Thursday, April 6, 2017

Leaving the Laptop Behind: Accessories For iOS Devices


As iOS devices and apps have improved, the notion of leaving the laptop behind and using your iOS device plus portable accessories grows more tempting. I have now crossed over that line. My laptop is used only at home while my iPHONE7 and a small light bag of accessories comes along with me. Generally speaking, I don't miss the laptop at all. However, part of the reason for this is that I'm very familiar with how to do things on iOS. If you're just learning the basics, keep the laptop handy until you've grown comfortable with iOS and any accessories you choose. To achieve the same speed as when using a laptop, you need to know VoiceOver gestures as well as what your options are. This isn't a transition made overnight. You will initially take longer to do things until you become more proficient with the iOS environment.

There are an overwelming number of accessories and plenty of choices in all categories. These include different cases, external batteries [often called power banks], speakers, headsets, earbuds, keyboards, etc. Accessibility for blind people is not often a consideration when these are designed. However, there are devices which are more accessible than others by shere accident. Below, we'll look at some accessory choices I've made and how I approached them. Your travel kit will likely differ from mine depending on your specific needs, budget and priorities.

Adding to the difficulty of selecting the best possible gear, it's hard to try before you buy when it comes to accessories. Sometimes, you can go to a store and find demo units available. However, most often, there won't be that option as stores don't want to open items and then not be able to sell them. This is especially true for less expensive items. Much of the time, you'll be orderring accessories online and relying completely on reviews and descriptions found there. This is especially true if you include devices which are being crowd funded on Kickstarter or Indiegogo. You can come across some very innovative ideas there. For instance, the Power Cap, funded on Kickstarter. It's a hat outfitted with solar panels and small rechargable battery. A good thought in theory. Just because a large company hasn't thought of exactly what you might want, that doesn't mean someone with the skills and resources isn't trying to fund production and get started. Crowd funding has proved to be a very effective way of funding products aimed at niche markets including devices more accessible to blind users.

Thankfully, there are reviews and descriptions of pretty much everything on the web. Mine them for the info you need to make the most informed choices possible when selecting your gear. Written reviews, podcasts, and video reviews are all very useful tools. Even if you can't see the video, reviewers tend to describe important tactile aspects in passing. You might also hear any sounds made by accessories such as how keys or buttons sound when pressed or voice prompts spoken by accessories. Look beyond what the manufacturers say. Chances are good that someone has tried what you're interested in. Learn from their experience whenever possible.

Why not a Notetaker or Laptop:

Inevitably, people will ask why you'd go through all the bother of acquiring accessories to overcome shortcomings of your iOS device rather than just taking a laptop or notetaker. It all comes down to portability, ease of repair, and economics. If something goes wrong with your laptop, you're completely out of action digitally speaking. It's a single unit which will need repair. Meanwhile, your iOS device is already a powerful enough computer for most student or travel needs. The iPHONE further gives you a fully accessible smartphone plus GPS capability in a single pocket-sized device. Information is stored in the cloud so the risk of information loss is very minimal should disaster strike your iOS device. The accessories are individually far less expensive to replace if necessary. If you send a keyboard away for repair, you aren't missing the rest of the capabilities of your iOS device while it's being worked on. Also, there are utually inexpensive accessories, like the Amazon Basics bluetooth keyboard for instance, which you could purchase if desperate. Accessories such as batteries, speakers, and keyboards typically last a long time so need not be replaced when you upgrade to a new iOS device. When it's time to upgrade a laptop or notetaker, you're generally replacing the entire device paying a substantial amount of cash in order to do this. Having external accessories last potentially long enough to be used with several iOS devices maximizes economic efficiency so you can pick your moments when it comes to upgrading various components of your overall system. Very good for people on tight budgets. For example, I'm waiting for improvements promised by Bluetooth version 5 to make their way into the next generation of speakers. Once that happens, I'll think about replacing the speaker I currently cary.

The iOS ecosystem is far more economical than others. Apps are often far less expensive and take advantage of the work Apple has done adding accessibility features to the operating system. You can make use of many of the same apps everyone else does. They need not be specially produced for blind people. That lowers the cost of adding capabilities to your iOS device like you wouldn't believe. It also makes relating to sighted people who use the same iOS devices easier. Sharing information, communicating, and tapping into the same markets for digital goods like books, music, and apps as everyone else are huge advantages blind people simply haven't experienced before iOS devices became accessible.

Bluetooth Keyboards:

Typing fast enough to take class notes on an iPHONE or iPAD is pretty much impossible for most of us. People with very good muscle memory might possibly manage. Feeling around making certain you have the right character slows me down considerably. Don't even think about trying to use Siri to dictate your notes in a classroom setting. Touchscreen keyboards are good for writing short emails, notes and contact info but for serious rapid sustained writing, a tactile keyboard is a must.

Step 1: Think about what your ideal keyboard would be like. Have a firm grasp on what you're after. You won't likely get exactly what you want but it gives you a starting point.

My ideal keyboard would be rigid enough to use on my lap when necessary. It wouldn't be too compact and would stick as closely as possible to a Qwerty design. Good tactile key travel and function buttons were important. I didn't want situations where I accidentally invoked a function like muting sound which was controlled by a flat pad I couldn't distinguish by touch.

Step 2: Pick one or two characteristics and start looking for keyboards which have them. Alternatively, think of what kind of person might want a keyboard like your ideal one. For me, that was authors. It had to be comfortable to do serious lengthy writing on. That comfort clearly trumped smaller size. It also had to be rugged so it would withstand bumping against things. If I go through the trouble of getting used to a keyboard, it had better last a long time. This thought exercise gives you plenty of good ideas for words to include in online searches. Google is very good at dishing out meaningful results from a few well-chosen keywords or phrases separated by commas.

Step 3: Go through reviews your initial criteria pointed you to and narrow down the prospects by what you read about them. Think long-term satisfaction here. It's worth paying a little extra if you plan on living with your decisions for as long as possible like I do most of the time. I would even go so far as waiting until I had the money to obtain a really critical part of your kit like a good comfortable keyboard.

Result: I chose a Microsoft Universal Mobile keyboard. I read reviews and descriptions of many different Bluetooth keyboards. However, the Microsoft one kept coming up as being the closest thing to what I wanted. Video reviews let me hear the sound of the keys in use and also described aspects like the power button on the side. It had a rigit magnetic cover which folded open like a book and could be removed to be used as a stand. It would also serve as a tray to put my iPHONE on while typing with it on my lap. Reviewers praised its comfortable size of 85% of a full keyboard and good tactile feedback. Battery life was excellent letting people go at least a week of average use without charging. Closing the cover turned the keyboard off automatically. It was still one of my more expensive investments but I found it on sale and pounced.

When the keyboard arrived, it turned out to be a bit too short for totally comfortable use on my lap. It was perfectly possible with my knees close together. The keys felt good and it was nice and sturdy. The function buttons have turned out to be an even more valueable addition now that I'm using AirPods which lack volume and playback controls. I've been very happy overall with this purchase. For increased comfort and efficiency, I later acquired a Grifiti lapdesk designed for tablets and small keyboards. This let me set my iPHONE in portrait mode beside the keyboard with both items being very stable and comfortable in my lap. A very nice combination which fits into a small shoulderbag along with other items.

