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Redefining Access: Questions to Ponder in the Age of Remote Assistance

March 29, 2018 • Allison Hilliker

Overview

There is an area of assistive technology that has recently been gaining momentum, and I would like to explore what that means for us as blind people. We are seeing an emergence of platforms that allow individuals to virtually connect with sighted assistants. Users refer to this category of technology by different terms such as visual interpreting services, or remote assistance services. The two most common varieties of this tech are apps like Aira or Be My Eyes, but less formal mainstream options such as recruiting assistance via Facetime, Skype, or a screen-sharing program like Zoom are also available. My aim here is not to focus on any one or two apps specifically, rather, I prefer to explore the general category of access technology that these programs represent. New companies providing versions of such technology may come and go in our lifetimes, and the specifics of each service are less important to my purpose here than exploring the overall category that they fall into. In this article, I will use the term remote sighted assistance technologies, or remote assistance, to refer to this general group of tech. Since there doesn’t seem to be a consensus about what these technologies are actually called as a group, I’ll use this term for clarity.

As I see it, the key question related to remote assistance apps is: What role do we, as blind people, want this sort of technology to play in our lives? Regardless of one’s individual political views, employment status, amount of tech expertise, level of education, degree of vision loss, etc., I think most would agree that we, as blind people, are best suited to decide how our community can nmost effectively utilize any new technology. I think it is important for us to consider this question, because if we do not, it is likely that other entities will rush to define the role of these technology’s for us. Disability-related agencies, federal legeslators, private businesses, medical professionals, educators, app-developers, blindness organizations, and others may jump in and try to tell us how we should use this technology. Thus it becomes important for us to decide what we, as blind and low vision individuals, do and do not want from the technology.

What, specifically, do we want though? I do not think that we have had a sufficient number of dialogues about this issue to decide. I think this is due in part to the seeming newness of this technology as it relates to blind people. It seems that many folks are yet unfamiliar with the existence of such programs, or if they are aware, they have not yet realized the possible implications of their use. Still others focus on one or two well-known products, and assume that their popularity may be a passing fad. It is true that we have seen many supposed revolutionary technologies come and go over the years. It is fair for us to be cautious before making any sweeping pronouncements about any one tech. My opinion however is that, no matter if any one company, app, or service comes or goes, we are entering a new realm of assistive technology here with the growing availability of these remote assistance type programs. No matter which companies or groups ultimately provide the services, this category of tech will remain, and its impact on our lives as blind people will become more and more apparent. The point being, even if you yourself do not use any remote assistance technologies, you may benefit from taking part in dialogues relating to their use, because the results of such dialogues could prove far-reaching for blind people as a community.

What, then, specifically, might be the issues we consider? I do not pretend to know all the possible ramifications of these technologies, but two large considerations come to mind, and these two will be my focus for the remainder of this article. Some areas I would like us to think about as a community relate to the impact of remote assistance technologies on accessibility advocacy, and their effects on education/training.

Accessibility Advocacy

I have spent a good portion of my adult life advocating for accessibility. I have written dozens of letters, negotiated with business owners, filed bug reports, talked to developers, provided public education, and done countless hours of both paid and unpaid testing. When I advocate for a company or organization to make its tools accessible, I like to think that I am not just working to improve my own experience as a disabled person, but hopefully to improve the experiences of other users as well. However, the results of such efforts are often quite mixed. For every accessibility victory that I have, I encounter dozens more that do not yield any real improvements. Often companies seem unwilling or unable to make any genuine accessibility changes. Other times, changes are made, but when the site/app/product is updated, or the company switches ownership, then accessibility is harmed. And these barriers are frustrating! Not just frustrating, but such barriers often prevent us from getting important work done. As a result, the availability of remote sighted assistance technologies can make a good deal of difference in our lives. For example, if a website is not accessible, we can still utilize it. If a screen does not have a nonvisual interface, we can accomplish the related task. If a printed document is not available in an alternate format, we can read the info it contains. And the positive outcomes of such increased access can be extraordinary! I am excited about that level of access as I am sure many blind people are.

