Jun 03

Individual Bookshare members in grades K-12 that read books about the 50 U.S. states can enter to win a number of cool prizes, including an iPod Nano or a Victor Reader Stream. Visit http://www.bookshare.org/roadTrip for more information.

Jun 02

By Kent Kreiger for MDA Quest Magazine

Going back to school is hard, especially when you’re 51 years old and going back for your bachelor’s degree.

I grew up with type 3 spinal muscular atrophy, so I understand and can deal with my disability. But every year I get weaker, so I continue to need to find ways to compensate and — in the case of going back to school — to figure out such problems as handling my textbooks, taking notes and turning in assignments.

As a student, I decided to see if new technologies could better meet my changing needs.


Textbooks generally are very large and heavy, so I immediately thought about e-readers for reading downloaded texts.

Prices for e-readers range anywhere from about $150 to about $829 for a top-of-the-line Apple iPad.

First I looked at Amazon’s Kindle. I really like the look of the Kindle. However, turning pages requires pushing a button, which is difficult for me. I was intrigued by the text-to-speech capabilities, but to turn on that functionality you must hit a button and then hit another button to stop it and I don’t have the strength for that either. I decided that, while the Kindle is very light, I just don’t have the strength to make it operate. However, for those with better strength and with more arm and wrist mobility, this could work great.

Next, I checked into Sony’s Reader. Again, it’s lightweight and its text-to-speech functionality is great. But again, there is no way to verbally turn the pages; this must be done manually by touching a button.

I also checked out the new iPad from Apple. It’s also lightweight and has text-to-speech capability. It has the ability to read aloud at your pace if you’re able to place your finger along the words and drag across the sentences. I was curious if I could use some type of pointer that I could hold in my mouth to drag across the screen. I was told that was possible, but putting permanent scratches on the screen also is a definite possibility. So again, because I don’t have enough strength, the iPad is not an option for me either.

I was unable to find any e-reader that allowed me to use voice commands to change or turn pages.

Netbooks are impressive

Next, I considered “netbook” computers. I didn’t really know what netbooks were but during my research I became very impressed with them.

A netbook is a mini notebook computer, sometimes called an “ultraportable.” Basically it’s a small, lightweight and (depending on the options) inexpensive laptop computer, but without the computing power of a standard laptop. The screen sizes range from 7.1 inches to 12.1 inches (diagonally), and the prices range from about $180 to $1,500, depending on the different options.

Netbooks have a limited-size internal hard drive, usually 160 gigabytes. On most laptop computers, internal hard drives can be as large as one terabyte (1,000 gigabytes). Netbooks also have a limited amount of RAM (random access memory), usually two gigabytes, but a few can have three gigabytes. By comparison, eight gigabytes of RAM can be added to a typical laptop computer. Also, there is no built-in CD/DVD drive, although an external CD/DVD drive can be purchased and used through a USB port.

Netbook battery life varies from three hours up to 15 hours, and most have a place for an extra battery. Without the extra battery, weight ranges between .9 pounds and 3.1 pounds.

For me, weight is not that much of a factor because I need to ask someone else to set it up for me no matter what it weighs. But for those for whom weight really does make a difference, a netbook’s reduced size and weight might be just right.

Software, add-ons, Internet

If the programs you use require more than two to three gigabytes of RAM, the functionality or overall speed and responsiveness of the software will be lowered, but may still be usable. However, software that needs more than two to three gigabytes of RAM won’t work on a netbook.

In my case, I utilize programs like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator, Avid Video Editing software, ProTools Audio Editing software and other video special-effects programs. I also use Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel and Word. On the netbook, the graphics and editing software will not work because most of them need a minimum of three gigabytes of RAM, which would leave no RAM for the computer’s operating system to work. While the Microsoft software will work, it generally needs a minimum of one gigabyte of RAM. If the netbook has a total of two gigabytes, the Microsoft programs will work, but slowly.

Most netbooks have only two USB ports, while some have one and others have none. If you need more than two USB inputs, you can use a USB hub, a device that allows multiple USB devices to be connected to a single USB port. I need two USB ports: one for my external pointer device (a Kensington Turbo Mouse Trackball) and one for a thumb drive (flash drive) to store and transport information. If I need to plug in something else, I would have to use a hub.

The problem here is, unless you’re running your computer off of AC power (plugged into the wall), the extra peripherals that you plug into your computer (trackball, flash drives, larger external storage, DVD player) will really shorten you battery life.

Netbooks feature built-in WiFi (wireless Internet) capabilities. The hardware is just like what’s in your cell phone. You pay a monthly fee for “upload and download services” and the computer is ready to go, giving you Internet access anywhere you can get a cell phone signal. Prices for the monthly service vary among carriers, but are around $35 to $50 per month.

