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Thursday, August 13, 2015

AXS Map: Crowdsourced Accessibility Reviews of Businesses



AXS Map is an app available for iOS and Android that allows users to rank the accessibility of local businesses. Using the location of the device users can search for nearby businesses and rank the accessibility of the location in very basic terms. More detailed accessibility information and information for people with a wider range of disabilities would improve the app.

While accessibility standards established by the government are exact and technical, AXS Map uses a star rating system. For example, a businesses that is easily accessible to people with disabilities would earn a five star ranking. The app also allows users to rank a business based on the noise level, which can be helpful for people with hearing impairments, and by light which can be helpful for people with visual impairments.

I was recently involved in a "Mapathon" were a group of people used the app to map parts of the city. This experience helped me understand the value of the app, as some businesses had serious accessibility issues such as numerous steps with no ramps.

The data that is inputted through the app or the website can then be viewed by people interested in the accessibility of a business. For example, a person with a physical disability could check the app to make sure that a coffee shop had a ramp.

If the AXS Map platform becomes popular it could even prompt businesses with poor rating to make improvements.

While the concept behind AXS Map is good, the implementation is a little rough. The app is not intuitive to use and can be frustrating. However, it does work once you get familiar with the interface. The app also requires users to enter their email which could steer some users away.

To use AXS Map visit AXSMap.com or download the app for iOS and Android. Click here to download the app for iOS and click here to download the app for Android.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Inspiration Maps Updated with iPhone Support and More

Inspiration Maps displayed on iPhone 6

Inspiration Maps iconThe mind mapping and outlining app Inspiration Maps, which was previously only available on the iPad, is now available on the iPhone as well. The app is a valuable tool to help students organize their ideas and start the writing process. Users can drag text boxes around the screen to easily produce webs of ideas. Inspiration Maps is particularly helpful when writing about complex topics that require a well planned and organized essay. Inspiration Maps can be also be helpful when beginning an essay to visualize the structure that the written piece will take.

With the larger screen iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 plus in makes sense to bring the app to the iPhone. If you are concerned about not having enough room to effectively use the app on your iPhone, a free version is available here.

The update also makes in easier to select multiple text boxes or images at the same time. Now users can press and hold on the screen in order to lasso a group of images.

The updated app is available for $10 is the App Store. Click here to download the app. Click read more below to view more screenshots of Inspiration Maps for iPhone.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Bright Future for Apple Accessibility with Lisa P. Jackson in the Lead

Headshot of Jackson wearing red shirt

Apple recently updated the bio of Lisa P. Jackson to reflect her new role overseeing accessibility at Apple. This expands her previous responsibilities of overseeing environmental initiatives at Apple. Ms. Jackson's official title is now Vice President of Environment, Policy and Social Initiatives. Apple CEO Tim Cook has been vocal regarding his views of the importance of accessibility. This new management change, which puts a Vice President level executive in charge of accessibility for the first time, seemingly reaffirms Apple's long-standing commitment to accessibility.

Apple has been a leader in accessibility. Its products include superior accessibility features out of the box. Features such as VoiceOver, Speak Selection, Zoom, AssistiveTouch, and Switch Control give people with disabilities equal access to Apple products at no additional charge. From personal experience I can say that these features are truly life changing and positively impact many people.

Even considering Apple's past success there are areas for possible improvement. One example involves training sales people about the accessibility features. On recent trips to Apple Stores, I have had some experiences that are not consistent with Apple's commitment to accessibility. For example, the Apple Watch on display had its accessibility features disabled. While Apple likely wants to limit confusion for customers who do not use accessibility features, this does not promote equal access. Part of the magic of the Apple Store is being able to walk up to a shinny new product and try it out. With the accessibility features disabled, and the sales people unfamiliar with how to enable these features, users with disabilities don't have an opportunity to fully explore the product. Apple should be showing off these features, not hiding them. Apple would be doing a great service to its customers with disabilities to prepare its store employees to talk about accessibility features as well as they talk about other features.

Ms. Jackson has proven herself to be a very capable leader.  She has the ability to continue Apple's accessibility superiority and solve existing challenges. Her work on environmental initiatives has been very successful, propelling Apple towards the top of the technology industry in terms of sustainability. The future of Apple product accessibility seems bright, and I am excited to see what innovations come next.

To read Lisa Jackson's full bio from Apple click here. Photo credit: Apple.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Apple Watch Accessibility: Possibilities, Challenges, and Unknowns


When the Apple Watch launches next month it will mark the launch of Apple's first new product category since the iPad. The iPad was a game changer in terms of accessibility, bringing numerous features designed for people with disabilities at launch. How will the Apple Watch compare and what are some of the challenges and possibilities for the Apple Watch related to accessibility? A lot of questions remain unanswered, but the wait will soon be over.

Apple Watch is rumored to include built-in software accessibility features when launched, however these reports have not been confirmed by Apple. It would make sense and align with Apple's patterns if they included features such as VoiceOver and Zoom in the Apple Watch. While the inclusion of these features seem likely, how these features are implemented will be key for people with disabilities.

The Apple Watch could prove beneficial to people with various disabilities. Apple has already demonstrated the navigation capabilities of the Watch which include providing distinctive taps when a wearer needs to turn left or right while walking. This feature could aid blind and visually impaired users when navigating unfamiliar areas. Additionally, the device could help remind users to complete daily tasks like taking medication. The watch, which can be used for Apple Pay purchases and other forms of authentication could benefit users with physical disabilities who cannot handle a credit card for example.

Just like with the iPad, app developers will likely be key in coming up with unique assistive apps. The initial developer tools have some limitations that could hold back developers, but hopefully useful assistive apps will still be made available.