Yet, over time, with consistent use of remote sighted assistant technologies, might we enter a future where we, as individuals and as a community, are no longer advocating as readily for accessibility? If we enter that future, what might the consequences be? For example, I recently had to make a reservation at a hotel I would be staying at for a business trip out of state. I found that the hotel’s online reservation platform was not accessible with my screen reader. Since that hotel was a good fit for my trip, and because the rates were lower on the website than they would be if I called the hotel directly, I fired up my favorite remote assistance app to have a sighted person navigate to the hotel’s website and make the reservation for me. I felt good about my choice because I got the job done. I reserved my hotel room quickly and efficiently, and did so with little inconvenience to anyone else. And after all, is that not the main point? Was I independent? Yes and no. I did not physically make the reservation by myself on my own computer, but I did get the room booked and did not have to ask a coworker to do it or call the hotel directly. And I was able to get the room reserved during the time in my schedule that was most convenient for me. So I would call that an independence win.

However, here is the part that leaves me with some concern. After getting my room reserved, I did not then contact the hotel to explain the accessibility issue I discovered on the booking part of their website. Could I have? Absolutely, but alas, I did not. And if I had, would my advocacy efforts have been weakened by the fact that, one way or another, I had gotten my reservation booked? Although, in an alternate scenario, one where I did not have remote assistance technology available, I might have spent a good deal of effort contacting the company, explaining the issue, and still not gotten it resolved. In the end I may have had to choose a different hotel, book the reservation over the phone but paid more money, or had a colleague reserve the room for me. And I personally like none of those scenarios as well as the one I have now, where the remote assistance app helped me get my room booked. Yet, by doing this, I am insuring that the inaccessible website remains. If I had contacted the company to advocate for accessibility changes, I may not have gotten the needed accessibility, but by not contacting the company, I definitely did not get improved accessibility. Realistically, those of us who use remote assistance technologies are not likely to do both things – use the assistance while also advocating for accessibility. Some of us may, or we may do so in a few cases, but overall there are not enough hours in a day for us to put as much effort into accessibility advocacy when we have gotten the associated tasks done. Even if we do choose to advocate, might our cases be taken less seriously than before because we ultimately got the task done? In a world where businesses do not often understand the need to make their products and services accessible, will we find it even harder to make our cases if we manage to use the products and services? At the very least, there could be implications if we ever wanted to take legal action, because so much of the legal system focuses upon damages and denials of service. Even if we are not the sort of person to pursue an issue through legal channels though, might we find it harder to educate individual companies about the need for accessibility? Because from a business-owner’s perspective, a blind person was still able to use their service, and the subtleties of how or why we were able to do so would likely be lost in the explanation process.

Yet, even if any one, two, or one million websites are never made accessible, how important is that fact if blind people can still do what they need to do? Maybe we will agree that it is not important. That might not be the worst thing, but I am not sure we have decided this as a community yet because, for the most part, such dialogues have not taken place in any large-scale way. My guess is that opinions on this issue will vary widely, and that sort of healthy debate could be a great thing. It is that variance that makes the issue such a crucial one to discuss.

In the case of my hotel website, I may have been able to get my room reserved, but I did nothing to help insure that the next blind person would be able to reserve her room. I have solved my own problem, but in the process, I have bumped the issue along for the next blind person to encounter. True, that next person may also be able to use her own remote sighted assistance app, and the next person and then the next person, but ultimately the issue of the inaccessible website remains. Have we decided, as blind individuals, that this solution is enough? Because there are complexities to consider. Right now, not all the remote sighted assistance technologies are available to every blind person. Sometimes this unavailability is due to financial constraints I e some of the remote assistance tools are quite expensive. Some remote assistance apps are not available in certain geographic regions. Occasionally the technology is not usable due to the blind person having additional disabilities like deaf-blindness. Some of the assistance programs have age requirements. Other times these technologies are not practical due to the lack of availability or usability of the platforms needed to run them. In any case, it is true that such remote assistance solutions are not currently available to everyone who might benefit from them. Even in an ideal future where every single person on earth had unlimited access to an effective remote assistant technology solution at any time of day, would we still consider that our ultimate resolution to the problem? Might we still want the website to be traditionally accessible, meaning that the site be coded in such a way that most common forms of assistive technology could access it? Would we still prefer that the site follow disability best practices and content accessibility guidelines? Especially considering, in the case of my hotel’s website, that the work needed to make the site more traditionally accessible might be minimal. Do we decide that whether we make our hotel reservations via an accessible website or whether we make them via remote assistant technology, the process is irrelevant as long as we get the reservations made?

