Category Archives: Accessible Tech
Obligatory disclaimer: I was given an iPad, but not by Apple, and Apple is not endorsing, paying for, or otherwise involved in this review.
I was initially highly skeptical when I opened my iPad. I sort of thought ‘well, what am I going to do with this?’ Then I started using it, and people have been having difficulty separating me from it ever since. It is one of those rare gifts that meets needs I didn’t even know I had; I didn’t know, for example, that I needed an ereader1. I also didn’t know that I needed a handy portable device that would allow me to step away from the computer while still retaining some connection to the Internet. And I didn’t know how fun it would be to use.
It’s superfast. It starts up at a tap and navigation is very rapid. Web pages load fast and look great no matter which way you have the thing tilted, and oh, the tiltability is a delightful feature. The screen resolution is also fantastic, much better than my laptop, and I can view it at a variety of angles and still see crisp, clear text. Which is very handy for reading in bed, something I find much more comfortable with the iPad than trying to hold up a big book at the right angle.
The ereader iBooks, a free app, is fantastic, and for those of you looking for ereaders that let you annotate/comment on/etc. your text, it has all that functionality. (Yes, I had fun leaving random notes to myself.) I’ve been using Tweet Library for managing Twitter and in my opinion it is totally worth the price; I really need filtering and organising capability and it provides this.
Controlwise, I didn’t find everything instantly intuitive, but I very rarely do, so I would recommend taking that advisory with a grain of salt. Once I started figuring things out, it came pretty quickly. Also, for some reason I find it hilarious that the icons wiggle when you’re configuring them. Seriously, if you feel inclined for a laugh, go to an Apple store and try it even if you have no intent of buying an iPad.
Accessible tech focuses on reviews from an accessibility perspective, not a fanpersoning one, though, so let’s talk about that:
I have hand tremors, so I was expecting to have a really hard time with the touchscreen navigation. That has not been the case, by and large. It’s sensitive, but it also seems good at distinguishing between purposeful movements and inadvertent ones. You can also control it with a stylus without needing to make any adaptations, handy for people who want foot, mouth, or head controlled devices. Or cat controlled, in my case: Loki really enjoys typing because it flashes and makes clicky noises (you can turn those off if they are not your style, incidentally).
The keyboard is fantastic! I am a very fast typist and while I’m faster on a full regular keyboard, I am pretty damn fast, as well as accurate, on the iPad. It also has pretty good autocorrect, although obnoxiously it only seems to have a US English dictionary; apparently other versions of English don’t exist. It also allows you to remap keyboard layouts and languages.
Magnification is a SNAP. Is the text too small? Flick your fingers and it will get bigger, and it will stay crisp and highly readable. Problem being now that every time I use something with a regular screen and want to zoom, I catch myself reaching out to magnify the text. You can also shrink things back down if that’s how you want to roll.
I appreciate the rapid toggle for sound; you can snap sound off with a single button instead of having to navigate to find it. There’s also a sound control on the side to quickly bring volume up or down, if that’s desired.
There is an accessibility menu in ‘settings’ that offers features to read the text on screen (although the whole needing to see to, uhm, do anything could, you know, be an obstacle for visually impaired users since I can’t seem to find a voice control2). There are zoom and large text features as well as a flip button for white on black/black on white text.
Accessibilitywise, I’d say that the iPad definitely meets my accessibility needs, and I can see the framework in place for meeting those of others. As with any tech, though, you don’t really know until you have it in your hand, which is why I would strongly recommend trying one before buying (or figuring out a way to get the person you want to buy it for to try it first). I pretty much knew within five minutes of starting up that I was going to be in love with it, and I suspect that conversely, if it’s something you would hate, you would know very quickly!
These devices are pretty cost-prohibitive, however, although far less expensive than ‘specialty’ devices supposedly designed for accessibility with fewer features and less configurability than the iPad. There’s no way I could have afforded one for myself, with the base model starting at $500 US. 3G enabled models start at $629 US in the Apple store. So, yeah, not exactly cost-effective. I know other tablet computers are out there and prices are dropping, though! I’d be curious to know about experiences with other ereaders and tablets from commenters.
