Archive for July, 2007

Aren’t we Vision Losers lucky?

July 28, 2007

Aren’t we lucky? Just when our vision starts to deteriorate on us, there comes a whole new medium of information, entertainment, and inspiration opening up to fill our ears, and our years. This new medium is called "podcasting" but you will not need an ipod, not even ear buds, just your PC, speakers, and audio player, which probably come with the package. Add one piece of additional free software, called a podcatcher, and you’ve entered a new world. One theme in this blog is the full utilization of the podcasting medium for the benefit of Vision Losers of a certain age.

Who are this so-called ‘we’, the lucky ones, the generalization of the singular self-styled Vision Loser? who is this blog written for?


Well, there are literally millions of over-50 people with variations of macular degeneration and other forms of retinopathy who retain partial sight, enough to operate most software packages, on a decent vision day, albeit somewhat more clumsy than the multi-tasking, keyboard-glued, Internet-addicted younger generations. Many of us have been using computers for work, for communication, and for gaming for years, while some of us are newbies to the Internet and the PC world. Our ranks are growing rapidly with the baby boomer generation. Plus, others who care about the well-being of those losing vision.


The lucky ones are those who can take full advantage of a low-cost, vibrant, versatile, varied, stimulating medium especially helpful for those in vision loss transition. That’s our main message: use the podcasting medium to supplant print-based activities and to introduce yourself to the technology, people, and philosophy of the parallel world of the partially sighted and fully blind.


The quality of life we address in this blog are the "partially sighted" who have lost some significant properties of vision: contrast, color, print discrimination, or steady lines of objects. More challenging are normal abilities to read, drive, converse with facial and body awareness, Gone are many energy-saving and safety-providing actions formerly taken for granted. Being partially sighted is far different from being completely blind because the world is continually playing tricks on you, luring you to "see” but denying you all the details in your partial sight, you live with the shape shifter and Trickster archetypes.


Meanwhile, strangers, colleagues and friends and family cannot recognize your problems because, quote, you "do not look blind" — whatever that means. You are perfectly capable of absorbing and giving information through digital media, but at a loss to sort the mail and read important matters without adaptive technology. You need some help, but maybe not the full-blown, costly equipment avai able to the fully blind.


One way to appreciate this quality of life — both the losses and retained skills — is listening to podcasts by people dealing with their losses in similar situations. Aren’t we lucky that we can find and follow the inspiration of such people, without stretching our personal limits of energy and mobility? This blog will take you through a tangle of podcasts to place ourselves in a virtual crowd of like-abled people.


With our partial sight, we can avail ourselves of many PC packages with only a modest additional expense and some self-training.We clearly have one foot in the blind camp where many software vendors offer custom products, but at an expense that is often borne by employers, rehab offices, and educational systems. Being of a more advanced aged, perhaps out of the work force, some of us struggle with many trade-offs of finance, training, and frustration less faced by those with no options, like the blind. But it turns out there is a rich suite of relatively low cost packages on the market which this blog seeks to motivate and explain individually and together.


The trick is to think as a "system integrator” who identifies tasks, and processes, and quality factors then finds components that work together to provide a high enough level of productivity and quality of getting our work and our fun under control. These include text-to-speech readers of web, mail, and other documents; partial screen readers: that guide us around software tools on our screen; and magnifiers that zoom in on smudges of print we want to see but not hear.


Aren’t we lucky, that vendors have found a large enough market of people like us, or with similar needs, to produce tools we can integrate into our environments? Aren’t we lucky that a few years ago breakthroughs in speech synthesis have given us voices that resonate in personality while they clearly read for us? Aren’t we lucky that podcasting came along to give us access to many product reviews, demonstrations, and testimonials?


This blog describes a combination of free and low-cost products that can launch a Vision Loser into a more effective, still familiar, way of using our PCs. And one of these software products is a podcatcher customized for partially sighted people.


But, isn’t it strange, that we Vision Losers might have the advantage of early adoption of speech interactions with our software while the fully sighted remain with their eyeballs glued to their screens? In technology transfer terms, we can be as geeky as we like as “early adopters” while many software products are simple enough to master for those without a "geek streak”. This blog discusses many of these download-install-try and adopt or discard packages. We demonstrate that some added functionality here and a better interface there and, with practice, we can remain cost effectively fully functioning in the networked world.


What else does podcasting have to offer vision losers? While we are using podcasts to learn about technology to exploit our partial sight, we hear the inspiring words of Vision Losers like us, across a spectrum of losses. More than that, we can see how podcasts can fill the information voids caused by difficulty reading print magazines and newspapers. We will find a generation of communicators, both younger and older, using podcasts to develop a style and outlets for their cultural, humor, and intellectual interests. The early podcasters are entrepreneurial, energetic, and often fresh figures to replace TV fixtures and columnists we may have been using for years to structure our own views of the world.

Aren’t we lucky so many independent and creative individuals offer us a new way to explore and absorb a very wide world beyond our screens and speakers? We will find that podcasting offers a way to design your own stream of content geared toward your own information and entertainment needs and time available. And it is amazing how much more you can get done listening to podcasts than watching a tube or unfolding and refolding a newspaper?


Aren’t we lucky, that we have a medium so well matched to our needs, so flexible, and so cheap?


We began this blog by describing a PC environment that may help many Vision Losers with little expense or effort, namely a few synthetic voices, an application, that reads from the clipboard, and the minimal functionality of magnifiers supplied by the Microsoft XP (and other) Windows environments with an add-on mouse. We have also been using podcasts as references in earlier articles, just requiring a PC invoked with the click of a link to a .mp3 player. We’ll soon move on to harder trade-offs with other screen readers, editors, and podcatchers that bring out a tendency to collect podcasts.