Beware The Lag:

When it comes to speakrrs, earbuts and headsets, blind people have a major concern which superseeds all others. That is to minimize or completely avoid Bluetooth lag. Blind people require VoiceOver's responses to their actions to be as close to instant as possible. Even a split second delay can be very frustrating. If you're sighted, imagine having to wait a half-second before the character you typed appeared on screen. Sound delay doesn't matter as much for listenning to music. It's just ear candy. However, lag becomes bothersome when you rely exclusively on sound to function. To avoid lag, look for a highg Bluetooth version number. Don't get anything using Bluetooth 4. Bluetooth 4.1 is as low as you should be willing to go. Higher is better. Bluetooth 5 is ready and products that use it will shortly enter the market. This will give better speed, more reliable connectivity and range. Bluetooth 5 should make dealing with lag a thing of the past. Until then, look for 4.1 and 4.2. Apple uses its W1 chip to enhance Bluetooth connectivity solving many problems. My AirPods have no lag, are dirt simple to pair and have good battery life. For me, lack of volume and other control on the AirPods was a small price to pay for completely wireless operation and extreme portability. I don't mind using my iPHONE to perform these functions. Also, when I'm using my Bluetooth keyboard, it has those volume and playback functions built in. AirPods work wonderfully for me along with my hearing aids and combine unexpectedly good sound with extreme portability. However, I wouldn't use AirPods while walking outdoors. They are tiny and it would be too easy to lose them if they ever fell out of your ears. Also, earbuds block too much of your ability to hear your surroundings. Concern is growing even for sighted people about this constant quest for sound isolation. For blind people, it's vital to hear what's happening around us.

These conserns lead me to seek a good outdoor alternative. Aftershokz offers wired and Bluetooth bone conduction headsets. Basically, transducers positionned in front of your ears send sound through your bones leaving ears free to hear what's around you. These have tactile controls, voice guidance, and don't block your ears leaving them free to hear your surroundings. They also are very unlikely to fall off. You lose some sound quality compared to other headsets or Airpods but it's worth the trade when outdoors or while your ears are wet after swimming or taking a shower.

The shopping procedure is the same for audio accessories as with the keyboard. Think about what you want and then look for options which give you as much of what you're after as possible. Think long-term. Many accessories can get firmware updated. This allows manufacturers to make improvements after products are in the field. AirPods can receive such updates so Apple can improve them taking customer feedback into consideration. I expect my AirPods to last years and made my choice with long-term satisfaction in mind.

Be mindful of power required by these accessories. Apple AirPods last around 5 hours but have a charging case which contains enough for multiple charges. I likely won't have to use an external battery to recharge them between opportunities to plug in most of the time. You can use and charge them separately charging one while using the other. That won't be an option with headsets. While they're charging up, you're out of action unless you have a backup plan like using Lightning earpods which come with iOS devices or a spair Bluetooth headset or earbuds.

Sometimes, you can find devices with nice extra features. For instance, there are Bluetooth speakers with built-in FM radio capability. The USB charging cable which comes with the device serves as an antenna allowing good FM reception. Read reviews carefully to help determine how easy to operate and how tactile the controls on devices are. If devices use buttons that are hard to feel or touchscreen controls, you may not be able to use them. Also, there are companies who are more aware of accessibility issues. Aftershokz are a good example as they equip their headsets with voice prompts and have tactile controls.

Extra Power:

Blind people can put heavy demands on the batteries in iOS devices. Setting the screen brightness to 0 helps conserve power so blind people should do this. The VoiceOver screen curtain feature doesn't actually turn off the screen. It merely obscures the contents. Setting screen brightness to 0 saves a nice bit of power. However, GPS, cellular and Wifi connectivity, Bluetooth and constantly producing audio drains power. You can turn off things like Wifi if you're not using it. Airplane mode shuts down all transmition of any kind from your iOS device and is helpful when you want to recharge your device rapidly. However, if you turn off Bluetooth, AirPods and other Bluetooth audio accessories won't work. You'll likely need Bluetooth on all the time. The more connectivity you turn off, the less potentially useful your iOS device is. You can't receive a phone call or text message while in airplane mode unless you specifically turn on the needed capabilities. Same goes for handy apps like Identifi which need Internet connectivity. These devices are so helpful that we want them to be ready whenever we need them. Extra portable power doesn't cost a fortune and just makes sense.

Apple sells cases which contain additional battery power for their products. For people likely to forget extra gear like external batteries, this can be a very good idea. They offer an additional advantage of communicating their level of charge to your iOS device so you can know how much you have remaining. However, cases built for your current iOS device might not be useable on future ones. Changes in size and the position of ports can easily render a case useless once you trade in your old iPHOnE for a nice new one.

Going with external batteries, you will almost certainly be able to use them on future iOS devices for as long as the batteries can keep recharging. All rechargeable batteries will eventually ware out. However, they are relatively inexpensive to replace when that's necessary. I have yet to hear of a talking external battery or one which communicates it charge level to your iOS device. Short of asking a sighted person with you or using an app like Be My Eyes, there's no way to know how much charge your external battery has. Therefore, you need to get into the habit of charging them up regularly. Get more power than you need so that if you forget to charge the battery or are away from power sources for longer than expected, you'll be ready to cope.

Another thing to remember is that most of these batteries can serve as relatively powerful flashlights. This usually involves pressing a button located on the battery. A handy feature for sighted people but a liability for blind people who can't tell when they've accidentally activated the flashlight. One way for blind people to deal with this independently is to have a light detector app and use your iOS device's camera moving it near where the flashlight in the battery is. This is usually on the top near the power ports.

Batteries have a capacity measured in MA. An iPHONE7 has an internal battery which holds roughly 2000 MA when fully charged. An iPHONE7 holds 2900 MA. An iPAD Air2 holds around 8000 MA. An iPAD Pro has a 10300 MA battery. The general premise is that these batteries should last a day of typical use. In practice, this pretty much never happens. Talk of people running out of charge during their day is constant. Accessories are also prone to this need for additional power. My Aftershokz Trekz Titanium headset has around 830 MA and lasts around 6 hours of continuous use. Were I to use that for a full day, I'd have to recharge the headset at least once. The iPHONE would need at least a full charge and possibly more presuming heavy constant use. If you're using it as a laptop replacement, reading audio books, navigating with GPS and actually <gasp> talking on the phone, that qualifies as heavy use. You would easily burn through around 3500 to 4000 Ma or thereabouts over a long busy day.

The tradeoff is normally power available versus weight and size of a given external battery. You can get batteries holding around 27000 MA which weigh a couple of pounds and easily fit in a purse or bag. However, they're too large to fit easily into a pocket. At the other end of the spectrum, you can get batteries the size of credit cards which offer around 2000 MA of charge. Most of the time, you'll have opportunities to charge daily. Given that, I recommend a 10000 MA battery. These can easily fit in a pocket along with your iPHONE and AirPods. Anker makes good reliable light and portable batteries. They also produce other charging equipment like durable Apple-certified lightning cables. Most external batteries don't automatically come with a Lightning cable included so keep that in mind. Use the one which came with your device plugging the USB end into the battery and the lightning end into your device. Spare cables are quite inexpensive. I recommend you obtain one to be kept with your external battery at all times.

Cases:

It's generally a good idea to get a case to protect your iOS device. You will eventually drop it, knock it off a desk, or worse. Considering how much you'll come to rely on your device, investing in a case is a no-brainer. Picking the right one requires some care. Shape matters. The battery case for iPHONES has a hump on the bottom where the battery is. The extra power is certainly handy. However, the hump protruding from the bottom might destabilize the phone when it's on a flat surface. Some cases are thicker than others. There are cases designed to be extra rugged for adventure travel. Others offer built-in collapsable Bluetooth keyboards. Many offer extra battery capacity. Some offer extra data storage operating like flash drives for computers.

Keep in mind that unlike other accessories, cases are likely not going to be useable when you eventually upgrade to a new iOS device. The thicknesss, port positions, size and shape of iPHONES and iPADS has changed enough to render many cases totally useless on more current iOS devices. That makes me stick with rugged simplicity. I use cases for protection only and find other accessories which I can continue to use after upgrading. I chose an Otterbox Defender case. It's thin, flat and offers reasonable protection. Lifeproof makes cases which are waterproof and offer even better protection. However, they had a reputation for muffling the sound coming from the speakers of your device. This might be an issue when not using headsets or other audio accessories. Some cases have slots for Lightning cables which are less forgiving of cable ends with thicker material surrounding the lightning end of the cable. That might prevent you from using some lightning-connected accesssories or docks. Most good cases these days have built-in screen protectors. If the case you're looking at doesn't have that, don't even consider it. Sticking on screen protectors is annoying and utterly unnecessary given the affordable protective cases available.

