Archive for December, 2007

Virtual Stocking Stuffers for Vision Losers

December 11, 2007

To overcome my life-long tendency to emulate Scrooge at this time of the year, I am happy to share some pointers to gadgets, gear, and comfort items I have come to appreciate especially in my first full year of diminished vision.


Now, is this theme about stockings that are virtual or are the stuffers of a virtual kind? Both, really, these are things one might want to buy for oneself or for a Vision Loser family member or acquaintance. One thing I have learned is that cost is more than money. The overhead of making a purchase, tracking receipts and accounts, setting up a working version of something, and integrating it into my routine takes a precious commodity — physical and mental energy. Any gift that reduces energy load and doesn’t require disproportionately more energy to acquire and maintain is especially helpful to Vision Losers.


First, the “free” stuff, meaning worth a trial and consideration for investing learning time. I have written about the nvAccess, an open source screen reader nvda project based in Australia. This remains my mainstay for reading text and navigating screens, getting better all the time. This organization is also a great place for an end-of-year donation as are other vision-assisting organizations like mdSupport.org, information and community for macular degenerates.

Based on interviews and recommendations within the blind community, as heard on ACB Radio Main Menu, Accessible World, <a and Blind Cool Tech, I am starting to use vision-avoiding software FileDir and TextPal from Jamall Mazrui, a Microsoft-oriented developer. Downloadable FileDir sets up easily with a gazillion shortcuts and menu entries that expand and provide an alternative model for Windows Explorer, notably tagging files and directions as opposed to extending selections, talking responses to actions, and conversion to text of PDF, DOC, and other less speaking applications. Accessible Software has other utilities to try.


What every Vision Loser learning to type with reduced vision needs is a really good spelling checker that reads mis-spelled words, suggestions, and context. Kurzweil 1000 has by far the best checker but that’s $1000 software, which also supports easy document scanning. Since I use the absolute minimalist Windows Notepad for most typing, exactly because it doesn’t have extra tricky functionality, I am asking my Santa for a stand-alone spelling checker just like K1000 – please, please, please. A neat feature of Google, as related on the Google blog, topic “accessibility” is its ability to correct proper nouns you might hear but cannot spell, giving the most popular spelling on the web.


In the low-cost gift category are the Microsoft mouse models with magnifiers, especially the larger one with extra buttons for assigning functions, as discussed in our early post on “Mouse Hacks”. Don’t forge to strip this gift of its hard plastic cover which can stymie just about any human let alone someone who can’t see where to poke a sharp instrument. Avoid a trip to the emergency war.


For the beginner Vision Loser and a great all-around bargain is TextAloud for nextup.com to read saved documents or text copied to a clipboard, also converting to mp3 files for digital player listening. With a few checks in your browser menus, you can have a TextAloud toolbar to read pages with an added bonus of of zoom buttons. And don’t forget the premium voices that over-ride the robot-like Microsoft Sam, Mary, and Mike. In fact, if your gift recipient likes to listen to long-playing materials or is picky about voices, you can assemble a small choir of Neospeech, Reals peak, Nuance, Cepstral and other voices at about $30 each. Except for Cepstral, which had license problems, these voices work nicely with nvda screen reader and the documents it reads out.


A surprisingly useful piece of equipment is an external keyboard. Plug in its USB receiver, recline before the warm fireplace, and practice your screen reading skills, like “speed browsing”. Once you have unglued your eyes from a screen, your versatility of skills can promote more degrees of comfort than you might imagine. These full-sized keyboards are available for <$100 from most consumer stores, but it helps to add in a lap board and maybe a wrist rest as faster fingers and a different posture can put a lot of load on thumbs and wrists. Safety-first says my guiding philosophy (previous post) and no need to invite the secondary disability of repetitive strain injuries.


The world of so-called Independent Living Aids has some amazing stuff. I use more than I had expected a little sensor and voiced reader that tells me the color of clothes, so I less often pack mis-matched blue and black for a trip. It’s cute, saying “blue” in kind of a tentative voice, requiring a good window of natural sunlight, and, unfortunately, failing to tell me when I leave home with a sweater on wrong side out. My next consumer goals are lables for just about everything and a system for finding the stuff I mis-place.