No, it is not great to be a Vision Loser; in fact, it’s a very hard life with more of the same and worse for life’s remaining decades. But, really, the confluence of assistive technology, opening of independent media through podcasting and blogs, and the challenge to learn and use these as rapidly as possible during vision descent leads to the significant conclusion: Contemporary Vision Losers have timed their transition well to take advantage of technology never before available, not robbing the bank account, and poised to become one more node in a vast network of audio driven information and human connection.


As we write this blog we draw from a library of podcasts collected on vision-related topics and by and for blind and partially sighted individuals. Check this out in the blogroll and
@Podder Eyesight Podcast Library

Listen to an audio version of this posting

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Resources, support, and reality check for macular degenerates

July 27, 2007

A look at mdsupport.org http://www.mdsupport.org

A person newly diagnosed with macular degeneration often leaves the office of an eye doctor after being told “You’re doing to lose your central vision over the next few years”. Maybe the doctor has explained the situation but the patient is unfamiliar with the terminology used, as well as in shock. Maybe a pamphlet “Explaining macular degeneration” is in the patient’s hands, maybe not. Such a hopeless, under-informed, awkward launch into a period of profound life change is the situation addressed by the mdSupport foundation, hosted at http: http://www.mdsupport.org.

“Macular degeneration” is a condition of the eye, literally a loss of cells in the part of the eye called the macula where fine detail of vision is accomplished. I will not try to define all the medical terms as there is an excellent audio on the mdsupport website. The condition has many causes and generally encompasses a family of diseases, often but not always associated with aging, and structural differences such as my condition, high myopia (-16, long eyeball). The common factor is the end result, degrees of loss of ability to read, drive, and do many other daily activities without some kind of assistance. And these results lead to a position in society that, for some people, is a declaration of legal blindness but for many is a perpetual state of difference from both the fully sighted and the fully blind, a state likely to be invisible to other people if we do not notify them. Literally, millions of people are passing through this stage of vision, soon to be joined by crowds of baby boomers.

mdsupport.org, the website, is a fertile encyclopedia for reading about the medical and social aspects of macular degeneration. But this website is no Wikipedia but rather meticulously edited by its founder, a macular degenerate himself and music teacher, Dan Roberts with the help of many medical authorities, especially a low vision specialist “Dr. Windy”. And the website also stands as a portal to other organizations dealing with patient, physician, and rehab sides of md.

Here’s an example of how I used mdsupport.org a few years ago as an authoritative reference. I needed a bright light for certain kinds of reading but was leery of those big ads about UV bulbs flooding your living area, unsatisfied with halogen lamps I was getting at Kmart, and physically assaulted by overhead lighting. mdSupport offers a remarkable article “Artificial Lighting and the Blue Light Hazard” explaining light in physics terms, the physiological effects of light on the retina, the cyclic recovery and damage of bright light, and the, and the state of scientific debate and uncertainty. I chose an elegant, but expensive desk lamp, Lazlight, that appeared safe from the information given in the article. I use it sparingly, for writing checks using my template or for trying to read phone books or other fine detail without using magnifiers. Sometimes the lamp and my vacillating state of vision are sufficient to do the job, but less often than when I originally purchased the lamp. One might ask: well, at least in the U.S., aren’t there protections against selling lamps that might damage our retinas” but the answer is “apparently not, based on both the state of scientific knowledge and the simple lack of regulatory oversight of the lighting industry”. To sum up this anecdote, mdsupport provided significant guidance toward a lighting purchase that satisfied my needs at the time, left me comfortable about safety, and illuminated by understanding of the issues of lighting fixtures and retinal responses.

I’ve also known mdsupport through its mailing list discussion among macular degenerates of all ages and sorts and locations. I was active in the list as far back as 1998, the time of my cataract surgery, but left when employment and better vision and other interests lured me away. I recently returned to reading mdList on my icon and Director Dan and Dr. Wendy were still wisely guiding list members on topics ranging from stem cells to external computer monitors. One of my problems with all mailing list is the amount of traffic that comes from polite notes of “thanks” to personal prayers that could be transmitted by private email rather than an entire list. But this systemic personal characteristic of mailing list members does not deter me from now staying subscribed and coming out of lurking soon. A typical exchange on the mailing list is a forwarded article snagged from a newspaper or Google alert about a treatment for some cause of md with a response from the founder and his advisors about the efficacy and reality of the treatment, “yes, but it doesn’t do this”, or “it has not yet been proven” or “another treatment will be available soon” with very interesting comparisons of the cost and availability of the treatment across international and the U.S. health care systems.

Dan Roberts has been one of my heroes of vision loss for nearing a decade, a mythic figure of knowledge, compassion, and commitment. mdsupport.org is a bequest in my will and a good place to memorialize the few friends who have died. plan to follow up soon with a recap of work Dan reports on about better models for rehabilitation for low vision patients.

In the context of this blog, the technology often discussed is complementary to our array of software and hardware gadgets. A comforting aspect of the mdList is the mixture of individuals beginning transition to vision loss gaining answers for their questions and learning how to manage their own eye care, the reassurance of seemingly normal life from people with juvenile origin forms of md, and normally sighted eye care professionals offering support, advice, and information.

