Tag Archives: accessibility

Reading again on a Kindle

Huddled up mouse, carved from bone... a netsukeIt is easy to understand why Edward de Waals’s book “The Hare with amber eyes” featured in so many best book of the year lists at the end of 2010. It’s a compelling mix of family saga, social history, and art criticism interwoven with a personal journey.

I had just 150 pages to go when I unexpectedly had a stroke in June (see “An unanticipated hiatus”). Bereft at the idea that I wouldn’t be able to finish reading the story because of a residual visual impairment (the only lasting impact fortunately), I gave away my paperback copy.

However, thanks to the ready availability of ebook reading gadgets I finished the book at the weekend. I reached as far as Odessa and glided through de Waal’s final musings. I’m awarding the book five stars out of five.

This did involve buying a second copy of the book. Something I didn’t begrudge paying for twice. Not only because it was such a good story, but it also marked my return to reading.

What I want an ebook reader for

With so many choices of portable device that can be used to read on, it wasn’t easy to know where to start. What was the best one for my unique needs?

It was only after I trialled an iPad that I got clear about what I wanted to be able to do. Simply put I wanted to read books and articles. Read on the bus, in bed and perhaps even in the bath. Not just scan, not just browse, not get distracted surfing, but actually read. I didn’t need a way of inputting text or manipulating photos, as I already have a perfectly good laptop that is designed for these types of tasks.

When my eyes tire of fighting against wavering text, I like to have things read aloud to me. I was on the hunt for a device with a text to speech function.

After some searching I decided that Amazon’s Kindle 3 was the best fit. What clinched my decision to make an order was seeing a positive review of the Kindle 3. A review by Nathan at “The eBook Reader” website and companion YouTube channel had all the hallmarks of credibility. This was important as I couldn’t lay my hands on a Kindle as they weren’t yet lying on shelves in New Zealand shops.

It wasn’t so much the positive review itself, but listening to a recording of the text to speech reading aloud the whole review. The eight-minute sound bite suggested I could learn to live with the electronic voices.

What stuck in my throat as I went to pay for the device was the realisation I was buying a product that would be lining Amazon’s pockets. Not just once either. Virtually everything you use on the Kindle happens within the Amazon corporation’s sandpit. As a proprietary ebook format is used, book ‘owners’ can’t share books they ‘buy’ from the retailer, nor is it easy to import books created using open formats (eg ePub). I also had misgivings about the imbalance in power between writers and their publishers, and the massive retailer.

Aware of these contradictions I hit pay now. Two weeks later a Kindle 3 arrived on my doorstep.

Hands-on the Kindle

Screenshot of Kindle accessibility options, from tiny to extra large fonts, by WiterI’d say the Kindle 3 is lighter than most novels I’ve ever read. It’s easy to hold and wiggle about in a single hand. I do lots of wiggling as I adjust the screen position to get the best light, and the most comfortable position my eyesight. With buttons to turn pages on both sides it’s just as easy to hold the Kindle in my left as my right hand. The thinness and rounded corners make for an understated elegance, if not somewhat modest. Underscoring this reserve is the nondescript grey finish.

The accessibility features are glaringly obvious and easy to use. There are not an abundance of features, but they actually do everything I need. The main features are modifying font size, line spacing and page width. It’s so easy to change and adjust, then start all over again, as it only takes a tap on the AA button.

When I’m reading on a bus, or in other situations where I don’t have a direct source of light shining on the screen, I do find the contrast a little weak. I can of course rectify this by getting a small, clip-on light.

Although not all books have text to speech enabled, many do as does any media I add to the device. Using a keyboard short-cut allows me to have articles or PDFs read aloud on a whim. I can listen through built in speakers or by plugging in headphones. There is a male and female voice, with some options to customise speech.

I didn’t need to use a manual to begin using the accessibility features. It’s simply a matter of getting started. I realise these features are not necessarily helpful for people who have very poor vision, or are blind. There are no on-screen announcements of navigation, page location and other options. Apparently the web-based Kindle reader for PCs does have key board short-cuts and accessibility features.

Up and reading again

Before I got the Kindle 3 I managed to scan websites and read things with a fair bit of difficulty. I could make my way through a few paragraphs of pages, but anything longer was a real struggle. Now, I’ve finished off the book about the hare and other netsuke. It feels great to be reading again!

It’s not only books that I read using the Kindle 3 but other types of content as well. I’ve only once used the built-in web browser – it was too cumbersome a process to want to repeat.

