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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 February 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 2

In This Issue

Editor's Page

Have Something to Say -- Questions… Comments… Information to Share? Let Me Know. Put It in a Letter to the Editor!

Product Review

An Evaluation of DocuScan Plus: A Read Anywhere Program

This article reports on the test drive of DocuScan Plus, an application using optical character recognition (OCR) software to recognize and read hardcopy text.--Deborah Kendrick

Access Issues

An Accessibility Check of the Yahoo Toolbars

This article looks at Yahoo's standard, sports, and finance toolbars and reports on their accessibility for people with vision loss.--Marc Grossman

An Evaluation of C-Desk for Media

This article evaluates new software that reduces the business of downloading books into a few simple steps.--Deborah Kendrick

Letter to the Editor

An AccessWorld Reader Shares his Discontent with the Reliability of Braille Notetakers

AccessWorld News

AccessWorld News

Editor's Page

Have Something to Say — Questions… Comments… Information to Share? Let Me Know. Put It in a Letter to the Editor!

Lee Huffman

Dear AccessWorld readers,

It's February; how many of you are still on track with your new year's resolutions? I hope last month's article on frequently asked questions about fitness was helpful to those of you looking to improve your health in the new year. I also hope you enjoyed reading about the latest updates from Apple and about the WinZoom 4 screen magnifier and the built-in magnifier in Windows 7.

This month Deborah Kendrick takes a look at DocuScan and C-Desk for Media and Marc Grossman looks at the accessibility of Yahoo toolbars. We also have an interesting letter to the editor, in which a reader voices his frustrations with the reliability of notetakers and calls for improvements.

I get several e-mails from readers each month. Some ask questions about products evaluated in articles, some suggest topics to be covered, some have specific technology questions, some praise the magazine, and some critique. Whichever the case, I always appreciate your feedback and do my best to make sure all your e-mails are answered.

Going forward, look for the Letter to the Editor section, where each month I will select a letter to publish for AccessWorld readers to read, and comment back to me if they wish. This will increase the interaction between readers and myself, and allow you to see what is on the minds of fellow AccessWorld readers.


Lee Huffman

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Product Review

An Evaluation of DocuScan Plus: A Read Anywhere Program

Since its earliest venture into the assistive technology arena with FreedomBox, (which grew up to be the more sophisticated System Access screen reader and System Access Mobile Network), Serotek Corp. has kept simplicity and easy access at the heart of its product designs. With the introduction of DocuScan Plus, an application using optical character recognition (OCR) software to recognize and read hardcopy text, those two principles are evident as usual.

Initial Test Drive

The future of any product is especially bright if the initial peek is a positive one, and that was the case for me with DocuScan Plus. With a scanner attached to a computer, you log onto the DocuScan Plus website, and after a very brief log-in procedure, you are ready to scan a document.

If this is your first time using the program, the self-voicing application guides you through a simple form to complete, and you're off and running.

After that first log-in, I selected number 1, "Simple scan," from the menu of choices, and then pressed Continue to confirm that I did indeed want to scan a document, and was actually somewhat startled that the process was that quick and easy! The scanner whirred, the self-voicing DocuScan Plus told me that the process "may take a minute," and sure enough, in about just that span of time, the program began a flawless narration of the book review it had just recognized from O, The Oprah Winfrey Magazine!

Next, I placed three or four different pieces of the day's mail delivery — an ad, a newsletter, a product announcement — on the scanner and was immensely pleased with the accuracy of recognition. The entire process — signing up and testing three or four different types of pages took only about 20 minutes.

This initial test drive was conducted using Windows XP on an Asus netbook with a Canon LiDe 110 scanner attached. Later, as I read through the product's Help files, I discovered that this happened to be the very scanner recommended and sold by Serotek. Product documentation indicates, however, that the program will run on any Windows Vista, Windows XP, or Windows 7 along with most twain-compliant or other scanners. The documentation is always available as Option 6, "Help." It is broken down into neat little packages of information and can be accessed at any point while using the program or downloaded as a zipped file in a variety of formats.

Beyond the Page

Once DocuScan Plus has finished reading a scanned page aloud, you are given several options. You can edit the scanned text, re-scan the page, scan the next page, or save the document. The program announces whether a page is right side up or upside down before reading it. This announcement immediately brought two quirks to my attention. One was that the top of this particular scanner (i.e., the edge nearest the hinge holding the lid in place) is interpreted to be the bottom rather than the top of the page. Whether this varies from scanner to scanner, I'm not certain. The other quirk, clearly of DocuScan Plus itself, is that although it identifies a newly inserted page as upside down or right side up, it fails to announce whether or not the page is blank.

