Marketing Hype – iPad Connected Large Print Systems

Recently companies have been offering print magnification systems with room viewing capabilities that have the ability to connect to an iPad.  It started with Enhanced Vision Systems in an ad for their Acrobat CCTV and was quickly duplicated by Humanware with their Smartview 360.

These days it seems like everyone is jumping on the iPad bandwagon and everyone wants to show how their product can interface with it because of its popularity.


In the case of large print systems however, this is simply much ado about nothing.

You can connect your iPad to any large print system that offers a VGA input.  All it is going to do though is act as a larger monitor for your iPad.  None of these systems provide any interaction with the iPad.  You can’t touch the larger screen and have anything happen on your iPad.  You can’t use the large print systems features to magnify the iPad this way.  All it is, is a monitor when you have it connected.

You can do the exact same thing with any computer monitor.

There are few end-users who would benefit from this connection.  One of the great advantages of iPads for low vision users is the ability to move it to a preferential position for reading.  They are less able to do this when you are using a larger monitor, and even if they are able to see things more clearly on the larger monitor, any interaction has to happen on the iPad itself.  This means they have to first look away from the larger monitor back at the iPad, reorient themselves to the smaller screen and then touch, tap or what have you.

Simply put, this is nothing more than marketing hype, this is not a feature worth getting worked up about.

What is worth getting worked up about is the actual image quality and other features of the CCTV.  In the category of room viewing CCTVs, nothing beats the Enhanced Vision Systems Davinci with it’s OCR feature or the new HD version of the Acrobat.

Yeah, we got a shameless plug in and yes, the Davinci and Acrobat can  connect to your iPad too if you really want to.

The Apple Reliability Myth

By Steve Barclay

Bad AppleOver the past few years Aroga has been flooded with customers wanting to purchase Apple computers.  The charge has been led by visually impaired clients who view Apple as being a simpler, more reliable solution with high quality integrated access technologies.  Many people have shown a strong desire to switch to Apple laptops.  They are convinced that Apple computers are simpler to use, more reliable and free from viruses and spyware.  Sometimes they just want to switch because they view Apple computers as being sexy.

The marketing department of Apple has certainly done their job.  Despite the fact that the business world still overwhelmingly uses PC platforms in office environments, individuals are switching to Apple, heedless of the fact that there are few jobs where Apple computer knowledge is a marketable skill.

Even though Apple products come at a price premium, even though there are far fewer compatible peripheral devices that work with them people persist in a desire for these computers often driven by perceived advantages of the platform.

Built-in accessibility is definately one of the most attractive features for visually impaired users.  The idea of a functional screen reader at no extra cost is definately something worth considering.  I recently sat in on a customer training session for the Voiceover screen reader and I was shocked to discover just how mediocre a screen reader it was.  I have never seen a trainer have to say to a client as many times, ”well that’s just the way it works, you have to get used to it,” or ”it doesn’t speak that properly, you just have to know that that’s what it is.” when navigating in applications that are part of Apple’s own interface.  If Freedom Scientific, GW Micro or Serotek were to come out with a screen reader that was as incomplete as Apples Voiceover they would be lambasted by the community.

Their built in magnification is completely featureless.  Aside from offering enlargment it really does nothing more.  It doesn’t even offer font smoothing when the text is magnified, something that is standard in commercial large print programs.

”But,” you might respond, ”it’s free!”

Well, really?  Is it?

Consider the middle of the road Macbook Pro.  It’s  a 15 inch laptop with a 2.3 GHz i7 Processor, 4GB of memory and a 500 GB hard drive.  It’s priced at $1799.

On the Windows side, an ASUS K55A is a 15.6 inch laptop with a 2.4GHz i7 processor, 4GB of RAM, and a 500GB Hard drive.  It is priced at $749.

That leaves $1050 which you can use to buy a screen reader or large print program.  If you got System Access screen reader, you’d still have a chunk of change left over and be entitled to upgrades for life and be able to access any Internet connected PC computer via an SA to go account.  If you got Zoomtext large print, you’d have font smoothing, cursor and mouse enhancements, synchronized speech and a host of other tools, and again you’d have a good deal of money left on the table.

Of course, you can’t beat Apple for reliability can you?

If you look at the various reliability reviews available on the internet today you’ll find that Apple is consistantely given top marks for reliability.  However if you look at the way these reviews are conducted, they generally factor in how favorably an end-user views their computer, how much they like the design, how good the tech support is and other factors that really have nothing to do with the actual reliability of the hardware.

The website Statistic Brain complies statistics on laptop malfunction rates over three years.  According to their research, Apple rates fourth in reliability, lagging behind Asus, Toshiba and Sony with a 17.4% failure rate over three years.  The most reliable brand ASUS has a 15.6% failure rate.

Apple does have top notch support – which you can access for free for only 90 days after you purchase your computer.  After this point you have to pay for support at a rate of $49 US per incident for their computers.  iPad, iPhone, iPod and Apple TV are at $29 US per incident.  By comparison ASUS offers free phone support for as long as you own their products.

But Apple computers don’t get viruses and malware!

In 2008 Apple posted a support document in their KnowledgeBase stating, ”Apple encourages the widespread use of multiple antivirus utilities, so that virus programmers have more than one application to circumvent, thus making the whole virus writing process more difficult.”  A week later they pulled the support document from their website with their spokesman Bill Evans claiming that it was ”old and inaccurate.”  He admitted at the time that Macs are computers after all, and ”running antivirus software may offer additional protection.”  The removal of the Knowledge Base article appears to be more of an effort to help maintain the myth that Apple computers are immune to viruses and other malware.  The fact is that they are not immune and many users operate with a false sense of security.