With all the potential benefits there are some challenges that stem from the device's small screen and buttons. First, the "digital crown," which is a small dial on the side of the Apple Watch, could pose challenges to users with physical disabilities and dexterity challenges. The "digital crown" which is used for scrolling and zooming may be difficult if not impossible for some people to operate. It will be interesting to see if Apple will devise a software solution to this potential challenge. Similarly, the small screen with small icons may prove difficult to press for some users.

Apple's new "force touch" gesture could also prove challenging for users with physical disabilities to preform. A "force touch" is a harder press on the touch screen display that invokes distinct actions from a lighter tap. From Apple's demonstrations, this gesture seems vital to the operation of the watch so hopefully a software solution will be available for users who are unable to preform this gesture.

Hopefully the Apple Watch will follow in the iPad's foot steps and be a game changer in terms of accessibility. If you are thinking of purchasing the Apple Watch, but have doubts about your ability to interact with the device due to a disability I would strongly recommend heading to an Apple Store in April to try one out.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Voice Dream Writer: Word Processing Plus a Whole Lot More




Voice Dream has become a well-known name in the assistive technology community because of Voice Dream Reader: a text-to-speech reader available for iOS devices. Now the developer has released a new app called Voice Dream Writer which aims to support writers with special needs. Voice Dream Writer has features that can benefit people with a wide range of needs including people with dyslexia and people who are blind or visually impaired. People without disabilities can also benefit from the app. For example, english language learners could benefit from spoken feedback and other features offered by Voice Dream Writer. 

The text-to-speech feedback is designed to help writers find mistakes in their writing. The style of text-to-speech reading can even be changed to help writers focus either on spelling and grammar, or on content and organization. The app also offers easy access to an outline view that can help with organizing a document. Other features allow users to look up words phonetically or look up words by its meaning. 

The text-to-speech feedback can be accessed as users type so they can verify that a word or sentence was entered as they intended. This helps writers identify words or phrases that looked correct, but upon hearing them read aloud sound incorrect. The app will also read back text that has been dictated to help users insure that their voice was transcribed correctly.

When it is time to review a document, Voice Dream Writer includes some very thoughtful features for editing. The app includes two customizable proof reading modes that use text-to-speech to help with the editing process. The first is designed to help writers edit the content of their document. In this mode words are read back using text-to-speech sound natural and smooth: as they would when reading a book with Voice Dream Reader. This allows writers to focus on the content and organization of their document. 

The second mode reads text back in a somewhat choppy manner which allows users to focus their document at the micro level. This mode is ideal for editing spelling a grammar because the lack of flow with the text-to-speech voice makes it easier to focus on each word rather than the overall content of the text.

Each proofreading mode is customizable with options to announce misspelled words, spell homophones, and speak punctuation and capitalization.

Similar to Voice Dream Reader, Voice Dream Writer includes the ability to change the visual style of the app. Font size, character and line spacing, margins, text color, and background color can all be changed. Additionally, users can change the text to speech voice and speaking rate to match their preferences. Text-to-speech voices purchased in Voice Dream Reader are available in the Writer without an additional purchase. The pronunciation dictionary also syncs between the Writer and the Reader if both are installed on the same device.

Text files can be imported from iCloud Drive or supported third party services such as Google Drive or Dropbox. Unfortunately, users can only import text files and not Microsoft Word files. Documents can be exported as HTML, RTF, Microsoft Word, or Apple Pages format.

Click read more below to continue to read the review of Voice Dream Writer. Some of the most innovative and helpful features will be described below.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Keeble Keyboard for iPad: Flexible Text Input for Users with Special Needs



Keeble is a virtual keyboard for iPad made by AssistiveWare. The app is only available in English for iPads running iOS 8 and above. As a result of new features available in iOS 8 the Keeble keyboard can be used in almost every app on the iPad including mail, Safari, and messages. Keeble gives users a number of customization options to make text input easier for users with special needs such as motor challenges, dyslexia, and other disabilities.

One option available is the ability to change the appearance of the keyboard. Users can change the color of the keyboard which could be helpful for users with visual impairments. The higher contrast colors can be more easily seen compared to the white and gray colors of the default iOS keyboard. The layout can be change from a QWERTY layout to an ABC layout if desired.


Keeble also includes word predication to speed up typing; especially for Switch Control users. The word predication features is slightly more advanced than iOS 8's built-in word prediction. Keeble allows users to change the number of predictions offered above the three offered by the default iOS 8 keyboard.

Keeble also allows users to change how the keys respond to taps and presses. This is especially useful for users with motor challenges that may cause accidental taps or presses on unwanted keys. Hold duration can be set to change how long a key must be held before that character is entered. With this option enabled, quick accidental taps will not be registered. Additionally, the backspace repeat can be customized to avoid accidentally deleting text. A "select on release" option is also available which will enter text on release of a key instead when the key is pressed.

The last customization option allows users to turn on spoken feedback of the text they type. Feedback can be given letter by letter, word by word, and/or sentence by sentence. This feature allows people with dyslexia or poor spellers to confirm that what they words they think entered are the words that they hear being spoken back to them using text-to-speech. While this feature is useful it can only be enabled and disabled via the apps settings. If there was an option to turn on and off auditory feedback directly, it would be much easier to access the feature when needed and disable the feature when not needed. Users can totally turn off the iPad's speakers but this will also mute all other audio output. There is space on the bottom right of the number and symbol entry keyboard where quick access to this setting could be added.

The Keeble app costs $15 on the App Store. To download the app click here. Click read more below to view screenshots of the Keeble keyboard.