May 25, 2024

Blind Physician Develops Audio System for Describing Protein Molecules

Computer screen with green "spider web" globe, red and white dots depicting protein moleculeThere’s a new molecular modeling system in town. TIMMol’s the name and modeling atomic coordinates of protein structures with sound is the game. Developed by Dr. Tim Cordes (M.D., Ph.D.) as a method to allow himself to study the structure of protein atoms, TIMMol (Tonal Interface to MacroMolecules) uses the notes of a MIDI keyboard to aurally sculpt graphs.

Blind since sixteen due to Leber’s, a degenerative disease of the retina, Cordes earned his medical doctorate by the time he was twenty-eight. He immediately began working on a Ph.D. based in biomolecular chemistry and the makeup of proteins. One of the difficulties he wrestled with during his studies was interpreting the data he needed to study biochemistry. Most of the traditional methods involved two-dimensional pictures, not the most accessible medium for the visually impaired. To help decipher the information imparted by the X-ray crystallography, he wrote short scripts, laboriously detailing how the atoms were positioned, then using the scripts to control graphical presentations for his lab mates.

This process, while certainly better than nothing, was extremely slow and frustrating. After hearing of a system that turns the two-dimensional line graphs of infrared spectra into audible tones, Cordes decided to play to his strengths, used a MIDI keyboard to model a graph in three-dimensions. He assigned tonal balance to indicate left or right position along the x-axis, pitch to indicate up or down motion on the y-axis, and changes in volume to indicate depth on the z-axis.

Testing has shown that TIMMol is accessible to both sighted and visually impaired users, though those who have had less exposure to the traditional method tend to adapt to TIMMol more readily. TIMMol also gives an alternative to those who simply have difficulty interpreting a three-dimensional concept from a two-dimensional graphic. Students who are not necessarily blind but are not naturally visual learners are given an opportunity to use other strengths, such as aural or musical abilities.

TIMMol doesn’t cut out the visual learner either. Cordes wanted to be able to show what he was listening to, so he teamed up with a fellow grad student in biochemistry, Britt Carlson, and together they whipped up a graphical display that is described as a “webbed sphere.” The graphical display has the ability to zoom in and to rotate to allow different viewing angles.

With guide dog Bella leading the way, Tim Cordes talks with physician Michael Peterson, left, and medical student Dhaval Desai, behind, as they do a morning round of patient consultations at UW Hospital.

Michael Peterson, Dhaval Desai, Tim Cordes, Bella

Cordes says, “Because the source code can be easily modified, the framework of TIMMol could be used to convert almost any three-dimensional data into sound. Uses for this system could range from helping blind people learn the layout of a multilevel airport to letting them inspect MRI scans. Beyond that, TIMMol shows that, when given the chance, a person can meet a challenge by mobilizing tools from his or her life experience. The solution may come in a surprising form, one that can be shared for the benefit of others.”

Dr. Cordes completed his M.D. in 2004 from the Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health. He completed his Ph.D in 2007 and is now a psychiatric physician at the University of Wisconsin.



Vocalyze Text-to-Speech Gets Your News and Twitter Feeds Talking

Vocalyze logo-Gray parrot with orange beak and face on orange backgroundVocalyze is a mobile audio news and entertainment service that turns news, tweets, and other web content into a real-time podcast stream using high quality text-to-speech. Vocalyze can read news from a wide range of sources including blogs, news, weather, and other information sites and even read tweets from any twitter user. It is easy to create a custom audio program featuring the news from or about the people, companies, newspapers, teams, or magazines you care about most.

Instead of actively reading content with a screen reader, Vocalyze streams audio of news stories, tweets, or other text posted online in a continuous, customizable app, like a personal news radio station. No synchronization or downloading is required. “Vocalyze helps people to be more productive,” says Frank Qiu, Vocalyze Media CEO. “During our beta period we have seen the average user spend 37 minutes per visit listening to content they wouldn’t otherwise have read or known about.”

Vocalyze reads your selected content aloud using text-to-speech voices that will be familiar to most screen reader users. You can listen on the web or via free iPhone, iPad, or Android apps. The iPhone and iPad apps are completely accessible using VoiceOver. All of the buttons and controls which operate the app are properly voiced. The Android app is also accessible depending on your specific configuration. Although both apps lack the speed and navigational controls that most screen reader users are accustomed to, the ability to stream content from a wide variety of sources is well worth the free download.