Conclusion:

There are plenty of choices in your approach to accessorizing your iOS device. For starters though, don't forget the basics. You should obtain a spare Lightning cable and power brick from Apple so you're never without the ability to charge your device. A spare set of EarPods is also a good idea. These are very inexpensive items and are widely available. You can put together a travel bag which is easily slung over a shoulder and weighs far less than ten pounds. This weight could even include an external battery which could keep your system fully chared for a week's activity. This kind of easy portability and reliability is incredibly liberating. Particularly since most of the actual core capability can fit in a pocket presuming you use an iPHONE or iPOD as your computing power. iPADs are larger but are very light and thin devices. Their larger screen size can be tremendously helpful to people with useable vision.

Going beyond these basics, have a clear idea of what capabilities you want. If you're planning on doing a lot of adventure travel, you may want to look into ways of keeping your devices powered while off the grid. There are external batteries capable of handcrank or solar recharging. If you attend parties, you may want a Bluetooth speaker capable of allowing multiple users to easily pair and play songs. Such speakers absolutely exist. Most Braille displays can pair with your iOS device over Bluetooth and work with VoiceOver. Should you live with other disabilities, there are all sorts of switch controls and other accessories which may be helpful. There are even game controllers for hardcore players. New and better accessories appear all the time.

Manufacturers of accessories are quick to advertise if they work with iOS devices. As long as you take the time to read descriptions carefully, you won't end up with something that is completely incompatible. For blind people, it's very important to pay attention to details of interface. How easy is it to operate a given accessory strictly by touch and hearing? That's where it can really pay off to check out reviews from people who have used the devices you're considering. A good place to start is:

www.applevis.com

They have a growing number of accessory reviews in addition to their extensive information about apps. Often, there are even podcasts available where people discuss various accessories. In addition to Applevis, check out:

www.blindbargains.com

and

www.coolblindtech.com


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Acquiring and Reading Books on iOS Devices


Your iOS device is a wonderful key to reading books accessibly as a blind person. I do the majority of my reading on my iPHONE and have done so for years now. For most of my life, the choice of what I could read and when I could read it depended on the efforts of libraries for the blind. By the time I got to read a best seller, let alone something more obscure, it was years after my sighted friends and family had read it and stopped thinking about it. If you were truly desperate to read a popular book while your friends were, you could pay five times as much as your friends paid for a paperback book to get an audio edition on CD. Over the past decade, a great deal of change has taken place. Thanks to the rise in popularity of ebooks and audio books, those days are gone for good.

Apps like iBOOKS, Kindle, Audible, and Voice Dream Reader let blind people tap into commercial sources of books paying the same as everyone else does for precisely the same books while they're still brand new to everybody. These books can be read on a Braille display, high-quality synthetic speech, or narrated by a professional human reader depending on your choice of book provider and personal preference. No extra work need be done by charitable organisations to make this astounding historic change possible. Instead, the work is done by the companies providing the books in Ebook or digital audio formats. They invest in making certain their apps are accessible to Voiceover, Apple's built-in screen-reader. This allows the accessing of Ebooks by reading them out loud or translating them into Braille on the fly and sending the result to a Braille display.

Twenty years ago, I walked the hallways of my school weighed down by a backpack containing around forty pounds of Braille volumes containing what I hoped were the right fractions of my text books for the day's classes. People too close behind me when I turned a corner were apt to be crushed into a wall. It's now possible for blind people to own a vast library far exceeding 1000 accessible books and cary it with them in a pocket. This has profoundly liberated me. Now the books I read are precisely the books I wish to. Although I still make use of a digital library for the blind, the bulk of what I read are books I have purchased paying the same price as any sighted reader would. Below, I'll discuss the various sources of audio and Ebooks which I make use of as well as the apps needed to acquire and read books.

iBooks: Bookstore, Shelf and Reading Room Combined

Apple tends to favour convenience and simplicity. You see this in all of its stores and apps. Using the iBooks app, you are able to purchase and read books including audio books all from within the same app. The interface is very accessible and intuitive. There's no need to have mastered browsing the web or to register accounts with different book vendors. Everything is handled through your Apple ID. For new users, this is especially compelling. Well over a million books are made available on iBooks. Keep in mind, however, that publishing isn't Apple's core business. You may find that the book you want isn't available as an iBook. This is especially true for books which are off the beaten path of best sellers. Also, other book vendors are far more aggressive with pricing and offering bargains. This makes a tremendous difference if you're buying books all the time. There are free books as well as ones you pay for. Like other ebook publishers, there are special sales and offers. However, obtaining a large library of ebooks will cost you more than it would on Amazon Kindle or other venues. You can get audio books as well but they can be gotten more cheeply elsewhere presuming patience and discipline.

There are tabs across the bottom of the screen which, when double-tapped, expose different areas of activity. In this case, from left to right, they are: "My books", "Features", "Top Charts", "Search", and "Purchased". At the top of the screen, there is an action area containing options which change contextually depending on the tab you're in.

My Books:

In the "My Books" tab where you start initially, you will first encounter a "grid view" button. This toggles between showing your collection as a list or a grid of books. Double-tapping the button will cause it to change to a grid view. I recommend leaving this alone as a list view with books in a sequential line is easier to navigate. Flicking right of that button, you will come to a series of buttons concerning which of your book collections you want to focus on and how to organize them. Tooks in a series will be grouped together. Double-tapping on the series will take you to a list containing only the books in the series. 

Features:

In the "features" tab, the action area at the top contains a "category" button and two further buttons allowing you to select between regular books and audio books narrated by human readers. This is a busy area with headings and buttons giving quick access to books being currently featured. Think of it as special displays and sales found in a traditional bookstore. Set the rotor to headings to make navigation faster and easier. Flick up and down to reach different headings. There are more headings than you think. Flick right to move off a heading and flick down to another heading. Flick left and right to explore item by item. There will be books and also buttons giving access to selections of books. The main features page attempts to show as many different things as possible so these buttons give access to more content belonging to a certain collection. Look especially for "see alll" buttons. iBOOKS is full of them. They let you see all of the books in a feature of interest. This lets the "Features" area pack a whole lot more variety in a confined space.

Top Charts:

This tab lets you look at what books are currently the most popular. There are charts for top paid and free books. Use the "see all" button under the heading to get access to all entries in the top chart you're interested in. Also, note the "categories" button at the top left. It lets you choose a category such as history, reference, science fictionn. You can then look at the paid and free top charts of books in that category. Looking at the various top charts under the "free" heading seems to be the best way of browsing free titles. There must be thousands available but other than using the free top charts, there seems to be no way of restricting your searches to free titles.

Search:

This lets you search for specific titles or authors. After double-tapping the "search" tab, touch the top left of the screen and flick right. You'll come to an edit field where you can input one or more terms to search for. Double-tap this to indicate your intention to type in that area. Voiceover will say "is editing". A keyboard has now appeared on the screen and you may type text into it. To the left of the space bar, there is a "dictate" button. Double-tap on this and listen for the short beep which lets you know that your devices is listening. Say the book title or author's name you're interested in and then wait or double-tap anywhere on the device to end dictation. When done typing or dictating, use the "search button which appears at the bottom right of the virtual keyboard. Because you're in an edit field, the tabs are not shown. Once you double-tap the "search" button, your device will execute the search.

Instead of enterring and typing anything in the search field, flick right and you'll discover a list of trending searches in the form of buttons. Double-tapping on these will execute the appropriate search as if you had typed it into the field at the top left. It's always good to be able to know what others are looking into.

After executing a search, touch the top left of the screen and flick right. You will soon be flicking over the results of your search. When you find the title of a book that interests you, double-tap on it. This puts you in the book's entry in the store. Think of it like focussing on a book rather than the rest of the store. The book entry will have a description and other information about the book. There will be reviews, ratings, and lots more. To obtain a book, find and double-tap the "get" button or the price of the book if the book isn't free. This price will be a button just like the "get" button. Follow the rest of the purchase procedure to acquire the book. It will then be downloaded into your library.