In 2012 the Flashback/Flashfake Trojan virus infected more than 700,000 Macs and became the single largest known MAC OSX infection to date.  Security company Sophos indicates that it is experiencing a major increase in Mac related malware attacks and expects that this trend will continue as the computers grow more popular.

According to security company ElcomSoft, Apples iCloud service also has major security flaws which could put users information at risk by allowing information to be downloaded undetected if an account is compromised.

With the release of the free Microsoft Security Essentials anti-malware software Windows has improved their security considerably and minimized the need for third-party anti-malware software.  However there is no computer platform that will ever keep you completely safe from all potential threats and there certainly are more threats directed at PCs simply because there are more PCs out there.

There is no question that Apple computers are becoming increasingly more popular for low vision and blind users.  However, given their cost, their limited accessibility features, the fact that they are no more reliable than their PC counterparts and that the majority of jobs require PC experience, it might be good to question if an Apple computer is really the right choice for a visually impaired user.

You Bonehead!! (It’s OK, it’s a GOOD thing!)

In the short time since we first started carrying Aftershokz bone conducting headphones, they have rapidly become one of our most popular products.  Bone conducting headphones are based on military special ops technology designed so that soldiers could receive radio communications without having their normal hearing impaired by something sticking in their ear.  They deliver sound through the listener’s cheekbones directly to the inner ear.

What has been most appealing to our customers is that it allows them to hear traffic noise while still getting instructions from portable devices such as talking GPS systems.  They have also been shown to work extremely well for people who are partially deaf because of their direction of sound to the inner ear.

Now three new versions of the headphones have hit the market.

The Aftershokz Sportz 2, the Atershokz Sportz M2 and we are also now taking pre-orders for the AfterShokz Bluez.

The Aftershokz Sportz 2 headphones are a lighter version of the original AfterShokz Sport Headphone.  They are 30% smaller and they’ve improved on the in-line controller.  The controller now has an on/off switch, volume control, a micro USB charging port for charging the batteries, and the controls are much more tactilely distinct than those on the original headphones.  The reduced weight does come at the cost of battery life however.  They are now rated for 12 hours at low volume Vs. the original headphones which are 15 hours.

Aftershokz Sportz 2

The new Aftershokz Sportz 2

The Aftershokz Sportz M2 are the same unit but with an in-line microphone for talking on your phone.

Aftershokz Sportz 2 Controller

The new, more tactilely distinct controller for the Sportz 2 and Sportz M2.

Most exciting is the soon to be released AfterShokz Bluez.  These stylish headphones look like something straight out of a science fiction movie.  They use Bluetooth wireless technology instead of a wire to stay connected up to 33 feet away from the broadcasting device.  They weigh only 48 grams or 1.7 ounces and are rated for 6 hours of playback at low volume.

Aftershokz Bluez

The soon to be released Aftershokz Bluez

Like the Sportz2 units, they use a micro USB cable to recharge and fully charge in three hours.  On the headband itself they have mounted power, volume, play/pause an answer key for your phone and there is an integrated microphone in the band.  These are expected to start shipping from the supplier in late January and pre-orders can be placed now at

Windows 8 and Assistive Technology – What we Know

Picture of a man tearing his hair out in front of a computer.With the release of Windows 8 we are faced with another round of working  through determining which  assistive technology programs are compatible with this new operating system and what programs are not.

The following is a list of what we have discovered to date.  It is by no means a comprehensive list.  We will try to keep it updated as best we can, so check back from time to time for updates.

If you have programs you know are not working with Windows 8 that are not on this list, please email the information to for addition to the list.

If you see something on this list that has had it’s incompatibilities resolved, likewise please let us know and we will update the list.

Version numbers are not listed for the programs on this list.  In every case I am referring only to the most current version. 

One note about downgrading:  If you get a computer with Windows 8 and want to downgrade to Windows 7 there are rules Microsoft has established.  Windows 8 Professional can be downgraded at no charge.  Windows 8 Home however you can’t.  If you want to downgrade Windows 8 Home you have to purchase a Windows 7 license.

As reported below by Fraser Shein of Quillsoft, Windows 8 RT, the version shipping with the Microsoft Surface tablets is a completely different operating system.  This list does not show compatibility for Windows 8 RT unless specifically noted.

Known to be Incompatible with Windows 8

Kurzweil 1000 and 3000 (Cambium Learning) – No ETA

Due to Windows 8 having just released, Kurzweil 1000 & Kurzweil 3000 are not considered officially compatible at this time.  We will have more information available on our website regarding this as we are able to ensure compatibility. At this time we do not have an established timeline in which to advise of said compatibility or the extent of the Windows 8 versions slated for support.

MAGic (Freedom Scientific)– No ETA

Openbook (Freedom Scientific) – No ETA

Zoomtext (AI Squared) – reportedly 6 weeks from a solution.

Known to be Compatible with Windows 8

Dragon Naturally Speaking (Nuance)

commands related to the start menu and file explorer no longer work because Windows 8 doesn’t have these features any more.

Duxbury for Windows (Duxbury Systems)

Eclipse Writer Professional (Innovative Rehabilitiation Technologies Inc.)

must activate the Eclipse Writer program before activating Eclipse Reader – If you have both products installed on the computer.

EV Viewer – (Enhanced Vision Systems)

JAWS (Freedom Scientific)

Mindview (Matchware)

System Access (Serotek)

Text Help Read and Write (Text Help Systems)

must download the most recent patch.

Window Eyes (GW Micro) 

A compatible version is currently in Beta Testing and is available to any registered user. 

