jump to article
AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 June 2012 Issue  Volume 13  Number 6

In This Issue

Editor's Page

In This Issue and Looking Ahead

Product Evaluations

When FullHD and Portability Meet: A Review of the Topolino Smart USB Video Camera (CCTV) by Reinecker

by John Rempel

Manufactured by Reinecker, the Topolino Smart is designed for close-up and distance viewing, and it can interface with a computer or be used with a monitor alone. The Topolino's image quality, portability, and versatility pack a powerful punch.

Technology and Productivity

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

Part II: Success With iOS: Making it Happen!

by Larry Lewis

This article is the second in a series of four designed to incorporate accessible iOS know-how into your adaptive technology journeys. This article helps tie practical strategies for using iOS technology to the performance of the tasks that are important to us and our sighted peers.

Access to Music

Learning to Play a Musical Instrument: Resources for People who are Blind or Visually Impaired

by Janet Ingber

The lessons and materials described in this article are specifically geared to people with visual impairments who want to study at home and learn at their own pace. I've used all of these resources in my work as a professional music therapist.


When Tech Support Isn't Supportive

by Deborah Kendrick

Computer users with vision loss will encounter occasions when it is necessary to talk to a technical support person in the mainstream, a person representing your bank, for example. My own experience has run the gamut with such individuals. Perhaps you will recognize some of my experiences as ones you have had yourself. We'll look at them and then look at some ways in which these encounters can lead to more positive outcomes.


George Kerscher, an Unsung Hero, Receives High Honor

by Paul Schroeder

On May 5, 2012, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) awarded Dr. George Kerscher with the Migel Medal, the highest honor in the blindness field. Read my tribute and the full text of Deborah Kendrick's May 2001 interview with George Kerscher.

AccessWorld News

AccessWorld News

Letters to the Editor

Digit-Eyes Product Representative Responds to AccessWorld Article

Editor's Page

In This Issue and Looking Ahead

Lee Huffman

Dear AccessWorld readers,

For people with low vision, on-the-go magnification is critical. In this and upcoming issues, we'll be bringing you product evaluations of portable, full-featured, desktop electronic magnifiers, sometimes called CCTVs. Gone are the days of 50-pound desktop electronic magnifiers with bulky CRT monitors. Now, excellent cameras and much improved display quality can be found in feature-rich devices that weigh less than five pounds and can be carried in a briefcase or backpack.

This kind of technology opens doors for students and professionals in particular. With a portable, high-quality magnifier, students with low vision can move from classroom to classroom and professionals can move from office to boardroom to conferences across the country and still have the magnification and functionality they need.

Also in this issue, the AccessWorld team looks at tech support in the mainstream and provides tips on how to better interact with customer service representatives who have trouble understanding the issues faced by computer users with vision loss. We provide information about access to music and uncover great resources for learning to play a musical instrument when you are blind or have low vision. You surely want to read Larry Lewis's second article in his series on iOS products. We also pay tribute to Dr. George Kerscher for his invaluable contributions to the field of vision loss throughout his career.

We know that pursuing a good education can be particularly challenging for people with vision loss. In the July issue, the AccessWorld team will again turn our focus to providing valuable information and resources for students, parents, teachers, and professionals in the vision loss field to help make educational pursuits less stressful and more enjoyable. Be sure to check back in July for our Back to School issue.

With best regards,

Lee Huffman

AccessWorld Editor-in-Chief

Back to top

Product Evaluations

When FullHD and Portability Meet: A Review of the Topolino Smart USB Video Camera (CCTV) by Reinecker

An increasing number of high-end electronic magnifiers are debuting with high definition (HD) capability, raising the bar on image quality for electronic magnifiers, sometimes called CCTVs. The Topolino Smart is one of these new HD electronic magnifiers. Manufactured by Reinecker, the Topolino Smart is designed for close-up and distance viewing, and it can interface with a computer or be used with a monitor alone. The Topolino's image quality, portability, and versatility pack a powerful punch.

A photo of the Topolino Smart

Caption: Topolino Smart

Physical Design

The Topolino Smart weighs just about 4.5 pounds. The broad base and rugged design of the Topolino Smart make the device quite secure while in use. Included with the unit is a shoulder strap with carrying case, the power supply unit, a USB and VGA cable, user's manual, and a CD containing the Topolino software that allows the camera to interface with a computer. It also comes equipped with a built-in rechargeable battery. The camera is raised a little more than 12 inches from the surface, which provides ample maneuverability when used in the close-up viewing mode.

The Topolino Smart's industrial grey and beige tones help reinforce the perception that the electronic magnifier is sturdy and solid. The base of the unit contains nine labeled controls for a wide range of functions, including settings for brightness, contrast, and color schemes. These controls may pose a challenge for some people to see, since the base itself sits far back from the camera. Additional controls are located on the top part of the camera: increase/decrease image size and auto-focus on/off. Having these controls placed in close proximity when using the electronic magnifier is very useful, since they are the more commonly used controls. The underside of the arm contains three LED lights, which provide sufficient illumination below the camera.

Set-Up and Portability

When folded up, the Topolino Smart fits securely into its small carrying case, making it easily portable.

Set-up is fairly straightforward. The hinged camera swivels easily into place, and when the arm is raised, two locking pins on either side secure it in the correct position. The unit interfaces with either a desktop or laptop computer via a USB-cable. Via a VGA cable, the Topolino Smart can also function as a standard electronic magnifier with a stand-alone monitor and some televisions.

It comes with a 12-volt DC adapter, as well as a built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery that allows up to three hours of operation from a single charge. The built-in battery is very convenient, particularly when you use the Topolino with a laptop. There is no need for you to camp out next to the nearest outlet when using the built-in battery, or to create a tripping hazard by stretching a power cord across the floor. The charge time for the battery is approximately 2.5 hours.

An important factor to consider when using the unit is the amount of desk space it requires. The desk or table used with this unit needs to be at least 18 inches deep, which might be a little larger than what's commonly found in many college and university settings.


The Topolino software that comes with the unit is easy to install. The installation wizard walks you through step by step, easy to follow instructions. You will be asked to download and install the free Microsoft .NET Framework 4 during the installation process (unless it's already on your computer).

For this review, the Topolino software was tested using a Pentium 4, 3GHz desktop computer running Windows 7. The user's manual states that the Topolino software is also compatible with Windows XP, Windows 2000, and Windows Vista. Topolino is not yet compatible with Apple computers. As is common with the specifications listed for software applications, the minimum requirements of 512 MB of RAM will not be enough memory on most systems, especially if you are running other applications simultaneously such as a screen magnification program or word processor. A more realistic amount of RAM is between 2 and 4 GB. The Topolino Smart is marketed primarily as a portable solution, but if you're considering using it as a stand-alone device, or if you plan on doing a lot of extensive reading with it, you may wish to consider purchasing an X-Y table. Reinecker USA sells an X-Y table separately for $395.

The Topolino software was tested using three commonly used screen magnification programs: MAGic, ZoomText, and the Windows 7 Magnifier. Topolino proved to be stable with all three programs. When using the Topolino Smart with a laptop, the user manual recommends using a graphic card with at least 32MB and overlay.


The manual for the Topolino Smart effectively describes the hardware and accessories included with the unit. Step-by-step instructions show you how to set up the device, install the software, and operate both the software and hardware. These instructions are printed in 14- to 16-point sans serif type and are accompanied by illustrations. It's evident that efforts have been made to make the manual more accessible for people with low vision. Increasing the font size to 18- and 22-point would further increase the level of accessibility for a broader audience.