Reading iBooks:

To read your book, find and double-tap on the "My Books" tab. Touch the top left of your screen and then flick right until you come to the title of the book. There are buttons to help organise and search through your collection as it gets larger. Books will be automatically organised. If you have books in the same series, they'll be grouped under the series name. Double-tap to go deeper into any group or to open a book.

After double-tapping on a book title, you are placed inside the book. The "library" button found in the top left will take you out of the book and back to your library. While in book-reading mode, the action area at the top left of the screen below the status bar has buttons to help you navigate your book. Flicking right from "library" once gets you to the "table of contents" button. Double-tap this in order to browse through the sections flicking right to scroll through them in order. Double-tap on the section of the book which interests you. Had you kept flicking right, the "search" button would let you search for key words to quickly find areas of particular interest. Once you've selected a section, double-tap on its link to be taken to it. The final button in the action area is the "page bookmark" button. It can be on or off. Flick right once from that and you'll be on your book in the reading area. Using two fingers slightly spaced apart, flick them downward together on the screen to start your book reading continuously. Double-tap anywhere on the screen to pause or resume continuous reading. Using the rotor, you can also read by character, word, line, etc. This can be useful to determine how things are spellt. You can also jump to any notes, headings or links. You can create notes by turning the rotor to "edit" and flicking down to the option. You can also search for words or look up words once you've used the "text selection" rotor setting to highlight them.

Sometimes, you need to find text of a book by feeling around below the top of the screen. Once you find text from the book, flicking downwards with two fingers will start continuous reading. Swiping left or right with three fingers will move to previous and next pages. Books can have pictures and illustrations which aren't always described. Patience and exploring the screen and various options can really pay off.

Kindle Books:

I was absolutely overjoyed when word reached me in 2013 that Amazon had decided to make its Kindle app accessible using VoiceOver. There had been a way to read these book on Windows PCs but it was annoying and poorly implemented. Thankfully, the iOS app received some real loving attention from someone who understood what was needed to make it not only workable but a downright attractive means of reading books. All at once, over a million books including all the popular best sellers were rendered completely accessible and enjoyable.

The main business of Amazon is selling products made by others. It was selling ebooks long before Apple came up with iBOOKs. The books are read using VoiceOver which means you can use any of the voices available to the screen-reader. This includes extremely high-quality voices like Alex, andy of the Siri voices, and other well-known options. Prices of Kindle books are equal to or lower than iBOOKs prices. There are many more book sales and special bargains on the Kindle bookstore than on iBOOKs. Because VoiceOver is used for reading Kindle books, people who have Braille displays can use them to read any Kindle books in Braille translated on the fly into the format of their choice. Amazon also owns Audible. A feature called whispersync lets you buy the Audible book at a reduced price and then keeps track of your position in both the audio and ebook copies. Blind users can then switch at will between hearing a human narrate a book to reading it themselves in Braille. We've never had that flexibility before.

Kindle books are quite small files. I have nearly 1000 books and they take up just over 3 GB of space.

The Amazon Website:

You need to use the Amazon website to obtain Kindle books. Be certain to register with the correct Amazon site for your location. For Canadians, amazon.ca and for Americans, amazon.com. Some books are only offered in certain countries. Also, book deals and special offers may differ.

First, register an acount with Amazon on the appropriate site. Next, get the Kindle app from the app store on your iOS device. You can then open the app and will be presented with an option to register your device with the acount you created on the web site. Once that process is done, you will be ready to acquire and read Kindle books.

You can use your computer as well as your iOS device. The NVDA screen-reader, as well as other popular screen-readers like Jas for Windows, support reading Kindle books on the PC.

The layout of the Amazon web site will differ since there is a special mobile version which will be used on your iOS device. You can request the full desktop site be used but I don't recommend this. Better to get used to how both sites work or else just use the mobile site on your iOS device doing all your purchases with it.

Once you're logged in, find the "shop by department" link. This brings up a menu of links leading to different departments on Amazon. Go to "Kindle store". Once there, flick right and you'll cross lings which lead to Kindle devices and will come to "Kindle books". Activate that link to go to the entrance page to the Kindle books area. Now, any searches you do with the search facilities on the site will be focused on Kindle books.

You'll find headings highlighting various featured books and links to different sections and categories of the bookstore. If you find a book you want to buy or obtain if it's free, double-tap on the title to go to the book's entry on the site. Once there, you can read the book description, reviews, and other information. You can also buy the book. Free books require the same process as ones which cost money. You simply won't be charged. Search for a clasic book like Treasure Island to try obtaining a book. Many classic books are free and so are some modern ones. I haven't found a way to limit searches to free books or any way to browse all free books on the site. There are doubtless thousands.

Be sure to sign up for the Kindle Daily Deal newslettre. Also, each month, look through the Kindle monthly deals. You can get great books for very low prices. I've bought many great books by adding them to my wish list and waiting until they went on sale. You can sort your wish list by using the "list actions" link. Hitting that brings up options which you flick right through. Sorting is one of them and you can sort by price from low to high.

There's never a rush. Take your time and really explore the Amazon site. It pays off.

The Kindle App:

Kindle takes a different approach to interface than the iBOOKs app. When you open the Kindle app, you will either be in your library or else the book you were last reading when you closed the app. Most of the screen is used to display your collection of books or the book you're reading. The menu button at the top left gives access to options which you can then flick left and right through. Double-tap on the one you want. Just to the right of the menu button, there's a place to double-tap in order to dismiss the menu without choosing any options. If you haven't activated the menu, flicking right takes you to the name of the collection you're viewing such as the default "all items". Flick right again to get to the book browser. This lets you search for books in your library and in the Amazon catalogue. You can't purchase books directly from the app but you can add books to your wish list from this book browser.

While in your library, the menu gives options to search your library for a specific title or author, go into various collections of books and documents, accesss help and settings. Flicking left or right gets you through the options and double-tapping executes the one you're currently on. Touching the bottom right corner of the main library screen will get you to another small group of options. You can choose between viewing your full collection in the Amazon cloud or only the books on your device. You'll also find sorting potions there rather than in the menu.

Double-tap on a book title to enter the book.

Reading Books:

The first time you open a book, you'll be presented with information about it. You can go through this or close it. At that point, the whole screen is taken up with the book itself. Swiping down with two fingers starts continuous reading. Double-tapping anywhere on the screen will bring up a small menu of options plus a menu button. There are options in the small menu to leave a bookmark, change viewing options for the current book, access your notebook, and more. Hit the menu button to move from the internal book menu to the larger main menu. This main menu will be what you use most often. It includes a "library" button. Double-tap that to get out of a book and back to your library. It also provides access to the table of contents and lets you jump around in a book. Keep flicking right and you'll eventually get to the table of contents. Flick left to get to the option to return to the book and/or dismiss the menu.

Just remember that if you don't find an option you want in the menu you'reflicking through, find and double-tap the "menu" button to get to the main menu.

While reading, you can use a three-finger swipe left and right to turn pages. You can also use the rotor and all normal Voiceover controls to read by character, word, line, etc. The double-tap and hold gesture brings up yet more options to highlight things in a book, create notes in a digital notebook, look up definitions, share and copy passages of text and more. Great for study notes.

The app packs a lot of options into those three menus; the larger main menu, the minor menu reached by double-tapping and not holding, and the hidden menu accessed by double-tap and hold. If Voiceover hints are enabled, you'll get enough instructions to get you going. Exploration is rewarded. For example, the X Ray option is available in many books. This presents you with information about characters, people, and other important things like terms and concepts in books. Better than Cole's Notes but not available for all books. Another hidden gem is "popular highlights" which shows what others have taken the time to share as being particularly noteable.