Permitting myself a little rant here I’ve never understood “why sighted people need such bright light”. In the context of my 5 tenets of living with vision loss (previous posting), bright overhead light drains my energy and incapacitates my retained eyesight. A few times recently I’ve attended meetings in hotel conference rooms and government office buildings where the fluorescent lighting was so intense I felt myself shrinking away in protective reaction, sneaking over to try to dim the room lights, and wondering if these sighted beings are aware of the work their retinas are doing to process and recover from the bright lights, and possibly, accruing tiny amounts of damage that will affect them in a decade or two. Many sighted acquaintances are surprised that more artificial light is definitely not better for my myopic degeneration, but that I prefer whatever natural light is available, even down to just cracks of light coming through closed drapes. My explanation is basically “contrast, contrast, contrast” when it comes to computer screen lighting and how overhead and bright lights wash out the contrast. And a darkened room can be easier to navigate because I have developed compensating movements and confidence in my slower gait and fumbling around. Do we lighting-averse partially sighted and blind people contribute less to problems of energy conservation and climate change? I’d love to hear explanations of why fully sighted people need so much light to function,

Off the topic of mdSupport into the podosphere, “macular degeneration” is a popular topic across health news, science reports, and government agency announcements. Renowned medical journals, e.g. from National Library of Medicine, offer summary podcasts. Nature magazine and a variety of public science sites, many from U.K., report on stem cell advances, prosthetic eyes, and brain functions. An ophthalmology continuing education podcast covers in-depth treatments. And many physicians, health advisers, and vitamin hucksters offer 1 minute messages. Just like “It must be true, I read it on the Internet”, “I heard it on a podcast” is a caution about validity of the information to follow, but many of the podcasts we cite are highly authoritative. Linked below is a list of podcasts we have retrieved, but not yet listened to all, over the past 2 years, mainly using an alert from Podzinger Audio Search on “macular degeneration”. Use this web page to listen to mp3 files however your browser invokes an audio player or save the files and listen in your favorite player.

References:

mdsupport.org
http://www.mdsupport.org

Founding Director Dan Roberts
http://www.mdsupport.org/dan.html

Eyesight Podcast Library on “macular degeneration”
http://www.apodder.org/EyesightPodcasts/md.html

Everyzinger (Podzinger) Audio search
http://www.podzinger.com

Interview with Dan Roberts on his book “The first year of macular degeneration”
(link moved, copy to be posted)

Mouse Hacks, Magnifiers, and Being Your Own System Integrator

July 17, 2007

In this post, we look for ways to reduce the costs of our computing environment as we deal with vision loss. Magnifiers are helpful, sometimes essential, and, we show, can be very low-cost with additional benefits.

Assistive Technology (abbreviated AT) software comes in several cost categories: built-in, $0, $50, $500, and $1000. The “big AT” vendors sell to individuals, of course, but the main market is the IT and A.D.A. support organizations of government agencies and employers, i.e. the “budgets”. I claim that an independent Vision Loser can save by becoming a System Integrator of sorts avoiding not only costs of acquiring “Big AT”, but also reducing complexity of installation, maintenance, and training.

Here’s a little case study in System Integration, First, some caveats: I am neither a trained rehab/AT specialist nor an experienced System Integrator. But I did go to conference with these types and have assembled a library of podcasts and web articles with excellent advice.

What we are calling a “System Integrator” is someone who looks at how components work individually and composes a new “system” where the components work together to achieve a goal. With the uncertainty of progressive vision loss, a worthy goal is frequently a kind of testbed to experiment with techniques that compensate for vision deficiencies and offer a measure of comfortable use. Experimental results may lead to identification of a suitable product or provide experience for evaluating more costly alternatives.

Here’s our goal: low-cost magnification capabilities for a Windows XP computing system. The underlying problem is for this Vision Loser to have available screen magnification when needed to complement self-voicing and screen reading software (a future post). I really want to know both what is (1) necessary and (2) sufficient to meet my vision needs, keeping mind that needs will change as vision changes. Change is as much daily, even hourly, variation as slower deterioration.

Well, how about that! Microsoft accessibility software includes a simple stationary magnifier with several levels of magnification and inversion of screen colors. Stationary means it doesn’t follow the mouse and it can be docked at one of the borders so it doesn’t move around. Indeed, I found I liked a stationary magnifier set to level 2, inverted, and docked at the top. The down-side is vertigo from the magnifier tracking the mouse. So, Only time and trial would show its sufficiency.

Enter the “{mouse”. and yes, we were talking about magnifiers, not pointers, or vermin! On a trip to a computer store, I decided to pick up a new wrist rest and a more comfortable mouse. By sheer luck, my niece shopper assistant pointed out a mouse with a magnifier. At home, I discovered that this little guy really is useful. It provides a “tracking” magnifier to complement the stationary Windows lens, again within levels of magnification and resize of the tracking box. Now, with a flick of an extra side button on the mouse, up came a magnifier aimed at the text I want to read. The product model is called a Microsoft Laser Mouse 5000, but these names and model numbers may have changed.

But, wait, what about the extra button capabilities that come with the mouse. Only the right side button, an extra sliver, is being used, to pop up the tracking magnifier. Wow, I have these other tools that read to me when I copy text to the clipboard (see previous post). I wonder if I can link these two. Indeed, the left side mouse button can be assigned to Select All and the Wheel button to Copy. Now with two clicks, I can hear a window of text. Cool! This save fumbling around the keyboard for Control-A then Control-C or a couple of trips down a context menu.

This is what computing folk call a “hack”, a clever way to get a job done, maybe not obvious or elegant but definitely effective. Indeed” OReilly Press has raised “hack” to a publishing genre, with piles of books that collect, explain, and propagate hacks for Amazon, Google, podcasting, even mental productivity.