Vocalyze also provides a plug-in which can be used to bring streaming audio text-to-speech to WordPress and other web sites. You can give this a try on by clicking on the “Listen to BlindGadget” link at the top of the page. Give Vocalyze a try, then leave a comment and let us know what you think.

FCC Reinstates Video Description Rules

Andrew Phillips, National Association of the Deaf; Eric Bridges, American Council of the Blind; Mark Richert, American Foundation for the Blind; and Jenifer Simpson, American Association of People with Disabilities, outside the FCC building, Washington DC, after meetings on pending rules under 21st CVAA.

Andrew Phillips, National Association of the Deaf; Eric Bridges, American Council of the Blind; Mark Richert, American Foundation for the Blind; and Jenifer Simpson, American Association of People with Disabilities, outside the FCC building, Washington DC, after meetings on pending rules under 21st CVAA.

The Federal Communications Commission voted today to restore the television video description regulations that were passed as part of the Twenty-First Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2010. The effective date of the order, which passed the commission 4-0, is July 1, 2012. The following summary of the regulations was prepared by the Coalition of Organizations for Accessible Technology, which was instrumental to the passage of the new rules.

•Video description is defined as the narrated descriptions of a television program’s key visual elements inserted into natural pauses in the program’s dialogue.

•Video descriptions improve access to television programs for millions of Americans who are blind or visually impaired.

•The video description rules require ABC, CBS, Fox, and NBC affiliates in the top 25 market areas and cable and satellite television providers with more than 50,000 subscribers to provide video description.

•ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, USA, the Disney Channel, TNT, Nickelodeon, and TBS are each required to provide 50 hours of video-described prime time or children’s programming per calendar quarter.

•Full compliance with the rules is required on July 1, 2012.

The complete report and order along with other related documents and statements are available on the COAT website.

Portable OCR: Will the iPhone 5 Save the day?

iPhone screen with large numeral 5 and Apple logoThe KNFB reader, developed by the National Federation of the Blind and Kurzweil Technologies, Inc., is the first truly portable OCR device. It can easily snap a picture of a page of text and read it aloud. The KNFB reader runs on a Nokia N86 Symbian-based phone and, when combined with a screen reader, provides a complete package for portable OCR and communication applications. It can be used to read just about anything: a utility bill, magazine article, library book, and even labels at the grocery store.

So, the KNFB reader is very portable, the character recognition is excellent, and it can also be used as a cell phone, what could be wrong with that? Not much really, except that the whole package sells for about $1800, including the KNFB software, n86 phone, and screen reader. The other catch is that many blind and visually impaired people have moved on from Nokia because of the lack of built-in accessibility in favor of the Apple iPhone, which includes a screen reader at no extra charge.

The iPhone also makes sense given the uncertain future of the Symbian platform. Nokia has laid off nearly all of their Symbian development team and contracted with Microsoft to ship Windows Mobile 7 on their products. While Windows Mobile 6 was very accessible, in a giant step backward, Windows Mobile 7 does not provide for accessibility. The choice for an accessible mobile platform for communication and applications such as OCR comes down to companies such as Microsoft, Nokia, and Google Android, who provide little or no built-in accessibility, or Apple, which includes accessibility in every product as a matter of company policy.

What about the KNFB Reader? It is still the best and most accurate OCR application available for blind and visually impaired users. It is much better than even the best OCR applications currently running on the iPhone. Surprisingly, Kurzweil Technology has said they have no plans to release a version for the iPhone.

There are, however, several good OCR applications available for the iPhone today. The best of these is probably Prizmo which sells for $10 in the iTunes store. Aroga Technologies has posted an excellent review that compares Prizmo with the KNFB Reader. While Prizmo performs well, it does not stand up to the KNFB Reader, which reads a selection of documents with little or no errors. The reviewer believes that the problem is not the application but rather the limited resolution of the current generation of iPhones and that a higher resolution camera on the upcoming iPhone 5 could
provide a proper solution for a low cost portable OCR reader.