Other Sources of Ebooks:

There are many smaller online stores and ebook publishers. This gives independant and new authors a lot more capability to sell their works. It also allows for different methods of funding and different selling arrangements. This makes books from independant authors and books on less popular topics accessible to blind people. I have many books on game creation and design which I've obtained from different sources of ebooks. I paid no more for these accessible books than any sighted customer would. It's exceedingly unlikely that any of these books would turn up in the CELA library, Bard, or other accessible libraries.

Keep in mind that these ebook providers don't have the same kind of resources as Amazon or iBOOKs. They are often very small businesses or even individual people with the skill to set up and run an online site. Depending on their skill and awareness of accessibility issues, their websites may be very different or tricky to use. Also, books may be less navigable due to lack of proper accessibility tags in the files. This won't matter as much for pleasure reading but would make referencing and study more difficult. People should be very comfortable with browsing the web if they want to take advantage of these different sources for books. The rotor is very useful getting to headings, links, buttons and other elements. I also recommend they obtain the Voice Dream Reader app from the app store. While not strictly necessary, it can make certain that you'll be able to navigate your purchased ebooks with relative ease and choose from a wide range of voices for reading.

When downloading using Safari, Once ou click on a download link for a book, flick right and you come to "open in" options. There is also a "more" button which lets you import the file into the app you want to use to read the file. You need not stick with the default options. The Voice Dream Reader app is great for dealing with EPUB, PDF and other formats provided there is no digital rights management or DRM protection. Kindle books usually have DRM and cannot be read outside of their own special app. However, these alternative sources of books don't use proprietary formats making for more options for reading.

Payment is easier if you have a credit card. Many places accept Paypal which can work directly from your bank acount if you set that up. This is useful for people who don't have credit cards. Applepay may be available in more places as time goes on. It can be used on Kickstarter. As with Paypal, you can add a bank card and use it rather than a credit card.

Some Sources of Ebooks:

Story Cartel:

www.storycartel.com

Story Cartel offers free Kindle or PDF copies of books in exchange for your honest reviews of them. These reviews can be published on Amazon, Goodreads, or your own blog if you have one. The purpose is to form relationships between readers and authors. Remember that you have around a month after obtaining a book to post a review and give the link to that review to Story Cartel by completing the form related to the chosen book. You won't be able to obtain more books until you provide links to your reviews.

Kickstarter and Indiegogo:

www.kickstarter.com

www.indiegogo.com

Kickstarter and Indiegogo are often used to fund books which may be of interest. For example, role-playing game books are often funded through Kickstarter and released as pdf or epub files. These can be read using apps like iBOOKS or Voice Dream Reader. Many labours of love are crowd funded though these sites. For instance, a couple of books entitled You Are The Hero were crowd funded and written by Jonathan Green, a very knowledgeable author of Fighting Fantasy books. These books examined the history of this very popular series of adventure game books.

CRC Press:

www.crcpress.com

This is a great place to get text books. Books sold as ebooks use the Vital Source bookshelf app and are in a proprietary format. You need to use the Vital Source bookshelf app to read these books. The Windows PC app is also very accessible. Both are designed to work with screen-readers. People looking for any sort of academic book should check this site out before giving up hope. They even go to the trouble of describing pictures and more visual items.

Bundle of Holding

www.bundleofholding.com

This is a great resource for people interested in roleplaying games, game design, and creating believable fictional worlds. Books are offered in bundles reducing the cost and typically contributing to charities at the same time. Bundles have basic and bonus content depending on how much you decide to spend.

Drivethrough Fiction

www.drivethrufiction.com

This site offers a wide range of lesser known books including mysteries, romance, fantasy, horror and science fiction among other genres. Books are offered in PDF and other popular formats. They are watermarked to identify you as the purchaser. Annoying to hear read out loud on each page but makes it easy to move by pages searching for your own name.

Storybundle

www.storybundle.com

This is a favorite source of books for me. Books are sold in themed bundles. These are written by indie authors and curated by people including authors who have a strong knowledge and interest in the genre or theme of the bundle. Bundles have a basic collection as well as a bonus tier which can be unlocked by paying more than a minimum amount which increases as more people purchase the bundle. Books are free from drm of any kind relying on the honesty of customers not to share books they've purchased. They are in pdf, epub and Kindle formats so there's certain to be one you can use with your favorite reading app. Once you've created an account with Storybundle, you can always download bundles you've purchased previously. A link to your personal download page is sent via email when you purchase a bundle. Usually, there's one bundle being featured on the site. If you click on the covers of books which interest you, a dialogue pops up letting you read about the book whose cover you double-tapped. Finding the "close" button requires feeling around on the screen. I often turn to Google to find out about books within a bundle but the dialogues are fully readable using Safari and Voiceover. Patience and exploration are rewarded here. There's an edit field where you can put in the amount you want to pay. The amount automatically in there is just a suggestion. Look at the bundle to see what the current minimum needed to unlock the bonus is. As long as you're a cent above that, you'l get all the bonus books. It changes as time passes.

Voice Dream REader:

Voice Dream Reader is an app which makes reading different kinds of documents simple and accessible. It can handle ebooks in pdf and epub formats provided they aren't protected by digital rights management or DRM.

It can't read Kindle or iBOOKs since these ebooks are protected by DRM. Many government forms and other documents are available online in PDF format which Voice Dream reader can handle. While reading forms is possible, filling them out isn't. While basic text editing is possible, think of Voice Dream Reader as a reading tool. It can handle zipped audio books including mp3 files and Daisy format books like those from the CELA library.

A real strength of this app is that you can treat documents like music literally playing them in the background. This would let you use your EarPod controls to play a book while on a bus without having to have your iOS device out of pack or pocket. It can work with the screen locked just like you can play music with the screen locked using your headset or earbut controls. For greater control, you need to unlock the screen and have your device handy. The app is designed to help more than just blind people. There are ways to change how documents are display so reading is easier for visually impaired people and people with other reading difficulties. These are found by double-tapping the "visual settings" button. This button is only revealed once a document has been opened for reading. Similarly, the "audio settings" button lets people customize how documents sound. Different synthetic voices can be acquired and managed. Speed, pitch and volume can be set. This app makes extensive use of pop-up menus. Clutter is kept to a minimum. For instance, the "add" button at the top left of the library reveals a pop-up menu of the many ways to ad documents to your library. The same holds true for settings, sorting options, and more.

The Library:

Whenever you open the app, you arrive at your library of documents available on your device. This library can be backed up to iCloud and/or stored and synched on iCloud drive and other devices where you have installed Voice Dream Reader. At the top left is the "add" button. This lets you add documents from different possible sources such as Dropbox, etc.

"Filter" is to the right of "add". You can organise documents into groups, view only documents from a certain source, or look at only flagged or unread documents. For a large collection of documents, creating folders is best. That's done in the "by folder" button in the "filter" pop-up. AFter hitting that, you'll find options to add folder and edit their order or names. You cannot create folders from the initial library screen.

"Edit" is found to the right of "filter" and lets you re-order, move, flag or delete documents. Double-tapping on a document selects it. This lets you select and move or do other things to many documents.

"Search" is found to the right of "edit" This lets you search for documents within whatever filter you're currently in. If you haven't created any folders or selected a certain group of documents, this would searrch the names of all files in your collection displaying those whose names contained what you typed in the search field.

After the search field, you reach the start of your collection of documents or what is within and filters you selected. This can be flicked through or scrolled through with three-fingered upward or downward swipes. Very useful with large collections containing many rows of documents.

The bottom right of the screen contains further options including:

"Sort": Lets you sort documents in different ways such as by date added, length, etc. Doubletapping this causes a pop-up menu of options to appear. Flick through them and double-tap what you want.

"List view" and "grid view": These two option arrange your collection of documents into a grid or list. I find the list view more useful.

"Settings": This causes a pop-up menu of settings to appear. These let you choose and manage cloud synchronisation, set up content sources like Bookshare, and manage or acquire voices to read your documents. You can also obtain help and a copy of the user manual if needed. The manual is short and takes under half an hour to read through. It is organised into headings. You should read this to get the most out of the app. There is also a shorter quick start guide.