If, in fact, there was text on the page, you are presented with an Edit button for any changes you might want to make. The editing possible here is extremely basic. You can delete or insert text to make corrections. After editing the page, you can scan the next page, re-scan the page, or save it.

Documents saved are saved online unless you specify otherwise under Manage Documents.

Scanning Options

In addition to the simple scan, DocuScan Plus presents the options of Batch Scan and Auto-Read. The former is intended to give you the option of scanning several pages and saving them as one file, without the interruption of reading each page as you go. Auto-Read is similar in that it affords the option of scanning continuously without reviewing each page. I found little difference between these two options, with the exception that Auto-Read provides a double beep to let you know when the coast is clear to scan a new page. Both save little time in the scanning process itself, although Auto-Read might be a bit faster than the Simple Scan option.

If you want to add to a document after having scanned and saved it, DocuScan Plus allows you to do that as well.

Frills and Other Formats

After a document has been successfully scanned and recognized, there are a variety of ways in which you can manipulate it. You can e-mail the document to yourself or someone else if you are a SAMNet subscriber. You can send it to an Amazon Kindle if you have previously established an Amazon account for doing so. You can save it as a DAISY-formatted file, an MP3-formatted file, or a file formatted for braille. You can opt to save it to the computer's hard drive in regular or large print, and you can protect a given file with a password.

Again, being a SAMNet subscriber enhances the DocuScan Plus performance. If saved as a DAISY file, for instance, the document will be placed in your SAMNet sync list for later transfer to a portable player. If saved as an MP3 file, the file will be saved to your SAMNet Media Library for later play through the System Access media player. (It should be noted that, although using the program for SAMNet subscribers can certainly provide a more seamless experience, DocuScan Plus is a fully functional application when purchased as a stand-alone product.)

When DocuScan Plus is hard at work scanning or recognizing a page, progress is always indicated by the classic System Access tweedling sound. (This can be changed to a clicking sound or no sound if preferred.) Spoken messages also alert you to the progress of a scan or save procedure.

Overall Benefits

The beauty of DocuScan Plus, as with other System Access products, lies primarily in its ease of use and portability. Its simplicity means you can be up and running quickly, literally scanning and recognizing needed documents that first time you examine the program. Because it is a self-voicing program, you can try it out from any computer, whether a screen reader is on board or not. If you own the product, you can use it on any computer as long as there is a compatible scanner connected to that computer. You can go into any business office anywhere with a computer and scan documents you have been given there to read — a library, hotel, client's office, or anywhere else you can think of. The program remembers your preferences and you can read documents on the spot, e-mail them to yourself, save them online, or transfer them to your portable player to read on the go.

The accuracy of the recognition software is truly excellent. In the event that you need to be certain of 100 percent accuracy — as might be the case with a financial document or contract, for example — the editing feature in this program requires no training whatever, so that you or a sighted assistant could quickly proofread and amend as necessary.

DocuScan Plus sells for $299. If you need a quick and accurate approach to translating printed material into a form you can access for yourself, this product will make a great addition to your assistive technology toolbox.

Author's Note: Shortly after completion of this article, Serotek introduced a new package at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Combined with the HoverCam, a pocket-sized camera, DocuScan Plus will be sold as a completely portable reading solution. The package will sell for $800, and may be reviewed in a future issue of AccessWorld.

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Access Issues

An Accessibility Check of the Yahoo Toolbars

It looks like it is time to shake off the holiday hangover and get back to real life. I can honestly say that I probably ate too much food and spent too much time in front of the television and radio watching and listening to holiday classics and football games. And of course, there are the New Year's resolutions I kept for, oh, about a week or two. There were the usual suspects, such as removing the clothes from the exercise bike, taking up jogging, and cutting out sweets, at least from breakfast, but I am definitely resolving to try out some new technology.

I have always been fascinated by mainstream technology and feel it is important for people who use assistive technology to familiarize themselves with the same tools used by their colleagues. In the last couple of years, the folks at Yahoo's accessibility lab have worked diligently with Yahoo engineers to revamp many products to work better with assistive technology. You will recall that I looked at "Getting the Most from Yahoo Frontpage" in the September 2010 issue of AccessWorld. In this issue, I will look at the Yahoo toolbar and how it works with my assistive technology. For the purposes of this evaluation, I used Internet Explorer 8 and Firefox 3.6 on a Windows 7 laptop and the latest version of a popular screenreader.

