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In a World Ravaged by Inaccessibility, Aira Brings New Hope to the Blind Community

May 28, 2017 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Do you cringe every time you think about that huge pile of print accumulating in your mail basket? Are you worried you might miss something important to your family or be forced to pay a late fee on a bill for the stupid reason that you missed the print notice that was mailed to you last month? How about all the cans in your pantry? Would you like to be more helpful to your child participating in recreational opportunities outside your home? Would you just like to receive sighted help on your schedule, rather than someone else’s?

Aira, the self-styled “Visual Interpreter for the Blind,” is here to help. Aira really is like OnStar for the blind! Simply open the Aira app on your smart phone, dawn the supplied glasses, press a few buttons and, voila! You have near-instant sighted help! Even better: they know what they’re doing!

It’s almost that simple. There are a few caveats:

  • Aira currently requires you to have a smart phone with a data plan and a decent level of knowledge about how to use it effectively.
  • With pricing starting at $89/month for the most basic plan, the cost is out of reach for most blind people.
  • Although Aira goes to extensive lengths to serve everyone in the United States, including providing a AT&T MiFi hotspot for the glasses, it remains limited by the availability of network infrastructure. Your smart phone must have a good signal to your carrier or you must connect it to WiFi in order to use the service.
  • You must be comfortable talking with people, patient with the need to aim your phone’s camera or turn your head and some prior experience working with sighted readers is helpful.
  • Using Aira is not the same as true accessibility. A sighted person is helping you work around a barrier that might otherwise exclude you or prevent you from enjoying the benefits of full participation.

If you can maneuver past these caveats, though, Aira is amazing!

In the week and a half since our family started using Aira, we have used it to help us:

  • Clean our refridgerator: An Aira agent read the expiration dates of numerous items so that Allison could decide what to throw out.
  • Settle the bill: Aira helped Darrell read a Cracker Barrel receipt so he could separate the items he purchased from those his mother bought.
  • Identify medication: Aira helped Allison read the labels on several pill bottles.
  • Go to baby school: Aira described the motions of the teacher and the overall scene to Darrell as he and Allyssa participated in a music therapy activity.

We know we haven’t even begun to touch the tip of the iceberg of possibilities. Last month, Aira helped a blind man run a marathon!

Although Aira is not perfect, they’re off to a great start. We are looking forward to Aira’s continued evolution as an important part of a blind person’s toolbox of alternative techniques, skills and technologies used to enjoy a full life on terms of equality with the sighted.

Are you using Aira? Would you like to learn more? Please feel free to tell us about it in the comments.

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

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

Ring in the New Year with a Wireless Door Bell

December 23, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Have you ever missed a visit from friends or relatives even though you were home? Have you waited all day for your groceries only to find out the driver classified you as a no-show? If you have experienced annoying issues like these, then the Wireless Door Bell with Waterproof Button from Blind Mice Mart might just come to your rescue.

Karen, Alice and I demonstrate the wireless door bell in an approximately four-minute podcast.

Download, Play or Pause – Wireless Door Bell

Categories: podcast, reviews

Sendero LookAround GPS iPhone App Demonstration

October 12, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

Shownotes

I demonstrated Sendero’s brand-new LookAround GPS application for the iPhone on Jeff Bishop’s Sept. 17 Desert Skies show. It was also heard on ACB Radio’s Main Menu program. I thought it would be nice to share this sound-seeing demo with those of you who may have missed the previous listening opportunities.

Since the recording of this demonstration, Sendero has submitted version 1.1 of LookAround to Apple for approval and posting on the iTunes Store. This update may have fixed some of the concerns that came up in this recording. Stay tuned to Sendero’s LookAround page for the latest information on this app as it becomes available.

Download and Listen – Sendero LookAround iPhone App Demo

Categories: iPhone, podcast, reviews, travel

Kindle Accessibility Review: How Far Has Amazon Opened the Door to the Blind?