"Now Reading": This will always take you directly to where you left off in the last document you were reading. It is always at the bottom right corner of the library screen. Double-tap it to use it.

When Inside a Document:

There are many more actions available from within a document.

"Home": This gets you back to the library screen and is found at the top left of the screen.

"Actions": This presents you with a series of choices letting you export or share the document. You can also edit the text and title of the document with the "edit" option found at the right end of the "action" pop-up menu.

"Reading settings": There are various reading modes to specify whether you stop after finishing a document, keep going through your collection, read by touching text with your finger, or other options. A timer is available which you can use to stop reading after a given time.

"Audio settings": This is where you can choose your preferred voice, obtain new voices, increase or decrease speed, volume and pitch. This lets you quickly make adjustments. Flick up or down on the audio setting button to adjust speed. Double-tap it to get to other options used less frequently. There are many voices available for $3 up to $6 Canadian. Purchased voices will be downloaded to your device and installed. You can always remove and download them again as needed once they've been purchased.

"Visual Settings": There are many options including colour, font, how many lines are visible, cursor position, and much more. These can help people with learning disabilities as well as vision impairments. Pac-man mode is said to help increase reading speed by eliminating words the cursor goes over.

"Add bookmark": You can add as many bookmarks to documents as you like. This can be useful when a document isn't well formatted and doesn't have headings to help navigate quickly through. Once bookmarks have been placed, you can move back and forth using the "headings, bookmarks and highlights" option or via setting the navigation unit to bookmark and then fast-forwarding or rewinding flicking up or down with the play button.

Reading and navigating through a document is done by easily operated controls. Under the area where the text is displayed, there are controls. Touch the bottom right of the screen and flick left or feel around on the lower left of the screen to find them. You can treat your document like it was music. Play and pause with the play button by double-tapping it or with your earpod controls. Flick up or down on the play button to move back and forward. Flick right of the play button to find a "navigation unit" button. This also responds to up or down flicks letting you choose how much flicking up or down on the play button moves you. This can depend on how well the document you're reading is formatted. Some don't have headings but still let you move by sentence, paragraph, page, etc. You can also move to the prior or next bookmark if you've created them in the document. If nothing else, you can always move by percentage of the document.

The CELA Digital Library:

This service offers a vast array of resources to people who are blind, visually impaired, or have other print disabilities such as learning difficulties preventing them from reading print. These include audio books, magazines, newspapers, and much more. There is no charge for library patrons to use these resources. To register with the web site, people will need to know their library account number. If they don't know their account number or need assistance, they should call:

1-855-655-2273

There is a "help" link near the top of the site. This gets you to tutorials and instructions very useful for newcomers to the service. Calling the number given on the site will put people in touch with helpers who can talk you through any initial difficulties and explain things.

Anybody who used the CNIB digital library before in became the CELA library will have a valid library account number. They will likely find they are already registered in the system.

AFter registration is complete, you can make use of the library and services. People who haven't logged in may still explore the site and gain a good grasp of what is there.

General Overview:

People need to be comfortable browsing the web to make good use of the site. Provided beginners take their time, it is a good site to learn how to browse the web on. No risk of accidental purchases since there's nothing to buy. It has been designed for maximum accessibility and is very easy to navigate. Flicking left and right will get you through the various elements. There are headings marking different key portions of the site and the rotor is very useful for getting around quickly.

My Library:

Near the top of the page is the "My Library" link. This gets you to where you can customise and manage your service. You can view information on any loans or books you've placed holds on. You can create reading lists. Also, you can change your personal information and password. There are links and heading to help get around. You can change search preferences here including which accessible formats to include in search results. I did this when I heard about Daisy Text magazines being made available the same day they're published in print. By ticking a checkbox, I added the format to my results. I unticked many formats which don't interest me such as Daisy CDs and other physical ones. If you own a Braille display, books are available in electronic Braille formats. However, I have yet to find an app which makes reading them easy. Voiceover tanslates regular ebooks into Braille. You could therefore use Voice Dream Reader to read Daisy text format books on your Braille display.

After adjusting preferences or other settings, keep flicking right and look for a "save" button which you can double-tap to save any changes you made.

Recommended:

This area features popular books and recommendations based on current community favorites. Headings separate different groups of recommendations and make browsing through possible next reads very easy. There are best sellers, books focussed on a current area of public interest, community picks, and reader suggestions. There is also information on how you can suggest books for recommendation to others as well as suggest titles to be added to the collection.

Searching for and Checking Out books:

On the home page, you'll find a form which lets you do simple searches. If you know the title or author of the book you're interested in, type it in that form and flick right to the search button and double-tap it. This will perform the search. Wait around five seconds for the first page of results to load. Each found entry is under its own heading.Turn the rotor to headings flicking down to get to the next entry and up to go backwards. Flicking right will let you read any information displayed about the entry. This will include a description. You will come across a "play" button letting you hear samples of audio books in Direct to Player format. You'll also come to a "get it" button for each entry. Double-tap on this to check out the book. Direct to play titles will be added to your bookshelf. For other titles such as the new magazines in Daisy Text format, you'll need to download them to your reading app of choice. In Safari, you'll fine an "open in" button with a default app which may be what you want. If not, there's a "more" button. Double-tap that for additional options to appear in a pop-up menu. One of these will be "import to Voice Dream Reader " if you have that app installed.

To the right of that "search" button used with the simple search form, there are "advanced search" and "browse by category" options. These let you perform more detailed searches or simply look at what fantasy, science fiction or non-fiction titles are available. When using the browse by chategory option, a search is performed after you choose a category and results are ordered by date added. Some categories have subcategories. Take time to examine the site and learn your options.

The Newsstand:

This gives access to newspapers and magazines. Headings indicate the start of different areas. There are headings for newspapers, audio magazines, Daisy text magazines and other sources of news. Once at a heading of interest, flick right to go through the contents of that area. There's plenty of help available. For instance, when looking through newspapers, you'll find a "help with newspapers" link right above the list of available newspapers.

Direct To Player:

The Direct to Player app lets people read a large and growing collection of Direct to Player format audio books in the CELA library. The app is very simple to use. Books in Direct to Player format are typically read by human narrators. People who struggle with browsing the web can have librarians automatically keep their bookshelves stocked with titles suiting their interests. The Direct to Play format makes it possible for other devices made solely to play these books more easy to keep stocked as they can receive books automatically.

Overall, this app is relatively easy to use. You don't even need the rotor gesture but it can get you quickly to the top of your bookshelf if it's set to headings. The other key gesture to master is the double-tap and hold. Tap twice and after the second tap, don't lift your finger. Wait for a popup menu to appear with useful options. Since your bookshelf can be stocked automatically by CELA librarians based on your prefered interests, you don't even need to browse the web to get books. Learning to do this and access the CELA library by yourself will increase your enjoyment though.

Your Bookshelf:

There are two tabs found on the bottom right. The one you start out in is "books". This has your bookshelf. Double-tap on a book to open it for reading. Double-tap and hold after the second tap to access options other than reading the book. These include getting details about a book, downloading a book to read while unconnected to the Internet, removing a book from your bookshelf returning it to the library. You can only have a certain number of books checked out at a time so it's important to return them when you're done reading them. To do this, Double-tap and hold on a book title. Hold your finger down until a beep is heard followd by the book's title. Flick right to go over options until you come to "remove from bookshelf". Double-tap on this option. If you've downloaded the book, it will be deleted from your device. Next, when you double-tap the ok button that appears, the book will be removed from your shelf and is no longer checked out to you.

Reading and Navigating a Book:

Double-tap on a book to open it. Once a book is opened, you'll find options letting you hear it and navigate. At the top left is the "back" button which returns you to the library. Flick right to reach other options. The book title is next followd by a "contents" button. Double-tap this to get into the contents screen which lets you get to any section in the book. Flick right to go through this screen. Double-tap on what interests you to jump to that part of the book which will begin playing automatically. Next to the contents button, you'll find the label of whatever section of the book you're reading.