What Is It?

Some people may not be familiar with toolbars or how they can be helpful. I have to admit, I am one of those people. So my first step was to visit the Yahoo toolbar landing page. There are three toolbars for Yahoo users, including the standard toolbar and one for sports and finance. The standard toolbar provides users with access to their e-mail, news, and weather. I activated the link for the demonstration video and learned that the toolbar allows me to customize and access information from the browser without having to start with the Yahoo homepage. Users can also access their Facebook and Twitter accounts from the toolbar without having to leave whatever page they are on. It is probably best to have a Yahoo account to take full advantage of the services offered, so if you have not already done so, sign up for a free account.

The Download

Now that I was convinced that this was something that I could use, I decided my next step was to download the toolbar. I activated the "Download now" link from the toolbar homepage, selected the installation options, and agreed to the software license agreement and privacy policy. I did notice that the page does not necessarily reload when the user activates a link, or in this case the "I agree" button. This might be a new behavior for you if you don't spend a lot of time on the Internet. If you feel like you have gotten lost, do not despair; the pages are well marked up and you can use your screenreader's navigation keys to find your way back to where you need to be. There is one more screen regarding the collection of data under the privacy policy and one screen describing the installation instructions. You may be prompted by your operating system to allow the installation, so don't walk away too soon to grab another cup of hot chocolate. (Did I mention that I can't be bothered by those pesky New Year's resolutions?) One of the final steps in the installation process is to add more applications to the toolbar. Because I was not aware of how accessible these additional applications are, I skipped this step, but I am sure that I can return later to play around with them if I desire. I downloaded the toolbar first on Internet Explorer and was pleasantly surprised to see that there was an option to also install the toolbar on Firefox within the same installation.

Internet Explorer 8

For Internet Explorer 8 users, you will need to familiarize yourself with the F6 button on your keyboard. The F6 key will cycle your focus from the web site content to the address bar and the toolbars. You can also hold down shift while pressing F6 to move backward. You will use the F6 key along with the tab key and the arrow keys to interact with the toolbar. It does take a little bit of practice, so please be sure to exercise some patience.

I suggest you open up a new browser window so you can keep AccessWorld open as you experiment. It really does not matter what page you are currently on, but you should be logged into your Yahoo account. Use the F6 key to cycle past the address bar and you should hear your screenreader announce "Toolbar search split button." If you don't hear this after cycling past the address bar, use the tab and shift plus tab keystrokes to locate the toolbar. From this point, you can use the arrow keys to move left and right as well as up and down to hear a variety of options for each button. If you don't hear the buttons for Facebook or eBay, you can press the spacebar on the button labeled "More" and then use your arrow keys to move around.

When you arrive on the Facebook button, press enter and you'll be prompted to enter in your username and password. You will now find yourself on the same application for Facebook that is found on the Yahoo Frontpage. You can check your Facebook status updates, look at friends' profiles, and see who has an upcoming birthday. When you are finished, use your screenreader commands to go to the top of the page and find the close button and you'll return to whatever you were previously doing.

If you want to do something other than Facebook, there are a variety of other Yahoo properties you can explore, such as news, weather, sports, and finance. You can also access your calendar, My Yahoo favorites, and address book.

Working with the toolbar offers Yahoo users quick access to all of the Yahoo properties without having to go to the favorites menu or address bar. You can quickly check your e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter; listen to music; or check the weather. There is a learning curve when it comes to the keystrokes used to access the buttons in the toolbar. You may need to experiment with the tab key and the arrow keys until you get the hang of it.

Firefox Experience

The Yahoo toolbar works quite differently when using the Firefox Web browser. The first thing that you will notice when using Firefox is that you can only use the F6 key to reach the address bar and then the focus returns to the web page that you are currently viewing. The folks at Yahoo managed to place the toolbar in the dropdown menu section of the browser instead of in the toolbar section, so all you need to do is navigate to the menus with the alt key and either tap the letter Y or arrow left or right until you find the Yahoo menu. Use the down arrow to move down the list and the left and right arrows to explore submenus. I could not figure out how to access the Yahoo Facebook application that I was used to on the Yahoo Frontpage. When I arrowed down to Facebook and tapped enter, I was taken to the regular Facebook web site instead of the application. This was a disappointment to me as I am not a fan of the traditional Facebook interface and would have preferred the Yahoo application. If you have figured out how to access the Yahoo Facebook application, please let us know.