VizWhiz–Take a Picture, Speak a Question, and Get an Answer

Question: What color is this pillow? First Answer: Can't tell. Second Answer: Multiple shades of soft green, blue and gold.If ever a wiz there was, the VizWhiz is.

VizWiz is an iPhone app that allows blind users to receive quick answers to questions about their surroundings. VizWiz combines automatic image processing, anonymous web workers, and members of the user’s social network in order to collect fast and accurate answers to their questions. In their words–Take a Picture, Speak a Question, and Get an Answer.

VizWiz Social was developed by the Human Computer Interaction group at the University of Rochester and is available as a free iPhone app. It allows blind users to receive quick answers to questions about their surroundings. A user takes a picture and records a question on their mobile phone, then sends their question to anonymous workers, object recognition software, Twitter, or an email contact. Once an answer is received from any of those services, it is sent back to the users’ phone. Each answering service provides a unique benefit, and would be appropriate for different types of questions.

On an old episode of the Blind Kiss podcast (still, by far our favorite podcast of all time), Damon Rose declared that his life would be much simpler if he just knew what color things were when trying to describe them. He related trying to get his father to bring him a bottle of shampoo from another room. He went through every permutation of the size and shape of the bottle until, finally, after several mistaken attempts, his father brought the correct bottle, saying, “There you go. It’s the red one.” Rose was quite exasperated by how much time and vexation could have been spared if he could have just said, “Bring me the red one.” Unfortunately, Viz Whiz probably couldn’t have helped him much in that moment, because he was actually in the shower, but now he can find out the color of his favorite shampoos for any such future situations.

VizWhiz logoYou can read a lot more about VizWiz and other ways accessible smart phones have made life better for all of us in an excellent article written by Damon Rose at BBC News-Technology. How have smart phones changed your life? Only for the better we hope. Please leave a comment and let us know about your smart phone adventures and discoveries.

Learning Ally Introduces Upgraded Accessible Audiobook App for Apple

iPhone screen full of apps, with highlighted Learning Ally Audio iconLearning Ally (JAWS still does not say it correctly) has released a new version of their audio bookreader for Apple iOS. The upgrade allows the user to play DAISY-formatted audiobooks from the Learning Ally library on such portable Apple tech as the iPhone, the iPad and the iPod Touch. The app is available through iTunes for $19.99. According to the FAQ, no re-authentication is needed for Learning Ally members already using the earlier version known as RFB&D.

The upgraded app, Learning Ally Audio, offers advanced accessibility features, including page and chapter navigation, variable speed and pitch control, bookmarking capabilities, and Apple VoiceOver compatibility. These features are joined by the following nifty new abilities:

  • Play while locked. The new version can continue playback after the Apple device locks and turns off the screen to save battery life. This function can be turned on or off through the iOS “Settings” app.
  • Open with last book played at last point played. The new version resumes reading where users left off the last time that they ran the app. This feature can be turned on or off through the iOS “Settings” app.
  • Remember speed control and other settings. When these settings are changed, they will be remembered across all books and sessions.

According to Andrew Friedman, Learning Ally’s President and CEO, “More exciting things are coming down the road. Looking ahead to this fall, the Learning Ally Audio app will include text to speech functionality, enabling our learners to enjoy the best of both worlds: human narration as well as text content of their books and reading materials. With the new version of our app, we continue our commitment to develop technology that makes reading accessible for all learners.”

Braille Gifts for the Blind Gadgeteer

Red t-shirt background studded with Braille dots spelling "Out of Sight" has touchable t-shirts. In fact, that’s the best way to read them. Using genuine Austrian crystals or metallic studs, each Braille dot is placed by hand, then heatset onto the item so there is no irritating attachment point on the inside. To quote the site, these tees are “Quirky, different, tactile and a little bit sensual.”

The owner of, Alice Woodside Lynch, became intrigued when she saw a Braille message in an issue of “Daredevil” (I know, it’s like a theme or something!). She became even more interested when, a short time later, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration and has since gone on to study Braille textbook transcribing.

Her training enables Lynch to use Grade 2 Braille on the t-shirts, though Grade 1 is available if you prefer. The shirts come in black, red or blue, and several styles—short sleeve, long sleeve, zip hoodie, and fleece–and there are nine different crystal colors to choose from.

