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Inaccessibility in the Hospital: The Adventures of My Daughter’s Fourth Eye Surgery

May 20, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

My four-month-old daughter is sleeping, so, in belated celebration of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, I thought I would describe our experience with her fourth Glaucoma surgery from an accessibility point of view.

Before I get started, let me say that I think Phoenix Children’s Hospital always treats my daughter very well and provides her with excellent care. I also believe the staff at the hospital do the best they know how to make the experience as accessible and pleasant as possible.

Allison, Allyssa and I arrived at Phoenix Children’s Hospital one hour before Allyssa’s scheduled surgery start time of noon. As we have done with previous surgeries, we contacted the hospital’s Language Services department to request accessible, electronic copies of Allyssa’s discharge instructions and medical records. As has been the case for previous surgeries, we agreed to receive a secured email containing the discharge instructions prior to leaving the hospital, followed by the remaining records tomorrow.

In order to check our daughter in for surgery, I initialed and signed several pieces of paper, including consent, financial responsibility and health insurance documents, without fully reading their contents. The person at the front desk simply provided me a one- or two-sentence summary of each document. There wasn’t enough time to fully read each piece of paper.

A screen in the waiting room displayed the status of Allyssa’s surgery, without any alternative means of independently obtaining the same information.

When our daughter had recovered sufficiently to be discharged, an initial miscommunication almost resulted in our failure to receive the promised accessible instructions. It was difficult for the nurses to understand why we were insisting we could not simply wait until tomorrow to receive our discharge instructions from medical records. Advocacy and awkward conversations with supervisors were required in order to make sure we received the same instructions regularly afforded sighted patients without incident.

In this case, everything turned out fine. No service was denied, Allyssa recovered without incident and we went home with accessible, easy-to-read follow-up care information.

So, you may ask, why am I bothering to write about this incident if, in the scheme of all things inaccessible, this situation enjoyed a happy ending? I am doing so to point out the difference between accommodation and accessibility, and to suggest ways of implementing realistic solutions that value and serve the needs of everyone, including people with disabilities.

As things stand right now, when Phoenix Children’s Hospital receives an accessibility request like ours, it is handled through the Language Services department as an accommodation, similar to situations where a translator is needed in order to help someone who does not understand English. In that framework, my requests for universal accessibility are met with shrugs, because I appear to be asking for nothing less than a perpetual universal translator to automatically convert all printed materials into Braille on the fly. Obviously, I am not requesting such an unrealistic solution, but my inability to successfully communicate this fact to those who may be able to change things for the better means overall accessibility for all patients remains at a standstill.

So, now that we know what’s not wanted, what would represent a better solution that embraces true accessibility, rather than just slapping on another Band-Aid?

I am asking Phoenix Children’s Hospital to make the following changes in order to improve the accessibility of their services for everyone:

  • Insure all the hospital’s websites, including bill pay and patient portal, meet internationally-recognized accessibility standards such as WAI-ARIA and WCAG and undergo regular user-acceptance testing by a diverse group of stakeholders for ongoing accessibility.
  • Insure the secure email system is being operated by a vendor with a deliberate, publicly stated commitment to accessibility.
  • Implement techniques to create or generate all PDF documents in ways that meet Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG).
  • Provide accessible display screens and kiosks, or supply similarly proactive alternatives, such as smart phone apps and text messages, that work for everyone, including people with disabilities.
  • Enact clear policies and procedures for positively and proactively handling accessibility requests from employees, patients and the general public as appropriate.
  • Train staff to value accessibility and understand the difference between it and reasonably accommodating a request for a service such as language translation.

There Should be Compensation and Remediation for the Real Damages Inaccessibility Causes

February 19, 2016 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

I just thought I would respond to Chris Hofstader’s excellent article Stop The ADA Trolls.

While I certainly agree we shouldn’t be supporting these accessibility lawsuit trolls, I also do not feel we should be defending companies that have less-than-stellar
accessibility records. If a company has consistently failed to acknowledge accessibility advocacy and act positively to address accessibility concerns,
why shouldn’t we just leave them to be eaten by the wolves?

You see… I believe there are real damages caused by inaccessibility, and I feel we should, actually, consider a more aggressive approach toward companies
that consistently ignore us.