I also want to note that Apple’s labour practices are not without controversy, although unfortunately the same can be said of most tech manufacturers.
- In fact, I had expressed, repeatedly and in many fora, doubts that I would ever find an ereader enjoyable or functional for me personally because I had a hard time believing I would be able to read books on a screen. ↩
- I do want to note that guides can be found for enabling voice control on modified iPads and it seems like a feature Apple might consider in the future. ↩
Way back in the dark ages of the Internet, I had a massive bookmarks file. And a few times a day I would go through bookmark by bookmark (this was before the heady days of ‘open all in tabs’) to see if those sites had updated. Then, people started generating feeds, and my whole life changed. Instead of laboriously checking for updates by hand, I could load those puppies into a feed reader and read at my leisure.
Massive time saver! Almost everyone I know these days uses a feed reader because it’s just not feasible to keep up with this stuff any other way. I heart my Google Reader very very ferociously (it’s in my quick access bar). There are numerous other RSS readers out there, of course, including desktop versions which look pretty neat. (I fear change so I will never adopt them, but I sure will comment about how purdy they are!)
But there are also some disability-centric reasons to want to use feed readers, like being able to control how content appears when it displays to make it readable. There are a lot of sites I just plain will not read because they are not just inaccessible, but they actively resist accessibility requests. Some people are less bullheaded than me and really want to be able to read what someone has to say even though that person says it in eight point dark purple font on a black background with random flashing animations. RSS makes that possible; you can adjust it to display however you like it best et voila, you’re happily reading again! The ability to file stuff to read later is also very handy for people with limited energy. Basically, RSS=accessibility win!
Which is why it really, really pisses me off when people intentionally break RSS feeds.
Perhaps the most obvious offender is truncation of feeds. I know a lot of sites that do this and I’ll tell you right now, when sites start truncating their feeds, I unsubscribe and stop reading. There are a lot of reasons why people truncate feeds and I understand the arguments behind it (it can prevent scraping, for one thing, and some people are worried about ads and pageviews), but I don’t support it. And in fact a lot of people argue against it, arguing that truncating feeds can actually cut down on traffic and make people feel like your site is not user friendly. I’d be interested to see some studies on traffic (and I suspect some commenters will have links for me!).
And, for some people with disabilities, truncated feeds means they can’t read your content. Not the stubborn people like me who won’t read you if you truncate, but the people who are using your RSS feed because they can’t access your site. If you’re going to make an inaccessible site, you might want to consider at least leaving your feeds whole so disabled people can read it. Unless you don’t give a shit.
Fixed fonts, images, and colours. One of the greatest things about an RSS reader is the ability to completely configure it. If you need white sans serif fonts on a black background, you can do that. If you need text magnification, you can do that too. Using RSS is awesome for this and it’s a terrific accessibility tool in that sense. That is, until people force specific fonts, colours, and sizes with HTML. I’d pull an example for you from my own RSS so you know what I’m talking about, except that I don’t subscribe to sites that do that. (I told you, I’m stubborn.)
A lot of people use HTML this way and it really pisses me off. They will often say pompous things about ‘artistic integrity’ and ‘thinking about design’ but, in fact, if you are a good web designer, you should be able to design a site that looks good at any magnification, not just in 10 point or what have you. In RSS, this is really frustrating, because your settings usually can’t override the imported text. Consequently, you end up with annoying things like vanishing text, etc.
Embedded ads. I understand why people feed ads to RSS. But I wish that a little bit more thought went into them, because, guess what, flashing ads in your RSS reader are as problematic as flashing ads on a website. So far I don’t think anyone has come up with a method for making interstitials that work in RSS, all thanks be to ice cream, but I suspect it’s coming. I use pretty aggressive ad blocking and even with that I encounter ads in RSS. One animated ad can shut down my brain for a surprisingly long period of time and I freely unsubscribe from sites that inflict them on me.