Taking this quandary one step further, consider that today there are a handful of organizations, schools, and cities who are paying remote assistance companies to provide nonvisual access to anyone who visits their site. Such services could be revolutionary in terms of offering blind people independence and flexibility unlike that which we have seen before. However, what might the possible drawbacks of this approach be? If I, for example, could talk my current town of Tempe Arizona into paying for a remote access subscription that would give me, and other folks in the city, nonvisual access to all that our town has to offer, wouldn’t that be an extraordinary development? Yes and no. I wonder if, after agreeing to spend a good deal of money on remote access subscriptions, would our city then be unwilling to address other accessibility concerns? Would they stop efforts to make their city websites accessible? Might they resist improvements to nonvisual intersection navigability? Might our local university stop scanning textbooks for students because our city offers remote access for all? When our daughter starts preschool in our local district, might they tell us to use remote assistance, rather than provide us with parent materials in alternative formats? Since our daughter too has vision loss, might her school be reluctant to braille her classroom materials because they know our city provides alternatives for accessing print? On the surface, such scenarios may seem unlikely, but are they really so impossible? After all, if the city is paying for a remote assistance service, would they still feel compelled to use resources on other access improvements? Might residents find that it became harder, not easier, to advocate for changes? What happens to other groups who cannot typically access remote assistance technologies, such as those who are deaf-blind, seniors who may not have the needed tech skills, or children who do not meet the companies’ minimum age requirements for service? If a local group of blind people wants to increase access in their town, and their city only has a set amount of money they are willing to spend on improvements, which items should we be asking for? Remote access subscriptions, increased accessibility, or a combination of these? Such questions are not implying that cities/organizations that purchase subscriptions are making poor choices or that they should not obtain these subscriptions. I am simply asking these questions to get folks thinking about possible implications of widespread remote access use. It is possible that none of my proposed scenarios will come true. It is more likely that other scenarios and potential issues will arise that I have not yet thought up. The point here is not to criticize the groups that employ these services, rather to get us all asking questions, starting dialogues, and considering possible outcomes.

Education and Training

I think it is especially important to think about the implications of such technologies on the world of education. Whether we are talking about the education of young blind children in schools, blind students pursuing degrees at universities, or adults new to vision loss who are going through our vocational rehabilitation system, what becomes most important for us to teach to these individuals? How much time and energy aught we put into basic blindness skills, alternative techniques, and independent problem solving? When a student enters Kindergarten, how many resources do we put into adding braille to objects in their classroom, brailing each book they come across, installing access software on their computers and tablets, insisting that the apps/programs their class uses work with this software, adding braille signage to the school building doors, and making sure the child learns to locate parts of their school using their canes? If the answers to those questions seem obvious, then do those answers change if the age of the student changes? Do we feel the same way about using resources if the student is in third grade? Seventh grade, tenth grade, or a college student? Do the answers change if the student is new to vision loss, has multiple disabilities, is a non-native English speaker, or has other unique circumstances? Do the high school and university science labs of the future equip their blind students with braille, large print, and talking measuring tools, or hardware and software to connect them with remoted sighted assistance? Do we do a combination of these things? And if so, when would we expect a student to use which technique, and how might we explain that choice to the student? Moreover, how might we explain the need for that choice to a classroom teacher, a parent, an IEP team, a disabled student service office, a vocational rehabilitation councelor, or an administrator in charge of allocating funding? In our rehab centers and adjustment to blindness training programs, , what skills do we now prioritize teaching? In our Orientation and Mobility or cane travel classes, do we still spend time teaching folks how to observe their surroundings nonvisually, assess where they are, and develop their own set of techniques for deciding how to get where they want to go? Or is the need for problem-solving less important if one learns how to effectively interact with a remote sighted assistant who can provide visual info like reading street signs, describing neighborhood layouts, relaying the color of traffic lights, and warning of potential obstacles ahead? While most folks would agree that a level of basic orientation and mobility skills are essential for staying safe, which skills, specifically, do we see as being the most crucial given the other info now available to us via remote assistance? In our technology classes, which skills would we spend more time on, how to explore and navigate cluttered interfaces, understanding the various features and settings available in our access software programs, or developing a system of interacting effectively with a sighted assistant whom we reach through an app? Again, if the answer is that we do all those things, how much time do we spend on any one and in which contexts? How much of any certain type of training might our rehab and other funding systems actually support? If agencies, schools, and organizations agree to fund remote access subscriptions might they then choose not to fund other types of training or equipment? Does this funding level change if the person resides in a town or region that has its own subscription to a remote access service? What if the school that a student attends has its own subscription, so the student primarily learns using those techniques, but then the student moves to an area without such access? I have my own thoughts about the answers to these questions, but rather than me devising my own responses, I’d like us, as a community, to consider these questions because their answers have the potential to affect us all.