However, I have found an easy way of accessing articles, stories, news and other tidbits from websites. Using the readability.com plugin I’ve installed in the Firefox toolbar I can send web content to my Kindle. The button’s within easy reach and after clicking “Send now” the article text, minus adds, navigation and any other junk, is on its way to my Kindle. This happens the next time I access a wifi network. A proportion of the US $5 monthly for readability.copm fee is redistributed to content creators, so using the plugin helps keep independent publishing alive.

I use this feature far more than adding PDF or other documents manually. You can do this using a USB cable when connected to any computer or sending via a unique email address supplied to each Kindle owner.

As well as the odd book I’ve been buying single copies of the award winning UK daily newspaper, the Guardian. Within minutes of authorising the NZ $2.50 payment, I receive a full copy of Saturday edition of the paper. It is available in time for a late lunch (about 2pm or so New Zealand time). The layout mimics what it is like to thumb through a print edition. It’s easy to scan every article heading, or flip from page to page with reading summaries and intro paragraphs. Keeping back copies isn’t taking up space in the hallway.

Reading the same content I’ve got on my Kindle on one of my computers is not something I’m likely to do (unless I loose the wee wisp). Perhaps this is useful if I’m stranded without the Kindle or without any other means of amusing myself when on a deserted island or foreign airport.

So far, after living with the Kindle at my side for six weeks, I’m not reading any more than I did in the past. But I am actually reading articles, not just storing them up as I tended to do. This feels like an achievement in itself.

I’m not worried about stock piling a huge stack of unread volumes on my bedside table Kindle. My strictly enforced policy is thus: it’s okay to get a new volume, only when the last one is 100% read.

About the beauty of books, and other tangents

Yet, I’m far from being completely won over. I do miss the physicality of books. The Kindle is not the same, nor can I see it replacing the popular hard-copy format. Books on the Kindle are reduced down to a dull conformity. Everything is presented the same way. This removes the interplay between the text and the choice of design elements.

Publishers of physical books are considered in their choice of formats, paper stock, layout on the page, inclusion of addenda, illustrations and covers (amongst other things) to add meaning to the text. Taken as a whole, the book along with the text assist readers to grapple with the meaning of the words.

I could go on about how the Kindle world is bland by comparison. But I’ll stop here. And express a sense of wonder and gratitude that I live in time when I can engage with texts gain – it’s a choice many people do not have now, and one that didn’t exist for the greater part of human existence. I also acknowledge I’ve the resources to make this choice.

It seems fitting to end this post reflecting on the past. Now that I’ve read about the journey of minature, carved hares and other figures, I’m engrossed in Graham Robb’s Francophile social history, The Discovery of France. Makes me wonder what some of the people he writes about would think of the Kindle modern age?

Useful resources on Kindle accessibility

“Access review of the Amazon Kindle 13”, from Access Australia

“Kindle 3: An Accessibility Evaluation…Is the Third Time the Charm?” by Darren Burton, on AccessWorld (blog on the American Foundation for the Blind)

Photo credits: Curious Expeditions and Witer.

Why I didn’t get an iPad

Sceenshot of VoiceOver accessibility features on Apple's iPadAfter I walked out of a local, specialist Apple retailer I didn’t think it was worth looking into purchasing an iPad. Unfortunately the staff member was spectacularly unsuccessful at showing me the various accessibility features of the shiny tablet computer.

I was despondent. Having been cut-off from reading papers, websites, books and more as a result of recently acquired sight impairment, I had a hunch the iPad might be ideal. Perhaps I could read or listen to books in bed, and use it for accessing documents from anywhere.

I left the store thinking the iPad is totally unsuitable for the visually challenged.

Walking down Dixon Street, I thought this couldn’t really be the case. Later in the day I finally did some research. I was relieved to learn that not only does the iPad have built-in accessibility features, but there are many apps as well. I found a slew of helpful articles (see the short resource list below).

My generous sister loaned me her iPad to test for a few weeks. “No rush to get it back. Go ahead, use my credit card account to buy apps if you want.” I didn’t need any more encouragement to begin a hanbs-on trial. Could Apple’s tablet help with my quest to actually read for pleasure? I’m setting out my opinions in this mini-review.

Initial impressions

As with virtually every Apple device, the iPad is a helluva classy gadget. Sleek and shiny, smooth edges, the pinnacle of design goodness. I felt instant techno lust at first sight.

After switching it on, I was drawn to the YouTube button and ended up lounging around watching music videos. The sound was good, images clear. Swooshing and swishing to change screens was like magic. At first glance everything seemed to work.