The Firefox version of the Yahoo toolbar does seem easier to use because it is probably more familiar to me. There are no additional keystrokes to learn and it gives me quick access to all my favorite Yahoo properties without having to type in the addresses or find the links from the homepage.

The Bottom Line

For years, I have heard screenreader users raise their voices about the inaccessibility of toolbars. From conversations I have had with developers, it sounds if it takes a lot of work to make them accessible. Yahoo has obviously spent considerable time and energy to make their toolbar accessible. I do think the toolbar will be a useful addition to my Web-surfing arsenal and should improve my speed. It might not be great for everyone, but if you are curious, I would recommend you give it a try. You will certainly be able to appreciate the effort put forth by the Yahoo team.

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Access Issues

An Evaluation of C-Desk for Media

For those of us who cut our technological teeth on DOS-based computers and early screen readers, the concepts involved in downloading books from such sites as NLS BARD or Bookshare don't seem terribly complicated. You download a zipped or compressed file to your hard drive, unzip the files, cut and paste them to the appropriate place for the desired result of listening to an audio book. However, for people who have not grown up with the aforementioned circumstances and/or for whom vision loss has occurred later in life, the steps involved in downloading and transferring an audio book to a player can be daunting.

Adaptive Voice, a small California company dedicated to making computers friendlier tools for people with visual or cognitive disabilities, has introduced C-Desk for Media, a small piece of software that reduces the business of downloading a book to a few simple steps. Although this company has been under the radar for many of us, they've actually been distributing their all-purpose speech and magnification software, C-Desk, since late 2009. This newest application, C-Desk for Media, is intended as an add-on for existing C-Desk customers, but it is catching attention quickly from long-time users of assistive technology who are intrigued by its speed and simplicity.

What is C-Desk for Media?

Perhaps the most solid common denominator product used by people with vision loss in the United States is our national library for the blind, known as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. With the introduction of various mainstream and specialized book players and, most recently, distribution free of charge of NLS's own digital talking book player to all patrons, interest in downloading books is spreading like wildfire.

Bookshare is another widely tapped source of materials, through which text (DAISY and braille formatted) books are shared among people with disabilities. While each of these organizations has created accessible and navigable web presences, the steps can be tedious for people who are new to vision loss and/or web navigation. The process of downloading books from these sites and transferring them to any one of a half dozen or so players can be tedious. If you own more than one type of player, each has its own quirks for loading content. C-Desk for Media streamlines the process. No matter what player you use for listening to the downloaded content, the steps for downloading the book or magazine will be the same, and the program itself does the work of identifying the player and placing the content in its proper form and location.

How C-Desk for Media Works

To get started, log on to the C-Desk for Media website. An online video tells you how to download the application. Following its steps, you click on the download link, and in a few keystrokes the application is installed on your Windows-based computer.

C-Desk for Media is a self-voicing program with a text magnification feature. If you use another screen reader, you will probably want to silence it while using C-Desk for Media. Each time the program is launched, it looks at your system and takes advantage of whatever SAPI voices are already in residence (Microsoft Sam for Windows XP systems, or the much more appealing Microsoft Anna is drawn from Windows 7.) When the program is launched, screens can be navigated and functions performed with the program's self-voicing capabilities, as well as via magnified font, which can be increased or decreased with a keystroke.

When C-Desk for Media is launched from your desktop, you can learn to use it by launching the Help screen (Alt-H.) While a list of shortcut keys and text explanations are available from the Help screen, the quickest way to learn is through the series of short video tutorials, each of which can be launched instantly from this screen.

When you install the program, a registration form asks for your contact information and login information for Bookshare and NLS BARD. Once this registration has been completed, you never need to supply the login information again. C-Desk for Media does it for you.

Getting Books

Once the installation and registration has been completed, (which will take about ten minutes), you launch the application, and you will be placed in the form to search for media. Tabbing through the fields, you can select the field for title or author, or using the advanced search options, category, book number, or narrator. If, for example, you know you are looking for books by Charles Dickens, you tab to the author field, type "Dickens, Charles" and press Enter. A list of titles appears. When you hear one of interest, press Enter again to hear the book annotation. To download the book, tab to Get (or press Alt-G) and the book is downloaded to your system. If a USB drive or SD card has been inserted, you will then be asked if you would like to have the book transferred to that device. It's that simple.