Blind people lose their jobs due to inaccessible software. Blind children miss out on educational opportunities due to inaccessible educational technology used in the classroom. Inaccessible apps in the new sharing economy result in a complete denial of service, which clearly counts as discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act here in the United States and other similar laws around the world. There are so many other inexcusable ways blind people are excluded because of inaccessibility. How can we put a stop to this discrimination?

Here’s how I see all this working:

  1. Blind people have been consistently advocating with a company for full inclusion / equal accessibility, but the advocacy has been completely or substantively ignored.
  2. A case is opened and documented with an accessibility advocacy clearinghouse that tracks and reports accessibility advocacy efforts and their results, or lack of effective action.
  3. A letter is sent to the company’s CEO outlining the concerns and clearly asking for equal accessibility.
  4. One or more blind persons file a lawsuit against the offending company asking for equal accessibility and for serious monetary damages, including not only the inaccessibility itself, but also for the emotional distress / pain and suffering it has caused.
  5. The lawfirm filing the suit subpoenas evidence, including the documentation from the case filed in step 2 and the letter sent in step 3.
  6. The process continues, on and on, with company after company, in a systematic and transparent manner, until we, possibly, achieve real results!

That’s right! I think the lawsuits should most certainly be filed, because companies are wrong to continue excluding us, but I think it should all be done
in a clear, above-board manner.

Accessibility in the New Year: Will You Join Me?

December 31, 2015 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

As another year ends and a new one begins, I find myself asking the question: “Do blind people have more accessibility now?” Sadly, as each year goes by, I keep coming up with the answer “no.”

So, perhaps, I should ask another question: “What do I really want?”

The answer is as simple as its implementation may be quite complex: “I want to be fully included and valued as a human adult with all the rights and responsibilities that status entails.” Put another way: “I don’t want to be left out or set aside because I happen to be blind.”

What does that mean? In as straightforward a way as I can express the sentiment, it means I want to be a productive member of society who is able to support his family and himself without undue, artificial, discriminatory barriers being imposed on me by companies, individuals or organizations. In my admittedly simplified view, if we are granted comprehensive, nonvisual accessibility to information, technology and transportation, the opportunity to enjoy full, first-class citizenship will follow.

There are many examples of the kind of accessibility I believe would allow me to realize the goal of first-class citizenship. How about a top-ten list?

  1. I would like to be able to do my job without having it continuously threatened by the thoughtless implementation of inaccessible technology that does not meet internationally-recognized accessibility standards or vendors’ developer guidelines.
  2. I want to make a cup of coffee in the morning without worrying about the power and brewing lights I can’t see.
  3. I would like to be able to fill out my time sheet on terms of equality with my sighted co-workers.
  4. I want to cook dinner knowing, for certain, that I have the oven set correctly.
  5. I would like to be able to update the apps on my iPhone, confident that each update will be at least as accessible, if not better, than the previous version.
  6. I want to do business with IRS, Social Security and other government agencies in ways that are fully accessible to me without the burden of intervention by third parties.
  7. I would like my accessibility needs to be met in a sustainable manner that works well for everyone, every time, without constantly re-inventing the wheel!
  8. I want to sign documents, exchange correspondence, access my medical records, and do all manner of other similar forms of business, all without the financial cost and loss of privacy that comes along with relying on a sighted reader.
  9. It would be nice to be able to go shopping, either online or at a brick-and-mortar store, independently, with dignity and without the bother of an inaccessible website or the need to have help from a customer service person who couldn’t care less.
  10. When I communicate with agencies, companies, individuals and organizations about accessibility concerns, I would like them to be taken for the serious, human rights issues they actually are, instead of being patted on the head, set aside and told to wait!

These, of course, represent just a drop in the bucket! I know… I want so much. I am high maintenance: a real accessibility diva! How could anyone possibly imagine that a blind person, like myself, might simply want to avail himself of all the same opportunities as sighted people? After all, how do I even manage to get out of bed, go to the bathroom or poor my own orange juice, for Heaven’s sake?

Since I don’t live in the fantasy world I have just described, and there’s no evidence flying unicorns will be discovered anytime soon, what will I resolve to do to make things better?

I will:

  1. Love and support my family and myself in the less-than-accessible world in which we cope daily.
  2. Educate myself more formally about topics relevant to the accessibility and assistive technology industries.
  3. Take at least one action to resist any case of inaccessibility that comes up while striving for balance with the need to prioritize and pick my battles effectively.
  4. Evangelize accessibility and provide agencies, companies, individuals and organizations with effective solutions and resources to move forward in a positive direction.
  5. Provide accessibility and assistive technology testing, training and encouragement in helpful ways that appropriately value my effort, money and time.