WordQ (Quillsoft) – …Note from Fraser Shein at Quillsoft, with our thanks:

We are working on a point update to to resolve issues with Acapela speech which currently crash WordQ in Windows 8 desktop. We should have this developed, tested and ready to upload on the website next week. We will update all voices/downloads on website. The current workaround is to instruct users to simply choose a Microsoft voice in the Speech Feedback dialog. Then WordQ works just fine. WordQ cannot run on top of full-screen Windows 8 Apps (Metro view) which are sandboxed and do not allow such functionality (at this point anyways). This is similar to the iPad.

Windows 8 RT for Microsoft Surface tablet

Windows 8RT for the Microsoft Surface looks like Windows 8 but it is not Windows 8. Windows RT is a special version of Windows compiled for the ARM processor (not the Intel processor in PCs).That means that the underling code is entirely different. Plus not all API’s available under Windows are available (similar to the iPad vs. the desktop Mac). Thus, the Microsoft Surface tablet should be considered as analogous to the iPad…a completely different beast. This is not unique to WordQ. All applications must be re-written and compiled for Windows RT. This is non-trivial.  WINDOWS RT ON THE MICROSOFT SURFACE DOES NOT REPLACE A DESKTOP!!!  YES, I AM SHOUTING THIS OUT!!!!!

Just to clarify. The problem with Acapela is with existing WordQ.

Acapela did release an update for Windows 8 which are just now implementing.




November 2012

Kurzweil 1000 is working with Windows 8


December 6 2012

Kurzweil 3000 is now working with Windows 8.


April 22, 2013

Openbook and WYNN are now working with Windows 8.

Why iOS Devices Matter: Considering the Strengths of Apple iOS Devices

We are pleased to present the following post, reposted from Accessword, a publication of the American Foundation for the Blind.

For more information on the AFB, please visit


Technology and Productivity Series: Removing The Stress from I.O.S.:

A Blueprint for Incorporating Touch Screen Products Into The Classroom, Workplace, and Community

Why iOS Devices Matter: Considering the Strengths of Apple iOS Devices

Larry L. Lewis, Jr.

Over the past several years, Apple has done an amazing job of marketing its iOS product line of iPhones, iPod touches, and iPads worldwide. The promotion of these products has been so successful that if you don’t already own an iOS device, you have probably at least seriously considered buying one. Over a relatively short span of time, Apple has inserted itself–and its products–into our collective stream of consciousness. These efforts have paid dividends for the company, which now boasts cash reserves and assets greater than those possessed by some Eastern European countries.

iOS and Assistive Technology Apple iOS products offer a wealth of opportunities for users who are visually impaired, but before we can begin to understand what these products have to offer, and how we can efficiently access them, it’s important to take a look at the reasons why those of us who are either service providers or consumers within the assistive technology industry should even care about these products and their uses. Why are iOS products important? What bearing do iOS products have on a consumer’s, or client’s, educational pursuits and vocational aspirations? What roles should these products fulfill within our assistive technology journey?

This is the first in a series of four articles that will address these questions and many others that are promoted by the intersection of iOS devices and AT. Ultimatley, I hope that the articles in this series will provide a roadmap for how to appropriately use these devices to complete a variety of tasks independently and efficiently.

The Current Landscape The advent of iOS devices has had an impact on the adaptive technology sector in three primary ways:

The Promise of Universal Access Users have been told by Apple as well as early adopters and devotees to iOS products that through the universal, scalable, built-in approach to screen access offered by iOS, users who are visually impaired may now operate on an equal playing field with their sighted peers.

The possibility of universal access is tantalizing. It’s important to remember, however, that whatever accessibility a device my offer is bounded by the facility of the user. Any given product is only as accessible as the strategies a particular user employs when interacting with the device.

Purchasing Without Training Well-intentioned purchasers have been influenced to make large-scale decisions to procure iOS devices for entire school districts on the promise of universal access, without having a realistic understanding of how these products will be implemented and used.

Over the past couple of years, a number of vision teachers have approached me at conferences, product workshops, and other adaptive technology events virtually in tears because a well-meaning, yet misinformed administrator has made a blanket decision to purchase iPads for all of a district’s vision impaired students without taking into account the ages, visual acuities, literacy levels, and individualized education plans of the potential users. More astonishingly, these iPads are often purchased without giving any forethought as to how a school district’s direct service providers and students will receive the necessary training and support required to utilize these devices as productivity tools within oftentimes highly competitive academic environments.

Traditional Assistive Technology Marginalized Manufacturers of traditional adaptive technology hardware and software solutions are now faced with the reality that much of the functionality present in their products is now available in iOS products at a much lower cost and alongside a wider array of accessible functions than what is found in a traditional note-taking device.

Why iOS? The cumulative effect of these three profound influences is that iOS devices are becoming more and more entrenched in the assistive technology world.

There are four reasons why those involved in AT either as users or facilitators should embrace the usage of iOS products within the classroom, workplace, and community:

The first and most compelling reason to use these products is that our sighted peers are using them. Like it or not, iPads are being introduced within school districts across the country. Universities are adapting curricula and designing course materials for iOS devices. In the iTunes App Store you can find ever increasing numbers of apps developed by Apple and third party vendors whose the sole intent is to complete tasks demanded by the latest educational trends. Employers are beginning to provide iPads to employees who have traditionally been issued laptops to complete their jobs. Plus, iOS devices can add some fun to, and improve the quality of, the lives of their users!

iOS devices enable their users to perform many tasks at a fraction of the cost of traditional notetakers. This is not to suggest that comprehensive notetaking and word processing on an iOS device is as efficient or robust as what you can find on a traditional notetaker; it’s not. Nevertheless, the management of your contacts, calendar, and e-mail are just three examples of tasks that can be handled just as efficiently on an iOS device as a notetaker. The upside to iOS devices is that you can share the products of your work with other mainstream products, and with sighted individuals who use such products.

