How Technology Can Increase Braille Literacy

It has long been known that children who are blind or severely visually impaired encounter many barriers for learning to read and write Braille. For one, a lack of resources such as not having the appropriate tools in developing countries prevents students with vision loss from ever learning the system. Youngsters who are blind in the United States also might not have sufficient instruction in the classroom, primarily due to not being able to spend enough time with a teacher of the visually impaired. This leads to Braille illiteracy and thereby numerous missed opportunities for blind students.

To address this alarming issue, T-Var EdTech, a Boston-based startup company developed an innovative tool. The Read Read is a special device that allows students to learn Braille without an instructor. It uses a combination of tactile and audio feedback to teach Braille. Students at the Perkins School for the Blind recently tested the device, and its developer, Alex Tavares, found that they were highly engaged with the Read Read. Tavares and her team are currently seeking funding and support, and they hope to distribute 400 units to 400 students. Individual devices can also be purchased for $495 each.

As a Braille reader myself, I know how important it is for children who are blind to learn braille at an early age. The fact that I was introduced to the system as a preschooler made it much easier for me to fully grasp the concept. Without a doubt, assistive technology, like smartphones and screen-reading software, have drastically enhanced my independence. However, I still believe that it is important for future generations of individuals who are blind to learn to read and right Braille in order to be successful and independent.

The Read Read is a perfect example of how technology can increase Braille literacy among people without sight. It can help students, instructors and parents alike. Teachers can assign Braille lessons to their students so they can practice independently. The parents and families of blind children can also learn Braille with this easy to use tool. Even adults who recently became blind could find the Read Read beneficial when learning Braille. In other words, the possibilities for this device are countless!

Literacy is important for people with and without vision loss. Devices like the Read Read can be true game changers for people who are blind, as they provide an alternative way of learning Braille. Without a doubt, technology has tremendously benefited people who are blind or visually impaired for many years and it sure is wonderful to see developers who want to use it to enhance and increase Braille literacy.

How Do People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired Read Printed Text?

How Do People Who Are Blind Or Visually Impaired Read Printed Text?

Reading is part of everyone’s life. From looking at bills and letters to enjoying magazines and books during our free time, we read every single day. Unfortunately, not everything is printed in Braille or audio format for people like me who cannot see. From assistive technology that scans and reads print out loud, to organizations that provide books, newspapers and magazines in audio or Braille formats free of charge, there are numerous ways of accessing print materials. The following are just a few of those methods people with vision loss use to access printed text.

Recorded Book Collections

People living in the United States can take advantage of The Library of Congress’s National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, or Learning Ally. Both services provide a collection of thousands of audio recorded books, magazines and periodicals to qualifying individuals with print disabilities. The BookShare websitealso provides a broad collection of books in different audio and electronic formats. Subscribers can listen by using special software and audio players, or on their smartphones and tablets by downloading the mobile apps offered by each provider (click on the links for more information.)

Assistive Technology

Tools like the BookPort and Victor Reader are portable devices that can serve many purposes. These often include an audio player, digital recorder, radio and can even read text files. Newer versions can also connect to the Internet, and users can listen to online radio stations or instantly download audio books onto the devices.

OCR, or optical character recognition, allows people to scan books, letters and other materials. Once a page is scanned, the OCR software or device begins reading the text out loud. To me, this technology comes in handy when reading letters or other literature I get in the mail, for example. Most OCR devices consist of a camera – which takes a picture of the text – and text to speech software. New tools like the OrCam allow users to instantly scan and read letters, books, etc. There are also Smartphone apps that can scan and read print materials out loud. You can see and purchase the latest in assistive technology in ourTools for Living Store.

EBook Readers

Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK are some of the most popular EBook readers in the market. Users can purchase books from the respective websites, and begin reading them in a matter of seconds. The accessibility of these devices for people with vision loss is constantly improving (previously, users with limited vision could not navigate through the various menus). Both devices also offer iOS and Android apps, which are accessible to people with visual impairments.

Other smartphone and tablet apps, like iOS’s iBooks and Android’s Google Play Books are also quite accessible. Users can easily navigate by page, chapter, etc. using their phone’s or tablet’s screen-reading software. These apps can come in handy when a book is not available in audio from other sources. There are numerous other accessible apps for reading books.