August 31, 2010 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

By guest writer Larry Wanger.

The Kindle is an electronic book reading device produced by Amazon that provides access to hundreds of thousands of in-copyright books and well over a million more that are either out of print or in the public domain. In other words, it’s pretty safe to say that if it’s not available on the Kindle it’s not available in e-book format.

The question we must ask is, “how effectively does the new Kindle 3 make the books in this vast library accessible to blind readers”?

While it is clear that Amazon has taken some steps in the right direction to make the new book reader accessible, this review will point out significant areas where there’s a great deal of work to be done in order for the company to claim it sells a truly accessible product.

The Pros:

  • A device with access to over 600,000 books and over a million more out of copyright.
  • Light weight, small and very portable.
  • Outstanding battery life.
  • Works for the casual reader who doesn’t expect more than simply being able to read a book.

The Cons:

  • Speech output that is less than stellar.
  • There may be over 600,000 books but text to speech doesn’t work on all of them.
  • The new Kindle just won’t fit the bill for students, researchers or serious readers who demand a lot in terms of navigation and accessibility.

Those who know me are aware that I tend to be an early adopter. If a new device or technology hits the market and if it promises accessibility I find myself wishing for it. So, in July when Amazon began taking orders for the new Kindle I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it. The following paragraphs highlight the good, the bad and what needs work on the new Kindle. I’ve done all of the heavy lifting and spent hours finding the strengths and shortfalls of the new reader.

You’ll find nearly 650,000 copyrighted books in the store. Amazon says the mission of the Kindle team is to put every book in the world in your hands within 60 seconds. And, while they may be able to do that, they continue to fall short in terms of providing that level of accessibility to the blind community. 

Out of the box, the Kindle is not accessible. The shipment includes a print quick-start guide and the Kindle has printed instructions on the screen telling the owner how to begin using the device. No disk is included with a copy of the guide. You’ll need to go to the Kindle web site to find a downloadable PDF copy of the manual. 

Turning on the Kindle is fairly easy. A sliding switch is located on the bottom edge of the device. However, no speech is available just by firing up the Kindle. You will need assistance navigating the menus so that a feature called Voice Guide can be activated. Note: this is a one-time activation and the Voice Guide remains on for future use.

To improve your experience when turning on your Kindle the first time, make sure you set up an account on the Amazon store prior to purchase. By doing this, your Kindle will arrive registered with your account information and you’ll save yourself some headaches. More on the cause of the potential headaches later. 

Before elaborating on Voice Guide, it’s worth noting that there are two aspects to accessibility on the device. Voice Guide is a feature that gives you a level of accessibility to menus and non-book-reading functions on the Kindle. Meanwhile, Text to Speech or TTS is what enables you to read books, magazines, newspapers, blogs and other materials you download to the Kindle. It may be best to think of Kindle as having two screen readers even though they use the same voices and speech.

The Kindle makes use of a very simple menu structure. By using Voice Guide one can move around the menus and make selections and hear various options and settings. My experience thus far indicates that all menus are fully accessible by using the 5-way key located on the lower right corner of the Kindle keyboard. Unfortunately, accessibility with Voice Guide more or less ends with the menus. 

TTS is the feature used for reading books and other publications available on the Kindle store. The store features a wide variety of content beyond books. One can read many popular magazines, local, regional and national newspapers and blogs. The key to being able to access this wealth of information and entertainment is whether or not the publisher has allowed Amazon to enable the TTS option. Unfortunately, I have been unable to find any hard numbers in terms of how many publications on the store restrict the TTS feature. Previously, publishers had indicated concerns over copyright and possible loss of audio book sales due to this feature of the Kindle. Clearly, this issue must be resolved before the Kindle is widely adopted by the blind community. Still, my initial experiences are that most books I encounter do allow for TTS usage. Each book listing on the store clearly indicates whether or not TTS is enabled for that title. Additionally, thanks to the free two-week trial offered with magazines and newspapers, I was able to test several successfully with TTS. Imagine waking up with your local paper already waiting for you on your Kindle thanks to the included wireless synching.