The manual does not include the steps required to fold up the Topolino Smart. Logic would suggest that the steps to set up the unit are simply reversed to fold up the unit, but it would be damaged if this were done. The base of the camera has two locking pins that automatically snap in place and secure the arm of the unit as it is raised. When folding up the unit, these two locking pins need to both be pressed in simultaneously for the unit to fold up. People who are less mechanically inclined may benefit from this additional piece of information, which should be included in the manual.


Magnification, Lighting, and Colors

The manufacturer's specifications state that the Topolino Smart magnifies between 2.3 to 76 times using a 22-inch monitor. Here is a more meaningful example: At its lowest level of magnification using a 22-inch monitor, approximately three quarters of a single line is displayed on an 8.5-by-11 inch sheet of paper in close-up mode. At maximum magnification, 11-point type is increased to a size that allows only two letters to be displayed on the screen at one time.

The camera's powerful magnification is evident with its distance viewing capabilities. With the magnification level set to its maximum, at a distance of 15 feet the camera is able to display 11-point text onto a 22-inch monitor at roughly 24-point size. For all intents and purposes, this level of magnification may be overkill for many of you, but if you require a high level of detail (i.e., watch repair, or zooming in on the details of photos or diagrams in a PowerPoint presentation in a public presentation), there are times when the additional magnification may be useful. The electronic magnifier also retains the level of magnification used for both close-up and distance viewing when alternating between the two views. Even after the unit is turned off, the specific magnification levels used for both close-up and distance viewing are retained the next time it's turned on. This can save valuable time when you need to set the video magnifier up quickly for a lecture or presentation.

When using the electronic magnifier in the close-up mode, the LED lights automatically turn on and effectively illuminate the viewable area below the camera. After rotating the camera upward for distance viewing, the LED lights are turned off until the unit is once again used in close-up mode. You are also given the choice of manually turning off the LED lights when using close-up mode, and reducing the brightness to 30%.

As is expected with a high-end video magnifier, a variety of color schemes are available with this unit. In total, you are provided with the option of eight color schemes, including true and artificial colors for greater contrast levels, and the ability to invert the background and foreground colors on each of these choices.

High-Definition Capability

The image quality of the Topolino Smart is impressive. The camera produces images at 1920 × 1080 pixel resolution, also referred to as 1080p high definition. You have the option of selecting from among a number of resolutions when using the video camera with a monitor alone, including 1440 × 900, 1280 × 1024, 1600 × 1200, and 1680 × 1050. The progressive scan technology of the camera provides a rapid refresh rate, which translates into less motion blur when using the camera for distance viewing purposes, and when panning material from side to side for close-up viewing. Monitors and televisions that don't support 1080p high definition will not be able to take advantage of this higher resolution. As of 2012, most televisions being sold support 1080p, and they often do so through a high-definition multimedia interface (HDMI) connection. The Topolino Smart is not equipped with HDMI connectivity, and therefore is not able to interface with some of the newer televisions on the market.


As with most high-end electronic magnifiers, the Topolino Smart is equipped with auto-focus capability, and also includes a feature called Overview mode. By pressing and holding the focus button at the top of the camera, the view briefly zooms out, and cross-hairs appear in the center of the image. The moment you release the focus button, it readjusts to the chosen level of magnification. This provides you with a rapid bird's eye view of the overall image so you're able to see the forest for the trees, so to speak. This is an especially useful feature in a fast-paced school or work environment where you need to quickly locate specific areas of the environment to zoom in on.

A photo of the Topolino User Interface

Caption: Topolino User Interface

Computer Compatibility and Software Options

The Topolino software interface is fairly intuitive. The Big Buttons/Big Fonts option under the Settings menu is worth mentioning. It provides an additional layer of accessibility, and does exactly what its name suggests: increases the size of the menu and toolbar items within the Topolino user interface. This can be a very useful feature if you prefer the increased size over the default size used with Windows applications. This feature could also make the menu items and toolbar too large if you're using a screen magnification program, in which case you can simply disable this option.

The number of options that are available for you to carry out the same tasks is where the versatility of the Topolino Smart is most apparent. Most of the hard-button options available on the device are also available via its software interface. Most of the commonly used features of the electronic magnifier can be accessed by either using the mouse and toolbar, the menu items with the keyboard and/or the mouse, and shortcut keys. For example, to increase or decrease the level of magnification, you can either access the Camera menu in the user interface, use the mouse to click on the + and − displayed on the toolbar, press the + and − keys on the keyboard, or make the change manually using the controls on the electronic magnifier itself. The Help menu in the user interface also provides you with a list of shortcut keys for carrying out many of the common tasks.

A number of additional options are included with the software, including image brightness and contrast, an onscreen ruler, and a masking feature to isolate specific portions of the displayed image.

The Topolino Smart also allows you to take photos and videos, which are then saved as JPG files and AVI files, respectively. It's worth noting that after taking two consecutive photos, the Topolino software locked up and required a restart. The video recording feature did not have this glitch, and worked exactly as it should.

Areas for Improvement

  1. When repositioning the camera from distance viewing to close-up viewing, it can be challenging and time consuming to rotate the position of the camera so it aligns squarely with the text on a page. Creating two vertical markers on the outer ring of the camera to line up with the frame it rests on would make the task of rotating the camera to the correct position much quicker and easier. Making these markers both tactually discernible, and with high-contrast, would also make them easier to recognize.
  2. Equipping the Topolino Smart with HDMI capability would increase its compatibility with a wider array of monitors and televisions on the market.
  3. Including the manual as an accessible document on the CD would increase the level of convenience and accessibility. This would allow a visually impaired person to copy the manual to any location they choose and access it as needed, rather than relying exclusively on the paper manual.

The Bottom Line

The Topolino Smart pushes the envelope with its versatility, its wide array of features, its built-in battery, and FullHD camera. The unit comes with a two-year warranty. Unless you're using a computer with this unit, a separate monitor, preferably an LCD monitor with HD capability, is required. The Achilles' heel of the Topolino Smart is the surface space the device requires. If desk space is not a factor, and a high quality image for close-up and distance viewing with a wide array of features is important to you, the Topolino Smart is worth considering.

Product Information

Product: Topolino Smart
Price: $2,995 plus $40 shipping
Available From:
Reinecker USA, LLC
145 River Rock Drive
Buffalo, NY 14207

Comment on this article.

Back to top

Technology and Productivity

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

Part II: Success With iOS: Making it Happen!

This article is the second in a series of four articles designed to incorporate accessible iOS know-how into your adaptive technology journeys. If you read the first article, you'll have an understanding of the importance of iOS technology in educational, employment, and community settings. You will also be familiar with the idea that accessibility does not always directly correlate with usability, and that implementation of iOS devices can require properly positioned third party hardware, methodologies, and strategies for the best learning experience.

The ideas in my first article don't amount to much when it comes to our day-to-day efforts as service providers and users unless we tie practical strategies for effectively and independently using iOS technology to the performance of the tasks that are important to us and our sighted peers.

The Rotor Gesture: An Efficient Means of Navigation

One of the most feature-rich gestures in the Voiceover screenreader is undoubtedly the rotor gesture. Experienced iOS users can take advantage of this gesture to effortlessly navigate through different elements in highly graphical iOS applications like iTunes and the Safari Web browser. To make the gesture, place and rotate your thumb and forefinger counterclockwise anywhere on the iOS touchscreen. The motion is similar to that of turning a dial or knob on an old school radio or television set. With each turn to the right or left, the various navigation elements are spoken. If you wish to edit a document, you can easily move the cursor by characters, words, or lines by changing rotor settings. Once the desired setting is selected, you may swipe your finger up to move back or down to move forward through the desired elements. When surfing the Internet, you may use the rotor to move by links, headings, tables, and form controls. The rotor also allows you to navigate between "containers" or specific compartments that house various controls and information within applications.

