD monitor, a distortion-free 22-inch monitor, or be used in conjunction with a monitor or television a customer already owns.

With SmartView Synergy, the user with low vision can read magazines, newspapers, and bank statements or enlarge and view charts, diagrams, and photographs. Controls allow the user to adjust contrast and size to meet individual needs, and the LCD can be set to a variety of positions.

For further information, visit www.humanware.com/synergy or contact HumanWare Canada directly by phoning: 888-723-7273. In the United Kingdom and Europe, phone +44 1933 415 800 or e-mail eu.info@humanware.com.

Focus 40 Blue

Freedom Scientific has released a new braille display, boasting a 40% reduction in size compared with previous units from the company; wireless connectivity; and a host of features for flexible and portable refreshable braille at home, at work, or on the go. The Focus 40 Blue offers 40 cells of refreshable braille, Bluetooth 2.0 connectivity, a Perkins-style braille keyboard, and USB connection for recharging the unit. The battery runs for 20 hours between charges, and the display can operate within 3 feet of the desktop or laptop computer with which it is paired. On a long commute, the user who is blind or has low vision can leave the laptop in the bag and work solely from the Focus 40 Blue.

Navigation options include thumb keys, WHIZWHEELS, and rocker bars, and the unit features 10 hot keys for user customization. The price is set at $4,495.

For further information, phone 800-444-4443 or visit www.freedomscientific.com.

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Copyright © 2008 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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