So, now, fellow readers, what will you do? Will you join me? In this new year, will you strive to overcome daily by doing all you can, each in your own way, to move accessibility forward? Will you stand up and say, yes! We can, with equal opportunity and accessibility, live the lives we want?

Letter to Cronkite School Dean Christopher Callahan About the Need for Accessibility

September 17, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Many of you will note that, recently, I have been posting comments on Twitter about my journalism school’s lack of accessibility. These comments were driven by my frustration with what I perceived to be the school’s lack of interest in improving the accessibility of its websites and other technology resources as evidenced by its ignoring and failing to take seriously previous correspondence I have undertaken with Dean Christopher Callahan.

In response to my tweets, I began receiving direct messages from Dean Callahan expressing concerns and disappointment with my approach to these issues. Haven’t I heard that before?

Stating he had previously invited me to meet with him to discuss solutions, he did so again. I never received that previous invitation. I’m not saying it was not sent, just that I did not, for whatever reason, receive the message.

Those of you who truly know how I approach these matters also know that I never take a fighting stance with anyone who is constructively engaging with me or others to improve accessibility. Doing so would be counterproductive and undeserved. The hammer approach is reserved strictly for those who outright ignore me or who show the bravery to actually make a statement justifying their ongoing discrimination against and exclusion of blind people from full participation through inaccessibility.

Trusting that Dean Callahan previously sent a constructive invitation to engage in discussions, I apologized for the character of my Twitter posts and agreed to an Oct. 5 meeting to discuss how the Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication can successfully address accessibility in light of its stated diversity policies.

As part of that correspondence with Dean Callahan, I restated an earlier promise to send him an accessibility assessment of one of the school’s websites along with useful resources for making websites accessible. The following letter, sent to Dean Callahan Friday afternoon, fulfills that promise and serves as my ongoing effort to work with the Cronkite School to become more accessible to faculty, staff and students with disabilities and to educate future online media content creators and editors about the need to make sure their work is accessible to all audience members.

Hello Dean Callahan,

As you have requested, please find two examples of accessible media websites along with some resources that can be useful in making the Web more accessible to people with disabilities.

BBC

The BBC works to make its Web presence accessible. Although it is not perfect in all respects, their efforts are evolving in the right direction.

Here is a link to BBC’s accessibility help page.

The key point to be clearly understood is that BBC publicly states that it cares about accessibility and works to make positive changes in that area so as to include members of its audience who have disabilities.

National Public Radio

NPR also makes the bulk of its Web presence accessible, although it doesn’t state it as loudly as does BBC.

The organization offers a text-only site.

The use of text-only sites is controversial, and I personally disagree with the practice, as the tendency is to update the “graphical” site without providing exactly the same content on the often-forgotten text-only edition. When this oversight is noted, it represents a separate-but-unequal situation which was banned by the Supreme Court in the 1960s as it was being applied in the segregation of African-Americans.

Accessibility Assessment of CronkiteNewsOnline.com

There are a number of unfortunate elements on the Cronkite News website that currently make it difficult to use for blind readers. Further, it seems recent updates to the site are making it even less accessible.

Missing Alt Tags for Graphics

The most obvious accessibility concern with the site is the lack of descriptive alt text tags for images. These HTML tags can provide a text-based description for graphics and they should be used for all important images on a site.

The site’s navigation area sounds like this for a blind screen-reader user:

nav/home
nav/about
nav/stories
nav/newswatch
nav/news21
nav/cronkite
nav/contact

Although this is not a show stopper, the presentation could be easily improved by simply adding appropriate descriptive alt text tags to those graphics.

Other missing alt tags are more serious, as there is no way to determine the content to which they will link unless the user simply follows the link to find out. That’s not right unless a sighted user must play the same guessing game.

For example, a link near the text about downloading mobile apps just says “img/front_cn.” What’s that?

Even the link that says “img/front_azfactcheck” won’t be clear to most readers.

Navigating Stories

Navigating to and reading stories is possible by tabbing to and pressing enter on links, but it could be far better. Consider using headings on the titles for each story. When this is done, as is the case on many blogs and some other media websites, blind and sighted users alike can more easily and quickly move from story to story.