What about my “textbook problem”? Would a netbook allow me to turn pages by voice command? Sadly, no. You can download the books you want and use Dragon NaturallySpeaking or another voice-activated program to have the books read aloud to you. But, like the e-readers I saw, there’s no way to turn the pages by voice command.

At present, I access my textbooks by downloading PDF versions or Word versions of my required reading and workbooks, if they’re available. If they’re not available, the Disabilities Resource Center at my university will scan in my needed books. If I’m using a Word document, I go from page to page by using the scrollbar on the right side of the page, which I control by trackball. If I’m using a PDF file, I can use the up and down arrows to go from page to page.

Students should check with their disability resource center or high school guidance counselor for the digital textbook options that they offer. All schools are different.

Speech-to-text software

Voice-activation (speech-to-text) programs work really well on netbooks. I use Dragon Systems NaturallySpeaking, which is only available for devices running Windows operating systems. Besides Dragon, the voice-activation program that is bundled with the new Microsoft Windows 7 operating system is really impressive. Some older Windows operating systems, like Vista and XP, also offer a voice-activation feature. These programs allow the user to add words to its dictionary.

For Mac users, the new MacSpeech Dictate works very well and also will accept words in its dictionary.

Not only do all of these voice-activation programs work in word processing programs and e-mail programs, but they also work in most word-oriented programs, such as Excel, PowerPoint, Notepad, etc. They also have the capability of running your computer by voice command, like opening files, editing, saving, opening up Web browsers, navigating around the Web, etc.

As a student, the main problem in using speech-to-text for taking notes during class is interrupting the instructor or the flow of the class. I discovered that all voice-activation software programs need a steady tone and mid-level volume to work, so taking notes during class using voice-activation is not a viable solution.


So, if I can’t use a voice-activation program in class, what about typing options?

The size of the keyboard on a netbook is anywhere from 80 percent to 100 percent of the normal-sized keyboards found on standard laptops. If you need a larger keyboard, a separate one can be plugged into the USB port. But since I don’t have much mobility in my fingers, typing normally isn’t an option for me anyway. This is where onscreen keyboards come into play.

What types of onscreen keyboards are available? Windows users have an adequate onscreen keyboard built into every operating system. It can be found under Programs-Accessories-Accessibility.

For a programmable keyboard that allows you to add words to its built-in dictionary, check out the freeware program Click-N-Type. It’s very easy to set up, and it was easy for me to add the words that I use often and terms that are needed for specific classes. This is a Windows-only program. On the Mac side, there is a program called Keystrokes.

Now what?

What I’m trying to decide after gathering all this information is if I should purchase a netbook or just continue to use the Dell M65 notebook computer that I currently have.

The advantage of the netbook is that I can connect to the Internet without having to be in a coffee shop or somewhere else that offers WiFi.

On the other hand, I can have this flexibility with my existing notebook computer if I buy an external WiFi adapter. A USB WiFi stick or external PCI card plugs into your computer and connects to the Internet wherever you are. You pay for the time that you use on a monthly basis, as you would a cell phone bill.
Kent Kreiger

Since, as a student, I’m going to need physical assistance to take out and set up a netbook anyway, I’m thinking maybe I’ll just stick with my notebook computer for now. But those netbooks do look interesting. Decisions, decisions …

Kent Kreiger

Kent Kreiger

Kent Kreiger, Scottsdale, Ariz., has been a video/film editor for more than 25 years. He’s worked on several TV shows, including “The West Wing,” “ER” and “Spin City,” and was part of the editing team that won the 1998 Academy Award for “Saving Private Ryan.” He’s now a student at Arizona State University in the Film and Media Studies program with an emphasis on media industries. His plan is to teach editing at the college level. Check out his Web site and drop him an e-mail at www.kreigerpost.com.

May 29

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s proposed budget cuts state funding to libraries by a staggering 74%, eliminating everything from Internet access and electronic journals, inter-library loans, and The New Jersey State Library Talking Book & Braille Center.

The so called “Talking Book” program (which is directed and administered by the United States Library of Congress) has been recording and distributing books for the blind since the great depression and they have done so with remarkable professionalism and devotion. Recorded books for blind and physically disabled readers are not your average commercial audio books. They are recorded and developed in ways that allow blind readers to access the same books you might read in your public library and in effect this service makes it possible for borrowers to read far more printed material than one might find in the audio books section of your local Barnes and Noble.

(via Planet of the Blind)

Visit The New Jersey State Library Talking Book & Braille Center or Save My NJ Library.