The rotor also gives you the ability to copy and paste text that you have selected within an application. You may also "select all" text and paste the contents to another application. Lastly, the rotor enables you to alter the way that you enter text using the touchscreen via its "typing" setting. You may elect to double tap the respective characters that you wish to enter into an edit field or simply lift your finger off a specific character once it has been spoken, and the character will be inserted where the cursor is located.

All of these rotor commands can be accessed via refreshable braille displays with braille input capabilities. Rather than using the rotor gesture on the touchscreen, the user may change the rotor settings via specific key combinations, and then navigate through the selected element by using a joystick or key combination to move forward and backward through texts or application controls. Before you can expect to fully benefit from the various applications on an iOS device, it's imperative to establish a solid understanding of how to use these rotor settings. My bias is very heavily weighted to accessing these settings using a braille display which truly provides me with a very fast and efficient means of navigation by character, word, line, heading, table, link, and form control.

A Few Ways to Input

There are a few different ways to input information into an iOS application, including the two discussed above.

Onscreen Keyboard

Apple provides two ways to access its on-screen keyboard. You can move your fingers over specific characters when you hear the letter you want, you can double tap anywhere on the screen to insert the character. With the second method, you simply lift your finger from the screen when the target character is spoken. Using the rotor settings to navigate by characters, words, and lines is essential for effective editing of text using these two methods.

Bluetooth Keyboard

There are also a variety of external, Bluetooth QWERTY keyboards that are supported by iOS. You can easily enter text and navigate using arrow keys when you pair a Bluetooth keyboard with an iOS device. Lastly, one may elect to enter text using a wireless refreshable braille display with braille input keys. It's worth noting that Apple supports both contracted and uncontracted braille input. Nevertheless, there are some glaring backtranslation issues that occur when a user is brailling contracted braille into an application and pauses while entering in these contractions. Voiceover often begins the backtranslation process to the given application before the user has completed a given word or phrase. For instance, if I am brailling the word "Larry" using contracted braille, and I braille the letter L followed by an ar sign, and then pause, VoiceOver will backtranslate these two characters as "likear." I've personally raised this issue with Apple and unfortunately the best is to input contracted braille characters at a constant, steady pace without pauses.

Regardless of the method you choose for text entry, there are a few things that you need to keep in mind:

  1. When entering text into an edit field using the onscreen keyboard, double tap the screen to ensure the onscreen keyboard is present for text input and editing. Voiceover will speak the phrase "is editing" when it's possible to enter text.
  2. When using a QWERTY or braille keyboard, press the Enter key, or equivalent (e.g., depress the joystick) to begin text entry. Voiceover will speak the phrase "is editing" when it's possible to enter text.
  3. Remember to swipe your finger up and down to move between selected characters, words, and lines. Use the corresponding arrow keys on a QWERTY keyboard, and the necessary chording commands on a braille display to navigate to previous or next characters, words, and lines.
  4. Remember that the cursor's insertion point for text entry is generally at the beginning or the end of a given chunk of text unless you manually move the cursor, so be confident of your cursor's location before proceeding to enter or edit specific text.
  5. There will be times when you enter search terms, user names, and passwords into edit fields. In many applications, there is a "clear text" button located to the right of these edit fields which, when activated, clears the text from the edit fields allowing you to re-enter new data.

iTunes, the App Store, and You

Now that we've addressed navigation and text input, we're ready to begin exploring the endless number of apps that are available for download. Before you dive headlong into the iTunes App Store, be sure to do the following:

  1. Make sure you are connected to either a cellular or wireless network. You're not going to get very far if you are not connected to a network to receive or share information.
  2. Establish an iTunes account: This can be done either by registering using the iTunes application using your PC or by using iTunes on the iOS device. The registration process will require that you provide iTunes with a variety of account information, including user name and password, and payment method.
  3. If you are a service provider, particularly in an education environment, you may have concerns about working with clients in a retail context. It's possible to set up an iTunes account that does not have a method of payment associated with it by navigating to the App Store on your iOS device and locating a free app. Once you select the "free" button associated with the application, you'll be asked to sign in or create an iTunes account, and will not be prompted to associate a method of payment with this account as long as you only download free apps.
  4. Bookmark the Applevis website, a wonderful, rich resource that will keep you up-to-speed on new apps that work particularly well with Voiceover and warn you about apps that might have accessibility obstacles. Voiceover is similar to every other screenreader on the market in that the third-party applications developed for iOS may not always be as accessible as they should be for the blind user. You can even contribute your own experiences and findings to this invaluable forum.
  5. Draw the distinction between iTunes and the App Store. iTunes delivers content (music, movies, books, and TV shows) to your iOS device, while the App Store delivers applications to be installed on your device. On your iOS device, iTunes and the App Store will appear as two separate apps. On your PC, iTunes provides access to both content and apps through the same interface, and also allows you to back up and synchronize all of the data (content, apps, contacts, notes, e-mail, etc.) on your iOS device to your computer or computers.

The App Store application has five tabs, located at the bottom of the application. Three of these tabs focus on locating currently featured apps. You may also browse "top charts," or the apps that are most frequently downloaded, or search for apps by specific categories and device compatibility. There is also a "genius" tab which, when enabled, takes a snapshot of all of the apps you have purchased and uses this information to recommend apps you may wish to consider installing. You may also review apps that you've purchased. Lastly, and most importantly, there is an "update" tab that indicates available updates for all of the apps installed on the iOS device. To activate one of these five tabs, navigate to the bottom of the application, and double tap on a desired tab. You may then navigate to the top of the App Store application to browse or search.

Once you've found an application you want to purchase and install, either double tap on the app to learn more about it, or double tap the "buy" or "free" button, sign into your iTunes account, and locate the "install" button to download and install the app onto your iOS device. Remember that apps are the means by which we complete tasks using this technology, so try to associate specific tasks with particular applications and use task descriptors as your search criteria for specific apps.

A Different Way of Surfing

The biggest challenge to overcome when surfing the Web using an iOS device is how different it is from the browsing experience we're used to on a PC. Apple's Safari browser gives surfers who are sighted or visually impaired a very different look and feel when retrieving information using an iOS device than it does when using a PC. The first step in mastering iOS browsing is to accept that the methodologies you've employed to surf the web using a PC are not always going to apply when surfing the Web using a portable, touchscreen device. The second step is to realize that much of the same functionality present within a PC browsing experience is present within Safari. It's all about understanding how the Safari application is presented on the touchscreen, and using the navigation methods that have been discussed to negotiate various Web elements.

Once Safari is launched, you will be presented with a series of buttons that are positioned at the top of the application. These buttons assume a role similar to that of Internet Explorer's toolbar, and allow you to navigate forward and backward through webpages that you've accessed within the browser. Obviously, when you begin your browsing session, neither the "back" or "forward" buttons are applicable options for you. You're also presented with an edit field for entering a URL, and a search field tied to Google's search engine. Either open a desired webpage or search for pertinent information using any of the input methods described earlier in this article.

Once a webpage has been opened, or a search has been completed, it's important to use similar strategies to those employed when surfing using a PC to determine the types and numbers of Web elements present on a given page. For instance, when I'm searching for information using Google, I can quickly locate my search results by navigating through various headings that present specific search results. When I log onto my checking account to perform banking functions, I know that the second table on my homepage provides me with my account balance and that the links above this table enable me to transfer funds, pay bills, etc. Much of the success of Web surfing is not so much what browser you use, but how familiar you are with the Web browsing process. Get familiar with frequently visited sites, and if you're not familiar with a particular site, use the rotor command to cycle through the various elements on a page. Voiceover will tell you how many links, headings, tables, and form controls are present on a particular page as you cycle through these settings. To be sure, there are limitations to Web access when using Safari, as there are when using any screenreading technology to access webpages, but the pluses definitely outweigh the minuses when incorporating this browser into your portable Web surfing experience.