Video Links Next to Stories

A link that happens to be missing its alt text tag, “img/icon-video,” appears next to most stories on the site. Pressing enter on that link seems to do nothing, although it’s clearly meant to allow the viewer to watch a video. What is this link supposed to do once clicked?

Reading and Watching Stories

There are difficulties once a story has been opened for reading or viewing.

Let’s take the Sept. 16 story titled Ranked No. 1 in country for West Nile virus, Arizona is fighting back as an example.

A link at the top of the story is missing its alt text tag. It says “09/16-westnile-video img/tp24.” What does this mean exactly? Clicking the link seems to do nothing.

A text link labeled “watch now” also seems to go nowhere.

It is clear that some sort of video player is being used which doesn’t work on all systems.

What technology is being used to play videos on the site? Is it Flash or Silverlight?

There are some steps that can be taken to make multimedia sites more accessible.

Please see the resources coming right up.

Web Accessibility Resources

These resources are simply examples of sites that provide best practices and other information about making websites accessible.

Accessibility in the Cronkite School Curriculum

Finally, I am deeply concerned about the lack of attention to accessibility in the teaching of classes like JMC 305, JMC 460 and the Saturday online media academies.

Many resources exist for developers to make their sites accessible. Why not include some assignments and good information about accessibility in these courses? After all, creators of online media are going to find themselves confronting organizations and people who advocate staunchly for accessibility and are thus going to find themselves directed by corporate management types who wish to avoid lawsuits, public relations disasters and other similar risks to their bottom lines.

Best regards,

Darrell

After reading the letter, I invite all of you to comment. What did you like? What didn’t you like? What additional resources might help a journalism school make its technology accessible or educate others on accessibility? As always, the door hangs wide open and awaits your constructive feedback.

Apple Needs to Refund VoiceOver Users for Inaccessible Apps

August 15, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

By guest writer Michael Hansen.

With the release of IM+ Pro—an instant messaging client for the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad—with VoiceOver support, I got to thinking: I don’t mind paying $10 to an app developer for an app with full VoiceOver accessibility. However, I do mind paying any amount to a developer for an application that I cannot use. The exception is @Planetbeing’s Signal app, which I would buy regardless because he and the Dev Team have done the jailbreak community a great service with all of their hard work on jailbreaks/unlocks for the iOS platform. @Planetbeing’s app aside (which I haven’t bought yet because I cannot currently access Cydia with VoiceOver), I see no reason to pay for an application that I cannot use, be it an iPhone app or something for my Windows computer.

Palringo Poses Problems

Within the last couple weeks, I purchased Palringo Instant Messenger Premium, developed by Palringo Limited, from the iTunes Store. I was able to log into AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), but was not able to log into Facebook. VoiceOver reported “Facebook…logging in,” when I tapped that icon. Even after I confirmed that Palringo accessing Facebook was okay (my account had been frozen because Facebook had not recognized Palringo) I still got the same “logging in” message.

Accessibility Problems Start With AIM

In AIM, the situation was different but no less problematic. While I was able to access my contacts list and receive messages, I was unable to read the messages—VoiceOver would read the contact’s name but not the message itself. There went $4.99. Thanks, Palringo.

Apple Grants One-Time Refund for Palringo…Grudgingly

This afternoon, I contacted Apple through the iTunes Store to request a refund for Palringo Instant Messenger Premium, due to inaccessibility. In an e-mail sent at 6:22 PM CDT today, Apple said they would reverse the charge for Palringo Instant Messenger Premium—just this one time.

“I’m sorry to hear that you can’t use ‘Palringo Instant Messenger Premium’ with your device,” said Lilly, the iTunes Customer Support representative who responded to my request. “Please note that The iTunes Store Terms of Sale state that all sales are final, so this is a one-time exception.”

So what does Apple expect the blindness community to do? Pay for apps and not be able to use them? Install pirated versions to try them out before buying them in the app store? I don’t think so.

Apple needs to consistently provide refunds to VoiceOver users for inaccessible apps—it’s as simple as that. I will never download pirated applications, but honestly, given that Apple does not have an app trial service, I’m not surprised that Piracy is as big as it is—the lack of a trial service effects many more people than just VoiceOver users. It is in Apple’s best interests, no matter what way they look at it, to institute a trial service—the Android folks have already figured that one out.

I also think that Apple should require developers to list VoiceOver support in their application descriptions in the iTunes store, similar to how they list iOS version compatibility.