Some iOS applications are simply more robust than those offered by their traditional notetaker counterparts.

The experience of using the Safari Web browser on an iOS device simply trumps that of any browser on even the most recent traditional notetakers. It caused me great anguish a few weeks ago when a friend of mine who works for a notetaker manufacturer informed me that the company would be hosting a training session for educators in a prominent school district that would be dedicated exclusively to the Web browser on its notetaker. The Assistive Technology industry does not do our consumers any favors by teaching browsing on a notetaker, particularly when we’re in positions where educators expect us to equip their students to compete and excel in the real world. The honest truth is these proprietary browsers simply can’t render information as quickly, access as many sites, or upgrade functionalities as quickly as an iOS device running Safari can. These same goes for locating and downloading books–iOS devices are faster, more efficient, and easier to keep current than other available options.

The last reason for us to embrace IOS products is that they are here to stay.

As the lyrics to a famous folk song put it: “You better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.” At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what you, or I, or manufacturers think. iOS products are not going anywhere any time soon, so we might as well get on board with using them and with working with Apple and other third party developers to make these devices and the apps being developed for them more usable for those of us who are vision impaired.

The Three Strengths of iOS Service providers and educators are often expected to offer front-line support to their clients and students when it comes to Assistive Technology. It’s an unfortunate reality that these professionals are often charged with providing services to a diverse group of adaptive technology users with a wide range of skill sets and technology goals. One of the most exciting advantages of iOS devices is that they enable their users to do three critical things that are universal to almost any classroom or workplace: obtain information, interact with information, and share information with others.

In the next three articles in the series, we’ll be looking at how these devices perform in these three realms through a variety of tasks:

Obtaining Information We’ll look at how to use the iTunes App Store to increase a device’s functionality and discuss The Safari Web browser’s advantages over traditional notetaker browsers.

Interacting with Information I’ll discuss to download, read, and interact with books on an iOS device using a couple of different e-book reading solutions, and look at the challenges of taking notes and performing a variety of word processing tasks on an IOS device.

Sharing Information with Others Lastly, and probably most importantly, we’ll explore how IOS devices along with the appropriate cloud based applications enable vision impaired and sighted users the ability to share information and collaborate with one another in real-time.

At the end of the series, I hope you’ll agree that iOS devices can make learning and work not only fun, productive, and rewarding, but that they also facilitate collaboration and foster respect among classroom and workplace peers, regardless of anyone’s functional vision.

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

Apps & iPads: Does One Size Fit All?

Recently at the CSUN Conference in Los Angeles I ran into one of my favorite people from the assistive technology industry, Tim Connell of Quantum Technologies in Australia.  We started chatting about how the iPad, iPhone and iPod are impacting our industry and he asked if I’d read his paper that he’d presented at the Inclusive Technologies & Learning Disability in Education & Employment Conference.  I admitted that I had not.  Here it is, with his permission.  It raises some great points about the headlong charge to adopt iDevices in education.  Plus, I really just like stirring up trouble.

                                                                          Steve Barclay – Aroga

 Presentation Title:          Apps & iPads: Does One Size Fit All?

Presenter:                        Tim Connell
                                         Managing Director
                                         Quantum: Reading, Learning, Vision

 I want to start today by talking about one of the greatest innovators of the digital age. This person was able to take a range of technologies that had been around for quite a few years and combine them into products that were small, beautiful to look at and hold, and highly innovative.  These products really changed the way we interact with, use, store and retrieve information.

He did this by listening to what people really wanted and in doing so grew his company into one of the largest and most successful companies of all time.

There would be few people on the planet who are not aware of the products he developed or who haven’t personally owned or used at least one of them.

Who am I talking about?

Steve Jobs regarded this person as one of his heroes and mentors. I am talking about Akio Morita, one of the two founders of Sony and the person credited with the innovative flair that has been the hallmark of Sony since then.

In the late 1970’s Morita took the work on magnetic tapes that Phillips, 3M and many other corporations had been working on and realised that what people needed were small portable devices people could carry around with them. In creating the portable cassette player and then the Walkman he revolutionised the music and recording industries. Being of a certain age I can clearly remember the thrill of seeing a car with a built in cassette player for the first time. It is almost impossible for young people today to understand just how big a leap this was.

The cassette player captured the world’s attention and led to Sony quickly becoming the biggest technology company on the planet. They became ubiquitous devices and soon had lots of competitors and the race began that has culminated with IPods, MP3 players and the huge array of hand held devices we now enjoy.

In the early 1980’s cassettes started to enter the world of special education. They were seen by many as the dawn of a new era for people who were blind. Compared to Braille and large print, cassettes had so many advantages; they took up a fraction of the space, could be produced at a fraction of the cost, could be carried from class to class, and could be used to record on as well as listen to. There are many blind adults now who went through university armed with little more than a cassette player.

It was really hard to argue any other position than the cassette being a truly magnificent new development for blind people.

Within special education there were many people who identified themselves as progressives, and were happy to champion this new technology. They said that there was no longer a need for Braille. Those that resisted were viewed as old fashioned and traditionalists and we’d all be better off when they retired. How could you not see that cassettes were better and the fact that they were so much cheaper meant so many more people could get to use them?

Anyone that has studied the history of assistive technology will know that for a while cassettes did dominate, and when talking computers also came along it really looked like Braille was on the way out and that new technology was the way of the future. They will also know that from the mid-1980’s to the mid-1990’s there was a generation of blind children who missed out on Braille and left school being functionally illiterate. Talking technology was wonderful for people who were already literate but back then we didn’t have the strategies, tools and resources in place to use speech only as the foundation for literacy. It was our infatuation with the technology of the time that was directly responsible for a failure to meet the needs of students and provide them with the educational foundations that had been promised them. It wasn’t the fault of the technology; the technology was excellent, it was a lack of critical analysis and an abandonment of longstanding traditions of assessment and evaluation that were the problem.