If you'd like to have 10 books downloaded but at a later time, you can "Get" your desired treasure trove of titles, and schedule the download for up to 12 hours later. If the USB drive is attached to your computer, the whole process can occur while you're away at a meeting or sleeping.

Smart Program

I tested the program's recognition capabilities by inserting a USB drive used with an NLS digital talking book player, an SD card used for a BookSense, and a cable connected to a Victor Reader Stream. In each instance, C-Desk for Media immediately identified the device to which content was being transferred and placed it in the appropriate location for that device to play it later.

The Story Behind the Story

Michael Wechter has been in the business of developing computer products for 35 years. His primary business was in the realm of telephony, speech recognition, and text-to-speech applications for the mainstream. Randyce Wechter, his wife and partner, ran a small and successful wholesale bakery near their home in Palm Springs, California. In 1999, at age 45, Randyce suddenly lost her sight. The diagnosis was optic neuritis, caused by a mysterious autoimmune condition, and she was suddenly completely blind.

Randyce closed her business, and the couple moved to Orange County California, where she could begin receiving chemotherapy and extensive medical treatment that was required while adjusting to her life with vision loss. At the Braille Institute in Anaheim, California, she learned to use braille, a long white cane, and a variety of blindness techniques. She founded the Orange County chapter of the Foundation Fighting Blindness (for which she continues as president emeritus) and became actively involved in other support groups. Today, she says that most importantly, she learned to listen and to use her intelligence creatively to solve problems. The greatest benefit, she says, of losing her sight, was the many friends with vision loss she has come to cherish.

Miracles happen sometimes, and Randyce Wechter loves to share her personal experience in the miracle arena. In 2004, after being hospitalized for a small stroke, she regained the sight in her right eye — not full sight, but sufficient for driving again and no longer needing many of the tools of blindness. Along the way, however, she had built lasting relationships with many blind people and blindness agencies.

Initially, what would grow up to be C-Desk were simply the tools developed by a computer-developer husband to enable his newly blind wife to maintain independence. Although she had run a business, Randyce says she was never particularly computer savvy while she was sighted, and thus had little interest in expensive and complex screen reading software once she became blind. Michael developed simple, inexpensive solutions to enable her to maintain her contacts list and communicate with others. In the summer of 2009, the couple demonstrated a program that had become C-Desk to a group of friends who were blind, and as Randyce put it, the immediate reaction was, "Wow! Can I have that?"

The result was almost inevitable — that the computer guru husband and formerly blind wife would pool their creative talents and passion to build tools to enhance the quality of life for their own friends and others with vision loss.

The "parent" C-Desk program is an all-purpose speech and magnification program, designed to enable people unable to see the screen or see it well, to do the primary functions of computing. In a relatively short time, the program has developed a solid customer base — comprised largely, though not entirely, of people who want to use e-mail, surf the web, compile contacts, and write letters, but who are not willing to invest large sums of money or intensive training time into acquiring the freedom to do so. [The C-Desk program sells for $299 and may be evaluated in a future issue of AccessWorld.]

"About 20 percent of our customers," Mike Wechter commented, "use a popular and more complex screen reader at work during the day, and then come home at night and use C-Desk on their personal computers to do the things we all consider fun."

C-Desk for Media grew directly out of the company's interaction with customers and friends. One instructor told the Wechters that there were 23 steps involved in teaching a person how to download a book. With C-Desk for Media, there are only three. For customers already using C-Desk, this new application is an add-on. The overwhelming response, however, has been from people who are blind or have low vision who are technically savvy and already use sophisticated access software, but are attracted by the C-Desk for Media's efficient simplicity.

The program isn't perfect. When the list of resulting titles appears, for instance, you press Enter to hear the resulting annotation. When this article was first prepared for publication, that annotation did not include the narrator's name or book's reading time. For many, whether a book is 2 hours long or 25 makes a difference, as does whether it is narrated by your favorite or least favorite professional reader. When I mentioned this shortcoming to Michael Wechter, he pointed out that pressing F10 from within the program opens a suggestion box for just such input. I instantly submitted the above suggestion, and two days later I received an e-mail message that the feature had been incorporated into the program!