Next to that is a button letting you select a unit of navigation. It might be labelled "chapter", "sentence", "paragraph", "time jump", etc. Double-tapping it toggles to the next setting.

Next is "player settings". You can set playback rate and time jump amount in this area. Previous, next and play buttons come next. These do what their names say. The play button is just above the home button in the centre of the lower edge of the screen. Double-tap it while a book is playing to pause reading. A two-finger double-tap anywhere on the screen will also pause and resume playback.

There is also a sleep timer. You'll find it to the right of the "play" button. Double-tap this and then flick right to find the number of minutes you want reading to continue before it stops.

Last is create bookmark. You can have as many bookmarks as you like in books you have currently checked out. They are deleted when the book is removed from your shelf.

The "More" tab:

In here, you'll find other things like settings. The "help" button is a few flicks from the top left and gives instructions for using the app. The "app settings" button lets you choose whether or not to have hints on. These give extra guidance as you move around the app. Another important setting is whether to allow cellular data to be used to stream and download books. I recommend people use their WIFI when available as books can be large. Some are half a gig.

Quirks to Be Aware of:

Sometimes, you'll try to open or play a book and it won't work. You'll hear repeated beeeping. You may also find that a book fails to be returned when you try that. If these things happen, close the app, re-open it, and try again. You may also find open dialogues saying "server error". These only occur when Direct to Player is running. Just hit the ok button and it'll go away. It's a free service so don't expect the same level of polish and perfection you experience using a commercial service like Audible.

Conclusion:

For me, this new ability to tap into digital libraries and make use of the same commercial sources of ebooks available to the general population has been one of the most astonishing and liberating expansions of capability I've every experienced. I hope what I've written here helps others to become more liberated in their reading as I have. Even on a fixed income, it's possible to enjoy what your friends and family are reading at the same time as they are. Over time, you can build a staggeringly large collection and have it with you whereever you happen to be. Pick your moments and keep a sharp ear out for sales. There are doubtless many sources I have remained unaware of. Those whichf I've covered above have kept me well supplied with books. May they serve you well also.


Friday, March 31, 2017

The iOS Device as Writing Tool and Student Companion:


Twenty-five years ago, I walked through the halls of my secondary school carrying a fifteen-pound Braille writer in one hand and wearing a bag weighing around forty pounds containing the Braille volumes that were fractions of the books I'd need for classes. Later on, I got a well-designed Australian computer called a Eureka A4 which, weighing four pounds, freed me of considerable weight. The battery wasn't reliable enough to get you through a whole school day. Also, Ebooks had yet to arrive on the scene so I still crushed people into walls carrying my forty-pound pack of fractions of books if they got too close behind me when I turned a corner. That experience stays with me. Whenever I receive new accessible technology, I'm always tempted to see how much it can do for students. How much might this or that new device be able to do? How much lighter might it make one's school bag? Might it also help in social ways giving opportunities for relationship and play with others? My equipment tended to baffle others who couldn't read or write Braille. They mostly had a hard time understanding the Australian voice of the Eureka A4 and it had no screen.

Contrast this with an iOS device. These are extremely portable and easily powerful enough for average day to day tasks. They're easily kept charged with a very small and affordable external battery. A battery no larger than a deck of cards can store 10000 MA of ready power. That's enough to easily recharge a modern day iPAD Pro. Smaller iOS devices like the iPHONE7 I write this on have internal batteries which hold around 1800 MA when fully charged. Accessories like Bluetooth keyboards, bone conduction Bluetooth headsets or Apple's AirPods make it possible to operate completely without wires other than those used to recharge what you're using. Nothing protrudes from your back. You don't even have to worry about wires getting snagged on things or pulled out of their ports. Pretty much every student on the planet has heard of your iPHONE, iPOD or iPAD. If he or she doesn't own one, a friend or family member will. You can use these devices to play some of the same games, read the same books, share favorite songs. You didn't have to pay any more to make this device accessible. You might well have gotten it at the same store as your classmate. Here's the stupendous part. Most of this equipment could be carried in a pocket. You'd have enough storage for thousands of accessible books, your favorite music, any apps you needed, and much more. Presuming it was an iPHONE, or you acquired a GPS receiver, this device would also help you navigate. It would serve as your handy communication device and credit card, identify objects and even read print pages for you. Provided you had Internet connectivity, you could dictate notes or obtain answers merely by asking.

The only part of this setup which wouldn't fit in a pocket would be the extremely light and thin Bluetooth keyboard and/or a portable refreshable Braille display should you wish to write something substantial or read without needing synthetic speech. This can be handy when in class situations or trying to read notes as you give a presentation. There are smaller keyboards which are said to collapse to pocket size. However, these smaller keyboards are cramped and lack rigidity so couldn't be used on one's lap.

All this is very compelling. However, students need to be able to write more than just notes effectively. They need to tackle assignments. That's why a Bluetooth keyboard small enough to be portable but spacious and rigid enough to be used comfortably and quickly anywhere comes in handy. Most Braille displays have their own relatively comfortable keyboards. Braille is useful but not necessary at all times. Ordinary Bluetooth keyboards are universally far less costly than even the most inexpensive Braille displays.

Writing presentable documents in iOS has been problematic for blind people. Back when I first got my iPHONE4, I never would have dreamed of creating anything important or lengthy on it. Using the on-screen keyboard was anything but fast and efficient. It just made sense that one's phone was simply not designed for authorship. A laptop served that role. Attempting anything longer than a brief email was just begging for a first class trip to insanity. The same holds true for attempting to keep up with a lesson taking notes at high speed.

The issues extended far beyond the small completely flat virtual keyboard. VoiceOver initially didn't have an easy method for selecting text to be moved or copied. The finger spreading and pinching technique left much to be desired. Also, it can be difficult to get a proper sense of how a document will look visually due to many things such as how lines rapped on such small screens and how documents were moved through. There was also the whole question of trying to avoid jumping accidentally to a different part of a document than you intended. Sighted people literally see their documents as if on a page or as close as the sise of their device permits. Blind people hear their documents in a more linear sequential fashion. While spellcheck was possible, it remains an annoying and finicky process. Autocorrect can prove more troublesome than helpful with its presumptions regarding what one meant to type being far from actual intention. Who hasn't heard jokes about people getting into trouble because they trusted autocorrect and didn't look before sending that fateful text message?

Over the years, things have slowly gotten better. As VoiceOver and iOS have improved, these problems have begun to be addressed. Selecting text is a crucial example of this. The process now relies on the rotor. Set it to text selection, flick up or down to choose the unit of measure, [character, word, line, page]. After that, flick right to move forward by the unit of measure or left to move backward. You can even do things like select a line of text, flick upward to change the unit of measure to words, flick left to remove the two or three words you don't want selected when you press the delete button, and then remove precisely what you regret having written. It's the sort of solution that you wonder why nobody thought of originally even while overcome with gratitude that someone finally has. The lack of an efficient easy way to select text was the largest impediment stopping me from adopting iOS for serious writing.

Bluetooth keyboard support has gotten much better than it used to be. Instances of dropped connection are quite rare. Also, the horrid lag which formerly made Bluetooth headsets useless for blind people needing snappy responses to their gestures from VoiceOver has been reduced to near non-existence. Pairing multiple devices is a lot more reliable and easier than it once was. Energy efficiency has also greatly improved.

These improvements make it easier to use various word processing apps on iOS such as Pages or Microsoft Word. Spellcheck in particular is still harder than it has to be. However, you can now at least get your words in the right order and type them easily. Also, the spellcheck functionality built into iOS will at least tell you when it thinks you spelled a word wrong as you read over it. Proofreading and formatting documents accurately remain troublesome issues when using the more popular word processors with VoiceOver. Most word processors operate on a principle called WYSIWYG or what you see is what you get. This is perfectly sensible for sighted people who can look at their documents seeing how they will appear when printed. This presents problems for blind users. Even when VoiceOver announces formatting or other visual information, it can be hard to grasp how the end result will look or where the influence of commands such as emphasis, line breaks, etc begins and ends. What is immediately obvious to the eye is not so for the ear or fingers if Braille is used. I needed to find a better solution before leaving my laptop behind and using my iPHONE to do serious writing.