Luckily, since that time Braille has made a resounding comeback and we now make much more detailed assessments of the learning media that is appropriate for each child.

So, all of this is a very long winded way of introducing the concept that there are dangers in regarding one product or type of technology a “one-size-fits-all”. The parallels between the advent of talking technologies in the early 1980’s and the advent of Apps and iPads now are extremely close. The technologies in themselves are wonderful; what we need to be careful of is how we use them.

There is a saying that the music is not in the piano and, in the same way, the learning is not in the device. The piano doesn’t create music and the educational tool doesn’t lead to learning – its how we use them that’s important.

So I am here today to offer a counterpoint to the near hysteria that Apps and iPads are creating in special education, as evidenced by over 20 other sessions at this conference that have the words Apps or iPads in their titles. Who would be mad enough to stand up against that tide?

Well that would be me, and it helps that my twentysomething children tell me that I am a Grumpy Old Man. Any one who has seen the Grumpy series of TV shows from the BBC will know that the Grumpy Old People that appear on the shows have one long list of complaints. Here are some of mine;

I can’t stand ‘Apple evangelists’. I grew up in an era when it was almost mandatory that you distrust large corporations. There are enough Microsoft haters to fill a reasonable sized nation yet Apple has been so clever at marketing they have just as many fanatical supporters who think Apple can do no wrong. As proof of the evangelical nature of this support a report by the BBC earlier this year found that on an MRI scan, an Apple devotee’s brain was stimulated by the word “Apple” in the same way that religious imagery does for the faithful.[1] Yet those of us old enough to remember will know that Apple introduced the first accessible computer in the late 1980’s, the Macintosh, only to abandon accessibility when their business had a downturn and Steve Jobs left the company? They didn’t water down accessibility – they abandoned it completely. Their commitment to accessibility appeared to have been Steve Jobs vision and not the corporations and I can’t help but think there is a large question mark over it as a result. And as the second largest company in the world after Exxon, don’t they have a few corporate secrets (like sweat shops in Asia) that at least make you question their wholesomeness? In 1997 when Steve Jobs returned to Apple he closed the company’s philanthropic programs citing a lack of profitability. Last year Apple made $14 billion in profits however the programs have not been re-instated.[2]

I really get annoyed by people telling me that this latest App, which is free or costs 99c is just the best thing ever and you really should use it or get all your students using it. Especially when you try it out yourself and properly evaluate it and find that it is pretty shallow and doesn’t do nearly as good a job as a commercial product. Or something goes wrong and there is no-one to call. Or another program stops talking after you install it. There now seems to be a small army of people that are making their living by telling you how cheap and easy all these Apps are and then selling you their consulting time to make it all work.

And I really don’t get the ‘Apple experience’.  Call me old fashioned but when walking into a  store I like to talk to a sales consultant face to face, not to a head focussed on their iPad as they do one finger typing and try to show me how cool and efficient they are. A pen and paper would be a whole lot quicker.

There is also the control that Apple exerts over the content you can access in your Apple experience. “Once you have bought your Apple product, in your Apple store, you have to go to the Apple App Store or Apple i ‘Tunes to make purchases that Apple has approved and from which they take a cut. People make a fuss about Rupert Murdoch owning too much media because of the control it gives him over content, however Apple’s control over content is already of a far far greater magnitude”.[3]

Well I don’t know about you but I feel a whole lot better for venting! Now that I have got that off my chest I have a confession to make. I actually really do like Apple products. They are beautiful, they have excited enough people in education generally that suddenly the concept of having instructional technology in the classroom is being discussed and implemented, and they are genuinely opening up many exciting avenues in special education, especially in autism and augmented communication. So again, it’s not about the products; it’s how we use them.

One of the biggest problems in examining how we use Apps and iPads is perspective. Making generalised statements about whether they are good or bad is impossible because of the huge variety of needs and expectations that exist. How you view iPads will vary depending on whether your focus is on blindness and low vision, or autism, augmentative communication or any number of other conditions or situations.

The only generalised statement that I am comfortable in making is that “one size does not fit all”. What works for one individual does not necessarily work for another and that has been a tenet of the disability field as long as I have been in it.

However what happens when a new technology craze occurs (and we are witnessing this now) is that many students with differing needs get swept up into the same “catch-all” basket. Suddenly we move from a position of evaluating every student and assessing their individual needs, to one where we start with a product and look at ways we can bend it and mould it to fit the student.

When that technology craze also involves cost reductions for education systems they can quickly become embedded and other options start to disappear. Here is one example from a teacher in the US. “Sadly, the one size fits all mentality reached our state level. They have decided, in order to save money, that anytime we apply for a device for a student that is “handheld” all they will allow money for is an iTouch or iPad, even though that might not meet the need.” [4]

The lure of having a cheaper option can also lead education systems to look no further than what will get the student through school, rather than what is in the best long term interests of the student for further education and employment. It is a little sobering to look at the statistics on the main operating systems used around the world. The figures below show that Microsoft operating systems account for 90% of installed users world wide as at September 2011. (The figures in brackets are the percentages from September 2010)[5]

Windows XP  40% (54%)

Windows 7  39% (21%)

Vista  11% (17%)

Mac  6.8% (5.9%)

Linux 0.8 % (0.8%)

For students who are going on to higher education and employment it is critical they come out of school with the skills and experiences they can use in the wider world. Are iPads and Apps going to be the tools that will make them successful? Will VoiceOver work with ERP systems, database applications, document management applications, and Excel or PowerPoint; the basic tools of corporate life? Whether we think Apple products are better or not is irrelevant when you consider what is needed to get a job.  