Next Steps Likely Uphill

I plan to contact Palringo Limited to ask about future accessibility of their products. I am also going to present my concerns to Apple.

Please stay tuned, as I will write when I have any updates.

Michael Hansen is totally blind and is a senior at Addison Trail High School in Addison, IL. Previously, he was the Editor-in-Chief of the Skyline newspaper at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, IL, during the 2009-2010 school year. He can be reached at AMTK62 (at) gmail (dot) com.

Let’s Ask Twitter to Enable Us to Moderate Follow Requests

September 27, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Hard-working, honest Twitter users are getting sick and tired of all the bogus follow requests they receive on a daily basis as they post updates to Twitter. It seems there are automated computer programs, AKA bots, that search for interesting topics and try to follow everyone who tweets about them in hopes the favor will be reciprocated. Once the user follows the bogus Twitter account, their time line can be spammed with unwanted links to advertising and marketing from a strange company with an unknown reputation. What measures can we take now to protect ourselves and what can Twitter do to help?

Some people I know take a conservative, guarded approach to Twitter. These users protect their accounts. They may be followed only by request and their tweets may be viewed only by approved followers. Users in this camp restrict their followers to close friends and relatives, limiting their participation in all that Twitter has to offer. These users can’t be followed by others with a legitimate interest in the topics about which they tweet and are unable to meet new people. It would seem they lose out on most of the benefits of social media. While a portion of these users really do want a private Twitter experience, others feel the need to employ these measures as protection against spammers.

In contrast, other users wish to avail themselves of all the social media benefits Twitter offers, putting up with the junk in the process. They allow everyone to follow their public tweets and revel in the prospect of connecting and communicating with people they met online. The public profile of these users exposes them to phishing, spamming, social engineering and other forms of abuse. How can public users protect themselves while enjoying all of Twitter’s benefits?

There are currently a number of ways for public Twitter users to combat abuse, but all may require significant time and effort. How does one avoid unscrupulous users while ensuring they allow participation by those who have a legitimate interest in their tweets? While much of the abuse is perpetrated by bots, it seems the defense must be conducted manually, on a case-by-case basis as attacks are attempted.

Good protection seems to start at the point where a user makes a follow request. The requester is asking for permission to see your updates on their Twitter home page or in their Twitter application. Once the user follows you, he or she typically hopes you will return the favor in order to form a connection. When two Twitter users follow each other, a two-way relationship exists permitting the private exchange of direct messages and the public swapping of Twitter updates. The malicious user can abuse this new relationship by posting pushy marketing information to all their followers or by attempting to lure their followers to questionable Web sites that try to collect usernames, passwords and other personal data.

The key is to ensure you are only forming healthy relationships on Twitter by carefully evaluating each new follow request and keeping these guidelines in mind before approving anyone:

  • Check the Twitter username. If it contains several numbers after the name, this may represent a red flag. Proceed with caution. Bots can create accounts based on a name, adding numbers until an unused one has been found.
  • Look for nonsensical names or missing biographical information on the user’s Twitter home page. If you don’t like what you see, by all means ignore the follow request.
  • Consider taking a look at the Web site linked in the user’s profile. Exercise caution, though, as this link might point to a malicious page or an attempted social engineering attack. Do not trust the page’s content and avoid entering any personal data.
  • Review the updates the user has posted. You can quickly see the 20 most recent tweets on the user’s Twitter home page. Red flags include a large number of links without context, little or no conversation with other users and a lack of information you deem interesting.
  • If you believe the user is malicious, press the Block button. If you just find the user’s content uninteresting, simply ignore the follow request but do not block. Blocking can have a negative impact on a user’s reputation and may potentially limit their future ability to use Twitter.

We can ask Twitter to develop an easy solution that would allow us to strike a balance between the limitations inherent in a protected account and the anything-goes nature of a public account. The solution is moderated following. In a moderated following scenario, anyone making a follow request would be asked to explain why they should be granted that honor. The proposed feature would work like this:

  • A user wishes to follow someone on Twitter.
  • She visits the person’s Twitter home page and presses the Follow button.
  • She is asked to provide the reason she wishes to follow the other person.
  • Twitter notifies the recipient of the follow request, including the stated reason.
  • The recipient is given a chance to accept or reject the request.
  • If it is accepted, the requester receives appropriate notification. If denied, the requester receives nothing.

Let’s all think about how a moderated follow scenario might work and, if it’s something worth pursuing, ask Twitter to consider putting it in place as a new feature. All comments are appreciated as always.