Images without alt tags, embedded videos lacking subtitles or transcripts. Guess what! They’re annoying on your website, and they are also annoying in your RSS feed! And by ‘annoying’ I mean ‘significant barriers to accessibility that inform disabled users they are not welcome on your website.’
RSS, as we know, stands for Really Simple Syndication. Make it simple for your disabled readers: Feed plain, full text, reject flashing ads, and commit to making image, video, and audio content accessible. This angry cripple, for one, will thank you.
One thing that has helped me quite a bit as a blogger, writer, grad student and person with chronic pain subject to flare-ups has been speech-to-text software. The basic idea is fairly self-evident: You install the software, plug in the headset that comes with it, open up the word processing program of your choice, and start talking.
Repetitive motion is one of those things that can be the bane of one’s existence if that person happens to have chronic pain issues; while there are people who might say, Oh, typing at a computer can’t be that painful or Just work through the pain or some other ridiculous piece of “advice,” typing can, at times, be enormously painful or draining for some folks with pain issues. No matter how much one may want to complete a piece, post or assignment, sometimes it just will not happen due to pain. When it feels like your hands are encased in cement blocks, there is no “working through the pain.” Having your hands and wrists feel like they have been set on fire by pain when you are on a deadline — like a lot of circumstances surrounding pain flares — can be excruciating. It’s kind of like having your hands and wrists feel like the Human Torch, but without any of the cool superpowers.
With speech-to-text, the additional pain brought on by repetitive typing is significantly reduced, as it takes at least some of the typing (but not editing, as I will address below) out of the equation. There are some additional issues to consider, however: one is “fibro fog,” the name given to some of the cognitive effects of a fibromyalgia flare, which can, for the person experiencing the flare, make it difficult to put thoughts, words and sentences together with anything resembling coherency. This is more of a condition issue than one that has to do with typing, but it’s fairly obvious as to how fibro-fog could impact the use of text-to-speech: if your thoughts are jumbled because of pain and fatigue, it’s likely that they will be just as jumbled regardless of whether you are typing or speaking into a text-to-speech headset. I’m fairly lucky with fibro-fog myself, as it tends to be rather mild unless I am experiencing a pain flare that feels closer to acute pain than chronic, but typing is one of those processes that can seem bizarrely confusing during a massive pain flare-up (and the whole “simple things as confusing” side effect is damn near impossible to truly understand unless you’ve been through it).
Of course, there are some aspects of text-to-speech software that are less than perfect: similar to the iPhone’s auto-correct feature (some of the amazing slip-ups of which have been documented by websites such as Damn You Autocorrect), speech-to-text software can “read” one spoken word or phrase as something else entirely, sometimes producing hilarious (or irritating) fragments that often make no sense within the context of what you are actually writing. My personal favorite thus far has been my speech-to-text program “translating” Judith Butler as Judas butt lark, which made me wonder if I need to work on my pronunciation skills if only for the convenience of my software program.
There is also the cost issue: many speech-to-text software programs are expensive. In a utopia, everyone who could benefit from text-to-speech programs would have a reliable and fairly-priced one ready for use. I’m one of those weirdos who thinks that accessible technology should not be something available only to those who can afford to pay for it, but that, unfortunately, is most likely a long time coming.
There are many things we can do to improve everyone’s lives. Voting is not the only thing, but it sure is easy to do. Many have given their health, their peace of mind, and their lives for the right to exercise the franchise. If you live in the U.S., join me1 and head on down to the polls in your municipality this coming Tuesday.
And while you’re there, you might be wondering, “Gee, just how do people with disabilities vote?” As it happens, I know a little about this.
CAPTION: laptop size plastic machine with letter-size screen. Woman using powerchair, wearing purple hat and favorite2 purple jacket feeds ballot into slot below screen.