Turning to the Accessibility options in the Settings menu things started to come unstuck.

For starters, I couldn’t easily find help associated with the accessibility features. I’ve got used to not having to do old fashioned things like looking at the manual or searching the support website. Forgive me for thinking everything should be at my fingertips.

Using the various zoom features may work on some Apps, but I didn’t find zooming terribly helpful when using the Safari web browser. When I enlarged text to a size that I could easily read, it didn’t reflow on the page. To read an entire article involved both horizontal and vertical scrolling.

Getting the VoiceOver text-to-voice working when I wanted it took a fair amount of experimentation. If you have it switched on permanently, then the names of Apps and navigation menus are announced as well as the substance of the screen. This is good for some but I can see enough not to need this. Eventually I found a way of tapping three times, or was it tapping three fingers, to turn on the text-to-voice function on demand.

When reading web pages the text-to-speech function can be fairly clumsy. For instance, as well as reading main body of an article, the text of ads or side boxes is also announced. This interrupts the flow. It’s an irritation, albeit minor, that I know would annoy me if it was repeated on every article I listened to.

There were other minor niggles and some confution. Even though I increased the font setting to a larger one, this does not extend to labels on the App screens nor the status bar. I never did find the web rotor and now I’ve had a look at a downloaded copy the manual, I’m struggling to comprehend exactly how I might have found it useful.

When I actually sat down to read, I found it hard to avoid glare from light sources. Getting the device in a position I could both see and was comfortable to hold wasn’t always easy.

Specialist accessibility apps

Screenshot of Speak it app for iPadOf course, there are Apps for just about anything you could imagine a portable computer doing. When I tried the iPad I only wanted to do the absolute basics so I didn’t try many fun, frivolous or seriously creative apps.

Using Speak it! showed a chink in the iPad armour. I really liked what the advertising offered but I found the reality diverged somewhat (or perhaps how I perceived how Speak it! could be used). It was pretty easy to type in a word, sentence or longer, then have this text read aloud (and saved if I wanted). But I couldn’t find a way of pasting text from other applications nor even learn if this was possible. Nowhere could I see a way of finding help, and some of the options were greyed out indicating they were not available to me. It was definitely not intuitive and I gave up trying to get it working.

I tried WebReader as I sought to find a way to overcome the limitations I found with the iOS version of Safari. The voices were more personable than the default iPad ones and there were some other nifty features. However, when listening to articles the same sorts of extraneous material was included much as I found with Safari. As it was a stand-alone app, there was no obvious way of my website bookmarks list (such as importing my Xmarks list).

As I wanted to break free of the proprietary ebook formats and access ePub books I tried vBookz. It comes with a built in text-to-speech function that is activated at the click of a button. Some basic tweaking of the voice settings are available, which is convenient. It was good to have dozens of classic books preloaded, but as I’ve written elsewhere I’m hardly likely to rush to read these. vBookz is a useful app but hardly about to set my world on fire.

More general impressions

One of the things I was looking forward to trying was the Guardian newspaper’s App. No luck. It isn’t available for New Zealand iPad owners. It made me wonder how many other content sources are not available here.

It’s widely known that the iPad won’t play flash video nor is USB input provided for. There are other limitations on the connectivity front. One I found was receiving files sent from my Nokia phone using Bluetooth. I couldn’t send photos to attach to messages or embed in text.

The on-screen keyboard works very well, as long as you’re looking at where your fingers land. I soon realised that I probably wouldn’t use the iPad for a lot of input as it meant learning a new technique for typing. This is a criticism of the iPad, but more a dawning realisation of my limited interest in having to learn something new.

The longer I spent with the iPad the clearer I became about what my needs are. What I really want is to easily read or listen to content. Rather than getting a pricey device that does a lot of things, sometimes in a mediocre way, I would try to find a device that is principally designed for reading. I’ll write about what I found out in a subsequent post.

Now remember, that this min-review is from someone with a particular type of visual impairment. The folk over at the Macaccessibility website are very positive about what the iPad offers blind people. They are using the VoiceOver application to help navigate and are not concerned about what things look like on-screen.

I’m glad I got to try out an iPad for a few weeks. Rather than relying on misleading advice from a shop assistant I was able to learn for myself the pros and cons of the iPad. At the end of my informal trial, much as I liked many aspects of Apple’s tablet, it’s not for me. Right now at least.

PS: There’s a comment I neglected to make above: I reckon device is on the pricey side.