Now that we've covered navigating, entering text, finding and installing applications, and surfing the Internet, you can begin the business of making the most out of your IOS device. In the next article, we'll direct our attention to the various applications that enable us to search for, download, and read books using these same devices.

Comment on this article.

Back to top

Access to Music

Learning to Play a Musical Instrument: Resources for People who are Blind or Visually Impaired

No matter your age, there are resources available for learning many instruments. The lessons and materials described in this article are specifically geared to people with visual impairments who want to study at home and learn at their own pace. I've used all of these resources in my work as a professional music therapist.

Choosing an Instrument

There are several factors to consider when choosing which instrument to play. No matter what you choose, it's important to handle the instrument before buying. Spend some time at a music store. Don't let a sales person try to sell you the most expensive model. Go to different stores if you feel like it and try different brands. It's best to choose the right instrument the first time. You can always upgrade later. You do not need to purchase your instrument from the store where you tried it. Look around for the best price, including online and used.


Top of the line musical instruments are expensive. I advise beginning with a student instrument. Once you've developed your technique and know what to look for, you can pursue something fancier.


If you want to learn to play the piano, I highly recommend buying a keyboard first. Many keyboards now have very responsive keys that simulate a piano's touch. A basic keyboard will cost a few hundred dollars, much less than a piano, and a keyboard is portable. Most keyboards have numerous knobs and buttons that create sounds, rhythms, and a variety of effects. A keyboard that uses a touch screen can make the unit less accessible. Find out if the keyboard's manual is available as an electronic download. You can do a Google search by typing the keyboard's brand and number in quotes and then the word "manual." Even with an electronic manual, you may need sighted assistance to label controls.


The guitar is a good option if you want something portable. They range in price from about $150 to thousands of dollars. You can use nylon or steel strings. Nylon is easier on your fingers, but steel has a brighter sound. A guitar with a narrow neck will be more comfortable for someone with small hands and fingers. There are guitars for people who are left handed. After learning a couple of chords, you can start playing simple songs. With just two chords you can play songs such as "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands," "Jambalaya," and "Clementine."


Another option is the ukulele, which is a small guitar-like instrument with four strings. As with the guitar, all you need is two chords to start playing songs. A basic inexpensive soprano ukulele costs about $60.

Suzuki QChord

If you want to learn an instrument quickly, then for $300 the Suzuki QChord might be a good option. It's similar to an electronic auto harp, with buttons and a strum plate. The QChord also features preset rhythms and Musical Instrument Digital Interface (MIDI) capabilities. An excellent accessible manual for the QChord is available. To play the QChord, the player presses a chord button and strums on the tactile strum plate. The instrument has additional settings for more advanced players. Another nice feature of the QChord is that if you accidentally change some of the settings, turning the instrument off and then on again will restore defaults.

Learning to Play

National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped

A good starting point for learning to play an instrument and/or learning to read large print or braille music is the Music Section of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS).

At the NLS, you'll find large print and braille books available for instruction in reading print or braille music. The library has audio cassette, large print, and braille lessons for many instruments for players of all levels. Audio instructional lessons include detailed descriptions about the instrument and fingering positions. As each concept or sound is explained, the instructor plays the instrument so the student can immediately hear the music.

John Hanson, the head of the NLS Music Section, said, "Most everything that is currently available on cassette will be available on [NLS] cartridge and much of that will be available on BARD [Braille and Audio Reading Download] from NLS." He hopes this format availability will be in the near future.

The NLS Music Section website has information about what is available from NLS. If you prefer, you can e-mail or call a librarian for assistance. Tell the librarian which instrument you want to learn, your level of proficiency, and in which format you want to have your lessons presented.

In order to borrow materials, you must first become a member of the NLS.

Music for the Blind

Music for the Blind has by-ear lessons for many instruments including, piano, guitar, ukulele, flute, violin, harmonica, and saxophone. Bill Brown, the creator of these lessons, gives very clear descriptions and opportunities to practice and play along. The lessons include backing tracks that provide an accompaniment to songs. Because the student learns by ear through these lessons, there is no need to learn music notation. Lessons are available for beginners as well as more advanced players. Check out the "lesson of the month" link to hear Mr. Brown's teaching method.

You can purchase lessons from Music For the Blind, but Mr. Brown has also generously made his courses available free of charge from the music section of the NLS, the Canadian Institute for the Blind, and The Royal Institute for the Blind. Lessons are available in cassette, CD and MP3 download formats. Visit the website to download a sample lesson or check out the course offerings.

Dancing Dots

Dancing Dots was founded by Bill McCann, a blind musician and programmer. The website offers books for learning to read Braille music and books for instrument instruction. Advanced musicians can find information on recording equipment, braille music transcription, and other assistive technology products on the site. They also have a list of resources for blind musicians.

Finding Additional Songs

If you are using braille or large print music, NLS has many songs and songbooks available to borrow. They offer a free braille magazine called Popular Music Lead Sheets, which you can keep. Each magazine contains several songs with words, melody line, and chords, written in grade I braille.

Both NLS and Music for the Blind offer many audio courses and songs at all levels.

Dancing Dots offers a fee-based braille transcription service. Send them the music in print or a MIDI file and they return braille music sheets to you.

If you are playing an instrument that uses chords (such as a guitar, ukulele, piano or QChord) then the chords can usually be located on the Internet. Do a search with the song title in quotes, followed by a space and then the word "chords." I have found Google's accessible search quite useful. Be aware that the chords you find on the Internet are the author's own work and may not be correct. There are usually many results from which to choose.


Although the number of sources for instructional materials is limited, there is excellent instructional material available. Remember, learning an instrument takes time and practice. Have fun with it!


National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped
Become a member by visiting the site or calling (202) 707-5100

Music for the Blind

Dancing Dots

Comment on this article.

Back to top


When Tech Support Isn't Supportive

Whatever your views may be of the quality of tech support at your favorite screen reading, screen magnification, or braille notetaker company, one element is consistent: With each of these companies, you know that the person at the other end of the line is well aware that you are blind or visually impaired when they answer your call. Most of us, however, if we are using technology for the usual spectrum of activities, will encounter occasions when it is necessary to talk to a technical support person in the mainstream, a person representing the user interface for your bank or vacation club, or other service who doesn't even realize that there are customers who are blind or even that a blind person might use a computer. My own experience has run the gamut with such individuals, from open-minded learner to offensive villain. Perhaps you will recognize some of my experiences as ones you have had yourself. We'll look at them and then look at some ways in which these unavoidable encounters can lead to more positive outcomes.

Bad Experiences

The first negative encounter that comes to mind took place late one night in a hotel room a few years ago. I arrived at the hotel, knew I had plenty of work to do, and set up my laptop. I had willingly paid the $10 per day fee for Internet access and booted up the computer to get online. When nothing was working, I called the front desk for help and was directed to a toll free tech support line.

When the technician began babbling about mouse clicks, I explained that I was blind and thus required keystroke instructions.

"Well, if you're visually impaired," the "service" representative said bluntly, "we can't help you." And she hung up!

Obviously I needed to fine-tune my approach.

For my next try, I didn't mention blindness or screen-reading software. Instead I asked for step-by-step instructions and managed, with some considerable time and patience, to translate those instructions to a format I could use at my keyboard.

Customer Satisfaction

Whether you're visually impaired or not, a company's customer service or tech support department is a kind of gateway that will color your feelings about that company.

I once reached a Dell computing technician who, in the process of troubleshooting my problem, instructed me to remove the battery from my laptop. I somewhat sheepishly admitted that I was blind and not sure where the battery was housed. She walked me through brilliantly tactile step-by-step instructions to locate and remove the battery, and my problem was solved. Although I don't currently own a Dell computer, that experience has left me with a sustained impression of the company as one that cares about customers.