One decent result from the G.W.Bush administration was that the voting process must be independently accessible to people with disabilities. Before then, most people with disabilities would enlist the assistance of a helper where needed. Then they’d vote absentee (returning the ballot in the mail) or bring the helper into the voting booth on the day. I remember assisting a blind person with a mechanical voting machine–a lever for each name! Xe jested that it was a refreshing change to depend on someone with whose politics xe was unsure (as opposed to xir long-time partner), and yet the joke had a bit of a sting to it.
Reflecting strong republican sentiment in the U.S., voting is controlled at the lowest possible administrative level. Voting techniques vary widely from state to state (sometimes city to county). In Wisconsin you can register to vote five minutes before casting your ballot, but in some states you must register 30 days in advance. But since I can now depend on getting my power wheelchair into the polling place, it seemed like a good year to volunteer as a poll worker. I went to the “new election official in Madison” training today [Editor’s note – October 28].
Two points up front:
1. I wasn’t expecting the disablist training, so I wasn’t taking verbatim notes. I could not swear to any of the following in court; as far as the essential drift, I do believe I’m correct and I heard the trainer acknowledge this. (Memo to self: take notes on life.)
2. I am not hosting a discussion of the political or technical validity and/or vulnerability of voting machines. (For the record, I support 3b; it works for us in Wisconsin, which used to be an exemplar of clean politics.)
When our trainer finished walking us through the various elements of a correctly marked ballot, I raised my hand and said, “And then there’s another way to mark the ballot, right, with the accessible voting machine?” Her response began with a non-verbal eye-roll, which I interpreted as ‘yipes, why did she bring this up?’ Then, she spoke aloud “Yes, that’s right. The accessible voting machine is challenging and we’ll get to that later.”
3. Since she never did do a decent job, let me tell you a bit about accessible voting. The access depends in part on the underlying voting technology. Either
a) Everybody votes using a machine.
In this case, one of the machines needs to supply large print, speech output (usually to headphones), touch screen input (no grip required), single-switch input (more details below) and various other hardware “hooks” to the wide variety of assistive tech in use today.
b) Everybody marks a paper ballot, then feeds the marked ballot into a tabulator (a tallying box like the dollar-bill slot on a vending machine).
Typical people use the ballot-marking tools at the end of their wrists. The rest of us have an accessible machine as above which just marks the ballot. (Ridiculously, the manufacturer’s link don’t provide a fully-accessible presentation.)
OK, back to the end of my training session, where I noted she had never gotten back to the voting machine.
She said the accessible voting machine is very important and everyone must have one working at each polling place. She said they could be used by someone who’s blind, or someone who has low vision, or can’t read for any reason, or really just anybody who wants to. She also said that they were very fussy mechanically, so they may not work as well as you’d like.
(At this point fury stunned me into silence. What I should have said is, “And here we have an excellent chance for you to get in front of these issues by training us in how to get them to work correctly! Seize the moment!”)
Another trainee asked what poll workers should do if they thought a voter was being unduly influenced in filling out a ballot. Xe said, “This happened around 6 years ago, when someone who, well, frankly, he was just not cognizant enough to be voting. And the person with them was filling out the ballot for them.” I piped up that this could be a good option to use the accessible machine: somebody who can’t read could be able to understand the speech.
(FWIW, the “Six years ago this r#tarded person was influenced in their vote” is a perennial election year rumor. Neurotypical people are quick to define the minimum IQ they’d set for voting, without exploring the profound mismatch between IQ and ability. Absolutely every social justice activist would do well to read Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man.)
When the training was over, I’d been cleansed by fury and recovered the power of speech, I stopped to discuss my issues with the trainer. I said I was disappointed in her presentation of the voting machine. She reiterated they were frustrating and difficult to use. “Don’t you realize,” she asked, “that most poll workers are over 60 and they are not going to be able to understand this computer?” (Reality check: accessible voting machines are no more a computer than an ATM. Ninety percent of the people in the training were under 55; in all regards it looked like Madison: gender presentation, ethnicity, education levels, evident disability, income levels, number of piercings, which made me happy about my city.)