A big part of the solution was suitable accessories. Over the years, I've found a good sturdy Bluetooth keyboard from Microsoft designed specifically for mobile devices. It's compact and rigid enough to be used on one's lap. Even better, a small lapdesk that was just large enough to fit the keyboard and my iPHONE next to each other. An Aftershokz Trekz Titanium bone conduction headset serves me well when I'm travelling outdoors and don't want to lose my AirPods from Apple. These Airpods are far more portable, longer lasting wireless earbuds which deliver far better sound. A pair of external batteries completes the basic load. One is a 3500-MA battery the size of a lipstick. It fits easily in a pocket. The other is a far larger 26800-MA battery which would easily keep all my gear powered for a week or more. All of this fits in a small shoulder-bag along with a Bluetooth speaker if I'm going somewhere I might want to share what I'm listening to. In total, it weighs well under ten pounds. Far less if I ditch the large battery and speaker as I would on most day trips.

The very last stumbling block was a good writing solution. I needed an app which would let me write easily and have full control over the formatting of what I produced. For me, the Ulysses app was a pricy but very compelling possibility. The big equalizer is the use of Markdown XL. This is a set of formatting and other commands you insert using standard punctuation symbols. These commands are easily read by Voiceover giving you full and accurate control of formatting. They are acted upon when you export your document into a chosen format. For instance, hash signs indicate headings so text following one or more hash signs within a paragraph will become a heading in a pdf or html document. There are simple commands for doing everything from underlining text to adding footnotes or links. With everything in text characters VoiceOver can detect, nothing gets misplaced or forgotten and proof-reading becomes possible. Spellcheck at least tells me if something is spelled wrong. I hope this situation improveds, but thanks to dictionary/thesaurus apps like Wordbook and Terminology, I can easily live with that slight compromise.


The Ulysses Writing App In Depth:

This app won an Apple award at last years WWDC, a conference for app developers. Shortly after this, the app was made accessible using VoiceOver. The app is designed to be a writing tool which scales from short documents through to novels. Simplicity and no clutter are key design principles. Writers can focus on actual writing. Using Markdown language to insert formatting instructions removes the need for toolbars and other things which clutter and distract writers using other word processors. Other features include the ability to set writing goals, keep your writing nicely organised, and much more. Everything you write is instantly backed up to iCloud so no need to worry about saving progress.

This app rewards mastery of the rotor as well as exploration of the screen. Accessibility is good in most areas but a work in progress for less critical things like goal setting. It's still possible but somewhat harder than they might be. To keep clutter to a minimum, options are nested within others. Exploration and experimentation pay off handsomely when learning to use this app to its full potential.

Basic Concepts:

A sheet is what this app calls a document. You don't need to give a sheet a title. A single sheet can contain as much text as you want it to. Therer are no imposed sise limits. Sheets can be put into groups which can be organised in many different ways. For instance, each major section of my guide to iOS is a sheet. I can duplicate, delete, export or change the order of these sheets easily at any time. I can cut, copy and paste text into sheets. Also, I can atach writing goals, notes, and keywords to sheets. Groups of related sheets can be exported as a single document. It is ideal for creating books. This is a very flexible powerful organizational system. Groups can have goals assigned to them. Groups can be sorted in the best way for their specific contents. My group of AMI Audio files is organised by date while the group of sheets comprising the guide I'm writing is organised manually.

Getting to Help:

There are instructions and help available in the app and on the developer's web site:

www.ulyssesapp.com

The instructions are in special groups of sheets found in the main library. You'll be going into the editor to read any sheets which interests you. The first group of instruction sheets is called "first steps" Double-tap on this to enter the group of sheets. Flick right until you pass the "first steps" heading and you'll be at the first sheet which is "quick overview". Doubletap on a sheet to open it. Flick right until you hear instructions being read. Once this happens, you can simply leave it to read the full sheet of information. No action is necessary. When finished, hit the "back" button at the topleft of the screen and proceed to find the next sheet or group you want to look at. The rotor is your friend. Set it to move by character, word, etc, and/or to select text for sharing or movement. Once a sheet is opened, you'll find a counter which may display total characters, words, sentences, etc. This is only visible when the keyboard is dismissed and not on the screen.

The Ulysses Editor:

The heart of Ulysses is the editor. Once you open a sheet, you're viewing it in the editor but not able to write or change the contents. From this external view, you can set goals, change editor settings, and export the sheet if you wish. Buttons to do all these things are found at the top of the screen to the right of the "back" button. Buttons are "editor settings", "export preview", "new sheet", and "attachments". Next comes the text field. To start writing, double-tap on the text field. Now, when you move onto the text field, it will say "is editing". This remains the case even if you move off the text field to use the on-screen keyboard. To leave this writing mode, double-tap the "dismiss keyboard" button which is one move to the right of the text field. Think of it like capping your pen. The app takes advantage of the autocorrect and spellcheck facilities built into iOS. These are useable but can be annoying. To minimize this, I have autocorrect turned off and simply use spellcheck. It will tell you if the word you move onto is spelled wrong. Navigate through the document using the rotor setting it to character, word or line as desired. Use the rotor to select, cut, copy and paste text.

Move past the edit field while you're still in editing mode and you'll find a "dismiss keyboard" button, a "search" button" and a sort of toolbar. This contains "undo/redo", paragraph tags", "inline tags" "special characters" and left/right buttons. The "tags" buttons give you access to the Markdown language commands you'll use while writing if you can't memorise them. You don't have to use this toolbar equivalent at all. I never do but it's there if needed. I recommend learning the Markdown XL commands and simply typing them in when required. Find them in the Markdown XL group of introduction files. This is immediately past the "first steps" group.

The Attachments Button:

While editing a sheet, you can push the "attachments" button one flick to the left of the text field. The "attachments" button lets you attach keywords, goals and notes to sheets. It is the most difficult area of the app to use with VoiceOver at this point but the developers are aware of the difficulties. You need to explore the screen with your finger and do some experimentation to figure this out. Feel for the buttons related to goal setting. The "at least" button can be double-tapped and will change to "at most". There are six sliders which are possible to increase or decrease. Each represents a digit which can be set from 0 to 9. You can use these to attach a goal to a group or sheet of a target number of words to achieve or not to exceed. Very useful for motivation or school assignments. It's just annoying to have to deal with sliders rather than an edit box letting you just type in a number.

Ulysses Completes The Student or Writer's Toolkit:

Things have at last reached a point where producing professional good-looking documents is possible on iOS for blind people willing to learn some extra commands. We can know precisely where formatting is applied and what will happen when documents are exported for distributing or printing. the use of a Markdown language plus VoiceOver improvements combine to make this a truly viable option. This is especially the case when you add a good Bluetooth keyboard into the equation. Ulysses has extensive support including many keyboard commands. Find these in the "details" group of introduction files. To round out your writing toolkit, other apps can address spellcheck challenges and research capabilities. I recommend the Wordbook app or the Terminology app. These are fully accessible apps which combine dictionary and thesaurus.

I don't use Ulysses for jotting down quick notes. It takes a little time to get in a sheet and double-tap on the edit field. Another app called Drafts happily solves that problem by dumping you instantly into an edit field whenever you open it. Much more convenient for quick notes. The calendar and calculator built into iOS plus the Timeglass, Google and Wikipedia apps available from the app store round out my primary writing tools. Most of these apps are free. Timeglass is an app which allows the creation of timers which can have multiple stages and alert you with sounds when each stage is reached. This can be very helpful regarding time management. Ulysses costs around $34 Canadian but is well worth the price for people who need the portability of an iOS device but want the full power of a serious author's workstation.