That level of personal interaction, incidentally, is a trademark of Adaptive Voice. The company is small — just Randyce and Michael Wechter and a few others, but the understanding is solid and the personal touch visible at every turn. Rather than a written manual, for instance, you have 24/7 immediate access to training videos, each about five minutes in length, in which Michael Wechter takes you through a given process step by step. When you launch the program, it bids you "Good morning" or "Good afternoon" and addresses you by name. When you call for technical support, someone at Adaptive Voice is ready and willing to guide you through any troubled waters, and the company's use of remote support (accessing your computer to troubleshoot) is the most efficient I've seen to date. (Pressing Escape eight times to access remote support is, without doubt, the simplest route I've ever seen to this type of support and one that the least savvy among computer users can execute!)

At this writing, only the NLS web site is fully accessible. Bookshare, however, is ready to go and will become available shortly.

The price for C-Desk for Media is only $39. It's a simple tool that is fun to use and can save time and frustration. To purchase or download a 15-day free trial, visit the C-Desk for Media website.

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Letter to the Editor

An AccessWorld Reader Shares his Discontent with the Reliability of Braille Notetakers

Dear AccessWorld:

Why isn't there a reliable braille note taker worth its price on the market today? Is there anything the consumer with vision loss can do about it?

In this letter, I try to outline some of the problems I see as severely limiting the reliability and effectiveness of note takers currently designed for the visually impaired user. I believe that we demand far too little of the companies that design and manufacture such devices. I also offer a possible starting point for empowering the visually impaired user. More reliable information on the actual performance of such units should lead to greater competition among manufacturers and to significantly improved note takers.

Today, there are a number of companies producing and marketing adaptive aids directly to those of us who are blind or visually impaired. In this piece, I restrict myself to a discussion of braille note takers. These are small, light-weight devices using a refreshable braille display and/or synthetic speech for their output and a braille or QWERTY keyboard for input. Most boast that they are the only Personal Data Assistant (PDA) you will need during your busy day. They claim that their proprietary software integrates a fully functional word processor, e-mail client, web browser, calendar, and address book. They also claim that these note takers can connect seamlessly and reliably to your PC or netbook and that the calendars on both devices can be effortlessly synchronized. Unfortunately, at least in my experience, these claims are greatly overstated. The performance of these devices is spotty at best.

Well known note takers include: Humanware's Braille Note, Empower, PK, and Apex as well as Freedom Scientific's Braille Lite and Pack Mate, GW Micro's Braille Sense, and Voice Sense. (My apologies to any company whose offerings I have inadvertently omitted.) These devices generally cost from approximately $2,500 to around $6,000. Most are reasonably light in weight, physically fairly sturdy, have acceptable braille displays, and have speech which is fair but not great. In my experience, the main thing differentiating these devices is the sophistication of their software.

Today's Braille note takers are long on hardware engineering, but inconsistently programmed so that they are short on reliable software applications. This severely limits their usefulness. How have we, the consumers, the visually impaired community for whom such devices have in theory been developed, allowed ourselves to settle for products which only partially and inconsistently deliver what they advertise? It is my contention that none of these devices would be commercially successful, if they had to compete with equivalent products produced for the sighted consumer.

I offer an example from my recent experience. Unfortunately, it refers to note takers from HumanWare, a company I like and have respected. In the past, I have experienced very similar problems with products from Freedom Scientific.

I own the Braille Note Classic and the Braille Note PK. I purchased these units several years apart and I use them somewhat differently: the light weight PK for note taking and the 32-cell Classic more for reading. I purchased both with my own funds costing approximately $11,500. The reason for owning two such expensive machines is that Humanware's service contract does not allow for a temporary replacement unit while the defective one is being diagnosed and repaired, a process which can take anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of months. I do not understand how a company can sell you a device it claims is the only one you'll need, handling all of your note taking, word processing, calendar, e-mail, and internet applications, only to leave you hanging when it fails. (It should be noted that Freedom Scientific has long recognized this problem, and their service contract includes a loaner unit shipped to you overnight.) For me, being without a note taker for even a couple of days is enormously disruptive.