Categories: feedback, opinion, Twitter

Should Focus be Placed on Concrete Accessibility Issues or on an Abstract Fight Against Blindness Stereotypes?

September 18, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Many in the blind community are enraged after discovering an article entitled How to Care for a Blind Person on a popular how-to Web site, but are the misconceptions and stereotypes found in such content the most important issues we should be addressing? Several blind people have spoken out on Twitter.

“We all have to set our priorities, we think that people need to know that blind people are not retarted invalids,” said Bat. “You can have access to every bit of tech, if people think you are an idiot how much luck do you think you will have?”

Bat continued: “Both (accessibility and perception) are equally important and must be addressed at the same time. Progress in one makes progress in the other easier.”

Ricky Enger said: “The concrete and the abstract are both important. But with concrete battles, seems you always have to start from the ground up. By addressing the underlying abstract concept, which is that we should truly be viewed as equals, the concrete issues take care of themselves. People then address accessibility issues because it makes sense, not because it’s been mandated. Example: we could advocate for access to Kindle all we want. But if people consciously or unconsciously believe that we are all low income and have caregivers, as portrayed in the eHow article, we’ll be perceived as an unimportant share of the market and not worth satisfying until failure to do so brings about legal action.”

“A great mentor of mine always taught me that perception was stronger than reality,” Ranger said. “Swinging at every pitch results in a lower batting average instead of waiting for the right pitch to hit.”

“I think the two are very different issues,” said Steve Sawczyn. “Why choose one or the other? Why not work on both fronts?”

Shannon C. said “Well, the stereotypes should be combatted before accessibility will become a greater issue.”

“No more jobs if the employers think we aren’t competent to hold them, no matter what the accessibility is,” said Buddy Brannan.

Chris Meredith said “I think the stereotypes should be fought concurrent with the concrete issues, because I think they feed on each other.”

“I think they (inaccessibility and stereotypes) are both important and need to be fought equally,” Amber W. said.

Let your voice be heard. Should we focus on combatting inaccessibility, battling stereotypes or both? We await your comments.

First Impressions: A New BookSense Owner Compares the New Audio Player and Book Reader to HumanWare’s VictorReader Stream

July 11, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

This article compares the new BookSense product sold by GW Micro and manufactured by Hims Co, LTD.” with the well-established VictorReader Stream manufactured and sold by HumanWare. Both products are ultra-portable devices that enable the blind to read audio books, access books in several electronic text formats and listen to music. I have presented this information in a way that expresses what I believe, in my personal and professional opinion, to be the pros and cons of the new BookSense as compared with the VictorReader Stream from the perspective of an advanced blind technology user who has owned the Stream for almost two years and has just started using the BookSense two days ago.

BookSense Pros

The BookSense sports a plethora of new features and enhancements over the VictorReader Stream which are the basis for the vast majority of its strengths.

BookSense has a text-to-speech synthesizer that seems far superior than that in the VR Stream. It uses the Kate and Paul voices at, I believe, 22 KHz. The vastly improved TTS engine is the primary reason I decided to purchase the BookSense despite my already owning a Stream. I read lots of electronic books during the fall and spring semesters in journalism school, and I was finding the TTS on the Stream slightly hard to handle for that purpose at times. In contrast, I have been reading a book I downloaded from Bookshare yesterday morning and have been enjoying it on the BookSense reading with the Kate voice. Kate and Paul are terrible when used as speech synthesizers for computers, in my opinion, but they’re quite appropriate for use on a book reading device like the BookSense. I heard these voices during the BookSense presentation, and I was sold after doing a bit more research.

BookSense is significantly smaller in size and lighter in weight as compared to the Stream. It is supplied with a lanyard that enables wearing the unit around the neck. The BookSense appears to be well-constructed with tough plastic and flatter buttons that seem to be less susceptible to wear and tear as compared to some of the controls found on the Stream.

BookSense enables charging of its battery through the USB connection while the Stream does not. This offers an obvious practical enhancement over the Stream, where only its proprietary charger may be used. Although charging through the USB connection requires a little more than twice the time (5 versus 2 hours) to complete, the increased flexibility more than makes up for that minor disadvantage.

BookSense supports many formats not available on the Stream, including Audible Enhanced (high quality stereo books from Audible.com), iTunes, MP4 and others. Support for WMA protected files, such as the Overdrive books you can acquire through public libraries, is promised in a future firmware upgrade.