I had another positive experience with Audible. In my earliest days of membership with this company, I used a mainstream MP3 player for listening to my books. When HumanWare's Victor Stream came on the market and was able to play these encrypted audio files, I needed help. The Audible customer service representative I reached responded as though he assisted blind customers every day. Indeed, if you go to the list of devices supported by Audible, you'll find all the familiar manufacturers of access technology for blind users.

Failure to Communicate

Clearly, at least part of the success or failure in such encounters is dependent upon the natural flexibility or intuitiveness of the human who answers your call. Reaching one with little or no common sense or intuition can take a serious toll on your ability to perform a necessary task, not to mention your mood.

Last October, I was attempting to use my Delta Sky Miles to go to a writer's retreat in Las Vegas. I had been making reservations on the Delta site for years, had previously booked trips using accumulated Sky Miles, and thus expected the process to be a simple one.

When I discovered that I was a few thousand miles short, I was undaunted. It would be much less expensive to buy those needed miles than to buy an entire ticket, so I went to the screen for purchasing miles. There, the situation became more complicated. There were buttons and links without labels and I, with my screen reader and braille display, was hopelessly lost.

I'll just buy them on the phone, I thought, only to be told, upon calling, that Delta did not allow customers to purchase miles on the phone. I explained that I had attempted to do so, but had run into trouble, and was assured that a Delta tech support person could remedy the situation.

My call was transferred. The call center was in Atlanta, by the way, not a country on the other side of the globe where language might have posed a more understandable obstacle to communication. I explained what I was trying to do (buy miles) and which screen I was on. I explained that I was blind, using screen-reading software, and having difficulty with the page.

"Go to the box above the blue line and click…" she began, and I interrupted as politely as possible.

"It won't help if you describe the colors or shapes of things on the screen," I told her. "And I can't use a mouse." I told her to just let me know the location and names of the desired links, buttons, or edit boxes to complete my purchase.

She didn't budge. Rather, she kept talking about colors and shapes of the visual display and, I kept navigating my screen frantically, trying to find something that might match what she was saying to me.

"What is that horrible screeching?" she demanded.

"Oh, it's my screen reader's speech synthesizer," I explained. "It is reading the screen to me."

"Well, you have to turn it off!" she demanded. "I can't stand to listen to that."

I tried to explain that if I turned it off, I wouldn't be able to do anything with my computer as I was blind and unable to see the screen.

To my amazement, no matter how many times we went around this same tree, she never got it. "Couldn't you just hover your mouse?" she asked, and, "Couldn't you just get closer to the screen?" or, my favorite, "Couldn't you have someone make you a mouse of a different color?"


I asked her if she could just tell me the words on the three unlabeled buttons or links so that I could just count down to the one required, but she was too busy yelling at me to "turn off that horrible noise."

In the end, she broke policy and let me purchase my miles over the phone, and I came away knowing I had failed to educate one more of the masses.

But When They Listen…

Then there are those times when a tech support person goes to the other extreme.

For several years, I have had what is called a C Corp, in my case a one-person business. And for years, my accountant has handled the necessary quarterly payments required by Social Security, state and federal taxes. He recently switched all his clients to a company that handles payroll automatically.

Well, of course, nothing is entirely automatic. After all the initial processing was completed (in-person and on the phone), I was notified by the new company that I needed to go online and complete my monthly payroll.

I took a look, was baffled, and eventually called for help.

Brad was extremely friendly. He assured me that he'd helped several clients get started and that it was no problem. He talked me through the first several steps: go to this url, put in this user name, that password, click on this link, and so on. For those first several steps, I was cruising along happily. Then I came to a stumbling block. He was referring to a spot I couldn't find.

Finally, wanting to be sure that he didn't think I just wasn't very smart, I said, "You do know I'm blind, right? And that I'm using screen-reading software?"

There was a bit of a pause, after which he said, "No. Really? I had no idea." And then, "Well, that's really cool. Explain your computer to me."

Now, this was definitely in refreshing contrast to the guy in India with minimal English who, when I called once for help with my Internet service, kept murmuring, "Oh, I am so sorry, Ma'am," upon my declaration of vision loss.

In response to Brad's request, I explained my computer, braille display and all.

Brad was fascinated and, better still, eager to address the challenge.

"Let's figure it out," he said.

For the next hour, he valiantly tested keystrokes, looked up the mouse emulation commands for my particular screen reader, and generally walked a few miles in my shoes to make it work. Ultimately, we both concluded that the problem was at their end. The site didn't work, and, consequently, he obtained permission from his supervisor and from me to do my payroll online for me every month at no extra charge.

It warrants pointing out here that, as a naturally chatty person, I generally enter into these kinds of conversations with a smile and a willingness to be taught. Sometimes that "personal relationship" approach goes totally awry, but sometimes it pays off in far more than the immediate technical support I'm seeking.

Brad, for instance, needed to get his supervisor's permission to hang onto me as a client, so I didn't need to explain month after month what had occurred. "Well," I said, laughing, as he went off to seek permission, "you can tell him that we've become friends … or you can play the blind card."

"No way," Brad threw back at me immediately. "I've only known you for an hour, but I can tell you would never really do that." He was right.

This exchange is, of course, the way we wish all such encounters would go. When I thanked Brad for his patience, he insisted that it was important for him to learn about screen readers in order to be prepared the next time a customer who was blind called for help. Just that assumption, that there are indeed more of us out here who are blind or who have low vision, is refreshing to hear from a total stranger.

Still, there are probably as many examples of miscommunication and lack of support as there are technology users who are blind or visually impaired. Sometimes, the exchanges are even comical, but when you need to get something done and technology is standing in your way, it's hard to have a sense of humor.

Some Tips for Smoother Sailing

The harsh reality is that if you are going to use technology, have a fair level of independence in the rest of your life, and aren't an absolute technological prodigy, you are going to need to call for help occasionally. Here are a few points that might make navigating those tech support waters a bit less stressful:

  1. Be completely familiar with the problem before you call. Really. Try whatever isn't working repeatedly. Power off and on again the device in question. Take a wee break from it. (Sometimes, even those of us who truly ought to know better do dumb things like forget to flick a necessary switch or invoke a command required by our screen-reading software.) When you really believe you've tested your own knowledge of the product or service to the fullest, pick up the phone.
  2. Have the identifying information ready regarding your product. If it's a computer problem, what version of Windows are you running, with what version of Web browser? If another appliance or gadget, know the model number and name of that product.
  3. Don't jump right in with the news that you are visually impaired. Although this may be no big deal to you, it might well throw the tech support person sufficiently off track that he or she won't attend well to what else you have to say.
  4. Instead, first be sure to explain the problem you are having with the device or program. Test suggestions as they are offered. In other words, demonstrate your capacity as a typical user of the product or service to gain your technician's confidence in you before throwing the curve ball of visual impairment. Be alert to openings in the conversation for casual injections of ordinary life. Say, for example, if your difficulty is with a vacation site, you might mention that "the last time" you were on a cruise, you don't recall having this difficulty. It may sound trite, but this kind of chattiness will establish you in the technician's mind's eye as just another frustrated customer.
  5. When it becomes clear to you that the problem has to do with access, simply state that you are blind or have low vision and that it is compromising your ability to follow the tech's instructions. You might say, "I'm blind and use special screen-reading software, so I don't use the mouse." If the response is one of dismay or distraction by the blindness, assure the technician that you use technology every day or frequently or whatever the case might be. This will send the message that, even though this particular issue has arisen, you have found work-arounds for many others.
  6. Finally, if you encounter someone who is absolutely resistant to communicating with you, don't do what I did when trying to buy miles at midnight! Instead, ask for a supervisor.