Accessing Newspapers and Magazines

Reading the day’s newspaper has now become easier for people with visual impairments thanks to modern technology and resources. The Chicago Lighthouse’s CRIS Radio provides daily readings of popular newspapers like The Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun Times, Washington Post and New York Times. Users who are blind or otherwise cannot read print because of a disability can tune in via a special receiver, and by listening by phone or online.

The NFB NewsLine provides audio versions of daily newspapers and magazines to people who are blind or visually impaired throughout the United States. Publications range from daily magazines and newspapers to weekly sales circulars for various stores. Subscribers can listen to the publications online, with the NFB NewsLine app, by phone and on devices like the Victor Reader.

What other methods do you use to read and access print text as someone who is blind or visually impaired? We’d love to hear from you!

Commentary: Wearable Technology for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

Over the past few years, technology developers have begun focusing on making technological devices that are portable, wearable and easy to use. Some popular examples include the Apple Watch and Fitbit. People can check their email, keep track of their diet and exercise, track the weather and so much more. As with past trends in technology, many developers are focusing on making devices that can assist people with visual impairments. The primary goal of these devices is to help those with vision loss gain more independence.

Not a week goes by that I don’t hear about new wearable technologies being designed for people with visual impairments. Last week, for example, I read about research being done in India to develop a ring that can read printed documents out loud. Microsoft is also undertaking a project to make a pair of glasses that could potentially tell people who are blind or visually impaired what’s around them. This is just a small sample of the hundreds, if not thousands, of products being developed in universities and companies all over the world to help people with vision loss.

Although the concept of wearable technology is still in its early stage, we are starting to see how it will be able to help people with vision loss. A few months ago, I tried out the OrCam, a small camera that, when mounted on a pair of glasses, scans and reads out loud printed text. The OrCam – like most wearable technologies – is still under development and will need to undergo several improvements. Still, I was highly impressed by how accurate and fast it was. After just a couple of seconds, it started reading a print page in an easy to understand voice. I sure look forward to the day when I can read all print material by using a simple pair of glasses!

I began using a smartphone four years ago, and to say it opened the world to me is an understatement. Thanks to new and accessible apps, I can read books, stay in touch with my friends, know what color something is and even use GPS to travel in unfamiliar places, all with my cell phone. I sure thought that technology could not get any better at the time! Learning about the new and exciting products that are on the way makes me realize once again that the possibilities of technology are endless.

I have always believed that technology has leveled the playing field for people with disabilities in many ways. Thanks to it, we can go to school, hold jobs and be more independent. We still have much more to understand on how new wearable technology can help everyone, but I think what we have seen thus far is very promising. How do you think wearable technology will help people with vision loss or other disabilities in the near future? Please share your thoughts!

Commentary: Using Mobile Devices As Virtual Eyes

It is only the beginning of 2016, but it already looks like this year has a lot of revolutionary innovations in assistive technology! BlindTool is a recently developed Smartphone app that identifies objects for blind and visually impaired individuals. In other words, it serves as a pair of eyes for those of us who are blind or have low vision. The Android app was developed by Joseph Paul Cohen, a Ph.D candidate at the University of Massachusetts in Boston. Cohen’s idea for this app came after spending some time working with a blind computer programmer.

 

By pointing the phone to whatever object a user wishes to identify, the app will call out the name in a matter of seconds. As soon as the app identifies an object, and is 90 percent sure of what it is, it will rapidly vibrate and say its name. As with any new technology, BlindTool isn’t necessarily flawless. It might confuse an object with a similar thing or even with something completely unrelated. A picture frame might be mistaken for a microwave, a coffee cup for a bowl of soup, and – according to one user – a Christmas tree for a feather boa.

 

As someone who has used technology all of my life, I am constantly amazed with the development of new products like this app. I remember when reading a print document by simply scanning and then listening to it on a computer became possible in the late 1990s. This was quite the technological innovation of the time to say the least! Soon we began seeing devices that could identify colors, currency denominations and so much more! They became even more portable with the development of smartphones and tablets.

 

These innovations are just the tip of the iceberg, however. Beginning in 2013, apps were being developed that could help blind and visually impaired people “see” what was around them. One of the most popular apps was TapTapSee, which described people and objects within a matter of seconds after the user snapped a photo of a person or thing. Later Be My Eyes was released, and this iOS app is still among the most popular for blind and visually impaired individuals. It connects users with sighted volunteers, who will then help by describing whatever it is the person needs help with.

