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Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 May 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 5

Technology and Productivity

Series: Removing the Stress from iOS: A Blueprint for Incorporating Touchscreen Products Into the Classroom, Workplace, and Community

Why iOS Devices Matter: Considering the Strengths of Apple iOS Devices

Over the past several years, Apple has done an amazing job of marketing its iOS product line of iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads worldwide. The promotion of these products has been so successful that if you don't already own an iOS device, you have probably at least seriously considered buying one. Over a relatively short span of time, Apple has inserted itself--and its products--into our collective stream of consciousness. These efforts have paid dividends for the company, which now boasts cash reserves and assets greater than those possessed by some Eastern European countries.

iOS and Assistive Technology

Apple iOS products offer a wealth of opportunities for users who are visually impaired, but before we can begin to understand what these products have to offer, and how we can efficiently access them, it's important to take a look at the reasons why those of us who are either service providers or consumers within the assistive technology industry should even care about these products and their uses. Why are iOS products important? What bearing do iOS products have on a consumer's, or client's, educational pursuits and vocational aspirations? What roles should these products fulfill within our assistive technology journey?

This is the first in a series of four articles that will address these questions and many others that are promoted by the intersection of iOS devices and AT. Ultimatley, I hope that the articles in this series will provide a roadmap for how to appropriately use these devices to complete a variety of tasks independently and efficiently.

The Current Landscape

The advent of iOS devices has had an impact on the adaptive technology sector in three primary ways:

The Promise of Universal Access

Users have been told by Apple as well as early adopters and devotees to iOS products that through the universal, scalable, built-in approach to screen access offered by iOS, users who are visually impaired may now operate on an equal playing field with their sighted peers.

The possibility of universal access is tantalizing. It's important to remember, however, that whatever accessibility a device my offer is bounded by the facility of the user. Any given product is only as accessible as the strategies a particular user employs when interacting with the device.

Purchasing Without Training

Well-intentioned purchasers have been influenced to make large-scale decisions to procure iOS devices for entire school districts on the promise of universal access, without having a realistic understanding of how these products will be implemented and used.

Over the past couple of years, a number of vision teachers have approached me at conferences, product workshops, and other adaptive technology events virtually in tears because a well-meaning, yet misinformed administrator has made a blanket decision to purchase iPads for all of a district's vision impaired students without taking into account the ages, visual acuities, literacy levels, and individualized education plans of the potential users. More astonishingly, these iPads are often purchased without giving any forethought as to how a school district's direct service providers and students will receive the necessary training and support required to utilize these devices as productivity tools within oftentimes highly competitive academic environments.

Traditional Assistive Technology Marginalized

Manufacturers of traditional adaptive technology hardware and software solutions are now faced with the reality that much of the functionality present in their products is now available in iOS products at a much lower cost and alongside a wider array of accessible functions than what is found in a traditional note-taking device.

Why iOS?

The cumulative effect of these three profound influences is that iOS devices are becoming more and more entrenched in the assistive technology world.

There are four reasons why those involved in AT either as users or facilitators should embrace the usage of iOS products within the classroom, workplace, and community:

The first and most compelling reason to use these products is that our sighted peers are using them. Like it or not, iPads are being introduced within school districts across the country. Universities are adapting curricula and designing course materials for iOS devices. In the iTunes App Store you can find ever increasing numbers of apps developed by Apple and third party vendors whose the sole intent is to complete tasks demanded by the latest educational trends. Employers are beginning to provide iPads to employees who have traditionally been issued laptops to complete their jobs. Plus, iOS devices can add some fun to, and improve the quality of, the lives of their users!

iOS devices enable their users to perform many tasks at a fraction of the cost of traditional notetakers. This is not to suggest that comprehensive notetaking and word processing on an iOS device is as efficient or robust as what you can find on a traditional notetaker; it's not. Nevertheless, the management of your contacts, calendar, and e-mail are just three examples of tasks that can be handled just as efficiently on an iOS device as a notetaker. The upside to iOS devices is that you can share the products of your work with other mainstream products, and with sighted individuals who use such products.

Some iOS applications are simply more robust than those offered by their traditional notetaker counterparts.

The experience of using the Safari Web browser on an iOS device simply trumps that of any browser on even the most recent traditional notetakers. It caused me great anguish a few weeks ago when a friend of mine who works for a notetaker manufacturer informed me that the company would be hosting a training session for educators in a prominent school district that would be dedicated exclusively to the Web browser on its notetaker. The Assistive Technology industry does not do our consumers any favors by teaching browsing on a notetaker, particularly when we're in positions where educators expect us to equip their students to compete and excel in the real world. The honest truth is these proprietary browsers simply can't render information as quickly, access as many sites, or upgrade functionalities as quickly as an iOS device running Safari can. These same goes for locating and downloading books--iOS devices are faster, more efficient, and easier to keep current than other available options.

The last reason for us to embrace IOS products is that they are here to stay.

As the lyrics to a famous folk song put it: "You better start swimming or you'll sink like a stone." At the end of the day, it really doesn't matter what you, or I, or manufacturers think. iOS products are not going anywhere any time soon, so we might as well get on board with using them and with working with Apple and other third party developers to make these devices and the apps being developed for them more usable for those of us who are vision impaired.

The Three Strengths of iOS

Service providers and educators are often expected to offer front-line support to their clients and students when it comes to Assistive Technology. It's an unfortunate reality that these professionals are often charged with providing services to a diverse group of adaptive technology users with a wide range of skill sets and technology goals. One of the most exciting advantages of iOS devices is that they enable their users to do three critical things that are universal to almost any classroom or workplace: obtain information, interact with information, and share information with others.

In the next three articles in the series, we'll be looking at how these devices perform in these three realms through a variety of tasks:

Obtaining Information

We'll look at how to use the iTunes App Store to increase a device's functionality and discuss The Safari Web browser's advantages over traditional notetaker browsers.

Interacting with Information

I'll discuss to download, read, and interact with books on an iOS device using a couple of different e-book reading solutions, and look at the challenges of taking notes and performing a variety of word processing tasks on an IOS device.

Sharing Information with Others

Lastly, and probably most importantly, we'll explore how IOS devices along with the appropriate cloud based applications enable vision impaired and sighted users the ability to share information and collaborate with one another in real-time.

At the end of the series, I hope you'll agree that iOS devices can make learning and work not only fun, productive, and rewarding, but that they also facilitate collaboration and foster respect among classroom and workplace peers, regardless of anyone's functional vision.

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Copyright © 2012 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved. AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

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