I am a clinical psychologist. Recently, I had my first session with a patient who had a lengthy and complex psychological history. I took copious notes since the patient was very clear about the exact dates of certain events, about medications which had been used, together with response and side-effects. The notes were on the flash drive of my BrailleNote PK. The PK was "not quite itself" that morning, and I did the recommended thing for such situations, I performed a standard reset of the unit. Much to my dismay, when the machine reset the only thing remaining on the flash disk was the original factory folders the PK places there. The two folders and numerous documents I had created were nowhere to be found. This time technical support was more sympathetic. However, the files still could not be located. It is worth noting that the PK has no "Undo" command as is common in more sophisticated devices. The only explanation offered was that sometimes the PK loses files when the disk has less than 1.5MB of free space. I was also told the Eloquence voices are "real memory hogs" and sometimes cause processing problems. If these factors are so critical, they should be emphasized more often. For example, why couldn't a message appear stating that the disk is sufficiently full and that saving additional files could result in their being lost or corrupted? (Just for the record, my disk had more than 5MB of free space when my files disappeared.)

I have drawn two conclusions from this and other disheartening experiences:

1. As consumers, we with vision loss, have allowed ourselves to buy products at a premium price which are unreliable, inferior to products available to the sighted, and poorly supported. Shame on us — me included. I'm not sure how this deplorable situation came to be. But I do know that things will not improve until we demand more of the companies producing braille- and speech-enabled note takers. All of the hard-won legislation requiring interoperability of telecommunications will do us little good if we do not have adaptive devices able to handle this information efficiently and reliably.

2. I believe that the only way we will see meaningful changes will be if we utilize the very real power we hold as consumers. That is, by allowing our purchasing power to demand improvements. Economists tell us that accurate information openly shared is one of the most important factors for markets to function efficiently.

I have begun to wonder by what mechanism we, the visually impaired consumers, can get the information we need in order to keep the suppliers of braille note takers honest, and help us to make informed decisions. Magazines like AccessWorld provide an important service by giving impartial reviews of new products as they come to market. However, in my experience, it is only when many consumers use a product for many different applications that we really begin to know its strengths and weaknesses. Furthermore, it is only when consumers bring problems to the attention of manufacturers that we truly know how committed those manufacturers and their distributors are to supporting and improving the products they sell.

Stimulating competition among the manufacturers and vendors of braille note takers will substantially improve the notetakers themselves and the lives of those of us who depend so heavily upon them.

(For a copy of the author's initial proposal on how the issues raised above might begin to be addressed, you may contact him at coyote@iglou.com.)


Michael Lichstein, Clinical Psychologist

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AccessWorld News

AccessWorld News

The iPhone Comes to Verizon Wireless

On Tuesday, January 11, 2011, news broke confirming the rumors that Verizon Wireless will soon be carrying the iPhone. Reports say that they will be carrying the iPhone 4, and it will include the same VoiceOver screen reader, Zoom magnification, and other accessibility features built into the iPhones that have been available from AT&T.

Verizon Wireless will offer 16 and 32 GB models of the iPhone 4. According to its web site, AT&T will allow existing customers to pre-order an iPhone "on or around" February 3. Then, on February 10, new and existing customers will be able to purchase the iPhone 4. They plan to confirm these details about a week beforehand. AT&T customers who already have an iPhone will not be able to switch over their service to Verizon on their existing iPhone.

As the Verizon iPhone rumor was being confirmed, new rumors began circulating that the iPhone 5 will be out sometime this summer, and that both AT&T and Verizon will be carrying it.

AT&T to Study Synthesized Speech

AT&T Labs — Research, with the cooperation of the standards committee on text-to-speech synthesis systems of the Acoustical Society of America, is running a web-based experiment to evaluate the intelligibility of synthesized speech for people who have been legally blind from six years of age or younger. This experiment includes most of the text-to-speech engines on the market today, and the results will be used to improve the usability of text-to-speech for people with visual disabilities.

If you would like to participate or learn more, visit the experiment website.

The experiment pages have been tested for JAWS compatibility.

If you have questions or suggestions, please contact:

Amanda Stent
AT&T Labs — Research
Florham Park, NJ 07932
E-mail: stent@research.att.com
Phone: 973-360-7222

GW Micro to Offer Free Training Webinars

GW Micro is offering a free webinar once a month during 2011. The schedule is posted, with the first training concerning what's coming in the next version of Window-Eyes. All webinars take place the second Wednesday of the month at 2:00 EST. Once Daylight Savings Time begins, the webinars will be at 1:00 DST. For more information, log onto the GW Micro-Webinar Training page.

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