I asked if that meant my rights as a voter were also frustrating her? How would she feel if I said that permitting her to vote was too difficult? The penny dropped, and she began to apologize for “not presenting in the most effective manner.” At this point her supervisor’s ears pricked up. “Who was deprecating use of the voting machines?” The trainer allowed that her “initial presentation was sub-optimal.” While I was gratified that she’d finally understood, I was frustrated that this right, so long fought for by so many, is still not a matter of fact in our daily lives.
If you’re up for some voting day advocacy, the U.S. Department of Justice provides a detailed guide for access verifiers at Voting Checklist. Folks outside the U.S., what’s the voting situation for you?
Like a lot of consumers in North America, I carry my debit card with me pretty much every where I go. From buying my yummy lattes to buying school supplies to paying for groceries, I use my debit card for probably 90% of my financial transactions. For me, the debit card and PIN system is excellent because I don’t need to carry cash and try and figure out the taxes to be carrying the right amount, or worry about how much money I might lose if I drop my wallet.
This is becoming increasingly difficult for Blind consumers across Canada. While the old debit card machines had a raised number pad, almost always with at least a raised dot indicating the center key (and thus allowing a blind person to orientate themselves and put in their private security code without assistance), new debit machines are being introduced that use dynamic touch screens instead of a number pad.
This puts Blind consumers in a tough spot: Either carry enough money with you everywhere to cover all of your expenses, or give someone else your private security code, your PIN – and give them access to your finances.
If you can’t independently verify that you are being charged the correct amount or expected amount, you are liable for the cost that gets authorized through this POS system and no bank or credit card company will help you.
The banks and credit companies use a PIN system for authentication. If you can’t use the [Point of Sale] device, you can’t independently enter your pin. If you give your PIN to another person you are now giving them full independent access to your finances and they have the power to clear you out financially and you are liable and no bank or credit card company will help you. So scenarios where you get a friend, buddy or store employee to enter the PIN for you are not an option.
Blind and low-vision consumers have been raising the issue of the need for point-of-sale transactions to be accessible to them for a very long time. In Everett’s blog post on the subject, Sorry, We Don’t Serve the Blind: inaccessible point-of-sales devices, he points the reader towards articles written in 2004, and I’m certain there are ones from before that since I’ve had a bank card since 1986. As society becomes more and more digital, with fancy touch-screens for everything, the need for the designers of these touch screen devices to consider Blind and low-vision consumer’s needs is greater. Without that consideration, more of the world becomes as inaccessible as, say, a Government of Canada website.
The thing is, as both Everett and Jeffrey point out, it doesn’t have to be this way. Both Google and Apple, leading developers of consumer products with touch-screen technology, have made touch screens accessible to blind users. If I go to use my bank card in an ATM, there is an option there for Blind or low-vision consumers to use assistive technology to make the ATM accessible to them, privately, without needing anyone else to have access to their personal financial information.
I believe, perhaps naively, that this is an oversight, and one that merchants and Interac Inc, the primary provider of Point of Sale devices in Canada would work with consumers to correct. Please take the time to contact Interact and raise your concerns about accessibility for Blind and low-vision Canadians.
Also, be sure to read The epidemic of inaccessible Touch Screen Point Of Sale Devices to blind consumers and Sorry, We Don’t Serve the Blind: inaccessible point-of-sales devices. Jeffrey has started a working group that is going to also lobby on this issue, and you can contact him directly for more information – his contact details on in his blog post.
Transcribe Your Classes!
Please note that spots are filling up quickly for the Liberated Learning Youth Initiative starting this fall. The Youth Initiative provides students with disabilities access to a new Speech Recognition transcription system. During the project, students will be given special user accounts where they will be able to upload recorded lectures and receive speech recognition generated, multimedia transcripts.