Activating TTS appears to be simple at first but quickly becomes a bit tedious. First, TTS must be turned on each time you launch a book. Say, for example, I am reading Time Magazine, which supports use of TTS, but then I decide to resume reading the book I purchased from the Kindle Store last week. I hit the Home button to leave Time Magazine and land at the main menu. I then use the arrow key to move through the selections and then choose the book I want to resume reading. Kindle opens to the page I last read; however, the TTS doesn’t just resume reading. Instead, I must hit a button to bring up options for that book. These include options to adjust typeface, font size and, if allowed, the TTS option. Choosing to turn on the TTS option results in Kindle resuming reading out loud from the place you previously left off. If you decide to go back to Time Magazine you will need to repeat this same process. Kindle does include use of a specific key combination to immediately begin use of TTS, though I have experienced some difficulties with this.

Whether you are a student conducting formal research for a term paper or a casual reader trying to move by paragraph or page within the publication you are reading, easy and quick navigation that is speech friendly is essential. Unfortunately, Kindle falls short in this area. While you can navigate by chapter or article, finer navigation by paragraph, sentence, line, word or character is not supported at this time. If you are looking for a product that can simply read books then the Kindle is probably a good choice; however, if you need detailed navigation, you would be better served by other reading formats.

The new Kindle offers a significant number of features beyond simply reading. For example, you can bookmark pages for later reference, make notes, highlight passages and share them on popular social media sites and look up words in the built-in dictionary. You can even search for selected words or phrases on Google and a number of other websites. Unfortunately, neither Voice Guide nor TTS work with these features and, therefore, they are not accessible. 

Remember those potential headaches I mentioned previously? One of the main selling points of the Kindle is the ability to shop for and buy books from the Kindle Store and have them appear almost immediately on your device. Sounds great right? Well, don’t expect Voice Guide or TTS to give you access to the Internets largest book store. The built in Web browser is currently not able to be accessed by low vision or blind users. You will need to shop for books on your computer or mobile phone.

Tip: the Kindle Store interface is very accessible on the iPhone through the otherwise useless Kindle app. (The Kindle app does not currently allow for Voice Over support on the iPhone or iPad platform but one can shop from within the app. Once purchased from one of these platforms, books appear on the Kindle. In short, you cannot utilize the built in web browser and therefore should expect to be unable to independently register your Kindle or to purchase books on the device itself.

Anyone who has an interest in the e-book and portable reader market knows that things have changed significantly over the past year. The Kindle is just one of many portable readers available today. The iPad and the accompanying iBooks store further disrupted the market earlier this year and more change is inevitable. Options for blind readers are also very diverse. Beyond the widely known BARD, digital NLS services and Book Share, we can choose iBooks as an option. Further changes took place just last week with increased accessibility to the KOBO service now available on Apple’s portable devices and then the introduction of the more accessible Kindle on the 27th.

Is the Kindle the best choice for you? You are the only person who can answer that question. If you do not need detailed navigation and can accept purchasing Kindle books on your mobile phone or computer then it will work well for you. However, if you need detailed navigation and want access to every feature on the device, then you should look elsewhere. My experience has been quite positive and I look forward to reading many books that I otherwise may have never found thanks to the expanded level of accessibility now available.

Larry Wanger is an experienced advocate, manager and leader in the disability field with expertise in audio production, journalism and marketing. He is employed as an operations manager at Arizona Bridge to Independent Living where he oversees the organization’s employment services programs for people with disabilities.