Although your inclination might be to simply swear off ever calling mainstream tech support for help because they don't understand how blind people use technology, this isn't a very realistic solution. We pay the same money for the same products and services that sighted customers pay, and that price includes technical support when the products and services aren't working. You might have to take a bit more time teaching your tech support person how to help you, but in the end, results are often satisfying. The bonus is that you can add to your satisfaction of a technical problem solved the knowledge that you have provided smoother sailing for the next blind person who calls that company for assistance.

Back to top


George Kerscher, an Unsung Hero, Receives High Honor

On May 5, 2012, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) awarded Dr. George Kerscher the AFB Migel Medal, the highest honor in the blindness field. Established in 1937 by the late M.C. Migel, the first chairperson of AFB, the Migel Medal honors professionals and volunteers whose dedication and achievements have improved the lives of people who are blind or visually impaired. In selecting Dr. Kerscher, the announcement stressed that he is "the 'driver' of efforts to standardize accessible digital books." He is closely associated with the successful implementation of the DAISY standard (Digital Accessible Information System), which has been adopted worldwide as the standard for the production of accessible eBooks.

Photo of Dr. Kerscher receiving Migel Medal from Paul Schroeder

Caption: Dr. George Kerscher receives 2012 Migel Medal from Paul Schroeder

Back in May 2001, Deborah Kendrick gave AccessWorld readers a vivid portrait of George Kerscher's extensive accomplishments in the realm of making books accessible. In that interview, George Kerscher: A Pioneer in Digital Talking Books Still Forging Ahead, Kendrick described Kerscher's involvement in a variety of efforts connected both to the disability community and to commercial publishing, noting that "Kerscher...now has feet firmly planted in both the development of standards for digital information designed specifically for blind readers as well as those for mainstream production." Over the last decade, he has continued to drive accessibility forward, working closely with publishers, technology developers, Web developers, libraries, and other service providers to fashion a durable set of standards and strategies to address eBook accessibility and availability.

I was honored to present the Migel Medal to Dr. Kerscher. I noted that, today, children and adults who are blind or visually impaired or who have other print disabilities routinely download and read accessible eBooks. They do so through a variety of sources, mainstream and specialized. This is now becoming routine because of the visionary work of many people, but none more than George Kerscher.

From his current perch as President of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), he is well-placed to encourage and facilitate efforts by all entities involved in production, distribution, and provision of books to address accessibility. The IDPF is finalizing the development of the EPub3 standard. For more information, visit the International Digital Publishing Forum website.

Having achieved success in securing access to text that can be read and navigated with accessible technology, Kerscher is now focused on helping to foster access to the evolving eBook, which includes extensive graphical information and interactive multimedia. And he hasn't slowed down. In fact, immediately after accepting the Migel Medal, he was on his way to Washington, DC to participate in a White House event honoring champions of change in increasing access to STEM. He is preparing for meetings of IDPF, which will take place in conjunction with BookExpo America, and DAISY, both in June 2012. Like the coach and teacher he once was, Kerscher has encouraged those around him to deepen their understanding and strengthen their collaboration and teamwork, and all of us have been the beneficiaries of his ceaseless efforts.

Along with Dr. Kerscher, Kathleen Mary Huebner, Ph.D. was also awarded a Migel Medal at the 2012 ceremony. The Migel Medals were presented at the 2012 AFB National Leadership Conference held in St. Pete Beach, Florida.

Read the full text of Deborah Kendrick's May 2001 interview with George Kerscher below.


George Kerscher: A Pioneer in Digital Talking Books Still Forging Ahead

Deborah Kendrick

"Necessity is the mother of invention," the adage goes, and it applies well to the personal history of George Kerscher, named 1998 Innovator of the Year by U.S. News and World Report. Kerscher still recalls the thrill of his first Talking Book. While listening to the recorded text of Hemingway's For Whom the Bell Tolls, he followed along in the printed text. He was 28, had just been declared legally blind, and says that it was his most enjoyable read in years!

"I began thinking about the synchronization of text and audio," Kerscher says, and carried the technique into his classrooms as a high school literature teacher. The kids loved it, too. "Many of them probably had undiagnosed learning disabilities," he reflects today, and responded well to the concept of listening and reading simultaneously. His use of recorded books enabled him to continue teaching as his ability to see the printed page diminished. If adaptive technology had existed in the early 1980s as we know it today, Kerscher believes he probably would have continued teaching. As it was, however, he threw away his driver's license, reached a point where he could not see students' handwriting, and grew weary of creative solutions to do his job.

Kerscher discovered that he had an aptitude for computers and enrolled in a master's program in computer science at the University of Montana. There was no Americans with Disabilities Act in 1985, and thus no laws to protect him from what he calls "meeting the prejudice wall." His agreement with the computer department was that if he received straight As in prerequisite courses and passed the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), he would be accepted into the master's program. He earned the As but then was given a reader for the GRE who was unfamiliar with the material. Faced with less than favorable odds, he skipped the English portion of the exam, focusing on areas that would demonstrate his qualification for the graduate program, and followed up with a letter "with perfect grammar, spelling, and punctuation" with the comment that his English degree should serve as proof of his qualification in that area. Another creative solution was successful, and he was in.

Using live readers and recorded books for his coursework was laborious at best, and when Kerscher met the author of a book on MS-DOS in 1985, it occurred to him to ask if the electronic files were available. That idea led to his writing to 15 publishers requesting files. A few responded with floppy disks that were, in his words, "complete garbage."

"I threw them in a drawer," Kerscher says," and then one day took them out again. Comparing the garbage on the screen with the print book on my CCTV, I began writing a program. It was like working out a puzzle. The program took three weeks to write, 10 seconds to run, and I was reading a book with my screen reader for the very first time."

Word spread throughout the blind community of Kerscher's breakthrough, and Computerized Books for the Blind (CBFB), a nonprofit organization for the distribution of books in ASCII files on floppy disks, was born. Microsoft Press heard what he was

doing and released copyright permission. The press had been receiving requests from blind people around the world for books in electronic files, and finally there was a solution. Other publishers released permission, as well. With support from the University of Montana's Institute on Disability, Kerscher registered users for a one-time $25 fee and then distributed books free of charge. In the three years from 1988 to 1991, Computerized Books for the Blind produced over 750 titles, distributing them to over 1,200 blind computer users around the world.

The Next Chapter

In 1991, Kerscher went to work for Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB and D), the Princeton, New Jersey, nonprofit organization distributing recordings of educational materials to blind and dyslexic consumers since 1948. As RFB and D's research and development director, he focused on the organization's new e-text project, producing books on floppy disks with some navigational capabilities. By 1995, he was named Senior Officer of Accessible Information, not only consulting on accessible information issues to all RFB and D departments, but also collaborating with others around the world to develop standards for book delivery in digital formats.

Driving Miss DAISY

Organizations serving the blind in Sweden, Japan, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere had begun developing systems for delivering digital books to blind readers. To develop a single set of standards designed for blind users worldwide, the Digital Audio-based Information System (DAISY) Consortium was formed in 1995. In 1996, at the DAISY meeting in Toronto, Kerscher demonstrated the DAISY technology developed at RFB and D, incorporating the perspectives of the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines and Synchronized Media Integration Language (SMIL). The consortium agreed that one single set of standards would be adopted worldwide, and a year later, with the blessing of RFB and D, George Kerscher was hired as DAISY's project manager.

