After 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.
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
Of 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.
iPad Accessibility – My Perspective by Jonathan Avila, SSB Bart Group
In e-reader accessibility race, new Kindle, iPad in front By Jacqui Cheng, on ars technica