Assess the students’ needs before thinking about what tools may be needed.

Apps and iPads should be considered as some of the tools available in the toolbox of devices that any student may need. They are great products but it is important that they are not the only options.  Here are some recent examples that I have witnessed personally where the Apple craze has replaced proper and sober assessment of each individual’s needs.

Example  1.             I was talking to a consultant from a leading blindness organisation who advised that he was about to do an assessment on an 8 year old boy who was legally blind, had some useful vision at larger magnifications and was going to be a Braille user. I offered to provide a few different options for him to trial with the student but his response was that no, he didn’t need anything as the iPad would do everything that was needed. The student received an iPad and a Focus refreshable Braille display about 3 months later. Now the iPad works well with a Braille display except if you are a Braille learner. There is a bug in the iPad software that you have to type Braille at a certain speed. If you are slow, like a beginner, it assumes you have finished typing after only 2 seconds and translates the output. Hence when the student writes “ABC” the classroom teachers sees “allbutcan”. Clearly there was no evidence based data to support the use of the iPad for an early Braille learner; instead it was the preference of the consultant to fit the student to the iPad.

Example  2.             A 13 year old boy with significant learning difficulties was half way through year 7 and was not coping with reading. Where the average student was taking 5 minutes to read a page of print it was taking him 40 minutes. He had an above average IQ and could learn well by listening and explaining concepts verbally but also had trouble writing them down. I showed his teacher and parents WYNN as a possible solution for his needs. At just about every step of the demonstration the teacher suggested that there was an App that would do that particular function. The student received an iPad with a range of additional Apps that were intended to provide the same sort of functionality as WYNN or Read and Write Gold. Some problems arose; how to get class handouts into the iPad quickly, how to stop the iPad being used inappropriately (Games, Youtube, photo’s etc), how to get print-outs at the end of the class. The student also found it difficult jumping between a lot of different Apps that worked in different ways and ended up only using 2 of them. In the end the iPad was removed and the school has not considered other options “because we tried that route and it didn’t work”. The student remains without any assistive technology tools.

Example  3.             A young vision impaired woman who had left university and was interested in becoming a journalist. She attended an Apple workshop at Vision Australia and learnt how accessible the Mac is straight out of the box and about all the marvellous things it can do. Thinking she would save a lot of money she went and purchased one. The very first article she opened to read was a document with a range of tables in it. She found that VoiceOver doesn’t work with tables and the article was meaningless. The single most important question; “what do you want to the technology to be able to do” clearly hadn’t been asked.

Here are some other questions that need to be asked when assessing what assistive technology tool best meets the students needs;

Is it the “best possible” solution or are we using it because it is the cheapest or most convenient (not having to write funding applications is a real convenience!). Once we move away from “best possible” we risk marginalising other options that may be better for the student and enable better outcomes. The special education profession is also devalued when ‘making do’ is accepted as the norm.

If you are looking at various Apps, does it matter that the mode of operation, command structures, styling, and feedback options may be inconsistent? How important is consistency and integrated functionality to a student with autism, dyslexia, or blindness? I will talk about this is more detail later.

What has been “invested” in the tool? Is there a commitment from the developer that the tool will evolve through operating system and platform changes? Will the software grow and evolve with better and more robust features over ensuing versions? Or has it been created by a university student who may move on to other challenges next year? Or by a university department that may not get the funding next year to continue to support it? Does the developer have direct personal experience of the disability? Is it important that the tool has been designed by a user of the tool i.e. a person with a disability?

Is there an “equivalence” factor that needs to be considered? If a free, unsupported App is used for an important educational goal, are all students using similar tools, or just students with disabilities? Does equality of education allow for two classes of students?

Who is going to support and train the student and the teacher? Success with any particular tool depends on a lot of things as Shelley Haven[6] describes;

Assistive Technology is not just the hardware and software, but also the services necessary to make the tools effective.  These AT services include:

  • Assessment – matching tools to the student’s abilities, tasks, and learning environments
  • Skills training — learning how to operate each tool’s features
  • Application strategies – knowing how to apply those features to various tasks
  • Evaluation – determining if the tools produce the desired results
  • Technical support

                When something is free or costs 99c who provides these other missing elements?

The fact that iPads and Apps are game-changers is not in dispute. Through great design and clever marketing they have made in-roads into homes, classrooms and our collective imaginations to a degree that we could not have imagined even 10 years ago. In terms of accessibility they have raised the bar and increased expectations about what can be achieved and this has been summarised beautifully in the following quote;

“It’s as if accessibility developed in a sparse, desert environment, where all you had to know was “eat the dates; watch out for the scorpions”, but now it is a jungle teeming with thousands of fruits, snakes, trees, and bugs that change every day. We need an evolving field guide to keep up.[7]

That field guide needs to be based on some basic principles such as the QIAT Assessment tools and ensuring that whatever we provide for critical learning activities it is backed by proper research and evaluation.

And what is the research telling us?

Educational research is notoriously slow yet there has been a wide variety of projects undertaken and underway.  Outcomes range from the breathless prediction that iPads are the future of education to comments such as this one from Larry Cuban, Emeritus Professor of Education, Stanford University “There is little evidence that kids learn faster or better using these machines. iPads are marvellous tools to engage kids, but then the novelty wears off, and you get back to the hard-core issues of teaching and learning”.[8]

There is however a great deal of evidence that the consistency of how information is presented is important to many groups of students including those with learning disabilities, autism, ADHD and Asperger’s. When it comes to UI’s (user interfaces) we talk about this as “seamless operation” and “intuitive design”; and what we really mean is that the software uses very consistent commands to access the features of the software. This makes it easy to learn, easy to retain in memory and easy to operate.