There are always trade-offs in any system design. The first is that a solution only works if you remember to use it! That use must become part of your reflex repertoire But then you’re in trouble on a different computing system at a friend’s office or on a consulting gig. I forgot my mouse on a recent trip and walked over to a Staples to get a replacement, a smaller notebook mouse with a single side button magnifier. It worked right out of the box, but getting the thing released from its hard plastic covering required 2 hotel clerks and some dangerous instruments. Then, I really noticed the loss of select-copy functionality as I struggled under fluorescent lights and a nasty wireless security system. Further, to make my hack work, the Windows security system had to permit copy to clipboard, which many IT departments like to over-ride.

What if I want or need more magnification? Software like ZoomText is widely used (I hear from podcasts) and is designed especially for partially sighted people. A trial use early in my vision loss showed how many ways graphics could be adjusted to achieve magnification and contrast effects, with the primary benefit crisper text at higher levels of magnification Indeed, vision is so complicated – is it color, contrast, glare, font, or other factors that are most crippling to a particular Vision Loser? And, my vision changes so much, with lighting conditions, time of day, cumulative exposure, and who knows what other factors. In any case, the $500+ price tag was out of my budget at the time of trial.

What is the System Integration lesson? In “computational thinking” terms, we look for abstract interfaces of components, primarily their inputs and outputs. We don’t worry about the buttons or the user interface or menus but focus on the generic capability. In this example, the system clipboard is a (hidden) input to TextAloud (or similar tool that monitors the clipboard) and our MS Laser Mouse has a (hidden) output to copy selected text to the clipboard. Well, duh, the clipboard pervades Windows applications, but now we have endowed it with text-to-speech reading capabilities. We’ve wrapped a different way of thinking about the united capabilities of two separate components – a text reader application and a mouse.

When you put yourself in System Integrator mode, you ask: what’s my inventory of components? what are their abstract interfaces? how can I connect these applications together? How much complexity is added to my system by now having inter-linked components, e.g. when one is upgraded? What forms of training are now required, including getting used to, learning the foibles of, and gaining reflex control over the new capability? How do my solutions compare with each other and what are the trade-offs? Is there a show-stopper against or in favor of a particular solution?

One of the most serious lessons of the Software Engineering field, where I formerly taught, is the importance of getting the requirements right early on. That usually is not possible in our Vision Loser world, but rather we need to set up an experimental testbed where we can try out different ways of compensating for vision loss. Necessary and sufficient are always concerns, e.g. an expensive solution may be sufficient but not necessary while a low-cost solution may be necessary for some uses but insufficient for others.

Readers of this posting might be wondering: why not ask an expert? Well, I don’t have one handy, have never had computer rehab support from an employer or agency, and, frankly, have already had some unsatisfactory experiences with consumer low vision businesses. But really the experts are out there, telling me much good advice on podcasts and in accessibility publications. Thanks to them.

helpful podcasts and articles:

Access World comparison of magnification products
http://www.afb.org Search (upper corner) for “Zoomtext, MAGIC, magnifiers”

Barrier-Free IT Tips and Tricks podcast on the Windows Accessibility Wizard

Literacy Questions for Magnification, Karen McCall from Carlin Communications
(link to be found)

OReilly “Hacks” Series http://www.hackszine.com

Microsoft Laser Mouse search for “Microsoft Laser Mouse” and “on screen magnifiers”

Seeing Through Google Book Search

July 14, 2007

Google’s blog recently announced the availability of Google Book Search with direct links in search results to out-of-copyright books for download as PDF. This action opens the portion of scanned books in the Google Library to print-disabled readers with traditional text-to-speech tools. However, this sub-collection is, by virtue of its vintage years, of value to only a few scholars and occasional readers. The remaining scanned books remain inaccessible in both their stored content and page images displayed in the book search results.

I decided to experiment to learn (1) what’s in the Google Library that relates to my professional and personal interests and (2) what could I actually get to expand my library suitable for my print-disabled status? The BLUF (Bottom Line Up Front): (1) I can access less that fully sighted professional colleagues and (2) this experiment didn’t yield any additions to my library.

Here’s the experiment: query Google Book Search on a topic I know something about and assess the value of the resulting books. The topic picked was one where, well, being immodest, I had myself published several articles in the 1980s and 1990s, using terms “software testing”, “formal specification”, “formal methods”. Working from memory, the book list showed books I’d previously owned, some I’d forgotten about, and a few I’d never known of. Several books were actually government publications, e.g. from NIST, and several were primarily reprints, many available from other electronic sources, such as the IEEE Digital Library. None appeared to be available in downloadable form, but I wasn’t sure what annotation would tell me that. I was at first confused about “full view” which did NOT mean downloadable but rather available for display as images in search results. The book lists were fairly long, between 50 and 100 books, indicating a comprehensive scanning or publisher contribution on my topics of interest.

So, what did I actually get to “see”? I was running Windows XP in its standard accessibility mode, with docked magnifier and narrator screen reader plus a simple zoomed magnifier associated with the Microsoft Laser Mouse; High Contrast Black Windows theme; Maxilla Firefox with images off, using FireVox free screen reader and TextAloud for reading page text. Of course, with images off I got a snippet of page text, a big empty block of missing image, and various book meta data, including where to buy or borrow. So, I turned images ON in the browser and, ouch, was it bright! I could recognize a page, almost read the bright text in inverted magnifier at size 4, but could not really glean much. Probably, more effective, and more costly, zoom could get more words into clarity, but there was no substitute for having the text read to me to gain context of the search result. This is the major point – there’s nothing in, around, or any way out of the image into screen readable mode. The image might as well have been a lake, a building, or porn for all the information I could glean from it. I wondered why the omnipotent Google toolbar, gathering data about my searches, and offering me various extra search information could not also be the reader.