Throughout history, many inventions and innovations initially perceived as useful to people with disabilities have found their way into the mainstream marketplace, and the same is true for electronic books. Since the American Foundation for the Blind began recording books for blind consumers since the 1930s, book lovers of all abilities have more recently come to love the pleasure of a book read aloud on car stereos and personal tape players everywhere. Similarly, as LCD screens on notebook and laptop computers improved in resolution and personal data assistants became more widespread, the commercial interest in producing books for the general population that could be read electronically soared.

"The move from tree books to e-books is inevitable," Kerscher says. But it wasn't a simple matter of technology. Authors, publishers, and book sellers are concerned with rights and the potential for lost revenue. Blind and dyslexic consumers are concerned about rights and the loss of access to reading material. It became clear to Kerscher and others that developers of books for blind readers needed to become involved with the development of commercial e-book standards to protect the level of equality blind computer users have come to enjoy in recent decades.

At the first general meeting of the Open E-books Forum (OEBF) in New York City in May 2000, George Kerscher was unanimously elected chairperson of the OEBF Board. This position holds tremendous promise for access by blind users to the next generation of digitally delivered books. Comprised of hardware and software developers, publishers, authors, and organizations interested in electronic books, the Open E-books Forum is dedicated to establishing common specifications for all e-book materials once production is in full swing. Kerscher, in other words, now has feet firmly planted in both the development of standards for digital information designed specifically for blind readers as well as those for mainstream production.

So Where Are the Books?

The end product might take a variety of forms, both hardware and software, but real books produced according to the DAISY standard, also called Digital Talking Books, have been distributed in Sweden and Japan for some time, and will soon be available in the United States. RFB and D has been converting thousands of its titles from cassette to digital format and will begin shipping them in 2002. Although most will be audio only—each title housed on a single compact disc with bookmark and search capabilities—Kerscher says that some will have full text, as well. For the past year, test sites around the country, mostly junior high and high schools, have been working with Digital Talking Books, or DAISY-capable books, and plans are under way for converting RFB and D's 31 recording studios, each with five to eight recording booths, to record materials in a digital format. Players are already available from a variety of sources.

Although NLS has also been heavily involved in establishing standards and planning for Digital Talking Book production, the process will take much longer. NLS distributes not only books but also players (whether hardware or software) for its materials free of charge, and designing a player that is user-friendly to all patrons is no small feat. The hope, explains Michael Moodie of NLS, is to bypass the compact disc technology altogether and ultimately produce books in a flash memory format, possibly similar to the memory sticks now available for digital cameras and other electronic devices. Whatever form the NLS Digital Talking Books materials ultimately take, the prediction at this point is approximately five years down the road for mass distribution of titles and players. A collaborative effort between Microsoft and HumanWare was announced in the fall of 2000 to render the BrailleNote, a Windows CE-based notetaker, compatible with Microsoft Reader, enabling blind consumers to load commercially produced mainstream E-books and read them through synthesized speech and braille. At this point, however, no product has been shown.

Where in the World is George Kerscher?

The overall process of keeping the interests of blind and other disabled consumers "on the same page" with commercial producers is enormously complex, but George Kerscher and other blindness leaders are exercising serious vigilance. Consider, for instance, George Kerscher's travel schedule for March. March 16–18, he was in Los Angeles for meetings with the DAISY Consortium. On March 19, he hopped a plane to Paris, France, for three days of meetings with the Open E-book Forum membership, and then back to Los Angeles to make a March 23 DAISY presentation at the CSUN (California State University, Northridge) conference, "Technology and People with Disabilities." Blind computer users who remember the trauma caused in workplaces and educational settings when DOS-based, blind-friendly applications were replaced by the initially bewildering graphical user interface regime will appreciate the importance of merging the issues of blind accessibility with commercial developments. This time, a laudable effort is being made on all fronts—and George

Kerscher, with ties to the DAISY Consortium, Web Accessibility Initiative, Open E-book Forum, and elsewhere, is representing those issues at every foreseeable roadblock. To him, after all, it's far more than a job. He clearly remembers the thrill of that first Talking Book and later, the thrill of reading a book with his screen reader navigating complex material independently, randomly in the same luxurious mode print readers have long taken for granted. The promise of e-books is that eventually all blind children and adults will come to take that freedom of text navigation for granted, too.

Comment on this article.

Back to top

AccessWorld News

AccessWorld News

Charles Schwab Announces Website Accessibility Initiative

Charles Schwab & Co., Inc. recently announced an initiative to make its website more accessible and inclusive for all customers. Schwab's initiative will particularly improve the client experience for Schwab customers with disabilities. Schwab has adopted the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) version 2.0 level AA as its website accessibility standard and has begun working to meet this standard.

Schwab has already begun making accessibility improvements, and will continue to do so over the next year.

About the Guidelines

The WCAG 2.0 guidelines are promulgated by the Web Accessibility Initiative of the World Wide Web Consortium and ensure that sites are more accessible to people with visual and other disabilities. Many Schwab customers will not notice any differences on the site, as the Guidelines don't affect the content or look and feel of a website. The guidelines are of particular benefit to blind computer users who use screen reader voice output or magnification technology on their computers and who, like some individuals with mobility impairments, rely on a keyboard instead of a mouse for navigation.

White House Highlights STEM Innovators in the Disability Community as "Champions of Change"

Recently, the White House honored 14 individuals as Champions of Change for leading the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math for people with disabilities in education and employment.

The Champions of Change program was created as a part of President Obama's Winning the Future initiative. Each week, a different sector is highlighted and groups of Champions, ranging from educators to entrepreneurs to community leaders, are recognized for the work they are doing to serve and strengthen their communities.

The White House Champions of Change embraces individuals from the field of vision loss.

George Kerscher began his IT innovations in 1987 and coined the term "print disabled." George is dedicated to developing technologies that make information not only accessible, but also fully functional in the hands of people who are blind or have a print disability. He believes properly designed information systems can make all information accessible to all people and he is working to push evolving technologies in this direction. As Secretary General of the DAISY Consortium and President of the International Digital Publishing Forum (IDPF), Kerscher is a recognized international leader in document access. In addition, Kerscher is the Senior Officer of Accessible Technology at Learning Ally in the USA. He chairs the DAISY/NISO Standards committee, and serves on the USA National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS) Board. George was also honored at the AFB Leadership Conference last month where he was the recipient of the 2012 AFB Migel Medal. You can learn more about George Kerscher by reading a 2001 AccessWorld interview conducted by Deborah Kendrick.

As a child in the New York Institute for the Education of the Blind in 1949, John Boyer found that contemporary scientific material in braille was almost non-existent. John never lost the sense of frustration he felt when the braille resources available to him were insufficient to satisfy his hunger for more science education. John believes that is the motive for his life's work. He obtained a master's degree in Computer science, with a minor in electronics engineering at the University of Wisconsin in 1980. His first company was a braille publishing enterprise that served an international client base. Abilitiessoft, Inc., his current company, creates open source adaptive software that makes Web pages available through a braille display to people who are blind. The current project, BrailleBlaster, will allow the integration of text with braille graphics such as maps and graphs into a format accessible to blind people.

Joseph Sullivan is president of Duxbury Systems, Inc., a small company that has specialized in software for braille since its founding in 1975. Duxbury now employs two blind people and provides braille translation software for more than 130 languages worldwide. He has served on many braille-related committees, including the Literary Braille and Computer Braille Committees of the Braille Authority of North America, was chair of the technical design subcommittee of the Unified English Braille (UEB) project of the International Council on English Braille (ICEB), and currently serves on the UEB Maintenance Committee of ICEB. Joe believes that braille is the key to literacy for people who are blind, that literacy is the key to an informed citizenry, and that an informed citizenry is essential to civilization.