Consistency leads to habituation and habituation assists automaticity in learning. Automaticity is the state of being able to complete tasks without conscious thought. Fluency is the result of automaticity; to be able to recognize and comprehend written words reflexively, without having to decode or pause to consider their definition. Automaticity is a well-researched topic important to learning.

However, research is also showing that this is not always happening with App’s. The Nielsen Norman Group (NNG) is a Silicon Valley consulting and research firm, specializing in user experience and usability.

Their study of iPad App’s found that;

users can’t transfer their skills from one app to the next. Each application has a completely different UI for similar features. In different apps, touching a picture could produce any of the following 5 results:

  • Nothing happens
  • Enlarging the picture
  • Hyperlinking to a more detailed page about that item
  • Flipping the image to reveal additional pictures in the same place (metaphorically, these new pictures are “on the back side” of the original picture)
  • Popping up a set of navigation choices”

Similarly, to continue reading once you hit the bottom of the screen might require any of 3 different gestures:

  • Scrolling down within a text field, while staying within the same page
    • For this gesture to work, you have to touch within the text field. However, text fields aren’t demarcated on the screen, so you have to guess what text is scrollable.
    • Swiping left (which can sometimes take you to the next article instead of showing more of the current article)
      • This gesture doesn’t work, however, if you happen to swipe within an area covered by an advertisement for example in The New York Times app
      • Swiping up

In a follow up study in 2011 the NNG found

Swipe ambiguity – when multiple items on the same screen could be swiped.

  • Many apps squeezed information into too-small areas, making it harder to recognize and manipulate.
  • Too much navigation. This design problem was so prevalent that it deserves its own acronym: TMN.

In their summary the researchers concluded “It’s the Wild West all over again in user interface design. We’re seeing the same thing we saw 17 years ago in Web design when anything a designer could draw could be a user interface whether it made sense or not. That’s happening with the iPad apps. Anything you can show and touch can be a user interface on this device. There are no standards or expectations, and users just don’t know what to do, or even what options exist.”

In Australia a similar 2010 study by Kelly and Schrape at the Centre for eLearning, Curtin University found;

One problem noted by the team was the inconsistency of screen designs and gestures used to operate different App’s. Although some gestures like swiping left and right were common to most apps, other gestures such as zooming in/out or double tapping or selecting button on screen would result in different actions”

(for a fuller discussion on the importance of UI design visit

Obviously there needs to be a lot more work undertaken, however, this one aspect of UI design highlights the need to make sure that standards of assessment and evaluation are met.

We are all delighted by something that is free or costs 99c and it is an experience that hasn’t occurred often in special education. So there is little wonder that iPads and Apps have made such an enormous impact. However there are some bigger issues at stake. Universal design offers great promise but are we ready to accept a future without specialist services like assistive technology companies? There are many that have already gone out of business and many more likely to in the next year or two. We are putting an awful lot at stake with the faith that Apple will continue to be as committed to accessibility in the future as they are now.

In closing, if I had to choose just one major negative impact of the iPad revolution it is an increasing readiness to accept low quality, poor outcome options as an alternative to fighting for the best possible solutions.  iPads and Apps have offered program administrators an opportunity to save money and that has become the overriding concern – how much it costs rather than if it is the best option for that student. Budgets have always been dictators but it’s becoming increasingly common to accept that there will never be enough money so we can just stop fighting for it.

So, to answer my own question “Does One Size Fit All” – the answer is definitely no, it doesn’t. We are all unique and students with disabilities in particular need professionals that can guide them through this new world of opportunity, using the principles of best practice and choosing the size, and the product, that is just right for each person.

[1] Geoffrey A. Fowler, Wall Street Journal August 2011

[2] Andrew Ross Sorkin, New York Times September 2011

[3] Hugo Rifkind, The Times September 2011

[4] Cheryl Stewart M.Ed. CCC-SLPAT Specialist, Rockwall ISD, Rockwall Texas

[6] Shelley Haven, ATP, RET Assistive Technology Consultant.

[7] Jim, response to letter in Accessworld, October 2011

[8] Math That Moves: Schools Embrace the iPad. New York Times January 2011



BrailleSense Vs. BrailleNote – A User Perspective

Recently Jeffery Rainey, a client of ours made the switch from a BrailleNote to a BrailleSense.  We asked him to document why he decided to make the switch and he provided us with the following comparison.  Thanks Jeffery!

Braille Notetaker Comparison by Jeffery RaineyPicture of a Braille Sense

I am a full time braille user, and one of the tools I use in class is a Braille notetaker. For 7 years, I have been a BrailleNote user. I’ve seen all three versions of the BT models, the classic, MPower and Apex. Dissatisfied with the Apex, and the little progress I have seen, I decided to look for a different option.

Before I go any further, I must address that this testimony is not about laptops vs notetakers, or other PDA’s. I know benefits and throwbacks of each. It is simply a comparison between two note takers that I have used.

The only other competitor in the same class as the BrailleNote is the Braille Sense Plus. The PacMate, while largely recognized in the industry, is different, as it is a cross between a braille note taker and a cut-down PC. The Braille Plus and Levelstar Icon are Linux-based.

I contacted Di at Aroga during the summer of 2010, expecting to sit down in her office and play with a Braille Sense for an hour or so. I was surprised when she loaned it to me for a month, as well as the first month of school. I loved it from the start, and knew that it was what I would be happy with.

Let’s now compare the BrailleNote Apex with the Braille Sense plus, starting with hardware.