Staring at the empty image was really disconcerting, even demoralizing. Were I still in the grant-grubbing, publication-hungry mode of an academic researcher, I would be disadvantage in getting paragraph-sized chunks of information to quote or cite (without ever handling the book itself). And these book references were to my own work, either citations or reprints of articles I’d written. Google Book Search does provide an excellent overview and snapshot of an era of research – who, what, and why – but not much more than a reminder for me. Of course, I could buy or borrow the book but then I’d need to scan it to get anything “readable”. Alternatively, running Google Scholar would lead me to many of the same resources in the Digital Libraries where I could buy or use a subscription to get the articles. Or, perhaps, a local employer or public library could get the article through Inter-library loan. It does appear that my search was biased toward retreiving as many reprint collections as books with original content, perhaps a side effect of computing literature publishing practices.

What about the promised downloadable content? I looked up “Wuthering Heights”, downloaded (link in upper corner) the PDF, and went through the usual screens of Adobe Reader updating itself. The, damn, ouch, another bright window of PDF I could not read. I remember Adobe had nicely provided an accessibility wizard buried down on the Help Menu and Read Out Loud on the View menu. After switching to more restful yellow on black of the PDF, I was able to hear the very interesting page of Google warnings about use of the book. Were I to actually read the book, I’d want it converted to text for downloading to BookPort reading in synthetic voice (good old “Precise Pete”) or in mp3 for an audio player. The PDF was, for me, just a format to get out of the way, although I could have read the book via Adobe’s Read Out Loud staying tethered to the PC. It would have been preferable to have by option the book in the DAISY format directly input to many text-to-speech tools, i.e. more standard than PDF.

Well, does Google Book Search do anything for this print-disabled person? I don’t think so.

These issues are discussed at more length in a 2005 white paper by Benetch/Bookshare founder Jim Fruchterman. He points out various ways that images might be annotated to stay within the conventions of web pages but the main problem is that publishers, Google, and some intermediaries need to cooperate to live up to the spirit of the legal rights of print-disabled people to access book content on a par with fully sighted individuals.

My wish is that Google would extend its toolbar to provide an audio from of the page for those who hold a certificate of print-disability similar to Bookshare’s policy. This would provide as much Entitlement as seems feasible for print-disabled, preserve rights to images, for deaf, and slightly raise Empowerment for print-disabled who can listen and make notes or do something else.

Another concern I’ve mentioned, and may have just missed in the page links, is the range of other options for some of the content in the books sampled in this experiment. Many reprints are available by Google Scholar, by the former NEC CiteSeer, from Digital Libraries of professional societies, and from the “database” collections of traditional library services. Is there a disconnect from Google Book Search to these alternative services?

Bottom Line: Getting a list of books discussing my topics is a good thing, but displaying ONLY page images was better for sighted users. And, I doubt my reading profile would identify benefits from downloadable full text of out-of-copyright books.

Well, this article has a definite “what’s in it for me?” tone, but I’d like to refrain that a tiny slice of the content here are words I wrote myself, receiving no compensation from publishers, only employers or research contracts. It’s ironic that I cannot enjoy going back to read myself what others have written about my work, or to continue the work with the same ease as sighted colleagues, nor get those empty images out of my mind. In the theme of this blog, Google Book Search is not classy use of technology, except in the “digital divide” sense of establishing different classes of users depending on their sigtht capabilities. I am not anti-Google, just disappointed.

See
Google Book Search http://books.google.com

“Comments on Accessibility of Google Print”, white paper by Jim Fruchterman http://www.benetech.org/about/whitepapers/google-access-022705.pdf

5 Tenets for Adjusting to Vision loss

July 13, 2007

Note: I wrote this a year ago in mid 2006 and have found it useful to assess my priorities and for planning.


Demarcation of noticeable vision loss worried me that my priorities were not well established yet. Before my weekly meeting with my “life coach”, I always make notes, a kind of journal, about my main concerns, triumphs, joys, and frustrations. I was gradually losing the ability to read my notes, even written with a bold Sharpie. From the need for a mental model emerged the following:


1. SAFETY.

Every motion now involves concern for safety. Peripheral vision does not identify the columns in my living space, nor the dog on the floor. The sidewalks in my neighborhood are walker-friendly but the curbs are deadly if I don’t follow the curb cuts. How high is the curb and how deep is the gutter below it? Of course traffic – signals, stops, crossings that have rules are still treacherous as drivers, bikers, and other walkers don’t always follow them. My worst experience led to 5 stitches in the emergency room after a decorative flat-looking rock tripped me up. Caution is not an option, shortcuts are out of the question, and nothing can be assumed safe until it’s past. Looking forward, I need to learn more about the mobility aides for the blind — dog guides and white canes — and we’ll soon listen to some podcasts that provide experience if not answers to the questions of when, why, and how to make these major adaptations.


And safety is not only a physical issue as financial transactions, federal forms, and bills are all exposures to costly mistakes, waste of precious energy, and loss of self-respect and independence.