BookSense has a clock! That’s right. The device can act as a talking clock and you can hear the time even when it is otherwise powered off. Hardware limitations mean that the Stream will never provide this unless a revision is made requiring owners to purchase new units or spend a significant amount of additional funds on an upgrade. Lack of a clock on the Stream means that formats like protected WMA will never be supported because they require adherence to expiration dates and similar licensing rules. Besides, I find it annoying that something as simple as a clock was left out of the design of the Stream.

BookSense incorporates a pair of internal stereo speakers that’s actually loud enough to be useful!

BookSense records in honest-to-goodness stereo MP3 or wave formats at sampling rates high enough to be useful for podcasting, sound seeing tours and other situations outside the traditional classroom scenario imagined by the designers of the Stream.

BookSense XT sports an FM radio that allows blind users to finally enjoy some of the basics the sighted have always had, including verbal frequency read-out and station presets. I know this is rather silly, but I’ve always wanted a radio that would tell me the frequency and allow me to store presets in a way that’s fully accessible. Of course, some ham radio gear has contained this level of accessibility for years, but it’s nice to finally see it on a broadcast receiver.

BookSense XT has 4 GB of internal Flash storage, where the Stream has none at all. The BookSense is supplied with a 2 GB SD card and the BookSense XT is supplied with an 8 GB SD card. You’re completely on your own to purchase an SD card for the Stream, which requires one to operate since it sports no internal storage.

The BookSense XT features Bluetooth for connection to a wireless headset. While this feature currently appears to be unreliable, I am confident the issues will be resolved in short order and the use of a wireless headset will be an enjoyable experience for BookSense XT owners.

Finally, but certainly no less important, the BookSense is sold in the United States by GW Micro, developers of the popular Window-Eyes screen reader and a company known for its high touch and attention to customer service and support.

BookSense Cons

Despite the arrival of this new book reader and player on the market, there is no combination of hardware and firmware that is 100 percent perfect. This couldn’t be more true in the case of the BookSense. It is quite likely, however, that many if not all the disadvantages of the BookSense will be addressed in the near future by GW Micro and Hims, its South Korean manufacturer.

HumanWare has done an excellent job with the controls on the VR Stream, making it, perhaps, one of the easiest blindness technology products to use in the field as of this writing in mid-2009. All controls on the Stream feature good spacing and tactile features making them easy to identify and locate from a blind perspective. Although it is obvious that efforts were made to ensure a similarly easy experience with BookSense, its flatter, smoother controls may put off some users who might find them difficult to manage due to other conditions such as nerve damage in the fingers from diabetes.

On a similar note, HumanWare does a good job of packaging the Stream. The accompanying CD-ROM containing companion software, documentation and the tutorial is supplied in a case that is labeled in Braille for easy identification. The power supply has a rather unique rectangular shape and features several smoothed edges that make it easy to identify and set it apart from other adapters. In comparison, the BookSense CD-ROM, which contains no audio tutorial or companion software, is supplied in a basic paper sleeve with no Braille label, making it just another CD among many in one’s collection. The power supply for the BookSense does feature a nice Braille label, but a switch found next to the plug provides no Braille or tactile indicator. Presuming this switch controls the AC input voltage, one might wonder how long it will take for GW Micro technical support to start dealing with burned up adapters and related hardware problems.

Documentation is another strong point in favor of the Stream. The CD-ROM accompanying the Stream features documentation in several text formats and an excellent audio tutorial created by Jeff Bishop, a broadcaster, Window-Eyes script developer and well-recognized participant in the connected online blind community. If you purchase your Stream from a dealer along with an SD card, it may contain some of this documentation in a form that is ready to read right on the Stream out of the box. In contrast, the CD-ROM accompanying the BookSense contains only the user’s manual in four text formats: rich-text format (RTF), plain text (TXT) and two Microsoft Word documents (the older DOC and the newer DOCX). There is no audio tutorial or other content. Despite the fact that both the BookSense and BookSense XT are supplied with SD cards and the BookSense XT sports internal storage, the manual is not available on the BookSense until the user copies it to the appropriate folder.

Full text navigation is available on the Stream starting at the character level and moving all the way through paragraphs, pages and headings according to the format being read. In comparison, BookSense does not currently allow character-level navigation in text DAISY files such as those supplied by Bookshare. It is hoped this serious oversight will be corrected very soon. It is important to note that the Stream experienced similar challenges in version 1.0 of its firmware.