Brief application forms are posted at Transcribe Your Class.
We encourage you to review the participation criteria on the website, share this message, and apply to participate. For further information, please contact:
Keith Bain, Project Director, Liberated Learning, Saint Mary’s University
Janice Stevens, Project Coordinator, Liberated Learning, Saint Mary’s University
Last week, Mathsnerd attempted to sign up for a new GoogleMail (know as Gmail elsewhere) account. I say attempted because this did not go well. At all.
Oh, wait, what’s that, Google? After trying more than three names, I have to go through CAPTCHA to prove I’m a real person? Okay, that’s kind of soon, but whatever. Gee, you sure scrunch those letters together and make them all wavy so that I have a real hard time figuring out what the hell you want me to enter…
Huh, okay, I’ve tried eight times, Google, and I can’t seem to read it well enough that you’re satisfied that I’m a real person. And while you offer a “read-aloud” accessibility option for the CAPTCHA down below for submitting the form (which, incidentally, doesn’t work in Chrome, yeah, you know, YOUR BROWSER!), for the CAPTCHA to keep trying different handles you conveniently don’t offer any alternate options.
Captcha is a sort of Challenge that a user must pass when a program thinks that the user might be a spambot instead of a person. Wikipedia’s article looks useful if you want to learn more about it. It’s certainly not the only Challenge software out there, but it is one that is widely used, especially by Google-related products, such as their web-based email and their blogging software, Blogger. In fact, Google likes Captcha so much they bought the company in 2009, making Google responsible for implementing their accessibility policy.
Some Captchas, including the ones used by Google, have an audio option. I’ve occasionally tried to use the audio Captchas, which are a series of numbers read outloud with a large amount of background noise, designed, I assume, to keep an automated system from being able to distinguish the Challenge. I’m an experienced audio typist, so while I found this irritating, I could cut through it. Earlier this year, Blind Bargains did a study and found that 73% of blind users were unable to succeed at the Captcha Challenge – and blind users, according to Google and Captcha, are exactly who the audio function is designed for. 1
Google has an Accessibility Feedback Form. In order to use it, you must have a Google Account. Depending on any number of factors, your attempt to get a Google Account to discuss their accessibility problem with Captcha could require you to pass a Captcha Challenge in order to prove you are an actual person.
Actually, let me highlight that: In order to tell Google about their problems with accessibility, you need to be able to pass through the inaccessible Challenge.
Those of you who already have Gmail or GoogleMail accounts, you can contact Google to raise your concerns at their Accessibility Feedback Form. The Feedback form has a lot of fields to fill out. I just filled out the one that I felt was most applicable, and it went through without requiring me to put in any more information.
Here is a template you can use. Please feel free to use, edit, or adapt this for your own purposes.:
I was very distressed to learn that Blind users and users with other disabilities were having difficulties in signing up for Gmail accounts through the Captcha challenge. One user has detailed her experiences here: http://accessibility-fail.dreamwidth.org/33494.html , and as well, Blind Bargains reports 73% of their users had difficulties with using the audio version of Captcha: http://www.blindbargains.com/bargains.php?m=5383
I know that Google wants to be a more accessible service for users around the world. I hope that the accessibility people at Google will have the opportunity to look into these complaints and work with various people with disabilities in order to solve these problems.
Thank you for your time.
This is an issue that cuts to the heart of the problems with inaccessible web content. Obviously there are thousands – maybe millions – of blind or otherwise visually impaired users of the internet, but in this increasingly-flashy internet age, where not only information but job applications are going increasingly online, web accessibility is a huge barrier to people’s participation in society. Google, as we all know, is a huge multi-national company with the ability to make an incredible difference by working with users with disabilities in order to make the web more accessible to us. By contacting Google, you will be adding your voice to the chorus asking for greater web accessibility.
- Thank you to Codeman38 for bringing this study to my attention. ↩