Employment

Employment is often the end-goal of most training and education programs. It is true that blind people have an abysmally high unemployment rate, so almost anything we could do to lower that would be worthwhile, right? Does an increase in remoted sighted assistant technology use actually result in an increase in employment for blind people? Maybe. Maybe not. I suspect we do not have enough data to make a call about that yet. On one hand, remote assistance technologies could enable us to do certain employment tasks more independently and efficiently than ever before. On the other hand, we may find that there are still some technologies that we will need to use autonomously in order to be workforce competitive. Even with remote assistant technologies, we may find that some inaccessible workplace technologies create show-stopping employment barriers for us. When that occurs, we find ourselves back in the realm of needing accessibility advocacy. If we create an education and rehabilitation system that relies heavily upon learning to use remote assistance tech, might we build a future workforce of blind people who are more equipped, or less equip for the world of employment? Only history can tell us for sure one day, but in the meantime, we have to consider what impact our choices about the tools we teach, and the types of access we advocate for, may have on future job seekers.

How much impact has our accessibility advocacy really had on employment rates though? Just a few decades ago, many people believed that assistive technologies would finally level the playing field and revolutionize access to education and employment for people with disabilities. While we have made some strides, we as blind people have not seen much in the way of greater levels of employment. Despite advocacy done by some of the brightest and best minds our community has to offer, we do not yet have nearly the level of universal accessibility that we need to participate as effectively in society as we might like.

Setting Our Priorities

Here in the US, recent legislation has weakened the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and that fact, combined with a history of lost discrimination and accessibility related cases, may not give us as much hope for the future of accessibility advocacy as we might like. We may wish for apps and websites to be accessible, our classrooms to have braille, our books to be available in alternate formats, our intersections to be navigable, our screens to have nonvisual interfaces, our transit information to be readable, and our products to have instructions that we can access, but the reality is that most often this is not the case. Are we making progress? Absolutely. And arguably, the only way we can attempt to insure future progress is not to abandone our advocacy attempts.

Yet, how much effort have we, as disabled people, put into accessibility, non-discrimination, and inclusion already? With the millions of websites, apps, products, documents, and software programs that still remain inaccessible to blind people despite our combined best efforts, might shifting our focus to increased usage of remote sighted assistance technologies be the most practical next step? Maybe it is and maybe it is not. I think we as blind individuals may want to take a hard look at that question. There are a variety of angles to consider and possible outcomes to explore. Ultimately, we may find that the answer is not a binary one. Perhaps we will find that we want a balanced approach, one that includes accessibility advocacy and remote assistance both. That solution might be a wise one. However, the implementation of that balanced approach will take some careful thought and discussion. There are many competing interests at play here, and reasons for promoting any one solution at any one time may vary depending upon the interests of the persons or group promoting them. Additionally, when questions of funding arise, different groups may insist upon different levels of compromise. Before those tough decisions get made, I’d like us to have had a few more dialogues about the above scenarios so that we can be clear about what we want and why we want it.