2. ENERGY MANAGEMENT.

No, not thermostats, but rather gaining an understanding of where energy is used relative to eyesight functions. Safety responses and monitoring expend energy in order to accomplish a goal. Waste increases as mistakes are made, everything from mis-typing an email address to adding an extra 0 into a mortgage payment. Things that were trivial are now major energy consumers. For me, these experiences were complicated by unpredictability of my vision quality, seeing well first thing in the morning, and nearly nothing of print or detail in the afternoon. This has meant identifying each day the highest priority item to accomplish with 2nd, 3rd, and so on as objectives but maybe needing to be put off to the next day. And when a task requires preparation and materials, those must be acquired and not lost before needed. Life becomes an assembly line of planned actions with nothing taken for granted. Frustrations and worry consume energy too. Most important is to conserve energy for relationships.


3. RELATIONSHIPS.

How does one make one’s friends and family comfortable with our vision changes? Asking for help is necessary but may seem manipulative and frustrating when it doesn’t fit into the helper’s schedule. We’re talking here about maintaining current relationships then expanding contacts, developing or re-developing relationships, and avoiding social isolation are even harder. Luckily, Bookshare had several great books on self-esteem and on enlightening the sighted about blindness. Knowing common patterns of responses to blindness, from me and others, calmed my concerns and provided ways of working on relationships. However, social isolation remains Enemy #1 in my overall program.


4. APPRECIATION AND ENJOYMENT.

Vision loss inherently imposes limits that require changes in activities, e.g. visiting a museum , traveling, and reading, A surprise to me is that the alternative ways of performing these activities are actually enjoyable challenges, provided energy is available. Repeated activities such as visiting the Grand Canyon are simply variations of past memories, where the colors of the canyon walls almost jump out of the haze. Was I seeing that contrast of purples and gray, remembering it, or imagining? Does it even matter? Taking on a new experience, e.g. walking the paths of Palo Alto Shoreline Park, are much more auditory and smell since the details of the surroundings are simply not clear. Provided safety from companions, I have not felt a loss of quality of life, simply a change. And Change, seeing the world differently, is a gained quality itself. Vision-specific activities such as viewing photos and using facial cues in conversation with an interesting new acquaintance are most sorely missed. Audio reading is a pleasure in itself, but one’s overall reading profile necessarily alters. Podcasts are a particular boon when we can hear first hand the joy and reinforcement that appreciation can be retained, even expanded. Again, I must seek out readings and people who can share their new ways of appreciating their own changing landscapes.


5. FINANCIAL, LEGAL, and CITIZENRY.

Vision Losers need a special bank account to cover necessary equipment — CCTV, magnifiers, software, etc. I budgeted about $5000 for equipping my living space and office. Knowing I faced vision loss, I put away those funds when I was working. For many of us, that amount is out of the question, especially with unexpected vision loss, requiring grants, or going without. An irony of the Vision Loser at the end of his or her career is that the assistive technology is more available, indeed mandated, for those in the workplace and educational systems. working against the independent Vision Loser, forcing us to seek alternatives. Other costs are not deducted from our bank accounts, but consume energy such as evaluating product options and self-training. My personal motivation for buying some of my magnifier equipment was the simple desire to see smiles — a prices experience.


Vision Losers experience a rapid immediate descent into a lower level of citizenry and must come to terms with disability attitudes of society. Insurance firms require
a waiver for your vision costs — you got a pre-condition, you own it for life until Medicare. Voting entails hassles and loss of privacy, complicating the already difficult tasks of gaining voting information to responsibly complete a ballot. Organizations you work for or with get nervous about providing accommodations — fear of lawsuit piled on fear of you as a disabled person. The good news, in the U.S., is that 508 and A.D.A. requirements continually prod education and training and adaptation of environments and websites. However, the independent Vision Loser must learn the language and ethos of what to expect and how much to require.


Note: This framework has helped identify topics for future blog entries:

  • Safety: dog guides vs. canes, general mobility training; new dangers from quiet cars; developing a Fault Management Cocoon; …

  • Energy Management: A nebulous topic and a broad problem, perhaps varying the widely touted “Getting Things Done” approach of author David Allen; all things talking – microwaves, color-tellers; ATM’s, …

  • Relationships: Many helpful self-esteem books available from Bookshare; advice on caring for those who assist us; …

  • Appreciation: More great books with accompanying podcasts; changes in museum procedures for assisting blind visitors; hobbies displayed on Blind Cool Tech; …

  • Financial, Legal, and Citizenry:
    Accessible currency; anti-CAPCHA activism; accessible voting; employment advice on Disability411; saving $$ being your own System Integrator and Trainer;

Audio version of this posting

What’s a print-disabled reader to do? Bookshare!

July 13, 2007

What’s a print-disabled reader to do?! Bookshare!

This Vision Loser is especially grateful to Bookshare, a “Technology for Society” project of Benetech, at http://www.bookshare.org.
A podcast from Disability411 provides an excellent overview of Bookshare from the perspectives of a disability professional and Bookshare staff.
First, the bad stuff. After years of living under an eyesight prognosis of “precarious, but stable”, battling lighting conditions, driving to then being driven to the library to pick up and return books on CD, and piling up unread newspapers and magazines, I finally lost the last sliver of central vision that gave me print contrast. The “smudges” won. So, what do I do with my library of pleasure and technical books? How do I get my reading fix, my world and local news, my curiosity-driven tutorials? It turned out to be harder to get rid of books than to rebuild my library and reading habits.

Bookshare was my life raft in a swirling sea of change. In a nutshell, new members register, pay $75, get their eye specialist to fill out a form certifying print disability, and then learn their way around the Bookshare website. Find a book they like, then download it to their PC, unpack it (like “unzip”), and read the book using PC software distributed by Bookshare or other readers of DAISY files, a Digital Talking Book format. Other use cases include conversion to mp3 format, e.g. using a tool like TextAlound (previous post) and natural voices. These books are just marked-up text files, not audio, so “turning pages” and speaking requires synthetic voices and special software.