Steve Jacobs is President of IDEAL Group. Steve is dedicated to enhancing the accessibility of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) curriculum for students with disabilities. Steve's company offers software that translates printed STEM materials into digital formats for conversion into speech and braille. Steve's company also developed fully-accessible STEM-enabled eBook reading software. Over the past three-and-a-half years, Steve's company has become one of the world's largest developers of mobile accessibility applications, with five million installations in 136 countries. Steve also works with many institutions to tech-transfer their STEM-related work to mobile platforms. These institutions include Smith-Kettlewell's Video Description R&D Center, University of Oregon's Mathematics eText Research Center, and Georgia Tech wireless RERC and sonification lab. Steve is a 1973 graduate of Ohio State University.

Henry Wedler is a graduate student at the University of California, Davis, working towards his Ph.D. in organic chemistry. Inspired by programs offered by the National Federation of the Blind in high school and with encouragement from professors, colleagues and others, Henry gained the confidence to challenge and refute the mistaken belief that STEM fields are too visual and, therefore, impractical for blind people. Henry is not only following his own passion, he's working hard to develop the next generation of scientists by founding and teaching at an annual chemistry camp for blind and low-vision high school students. Chemistry Camp demonstrates to these students, by example and through practice, that their lack of eyesight should not hold them back from pursuing their dreams. Henry was nominated by Douglas Sprei of Learning Ally, a nonprofit that produces accessible audio textbooks for students who are blind and learning disabled.

Sina Bahram, is a PhD student in the Department of Computer Science at North Carolina State University. His field of research is Human Computer Interaction (HCI). Sina's primary interest is the dynamic translation of interfaces, with an emphasis on innovative environments being used by people with visual impairment to facilitate learning, independence, and exploration. His other research interests focus on using AI inspired techniques to solve real-world user-centric problems. When he's not busy with his academic pursuits, Sina enjoys staying on the cutting edge of technology and working with small, high-tech startup companies. Sina's passion for his field originally stems from the fact that he is mostly blind and uses assistive technologies such as a screen reader to navigate computer systems and technological devices. After experimenting in the fields of bioinformatics, privacy policy/law, and systems security, Sina discovered that his heart lies in helping users of all capabilities use computer systems more effectively and efficiently. He has worked in HCI full-time ever since.

Congratulations to these and all the Champions of Change!

Back to top

Letters to the Editor

Digit-Eyes Product Representative Responds to AccessWorld Article

Dear AccessWorld Editor,

Thank you for publishing Janet Ingber's review of Digit-Eyes. We did an update very shortly after this review was written and there are some new features that are being very well received by the community:

  1. The product will now give nutrition information, ingredients, and preparation instructions, if these are available from the manufacturer. This [feature] is accessed from a button titled "More information" that is displayed if the information is available.
  2. The [price for the complete] Digit-Eyes [package] is now $19.99. … Individual components [cost:] recording / labeling function, $9.99; UPC function, $9.99; code 3-of-9 and code 128 support, $1.99 each.

Digit-Eyes also has a very useful feature none of the other products have:

You can print your own labels, place them on an object, and then record content on your phone that will be played back the next time you scan the code. This is very similar to the PenFriend except:

  1. The labels are [inexpensive and] available off-the-shelf
  2. There is no limit to the number of labels you can have
  3. There is no practical limit to the length of the recording (the average iPhone 4 can record about 16,000 hours of labels)

[On the website,] you can buy labels that can be washed, bleached, dried, and dry-cleaned. There is also now an option to use Digit-Eyes [with a laser scanner] if you already have one. We support both tethered scanners that hook up to a laptop and the bluetooth scanners that can talk to an iPhone, iPad or iPod. Simply go to the website, tap the input box and scan. You'll get the same depth of information. This option is free to use.

I would appreciate you letting AccessWorld readers know about these new product enhancements.


Nancy Miracle, Digit-Eyes Product Representative

Dear AccessWorld Editor,

I am a regular reader of AccessWorld and enjoy it every month. I especially find the in-depth reviews of various products and services very interesting.

Would there be a particular braille notetaker especially suited to a beginning braille reader or one that does not offer advanced features such as connecting to the Internet and e-mail if someone would just like a simple electronic note taking device?

Many thanks for your possible advice and suggestions,

Best wishes,


Lee Huffman, AccessWorld Editor-in-Chief, responds:

Dear Claire,

Thank you for reading AccessWorld.

The short answer is there is no device intended only for making notes in braille currently on the market. Of course, any of the popular devices can be used in this manner, but $6,000 is a lot to spend if one is not interested in any of the more advanced features. (It would be somewhat akin to buying an iPhone or other smart phone when all you ever want to do with it is call home once in a while.)

One option is to look on eBay or other lists where people with vision loss sell older technology and pick up an inexpensive note taker product. There are plenty of them still being bought and sold for a fraction of the cost of newer, more feature-rich products.

You may be interested to know that within the next few months, AFB will be launching a notetaker app for iOS devices. You could download this app and purchase a wireless braille display to use with it. The plan is to sell this app for a price low enough to place it within the reach of as many people as possible. Stay tuned to AccessWorld for upcoming information about the launch of the app. Best of luck to you.


Lee Huffman, AccessWorld Editor-in-Chief

Dear AccessWorld Editor,

I just read Lacy Markel's article, The United States Association of Blind Athletes Shapes Lives through Sports and Recreation, from the April issue. It was great, and it should help us get off our collective butts and start moving. I go to the local Senior Center and workout on the treadmill quite often. For several years, when I lived in a bigger city, I would run the stairs in a tall building and participate in the annual Cystic Fibrosis stair race. The great thing about this is that you do not need sighted assistance to climb stairs and it is a great aerobic conditioner. There is also a lot of fun when you get a few people to come with you and participate in the race, and enjoy the refreshments after the run.



Dear AccessWorld Editor,

As always, Deborah Kendrick has written another fine product evaluation in her May, 2012 article, Product Evaluation: PLEXTALK Pocket PTP1 DAISY Book Player and Digital Recorder from Shinano Kenshi. I have the Book Port Plus, which I feel is pretty much the same device as the PLEXTALK Pocket. One thing that's not so good in my opinion about these devices is that the text-to-speech voice (I believe it's the same as the one found on the Victor Stream) is really not so good. It could be a deal breaker if it were the only device for reading Web braille or Bookshare materials. How non-DAISY materials are stored, accessed, and managed has improved with revisions, but it's still a little strange. Battery life is just okay. I don't know if the same book transfer software comes with the PLEXTALK Pocket. It's quite helpful in the case of the Book Port Plus.

When we read a computer magazine or one that discusses electronic gear, what we read is all the wondrous things the devices can do…. Access World is good about pointing out the quirks and inconsistencies in products; I want to urge you to keep that perspective, exciting as products can be.



Back to top

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

Download the free AccessWorld appDownload the free AccessWorld app
Back Issues
Search AccessWorld
AccessWorld Alerts Signup
For Advertisers
Contact AccessWorld

Related Links

Using Assistive Technology
AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide
Product Database for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
AFB Consulting
Orbit Reader 20 by Orbit Research. A low-cost Breakthrough for Refreshable Braille

Sprint Vision: Services for Consumers Who Are Blind Or Have Low Vision

Learn NVDA

HIMS New All In One Video Magnifier

Low Vision Simulators Plus VSRT (Pepper) Test LUV Reading Workbook

Foundations of Education, Third Edition

Exercise and Fitness Strategies for Older Adults

College Bound: A Guide for Students with Visual Impairments, 2nd Edition

The Why, When and How for Reading eBooks

College Bound: Practical Steps for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

AccessNote Accessible Notetaker App FREE on Android and iOS


NEW! iOS in the Classroom: A Guide for Teaching Students with Visual Impairments

Hope. Help. Connections for People with Vision Loss. VisionConnect FREE iOS app!
 End of advertising