If your Vision Loser has reached the certifiable level of print disability, congratulations, memberships in Bookshare.org is available at $75 + a trip to eye doctor for the certification. 35,000 books, many recent best sellers and a host of disability-related texts, await someone who needs to expand or replace physical book collections. A voiced reader is needed, on PC or hand-held. Bookshare will be expanding rapidly as a provider under U.S. Department of Education grant funds of textbooks to print-disabled students across the U.S. within limits of student eligibility and publisher constraints. Moreover, a constellation of book clubs is now starting up at Friends of Bookshare chat room. Bookshare propagates the National Federation of the Blind Newsline to deliver newspapers right to your doorstep.


Switching over to hand-held reading appliances, new this year is the Victor Reader Stream from Humanware. I prefer the Bookport from American Publishing House for the Blind which is unfortunately out of stock until components are available for the next major release. The Stream, like the Bookport, is about the size of a pack of cards, with content loaded onto its storage card from a PC, then reading text with a synthetic voice. Digital Talking Books from Bookshare. podcasts, other mp3 files and all kinds of memos can be copied to the Stream and annotated using its voice recorder. Of course, just like the teens get for gifts, there’re all kinds of accessory ear bud’s, mini-speakers, even incorporated into pillows (hint, hint!).


Way up the ladder of costs is the remarkable Icon PDA from Levelstar at $1400 + optional promised $400 docking station. Integrated with Bookshare, working well with a home wireless network, and containing fully functional email, browser, and RSS/podcast clients, the Icon is with this Vision Loser hours a day. In fact, my newspapers are delivered without getting out of bed, along with a first pass at email, podcasts, and many mailing lists. I suppose my TV still works, if I could find the remote, but the Icon provides most of the news I used to get from papers and magazines and TV. In fact, my favorite radio and TV shows , Lehrer news hour and WAMU Diane Rehm, are available in podcast format. And the speed of reading using the Icon is amazing, with no page flipping, and, of course, no need to recycle piles of paper. I would not put the Icon into the hands of someone yet to become comfortable with synthesized voices, but there’s no need for learning a screen reader with an Icon, because there is no screen, only voiced menus. And Le`velstar provides an exceptional set of podcast tutorials, including upgrade changes.


And I, this geeky Vision Loser, offer a free podcatcher, @Podder from apodder.org. While other podcatchers, like on the Icon, provide convenient download and, listen, and throw away podcasts, @Podder supports collections of podcasts on hobbies, news, whatever someone might think worth collecting to listen to later, for reference or repeat enjoyment. In fact, this blog is sprinkled with web pages of podcasts from a growing library of over 2000 podcasts on eyesight-related topics. For the more advanced listener, here are OPML files if you want to track accessibility progress or listen into the lively blind community podcasts and blogs eyesigh related blogs and podcast. Use Podzinger audio search to find podcasts of specif eyesight topics.


But, for all the good cheer my geeky devices bring me, my immediate geographical community is disappointing. There is only one bus, making mainly the mall route hourly. A community center was built within walking distance of my home but without even a sidewalk, requiring a stretch of walking next to traffic in a bike lane. The only mobility trainer in the county is booked for months, so I cannot get the training I need for more comfortable and safe traveling. The local newspaper is a loss for website browsing, not available on Newsline, limiting my awareness of local events. Ok, the U.S. has such wealth, but skewed priorities against disability, a bitter lesson for the newly disabled. At least, next year I will be back on a level playing field for health insurance with Medicare. If only one of the vacant over-priced houses in my neighborhood could be converted to social services, then independent Vision Losers, with many more Baby Boomers soon to have failing eyesight, could make the transition more gracefuly, safely,, and productively. A lump of coal to those who cannot see the value of taxes as investments in the younger, the older, and the differently abled. And a heap more coal to the many who don’t realize this basic truth: “Designing for the disabled produces better products for all” because the disabled expose the design flaws and suggest solutions the “fully abled” would not think of.


Please visit @Podder collected podcasts on eyesight topics for a broad sampling of the news, reviews, personal revelations, and activist actions of trickle-down helpfulness from the blind community.