Useful resources

iPad Accessibility – My Perspective by Jonathan Avila, SSB Bart Group

The Accessibility Features of the iPad by guest blogger Amanda Johansson, Testfreaks.com on Disability Blog fromdisability.gov

In e-reader accessibility race, new Kindle, iPad in front By Jacqui Cheng, on ars technica

Macaccessibility network podcast

Mac OS X accessibility tweaks

An apple logo in grey, accessibility logo in blueA few weeks after the stroke I had in June I wanted to get some new podcasts. Listening to radio shows proved a great way of keeping myself occupied.

Up until my unexpected health setback I was an inveterate, dextrous computer user. Years of constant honing meant I’ve created an onscreen environment that’s familiar and comfortable. I was at home on my system. (Find out more about my unplanned hiatus).

To simplify things, you could say I woke up with impaired vision. This meant all of a sudden I couldn’t easily use my computer the way it was configured. Completing basic tasks like getting new podcasts was no longer something I could breezily do. The idea that I’d actually enjoy using a computer again initially seemed a ludicrous one.

Over the last two months through experimentation and research I’ve made adjustment to my computer settings and habits. I’ve also found some new tools that are making my life easier. I’m writing here about these things in the hope it’ll be of use to others who face similar challenges. Included are notes about a few of the frustrations I’ve faced along the way.

Vision impairments are not all equal so it’s important to be fairly specific about this. One label for the type of vision deficit I’ve got is homonymous hemianopia. For me this results in a blindspot in the upper right quadrant of my visual field. I’ve got a constant pulsing flicker in my eyes.

Imagine having overlapping concentric circles rippling out across your eye, much like a pond disturbed after a stone hits still water.

Not only do I tire when reading on screen or paper, but I have particular trouble scanning. Ironically, I found this really pronounced when visiting one of my favourite websites. The multiple columns and cramped layout mean I avoid it nowadays, when once I was a daily visitor. I can read a page of a book, a letter or some recipes, but this tends to be limited to a single page at any one time.

This means I’ve got to adjust the way I use my computer set-up. Fortunately, Apple is seriously committed to accessibility. Built-in to the operating system of my two Macs running OS 10.6 Snow Leopard were lots of useful looking features. Working out exactly what would suit me is something I’ve be progressively working on.

Basic re-settings

View Options dialogue box showing how to change Icon and text size, from Mac OS X 10.6The first thing I did was to reduce the resolution of my screen. Rather than cramming as much as I could on my 22 inch monitor, I’ve scaled back to 1280 x 1024 pixels.

Folders in the Finder are something I use constantly, so I’ve tweaked the display of these as much as I can (using View Options). The font and icon size is now large, and there are wide spaces between lines in lists of documents or folders. Something I’d like to do, but can’t see how to, is increase the font size of the text in the Sidebar.

Using the same View Options to modify the look of folders on the Desktop has made a subtle improvement. I increased the folder size to 52 x 52 pixels and fonts now display at 14pt. It may seem a very minor change, but because it’s an area I regularly use so anything that speeds up the ease of scanning is worth it.

For applications I regularly use, including Thunderbird email client, I’ve also tweaked the display of text. This has meant tweaks to text sizes in individual applications including iPhoto, iTunes and Evernote. Within Thunderbird, I can adjust the body text in messages, but it’s not possible to increase the font sizes for navigation items nor for folder names (unless I’m missing something). This makes me wonder about using Apple’s email client, something I ditched years ago for reasons I can’t recall.

The one area I haven’t been able to adjust the font size for is the menu bar at the top of the screen. It would be good increase the font to 14pt the same as on the rest of the labels, but I can’t easily see how to do this.

I’ve made little use of Screen Magnification. All this takes to use is holding down the Option key and swiping vertically on my Mighty Mouse to increase/ decrease the size of the whole screen. Because the text often renders in a blurred way, I don’t find it something I want to use.

The wonders of full screen

Button used to enlarge to full-screenThe time eventually arrives when everything I can find where things live. It’s time to actually do some work. For me this means doing research (ie surfing the web) and typing up reports, notes, memos, articles, and the like.

The thing that makes the biggest difference to me easily completing these types of tasks is the magic phrase: Full Screen. Many applications now provide users the option of expanding a document so that all navigation and menus are hidden out of sight. The document you’re working on takes up the majority of the screen.

As I type this blog post using Microsoft Word all I can see is a white page with my pithy paragraphs, with a wide black border on the left and right. Over on the far right, out of sight, is a scroll bar. If I move the mouse to the top of the page a limited pane of navigation options is revealed. This clean, minimalist approach means I can focus on what I’m writing.