While I found an abundance of books I wanted to read, being tethered to a PC was slowing me down. with some web searching for “DAISY readers”, I found the American Printing House for the Blind Bookport. Now I could download the books onto a mobile device and listen anywhere with ear buds. The Bookport is truly ugly, nothing but a panel of buttons and an older style male voice, “Precise Pete”, to read the books. Book Port Transfer software uses a USB cable to download the DAISY books, slowly, and can also load up the Bookport with converted mp3, Word, HTML, and .txt files. Using the training cassette and on-board help file, I quickly learned how to navigate books, adjust voices, mark spots of interest, move files around, and, most important, change the batteries. Built for the totally blind, the Bookport is better used by the partially sighted without looking, by memory in your finger-tips. Indeed, Bookport is great for reading in bed, equipped with sleep timer and a recorder to journal dreams, but with the dangers of strangler ear buds and night-time prowls for new batteries. Actually, battery life is great, over 40 hours with 2 AA easy replacements.

So, now I had over a hundred books queued up on Bookport, was listening to New York Times best sellers every week, finding new authors and new books by favorite authors on every trip to the Bookshare website, culling through some self-help books in the Disability-related category, and trying to unload boxes of my publisher-supplied course texts on a local university.

Could life get any better? Yes, along comes the Icon PDA from Levelstar with its newsstand, search, and bookshelf all linked directly to Bookshare. Give the Icon your password and browse the Levelstar server version of the Bookshare catalog, download and unpack in one swift action (literally, just seconds),and now I could rebuild my library more deliberately and with less energy expended. I wasn’t comfortable reading books on the more expensive and fragile Icon, so I batch download books every two weeks from the Icon to the PC disk, then over to Bookport, and redistribute to proper directories in its file systems. This script is a good example of where System Integration is required to achieve a goal, here reading comfort.

Since I don’t want to load up on books I don’t intend to read (already done that for decades), I carefully picked topics, tried to find the best sources, used book referrals from newspapers, podcasts, and radio shows. Now I have a library I’d be truly proud to show anyone, but I can’t because it’s all in the little black Bookport and under constraints from Bookshare. Oh, well, I’ll just have to show friends my knowledge.

What a boost to self-esteem as well as enjoyment of reading! I sadly read my way through six books on the Iraq war to identify where I believed things went wrong, and have explained that point in several discussions. I once heard a book review on the WAMU Diane Rehm show and immediately downloaded the book from Bookshare, and once had an emailed question answered about a book I’m now reading. I’ve found many of the technical books contributed by Reilly Press useful for my technical interests in web design and programming. Of course, not every needed book is available but I often find an adequate substitute in the 35000 book collection.

OK, I gain greatly from Bookshare and try to pass on the benefits with friends and family, as a fully functioning member of the reading world. What do I give back to Bookshare? Members and volunteers are the sources of scanned books. My scanning shop works but a few books showed me what grueling work it is, indeed, the Massachusetts penal system uses inmates to scan books for their educational system, as reported on a podcast from ACB (American Council of the Blind). I have contributed two books, one to honor former Governor Ann Richards and another eloquent memoir by editor and ambassador Henry Grunwald. Bookshare dues are only $50 and they welcome donations of cash as well as clean digital copies of books.

The downsides? I found the website rather wordy and in need of overhaul and reported this in a Bookshare user group meeting held at CSUN (disability exhibit in LA in March). Another is the guilt factor that authors and publishers don’t get paid. There must be a good story back in 1996 when a legislator (Chafee?) got in an amendment to copyright law to allow print-disabled people like me limited use of digital versions of books.

The founder of Benetech and Bookshare is Jim Fruchterman , an assistive technology entrepreneur and social activist Recognized for his work by a MacArthur “genius” grant, his Benetech blog tells about his world travels, writings and new ventures.

Regarding my own former personal physical library, I have two regrets. First, I wish I’d begun using Bookcrossings to experience letting some of my favorites lose in the wild rather than boxed into the domiciles of a Friends of the Library shop. I also wish I’d completed my sorting out while I could still read covers and parts of books which is a cumbersome task with magnifiers or a teenage helper .

So, if you’re partially sighted and can fail the vision test, you win entry into a classy organization to keep you amply entertained and informed.

References and Links:

Bookshare http://www.bookshare.org
Benetech blog http://beneblog.blogspot.com
Podcast on Bookshare from Disability411 http://disability411.jinkle.com/show30.htm
OReilly Publishing http://www.oreilly.com
BookCrossings http://www.bookcrossing.com
DAISY Digital Talking Book alliance http://www.daisy.org

Bookport mobile reader ($400) http://www.aph.org
LevelStar Icon PDA ($1400) http://www.levelstar.com (check out the excellent training and demo podcasts)

A Simple, Low-Cost, Effective Reading Application

July 11, 2007

Simple Reading Applications

Let’s assume you can find your way around a screen through a combination of vision, memory, keyboarding, and mousing but can’t read much of the text in documents you access. Is there a low-cost Windows application to read the text for you?

Yes, lots to choose from. Search for the phrase “text-to-speech” and you’ll find advertisements and websites for freeware, shareware, and all kinds of products at less than $100. This blog article is for beginner Vision Losers as well as those looking for alternatives to higher cost assistive technology products.