May 25

Many of the barriers that currently hinder access to electronic book reading platforms by people with disabilities are easily correctable by altering the implementation of existing technologies, according to a new report.

The best practice guide on e-book accessibility was produced for the publishing industry by the Publishers Licensing Society and JISC TechDis, the disability and technology advisory agency for the education sector. Findings in the guide – which form part of a lengthier full report on the research – are based on the results of accessibility testing of e-book platforms carried out in 2009 by disability charity the Shaw Trust.

Disabled technology users tested a number of platforms for compatibility with screen-readers; voice recognition; keyboard commands; and colour contrast and magnification.

Alistair McNaught, senior advisor at JISC TechDis, told E-Access Bulletin two of the research findings are particularly significant. “The first was how tantalisingly close we are to solutions; there are still barriers on many platforms but most of these are legacies or oversights that could be easily fixed in subsequent developments.

“The second was the positive engagement from the publishers and their responses to the feedback. Good accessibility leads to good products and the opportunity for disability organisations to be ‘expert partners’ can only benefit everyone.”

The best practice guide and full report are available at:
http://www.pls.org.uk/news/Pages/goodpracticegudeebooks.aspx?PageView=Shared .

Taken from e-access bulletin, a free monthly email newsletter.

May 07

May 6, 2010 by Katie Engelhart

The ?rst ?ght over Braille took place 181 years ago, not long after 20-year-old Louis Braille unveiled his revolutionary code—the system of raised dots that would soon be the blind child’s equivalent of the printed word in much of the world. Students, on the one hand, were euphoric. Once condemned to illiteracy, they could ?nally read and write. But the Royal Institute for the Young Blind in Paris, accustomed to making money off crafts produced by its boarders, wasn’t pleased. Hoping to stamp out the student body’s new independence, the institute’s director had all of Braille’s handcrafted books gathered together and burned.

Another kind of battle is on as Braille once again faces extinction—this time as a result of overstretched school budgets and the ever-evolving portable audio book. In the 1950s about half of all blind children learned Braille, says the U.S. National Federation of the Blind. Today, that number has fallen to 10 per cent—and it’s about the same in Canada. For some, like NFB director Mark Riccobono, that means we’re letting blind children grow up as illiterate as Braille’s 19th-century contemporaries. “If only 10 per cent of sighted children were being taught [to read],” he told Maclean’s, “that would be considered a crisis.”

The issue bubbled up to the surface in Canada when the Canadian National Institute for the Blind threatened, in January, to close the doors of its library, claiming it could not afford its $10-million annual operating cost. The library circulates two million items each year to the 836,000 Canadians with signi?cant vision loss. And it holds the country’s largest stock of Braille books, which are printed in its basement, on large, stiff paper. It even has hard-to-come-by items like a complete Braille dictionary that it jokingly refers to as “the pocket edition.” It is 72 volumes.

Myra Rodrigues, a frequent user of that library who is now nearing 70, began learning Braille when she was ?ve and a student at what was then the Ontario School for the Blind. Infantile glaucoma was slowly eating away at her vision, but in 1948, Rodrigues could see fairly well. And that made things tricky. “Because I could see it—if I sat near a window with the sun coming in, re?ecting off the dots,” the stately sexagenarian laughs. “Teachers used to put a mask on me. I’d sit there and try to feel these dots.”

There’s a good chance that if Rodrigues was born today, she would never learn Braille. Thanks to devices like text-to-speech recorders, many blind people can get by without the raised dot code—especially those who lose sight later in life. “So that whole demographic of people doesn’t use Braille anymore,” says CNIB president John Rafferty. Rafferty actually thinks that’s ?ne. As he notes, children who are born entirely blind are still taught Braille from the start. The problem, he says, concerns those who began life like Myra: the 85 per cent of legally blind children who can, to varying degrees, see. Many read, provided there’s lots of light, and the type is big enough. Is it still worth teaching them Braille?

When the question comes up, typically during the kindergarten years, the answer isn’t clear-cut. At age ?ve or so, explains Ruby Ryles, coordinator of the Institute on Blindness at Louisiana Tech University, all children are reading large-font texts. So blind children with limited vision usually fare fairly well. The trouble comes later. For one, children’s eyesight can deteriorate. So it may be that they can read print until they can’t—and then they either learn Braille as adults (which is dif?cult), or make do without. But it’s also that reading print, when your vision is bad, is hard, and discouraging. The NFB’s Ricco­bono himself was one of those in-between children. He was not taught Braille. “I started reading large print in third grade,” he explains. “By ?fth grade, I was reading large print with magni?cation.” By university, he was scrambling to get by. “I should have learned Braille earlier,” he insists. “I struggled mightily.”