Overall simplicity and usability are solidly in the Stream’s favor. Each button on the Stream has a well-defined function, menus are simple in nature and it is not necessary to understand Windows or other GUI concepts in order to become an expert user of the Stream. In comparison, the BookSense is a complex device. The manual describes the use of controls including combo boxes, dialogue boxes, edit boxes and menus. Each primary feature (Book Reader, DAISY Player, Media Player, Radio) is considered an application. It may be presumed that the extensive feature set found on the BookSense makes the complexity a necessary evil.

Though the BookSense XT features Bluetooth for connecting to a wireless headset, this functionality currently contains a serious bug making it unreliable. Several new BookSense owners have reported that, after reading for a short time, all audio goes silent and the BookSense completely locks up. GW Micro and the product’s manufacturer are aware of this concern and are working to remedy the issue as soon as possible.

Finally, the BookSense is a new, version 1.0 product. There are bugs, oversights and unforeseen challenges that the Stream has already surpassed during its two years in the marketplace. As the BookSense matures, bugs will be squashed and exciting new features will be added. At the same time, HumanWare representatives have assured the blind community that the Stream will continue to prosper.

Thanks go to several Twitter followers for clarifications and updates.

Categories: BookSense, opinion

Thought Provoker: Accessibility Evangelism or Something Else?

July 6, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

A reader shared with me her thoughts on the term “accessibility evangelism” as a description of the work I do to promote equal opportunity for the blind through access to information and technology. I have honored her request to remain anonymous.

I don’t like the term evangelism because of the connotation. By definition, evangelism is associated with zealots and fanatics. In my mind, evangelism, zealotry and fanaticism are things you want to stay away from because the connotation is that you will do anything to achieve your goals. The impression the term gives is of a group of people that are willing to go to any lengths to promote accessibility and I think that is a little scary or fanatical. I definitely think that the phrase accessibility evangelism is off putting.   Instead of evangelism, I would suggest champion, proponent, advocate, or campaign.

Another reader, Amber, weighed in with her own thoughts:

Well, in general, evangelism makes me think of those preacher guys on TV, you know the ones who are very powerful preachers and generally I get turned off by that. But I think it’s the term evangelism that makes me think of that.

I guess the term to me would mean someone who works tirelessly to get equal access to services and goods. And that’s not a bad thing, just tireless and thankless.

For example, I wonder if we see the similar thing with African Americans. So many people fought tirelessly for civil rights, but do African Americans think of these things when they vote, sit anywhere in a bus, or run for political office or is it something they take for granted? I’m not saying people need to be overly thankful just remember. This goes for many groups.

Steve asked “are you going to sell me an accessible bible?”

Karen has expressed similar thoughts about associating the term”evangelism” with fallen televangelists like Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.

On the other hand, an evangelist can be a positive supporter of an operating system or particular technology in the computer industry. There are evangelists for the Apple Macintosh computer, the Linux operating system and the open source software movement. Oracle even has an “accessibility evangelist” on staff who works to ensure the company’s products meet established guidelines and rules like Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Now it’s your turn. What comes to mind when you hear the term “accessibility evangelist”? Do you find this term confusing? Why do you think this term should or should not be used to describe efforts to increase accessibility for the blind? I welcome your comments to this thought provoker.

NFB Streams 2009 Convention Using Inaccessible Silverlight Technology

July 5, 2009 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

In an overwhelming display of hypocrisy, the National Federation of the Blind, claiming to be the representative voice of all blind people in America, has chosen to stream its 2009 national convention using inaccessible Silverlight technology.

While blind people can listen, they can’t control the volume, mute or use any of the player’s controls. While NFB is the primary actor in a lawsuit against Arizona State University over inaccessible textbooks, the organization delivers a listening experience to blind people that is inferior to that provided to the sighted for the purpose of hearing their own convention broadcast live on the net! Shame on the National Federation of the Blind for insisting that others be accessible while failing to practice the very message they claim to preach!

In contrast to NFB’s poor example, The American Council of the Blind is broadcasting their convention coverage live through its long-established ACB Radio outlet using fully accessible technology. We urge all of you to enjoy the ACB convention and use the feedback option, one of the few accessible elements on the NFB’s convention streaming site, to tell the organization’s leadership exactly what you think about their blatant discrimination against the blind community they claim to serve. Choose accessible!