Moreover, there is a difference between access and accessibility. Access may mean that a person with a disability can ultimately get a thing done. Accessibility, on the other hand, generally means that the object was designed in such a way that a person with a disability can utilize it with little extra help. This is not to say that accessibility inherently makes a person more independent than access does, or that either is superior, it is just to say that the two things are quite different. Remote assistance technologies do get us access to things, but they do not necessarily make those things more accessible. However, in the sense that we are able to participate effectively in the world and do the things that we want to do, both access and accessibility are quite valuable. Even so, when resources are limited, we may find that we as blind people may have to decide which we most prefer, access or accessibility. Then we may need to decide in which circumstances we might prefer one to the other, and how far we might be willing to go to obtain them. When do we stand our ground and insist upon accessibility, and when do we feel confident that access is an acceptable solution?

Final Thoughts

I think this issue is a crucial one for us to consider from various angles. Personally, I have thought about the above issues a lot as a blind woman and as the parent of a low vision child. I have thought it through from the perspective of an employed college-educated person who has had the benefit of some excellent blindness skill training. I like to think of myself as someone who has a healthy balance of technology and basic technique mastery in my life. In short, I love technology, I love braille, I also love the feeling I get from independently walking out in the world with my cane. I am an early adopter of new technologies, and yet I have spent much of my life hiring human readers, drivers, and sighted assistants to get certain jobs done. My life experiences have helped me to understand that not always is the highest-tech solution the best one, nor should it be viewed as a last resort. I say this to give context to my views, not as a way of insisting that my own perspective is the best or most correct. There are doubtless many other perspectives from individuals with other very valid points, and that is why I believe further dialogue is necessary.

Remote assistance technologies are here to stay, and it is up to us as blind people to define what role we want them to play in our lives. These technologies are not the solution to all our problems nor are they the cause of them. They are new tools, and like any tools, they are only as good or bad as the hands that use them. Yet there will be many hands and minds who will want to shape the future of these tools for us. Before a private company, a government agency, a tech developer, a federal legislator, or a field of professionals try to define their role for us, we must come together to ask the hard questions, share our perspectives, and make the tough, but important, decisions about what we want for ourselves, our children, and for our futures.

We love hearing from our listeners! Please feel free to talk with us in the comments. What do you like? How could we make the show better? What topics would you like us to cover on future shows?

If you use Twitter, let’s get connected! Please follow Allison (@AlliTalk) and Darrell (@darrell).

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Apple Listens, Sometimes, and Advocacy Can Be Worth Doing

November 10, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

When Apple released iOS 11 on Sept. 19, it dealt a nasty surprise in the email inboxes of those of us whom happen to be blind. A change in VoiceOver meant that, everytime we used a feature intended to help us increase our productivity, we ran the risk of deleting emails we wanted to keep. In his Sept. 29 blog post Cupertino, we have a design problem, blind community influencer Jonathan Mosen delivered a thoughtful explanation of the issue and members of the connected, online blind community began a concerted effort asking Apple to reverse its design decision. As explained in Cupertino, thank you for listening, Apple restored reliable email management to its blind customers in iOS 11.1.

On Nov. 8, Marty Schultz, the developer of the wildly popular Blindfold Games, informed the connected, online blind community he would no longer be able to create new games or update existing games due to a new rule Apple imposed on its app developers in an effort to declutter the app store. Blind people immediately began asking Apple for a reversal of the misunderstanding behind the decision. Mosen wrote an open letter to Tim Cook and an online petition was started asking Eddy Cue to review and reverse the company’s decision.

What do these turns of events tell us? First, while by no means perfect, decisionmakers at Apple are listening to and acting upon the accessibility concerns of blind customers. Second, blind people are proactively advocating for their accessibility rights, providing the feedback companies like Apple need to see in order to make the right decisions. Without our advocacy, I am quite confident many blind people would be deleting the wrong emails in iOS 12 and Blindfold Games would cease to exist. There’s a heck of a lot of work that still needs to be done. Let’s encourage each other and keep on fighting the good accessibility fight!

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