 

I strongly believe that technology has been a game changer for people with visual impairments, or are otherwise disabled. Most people have the convenience of being able to check their emails and social media pages on the go, but mobile devices and apps have allowed blind and visually impaired individuals to do much more than that. Apps like BlindTool have an enormous potential of redefining access for people without vision. I sure am beyond excited at the possibility of someday being able to “see” what’s around me in a matter of seconds by simply pulling out my cell phone!

 

BlindTool is a fairly new app, and therefore I don’t necessarily expect it to be accurate 100 percent of the time. I most certainly can’t wait to see the full potential of this app, and hope that its developers will soon make a version for iOS. Better yet, I am anxious to see what future technologies have in store for blind and visually impaired individuals. After all, if technology can now help us read and “see” images, then there’s no limit to what it can do for all of us.

Sandy’s Top 5 Assistive Technology Products of 2015

top 5Technology is constantly advancing, and 2015 was not the exception! Many assistive technology products promise to change how those with vision loss read, get around and even “see” pictures in social media. Today, I am highlighting the top 5 assistive technology tools and products released in 2015 for people who are blind or visually impaired.

 

  1. Vario Ultra

 

Previously, Braille displays and notetakers were notorious for being bulky and heavy. The Vario Ultra is manufactured by Baum Retech, and is both a portable Braille display and notetaker. It supports up to six Bluetooth and USB connections with smart phones, tablets or computers. Users can read what’s on their iPad and laptop without needing to connect and disconnect each device separately.

 

  1. Connect 12

 

One of the main goals of assistive technology is to make products that are both accessible and inclusive to those with vision loss. HumanWare’s Prodigi Connect 12 tablet and magnifier is a perfect example of such products. This device has the functions of an Android tablet, and the popular Prodigi software provides magnification and OCR tools for low vision users.

 

  1. ELF

 

While not intentionally designed for the visually impaired, our own Tom Perski from the Chicago Lighthouse’s assistive Technology Center thinks this vehicle can potentially allow those with low vision to get around independently. Designed by Organic Transport, the ELF is an electric bike with wing mirrors, head and tail lights, indicators and even a horn!

 

  1. OrCam

 

Manufactured by OrCam Technologies Ltd., the OrCam is a wearable camera that, when attached to a special pair of glasses, reads text and even has facial recognition capabilities. Blind and visually impaired people can do things like read restaurant menus, newspapers, food labels and even program it to recognize someone’s face! To use it, the blind or visually impaired user simply needs to look at the text or person they wish to identify.

 

  1. Facebook’s Accessibility Tool for Pictures

 

This tops off my list, because it is unlike anything seen before! Matt King is Facebook’s first blind engineer, and he hopes to give other blind individuals the ability to “see” the pictures on their news feed. He is currently working with Facebook’s accessibility team on an artificial intelligence based tool that will describe the photos people share, and they are slowly releasing it to the public. The tool is still a work in progress, but the Facebook accessibility team hopes that this will be the first of many alternatives to make pictures accessible to everyone.

 

Just as in previous years, the potential of assistive technology has amazed us all. Developers are constantly working to enhance their products and develop new options that will help those with vision loss be more independent. As an assistive technology user, I am sure looking forward to see what 2016 has in store for us all!

How do Blind or Visually Impaired People Shop Online?

The holiday season is just around the corner, and many will begin their online shopping very soon. Nowadays we can find online shoppingproducts on the Internet ranging from clothing and books to steaks and gourmet food. This has many advantages for everyone, but more so for blind and visually impaired or otherwise disabled individuals. Ironically though, those of us with vision loss often have to use trial and error to find shopping websites we can easily access. Many of the major online retailers are increasingly making their sites more accessible, and that means that we have more options. I will share some of the accessibility snags I have encountered as well as helpful features that allow blind and visually impaired individuals to have more positive experiences when shopping on the worldwide web.

What Makes Online Shopping Unique?

A lot of us love the convenience of ordering our items and getting them delivered to our door. This is a plus for people with disabilities, as it is often easier to get items delivered instead of having to transport them on a bus or cab. The fact that we can shop online 24/7 means we can buy things at our preferred time. Many websites also offer product descriptions and features, so we can often find what we need independently.