As Ryles puts it, “At the age when we should be teaching Braille, we think: our limited-vision kids are doing very well. But then they start falling further behind.” Riccobono says that’s the story across North America. At public schools, he insists that “Braille is considered the last resort”—a tool teachers pull out when the strained eyes of their somewhat-sighted pupil can no longer keep up.

The shift began in the ’70s, when most designated “schools for the blind” shut down, and blind children were integrated into public school systems. While blind schools had mandated the use of Braille for all, public schools often did just the opposite. Fuelling that shift, says CNIB’s Rafferty, were a host of new concerns associated with being the lone blind kid among the sighted masses. “For a lot of parents,” he says, Braille became “a stigma that labels children who might have a little bit of vision as being blind.”

For school districts, new technology is cheaper than hiring a Braille teacher. And even Rodrigues, who calls Braille her “most precious tool as a blind person,” waxes rhapsodic about her Daisy Digital Talking Player: a new-fangled, internationally standardized audio book for the visually impaired that has top-tier sound quality and allows her to “?ip” between pages. Rodrigues says that, on many a night, she falls asleep to the sound of hers. But she admits the poetry of sitting down to read a book is lost on an audio CD. “Braille makes everything come alive,” she muses. “I can stop and ponder a word. Or I can go back and read part of the last paragraph. The words just dance off the page under my ?ngers.”

Some advocates for the blind say it’s not only the magic that’s lost. In a study Ryles conducted, she found that blind students who’d been taught Braille early scored about the same as sighted students on a standardized test measuring reading comprehension (61 versus 62 per cent). For those with no Braille training, that score fell to an average of 38 per cent. The discrepancy was worse for spelling. Having a written culture, versus an oral culture, also shapes the way we think, according to some scholars. In another study, a University of Calgary communications professor Doug Brent and his wife, Diana, who teaches blind children, studied short stories written by blind students. They found that stories by kids who did not know Braille were more likely to feature fantastical characters or plots—not a bad thing. But they also tended to be grammatically poor, disorganized and illogical. “As if all of their ideas are crammed into a container, shaken and thrown randomly onto a sheet of paper like dice onto a table,” the Brents concluded.

There’s even an economic case for Braille: in a study of legally blind adults who’d lost their vision between birth and age 2, Ryles found that a whopping 77 per cent of non-Braille users were unemployed. That number dropped to 56 per cent for those who knew Braille. Of those whose Braille knowledge was “extensive,” most were employed.

But if a child learns Braille, in Canada there is no minimum guarantee of how much instruction he or she will receive. “It depends on the school system,” says Rafferty. Schools look at Braille like “tae kwon do lessons,” Ryles says: something kids should get for a few hours a week. “If we taught print to our six-year-old sighted kids in that same way, no one would be literate.”

That said, there are blind adults who do just ?ne without Braille. New York Gov. David Paterson, who refused to learn it as a child, is one. Cathy MacDonald, a stay-at-home mom in Lower Sackville, N.S., is another. MacDonald lost her sight to diabetes in her twenties. She gave Braille a try, but was “never really inspired” by it. She graduated from community college with the help of talking books, and thinks Braille is an archaic system. The people pushing for Braille, she says, are often “baby boomers who don’t want anything to do with computers and who are not opening their mind up to new technology.”

CNIB is not averse to technology’s wonders. At any hour, the recording studio at its Toronto office is full of (mostly) silver-haired volunteers—like Simon Curwen, a deep-voiced Brit and self-professed “ham”—who come in for three-hour shifts to lend their songful voices to the production of new audio materials. But the institute is adamant that technology should be a supplement for most childen. Its website proclaims: “Braille = Equality, Braille = Independence, Braille = Choice.”

Four months after its threatened closure, the CNIB library remains open—thanks to the governments of Ontario, Alberta, New Brunswick, P.E.I., and the Northwest Territories, which all answered the plea for short-term funding. But Rafferty says this is unsustainable. He asks that the CNIB library be federally funded, like other public libraries. “It’s a fundamental human rights issue,” he protests. “Why should someone who is blind have to go to a charity to receive their library, when every other Canadian gets it through regular government services?” Rafferty says Canada is the only G8 country to not fund library services for the blind.

Advocates worry that if Braille materials are harder to access, the balance between Braille and audio will be tipped even further. Ryles, a former Grade 1 teacher, began researching Braille when her own son was born blind. Given the state of things today, she says she’s starting to feel fortunate that he was born completely in the dark: with no sight at all. That way, he was at least guaranteed some Braille. “We were very lucky that we didn’t go through all that: ‘Should he read print? Should he read Braille?’ ” she says. “You could not have convinced me at the time that we were lucky. But we were lucky.”

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