Additional Reading

These selected articles outline a brief history of the Kindle accessibility controversy:

Kindle 3 Reviews from around the technology industry:

Categories: accessibility, Kindle, reviews

Update: Accessible Version of CallBurner

July 8, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

It appears the CallBurner team has not yet made their accessible version available to the public. Since many of you have asked how you can get started right away, please feel free to download a copy of the accessible version. Since this version of CallBurner is not currently provided on the company’s web site, this software should be considered to be a beta release, with all the “play at your own risk” caveats that status entails. Stay tuned for another update as soon as the CallBurner Team has informed us of the public availability of the accessible release.

Categories: JAWS, reviews, Skype, tips

CallBurner: Finally, Fully Accessible Skype Call Recording is Here at Last!

July 7, 2007 • Darrell Shandrow Hilliker

The people at Netralia, developers of the Skylook Skype call management and recording application for Microsoft Outlook, have recently released a new Skype call recording product that does not depend on Outlook. The new CallBurner application enables annotation and recording of all Skype calls while providing a clean, simple user interface.

After learning of the existence of this new product, I downloaded a trial copy of the software. While finding it reasonably usable for basic call recording, I found the call detail window largely inaccessible with any screen reader, including JAWS, System Access and Window-Eyes. I promptly wrote a short note to the company’s support e-mail address requesting accessibility enhancements to permit full use of CallBurner with screen reading software. On Thursday, July 5, I was absolutely flabbergasted to receive a response from the company’s senior developer offering a beta copy of an accessible version of the software for my testing! This response came in less than three weeks of my initial request!

After downloading the test copy of CallBurner, I immediately began to put it through its paces. After enabling “Screen Reader Compatibility” in the Accessibility sub-menu of the program’s System Tray icon, I was instantly delighted to discover extensive keyboard navigation, a tabbed Call Details dialogue box and full accessibility without need of screen reader configuration or scripts. Follow these steps to enable “Screen Reader Compatibility” after downloading and installing CallBurner:

  1. Minimize all running programs and focus on the Desktop by pressing Left Windows+M.
  2. Press JAWS Key+F11, Modifier+F11 (System Access) or Insert+S (Window-Eyes) to open the System Tray menu.
  3. Down arrow to CallBurner and press enter to right click its System Tray icon.
  4. Press enter on the Accessibility sub-menu.
  5. Press enter on “Screen Reader Compatibility”. This is the only option currently found in the Accessibility sub-menu.
  6. The following dialogue box is shown: “Screen Reader Compatibility is now turned ON. NOTE: You need to restart CallBurner for this change to become effective.”
  7. Press enter on the OK button to accept the change.
  8. Press JAWS Key+F11, Modifier+F11 (System Access) or Insert+S (Window-Eyes) to return to the System Tray menu.
  9. Down arrow to CallBurner and press enter to right click its System Tray icon.
  10. Up arrow to the Quit option and press enter.
  11. Press the Left Windows key or CTRL+Escape to open the Start menu.
  12. Press p to open the All Programs menu.
  13. Down arrow to CallBurner and press enter to open its sub-menu.
  14. Press enter on CallBurner to start the program. The Call Details window opens, presenting a tabbed dialogue box that delivers a fully accessible user interface to all CallBurner functions.
  15. Press the End key to move to the Help tab.
  16. Press the Tab key once to select Browse On-Line Help and press enter to open CallBurner’s documentation in a typical web browser window. This help will serve to get you started with CallBurner in short order.

The latest version of CallBurner, incorporating the “Screen Reader Compatibility” enhancement, has been made available as of Saturday, July 7, 2007. I highly recommend CallBurner to anyone, blind or sighted, who needs to record Skype calls. The ability and willingness of the developers to make their software accessible in less than three weeks of such a request demonstrates the commitment of this company to high quality, reliable customer service and technical support. We should all send a quick note of thanks to the CallBurner Team expressing our appreciation for their prompt attention to our accessibility needs and encouraging their developers to continue the excellent work in this area for all their software. Stay tuned to Blind Access Journal and other blind community online resources for demonstrations, reviews, tips and other information covering the use of this excellent application.

Categories: JAWS, reviews, Skype, tips