Both in and out of its case, the Sense is taller and thicker. Its case is of nice leather, and has Velcro. The apex case uses 3 magnets on the flap, which attract to another 3 on the bottom when it is closed. Just from daily use, I have lost “one of these magnets. It is also annoying if you have to put the unit inside a desk with a metal surface. While the Apex case has a zipper and the Sense does not, the zipper is located on the exterior case, as opposed to the interior on previous models. Be sure not to leave money inside there.

Both have very nice braille displays. The Apex uses four rectangular thumb keys on the bottom to control the display. These keys are very plastic, and feel as if they could snap off. They are also easy to bump accidentally, if you are writing with the unit on your lap. Guess that’s why they allow you to turn them off? The Sense has 2 scroll keys on either side of the display, and you can customize each set to scroll a different length, I.E. by display, line, sentence, or paragraph. These keys are sturdy, and easy to work with. In edition, the Apex has a scroll wheel in the middle of the keyboard, for controlling the display. “I do not find this feature useful, as I am so used to using the keyboard and thumb keys for controlling the display, that I see no practical reason in switching. (This can be turned off as well, after which it can be fun to turn with your finger.)

The Apex BT keyboard is very loud and clicky. While the Classic and MPower have always had clunky keyboards, the Apex keyboard sounds like someone with long nails typing on a laptop or Mac keyboard. It sounds like you’re bashing the keys, even when you are typing regularly. The Sense BT has a really quiet keyboard. I remember going back to my Apex in school, and realizing just how noticeable I was taking notes while the class was quiet.

Both units have USB. The apex has three standard USB ports on the far left at the back, while the sense has one in the middle of the right side of the unit. The sense’s port is tighter. Both units have a mini-USB port on the right. For being 2009 technology, the Sense has kept its compact flash slot and serial port, while the apex has gotten rid of both. Both have an SD card slot, the one on the sense, again, holding the card tightly in. Both have a VGA port. However, the Sense also has a built-in LCD display, which can be toggled on and off. Both units have a standard ethernet port for accessing the internet through a local area network. I will go into how the internet works on both units later.

In my experience, I have gotten longer battery life from the Sense. Both units take 2 to 4 hours to fully charge the battery. However, although you can still use the units on AC power, the Apex takes much longer to charge this way. While recording is not it’s main use, the Sense’s microphone jack is stereo, and can act as a line-in jack for patching in another device, such as a keyboard. Both the MPower and Apex have mono mic jacks.


The word processor on the Braille Sense has better support for Microsoft word 2003, and is the only one to support word 2007 as well. The BrailleNote has always had issues with word 2003 files, and you can lose the contents of a document, if it is formatted a certain way. This would be awkward to describe on paper, but it is not hard to find out for yourself. Humanware has recently released an upgrade for the Apex that adds support for formatting and recognizing characters, yet I have not used it, and do not know if they have fixed the above bug that has been there since day one. This firmware was released in 2011, and a Humanware representative was asked about word 2007 support, to which he stated, We figured we would solve word 2003 problems first, before we went forward with word 2007. The BrailleNote has also always had problems retaining new line indicators in BRF and TXT files. I have not had a problem with any of these formats on the Sense.

The Sense has recently added support for PDF. Although this process is timely, it can open a PDF with images and display the text perfectly. My college textbook came as 2 PDF files, around 20 mb each. The Sense pulled through just fine.

Here is another issue that has plagued the BrailleNote since the Mpower. In any text-based document, everything is written in computer braille. When you paste a block of text, the BrailleNote adds a symbol that looks like edlge in front of the position where you have pasted the text. After exiting the file, this symbol is changed to edlg, which does not allow you to read the text on the braille display in your preferred reading grade. You are restricted to reading in computer braille. This also upsets the spell checker, as it thinks that the English dictionary is not installed.

The media player on the sense is superior to that of any BrailleNote. One reason is because of the many audio formats it supports. Apart from the well-known MP3, Wav and WMA, the Sense can play Ogg Vorbus, Flac, M4A, Aac, ASX, and a few others. You can also tune into an internet stream in any of these formats directly within the player itself, as opposed to activating it through the station’s website. I have to laugh at the internal effects within the media player: BassBoost, which is more of a mid-range bass than full bass; reverb (which might as well be called echo, and3-D effect, which isn’t practical, since the headphone jack can only do stereo, therefore the effect is not authentic.

Surfing the net on the sense is faster than the Apex, however the Apex does have an advantage when it comes to wireless networks. The Sense does not support any wireless network on a router that uses N mode or mixed mode. I have contacted Hims technical support, and they have told me that it is not possible to support them, due to differences in wireless chip sets. This is where my knowledge ends here; I am not network savvy.

Both Notetakers have incorporated instant messaging clients. The Apex has KeyChat, which is an XMPP-BASED client. This means that you can talk to anyone who has Google Talk (or a gmail account), Jabber, LJ talk, etc. The Braille Sense Plus has recently added support for Google talk, as well as voice chat, though I have not tried out this feature as of this writing. In edition, the Plus has always had it’s own MSN client. While many people these days are ditching dedicated instant messaging clients for Facebook, MSN still remains more popular than Google Talk. The Sense also has it’s own twitter client, which I have not played with as of yet, so I will not judge.

All BrailleNotes have a planner, which I have always found useful for writing down my daily homework, as well as an appointment book. The Sense only has an appointment book.

Both notetakers can act as Braille displays for screen readers on a mac or PC, although I was not interested in this feature when I had the APEX, so I do not know how well it works. I have used the Braille Sense Plus as a display under Window-Eyes, and it works well.

The Braille Sense manual, while accurate, does not give background on all of its features. While this is fine for anyone familiar with this class of Notetakers, it can be discouraging to new users. The BrailleNote manuals have always provided good detail.

 This concludes my comparison between these 2 notetakers. There are some features I have skipped, mostly because I have not used them, or do not feel like I know enough to make a legitimate comparison.