My main reader for years is TextAloud from http://www.nextup.com, which I’ll discuss as a representative of this class of desktop applications. Some use cases are:

1) In order to read a .txt file on your disk, you open the file for TextAloud to speak it to you. Ditto for .doc, .pdf, and other standard formats.

2) While browsing you find a page you can’t read in screen font form. You click the TextAloud toolbar to read the page in a voice and at a rate you choose.

3) You just do not feel like sitting straight-up with your eyeballs glued to your screen to read a long document. You copy the text to the clipboard, which TextAloud monitors for changes and then reads the text to you.

4) You want a bunch of files in audio form for an MP3 player. Open the files in TextAloud to convert to mp3 format and save in a directory for downloading.

5) You’re editing a document and want to hear how it sounds for tone, style, and mistakes. Beyond audio editing, maybe you’d like to compare male and female sounding voices to see how your writing is perceived by gender-wired brains. Open or copy the draft into TextAloud, choose voices, and listen to your writing as if being narrated.

In other words, TextAloud is a simple word processor with special features for reading the text to you or converting text to mp3 (or WAY) format to be read on another device. One piece of Windows magic is the “copy to clipboard” which transfers text to TextAloud for optional immediate reading.

And, it’s so helpful to have TextAloud right in your browser. Depending on versions and types of browsers, you can have TextAloud as a up there with Search, Favorites, History, etc.. Simply select text to read, wave your mouse over to the easily seen button, click “Speak”, and text is read, even if the desktop application is not loaded. But, wait, there’s more, a bonus zoom plus and minus to avoid a trip into the menus to change text size. As long as you can see the toolbar buttons, text-to-speech is just a click away.

Uh, oh, I’m starting to sound like a commercial here, but my point is simple: this particular product in the low-cost text-to-speech application space performs a lot of functions your vision may not be able to handle.

Really, synthetic voices are a miraculous technology that enables your brain to understand text as if human-read. Older, i.e. 1990ish voices, the ones built into Windows, sound robotic while newer voices are “natural” derived from slices of human speech. We’ll explore these more in a future posting, including fascinating studies about how our brains are socially biased in their speech wiring. Listen to sample readings on an informative and vision-friendly podcast, Allison Sheridan’s NosillaCast at http://www.podfeet.com

TextAloud can be purchased with a bundle of voices which sell individually for around $30. Yes, indeed, buy yourself a choir of male-female, old or young, American-Brit accented voices for a variety of listening experiences. Beware if you are low on GB of disk space as these voice data files are large, upwards of 200 MB to 800 MB. Get to know Kate and Paul, Mike and Crystal, Ray, Claire, Alex, and their developers at RealSpeak, NeoSpeech, ViaVoice, Microsoft, Cepstral, and the home grounds at ATT Labs.

OK, here’s the down-sides of this product. It comes with “skins” to change its look, but they are all way too bright for my photo-receptors so only the No-skin look is available, but it can be customized for font size and color. I like Ariel, size 14 or 16. White or Yellow on a Dark Blue background. Another problem is that opening a Microsoft Word file means suffering template and installation messages as Word itself is opened, and, no, I can’t take it back to the former employer I got it from .For my eyesight and keyboard skills, a drop-down box listing the currently active files is confusing and hard to use. But none of these are show-stoppers nor any worse than other products.

Other applications I’ve used with satisfaction for similar tasks, especially the “read from clipboard” function, are CoolSpeech from http://www.bytecool.com and ACE-HIGH from http://www.textreader.net/ Unfortunately, CoolSpeech ran afoul of my virus checking software and lost its clipboard functionality. This blog post isn’t a product review but here’s one Disability Professional’s product assessment from Beth Case at Disability411 podcast #YYY at URL.

As both a visually impaired user and a software developer myself, I’ve noticed one significant difference among applications in their model of handling multiple requests for readings coming from browsers and other apps copying to the clipboard TextAloud uses a Blocking model, where any request to reads is rejected until the current is done, with an accompanying beep if desired. CoolSpeech uses a sequential reading model where requests are queued and read to completion, one after another. ACE HIGH uses an Interruption model where a read may not completed with new requests starting immediately. Your satisfaction with a product may depend on how well your usage profile matches its read sequencing model.

One final note of warning is that all the voices and applications I’ve tried are easily over-loaded by multiple requests or voice changes, starting to slow down, stop, or speak at the same time, or otherwise babble. TTS isn’t perfect but works amazingly well.

So, here’s a type of desktop application, and one particular satisfied customer for one leading product that Vision Losers can consider. In our theme of “As Your World Changes”, you may find tools like this necessary and/or sufficient some days, or in some lighting situations. With a modest investment in software and voice data files, you now have a classy interface for reading on your PC or mp3 or CD players. Of course, sighted people can use these tools also, but often seem, in our terminology, to be happy with “their eyeballs glued to their screens”, or printed pages, reading the old-fashioned way. Visually impaired people are sometimes the early adopters of technologies like these and go through an evolutionary phase of learning to listen in order to survive in an information-rich world.

Check these out:

Voice samples in NoscillaCast #102 and #103 at http://www.podfeet.com. Other assistive technology information, also.

Disability Professional’s take on many low-cost assistive technology products http://disability411.jinkle.com/show23.htm

TextAloud product from http://www.nextup.com

CoolSpeech product from http://ww.bytecool.com

ACE HIGH Text-to-Speech from http://www.textreader.net.

Future blog articles: “Wired for Speech” book and studies by Stanford professor Clifford Nass; “synthetic voices all around”, co-evolving with humans; high-and-low cost screen readers; how applications speak.