What Accessibility Difficulties Exist?

Screen-reading and magnifying software make it easier for people with vision loss to browse the Internet. Nevertheless, there are still “snags” we encounter when perusing online store aisles. These are just some of the most common difficulties I have encountered:

  • Unlabeled form fields. Form fields are the boxes where we enter our information, such as search keywords or credit card information. When these boxes are not labeled, my screen reading software cannot tell me where I should type in each piece of information – my name, credit card information, etc. By doing some guesswork I can usually figure out where things go, but this can be very time consuming.
  • Unlabeled links or graphics. Screen-readers are not able to read or describe pictures or other graphics to us. This means that if we come across a link with only an image, then we will have no clue where it is directing us to. By adding brief text descriptions, websites can make it easier to browse through the different products and parts of the website.
  • Cluttered homepages. There are times when I find out a webpage has many links to various products, offers, etc. This grabs the attention of sighted shoppers, but it can be tricky for blind and visually impaired users to navigate through the website.

Helpful Suggestions

Many of the accessibility challenges can be easily eliminated by a few simple tips, both for users and web developers:

  • Include headings. Even if a website has many links, separating different sections and categories by headings helps organize a website. That way we can use our screen-reader’s heading “hotkey” to better navigate through the page.
  • Users should be familiar with the screen-reader’s “find” function. This can help you easily search for and find a keyword on the page. By typing in a phrase like “shopping cart” you will easily locate it rather than reading through each line on the page to find it.
  • Users should also be familiar with their screen-reader’s links “hot key.” By bringing up a list of the available links, you can easily navigate through and find the link you want to select. Again, this can be quicker than navigating line by line.

Major online retailers such as Amazon and Target have made it easier for blind and visually impaired shoppers to find and purchase things. By making simple changes to the design and layout of websites, online retailers can help us shop quickly and easily. It is also important for blind and visually impaired to be familiar with the various navigation commands of their screen-readers or other software. This can help you have a more positive experience when doing your online shopping and enjoy the convenience of browsing virtual stores. For more information and examples about accessible retail websites, check out this edition of AccessWorld, a publication from the American Foundation for the Blind. Happy shopping to all!

Commentary: Getting the Full Picture on Social Media When You Can’t See

The modern concept of social media is relatively young and constantly evolving. Websites like Friendster and MySpace began emerging in the early 2000s. Today, websites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn are among the most popular social media platforms. The vast majority of content found in these sites is picture and video based. This can present problems for blind social media enthusiasts like myself, who constantly miss out and cannot get the full picture – literally!

Matt King is Facebook’s first blind engineer, and he hopes to give other blind individuals the ability to “see” the pictures on their news feed. He is currently working with Facebook’s accessibility team on an artificial intelligence based tool that will describe the photos people share, and they hope to release it by the end of the year.

As someone who is blind, I often don’t even bother to read – or listen – to the comments people leave about the photos my friends and family share. The reality is that even if I do take a few minutes to read through the comments or captions, I am still missing out on the content. Although my talking computer and cell phone can read text just fine, they cannot decipher what’s in the pictures for me. It’s not that my family and friends purposely exclude me, but the fact is that most of us don’t think to add in a descriptive caption of each picture. I myself am guilty of doing this. Why bother adding a description to my pictures? After all, about 90 percent of my friends on Facebook are sighted.

Now more than ever, pictures play an important role in social media. I guess we could say that a picture is really worth a thousand words in today’s technologically driven world. As an avid Facebook user, I see this all the time. If I’m lucky, my posts that only include text might get seven or eight likes. Meanwhile, the posts with pictures usually get at least 15 or 20 likes. Society seems to be more engaged with visual content, and those of us who can’t see should also be included as much as possible in this trend.

I applaud Facebook’s commitment to accessibility for people with disabilities. Technology has opened numerous possibilities for us, and staying connected with our loved ones and meeting new people has probably become one of the most valuable and cherished aspects. I hope that other social media sites will follow in Facebook’s footsteps, and that they too will strive to make all content accessible to disabled individuals. Better yet, I sincerely hope that one day technology will make it possible for me and other blind individuals to truly get the full picture of the photos we can’t see. Maybe then I will be able to confidently say that I am fully connected with my loved ones and the entire world.