The Full Screen option is widely used in many applications. Other office productivity suites offer this feature, including Apple’s iWorks and the free, open source NeoOffice. The latest version of Firefox offers the same thing. This simple feature will no doubt take off like wild fire.

Another related find is a tool which strips out distractions on webpages (including navigation, menus, article stubs and ads). I’m using the readability add-ons for Firefox and Safari.

Whether it’s an article about The B52s or RWC2011, I can easily get down to the substance by clicking on the “Read now” button I’ve installed. Up pops a window with the article, naked, neither distracting ads nor navigation are shown. I’ve set the default font size to 14pt and made the column fairly narrow, so I can easily read articles on screen.

There are other features bundled with readability which give it the edge over other comparable tools (eg Read It Later) and the built-in Reader in Safari. I see the benefits as being worth the monthly US$5 fee. I’ll write more about this when I write about Kindle accessibility.

Hearing rather than reading text

Crowded list with 50 reasons to use VoiceOver, Mac OS 10.6When I first looked at the blurb about the Mac OS 10.6 accessibility features I was a bit overwhelmed. There was so much I could tweak and adjust I didn’t know where to start. As the image above shows, there are over 50 reasons to use something called VoiceOver. Rather than try to read the scrambled page listing all these reasons, I just dived in.

To come straight out with it, I found the process of trialling VoiceOver to be pretty confusing. This was in part because I wasn’t ready to learn about something new. It was also because there are screeds of information, lots of options, all of which are seemingly of equal importance. I couldn’t easily find a guide to switching on the things that would suit my particular needs. Sadly the Take Control series doesn’t have a guide to these features of the Mac OS.

After a few sleepless nights and fruitless searches for real life guidance (as opposed to marketing spiels) I gave up on VoiceOver. I probably could have done with some help. Nursing some frustration, I realised I was trying to do too much. By chance I remembered the KIS maxim: keep it simple. And that’s what I did.

I decided to start by setting up “text to speech”. Built-in within System Preferences on the Speech setting tab is an option to “speak selected text when the key is pressed”. (To find speech look for the for the old fashioned microphone). I ticked this option and set up a memorable keyboard short-cut.

Now, after I highlight text in virtually any programme and tapping in the shortcut then sit back to listen to a sentence, paragraph or whole article as the computer reads it aloud. This feature is brilliant. Because it’s system wide, I can use to give voice to emails, webpages, documents, PDFs and more.

My initial burst of enthusiasm soon waned. I began to tire of the metallic, synthesised tone. Even with a choice of several male and female voices the voices begin to grate. While they’re adequate for short bursts of text, they are definitely not something I could endure listening to for long.

By adding Infovox’s iVoice pack I’ve found a way to overcome this limitation. In place of computer-generated voices, iVox offers what sounds like real human beings. Although packs with New Zealand accents are not available, I could get speakers using the Queen’s English. Now, when I use the text to speech function I can choose who addresses me: Lucy, Rachel, Graham or Peter from the UK.

I paired my British iVoices with another piece of software to give me more control over the text to speech process. Amongst other things, GhostReader allows me to easily switch between the voices I’ve installed, skip paragraphs, speed up reading, and export spoken documents as MP3s to iTunes.

These two third-party extras have transformed the basic tools. I decided to spend NZ$184 on these – initially for just one of my computers – as it means I can engage with ideas so much readily.

An alternative option was to use the expanded voices available in the new Mac OS 10.7 (Lion). If these are anything like the voices available on the iPad, then they’re not much of an improvement over Alex, Bruce, Fred, Kathy, Vicki and Victoria installed with Mac OS 10.6.

I am actually using the text to speech tools almost every day as it reduces eye-strain and tiredness. Coupled with a portable ebook reader and MP3 player, I’m continue to do things I like doing (ie reading articles, browsing newspaper sites, etc) as well as getting back to work.

After initially being a bit bamboozled by the accessibility options, I’ve got my computer set up so I can actually do things. It’s a great relief that it ended up being pretty easy to do, despite a few hitches along the way.

I’m sure I’ve missed some adaptations or extras that would help with my peculiar visual impairment. I’d welcome any pointers. Better still, if you can suggest a short cut that will help others, make sure you add a link in the comments.

More on: adapting my reading and computing habits in the aftermath of a stroke

This is the first of four blog posts I’m writing about the tools I’m using so I can get do the stuff I like and need to. The other subjects I’ll cover are:

  • how audiobooks are a saviour
  • why I chose a Kindle
  • what stopped me from getting an iPad from an accessibility point of view.