The shirts can say anything you want, though an especially long phrase may cost a little extra. Here are a few of the suggested messages:

  • “2 hot 2 handle”
  • “sexy” (apparently a great looking word in Braille)
  • “cuddle”
  •  “touch me”
  • “hands off!”
  • “time to get tactile”
  •  “Brailliant!”
  • “Braille readers are leaders”
  • “If you can read this, you are too close”
  • “Differently visioned”
  • “Can you see me now?”

One design is a Braille version of the famous “I heart NY” with the heart outlined in red metal studs, but you can substitute any direct object your own little heart desires. also has Braille totebags and Braille jewelry. The totes are 12″ by 15″ natural cotton with a Braille manuscript-sized pocket on the front and red or navy trim on the handles and edges.  The Braille phrase of your choice is placed on the front on the pocket or on the back. The pouches are 6″ by 9″, “suitable for cosmetics, travel items, or as a tote for a notecard size slate and stylus.”  The attractive  jewelry–necklaces, earrings, and keyrings–is designed around brass or copper discs embossed with up to six cells of your choice of letter.

Give us a heads up on any cool, fun items you’ve come across in your internet travels. The gift giving season is looming.

RFID Technology Makes Navigation More Accessible

Man with guide dog, using RFID technologyOne of our special interests is the use of technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) and NFC (near field communication) in the area of disability. The wide availability of accessible smart phones and the relative low cost of developing applications for them opens the door to many possibilities. A story written by Alena Roberts and recently published in the Matilda Ziegler Magazine describes the Talking Tags RFID Wayfinding project of Guide Dogs for the Blind of the UK that uses RFID technology to aid both indoor and outdoor navigation. Here is the original story reprinted here with permission:

 Using RFID Technology to Make Indoor and Outdoor Navigation Accessible

by Alena Roberts

Navigating to new locations has become progressively more accessible for the blind in recent years. In fact, last year I did a whole series on low cost accessible GPS options. Unfortunately, as awesome as GPS is, it’s limited primarily to the outdoors. So what this means is that we can now get to our destination’s front door, but we may not know how to get to where we need to be once we’re inside. Thanks though to a new partnership between Guide Dogs in the UK and the University of Redding, this problem may also soon be solved. The Talking Tags Way Finding Project is using RFID technology to overcome the limitations of GPS.

So how does the system work? The system comprises of three components: RFID tags, a handheld receiver, and a database of prerecorded messages for each tag. The tags themselves are usually as small as a credit card, so they can be put essentially everywhere. RFID also doesn’t require the user to find the tag, but simply to be near enough for the receiver to find it. Once the receiver finds the tag, the message is spoken. It’s that simple.

RFID technology has been used for years in industrial shipping applications and warehouse inventory to track products because it’s a simple system that doesn’t take up much space or carry a high cost. By using the technology for indoor navigation, this would be great for all kinds of situations including malls or other buildings that have multiple stores or offices. It could also be used at bus stops and even intersections to let the user know where they are. All of this can be accomplished very easily without the addition of any large equipment.

Here are some of the features of the Talking Way Finding system.
- The Talking Tag can either be temporary or permanently placed
- The tags can be used indoors or outdoors
- Different languages can be used
- Low cost of installation, running, and maintenance
- The handheld receiver is light weight and will last all day
- A Smart Phone app could be created to avoid the need of a special receiver

The system is still in prototype stage, but it’s Guide Dogs’ hope that the system will be available for use in 2012 or 2013. Visit the Talking Tags project site to learn more about the project.

Marvel Comics Makes New Daredevil Title into Free Audiobook

Daredevil swings across an audio-detailed cityscapeMarvel Comics has released a free audio Daredevil comic. Daredevil, a red-costumed crime fighter, is also Matt Murdoch, mild-mannered blind lawyer with secret super senses. Blinded as a youth, ironically while saving a blind man from an on-coming truck carrying radioactive material, young Matt’s other four senses develop to extraordinary levels. These senses enable Matt to become the superhero Daredevil, the Man Without Fear. Using his super hearing as a kind of echolocation, Daredevil swings across the canyons of New York City, battling such supervillains as Kingpin, Bullseye and the Owl with his trusty billy club and ninja skills.

Daredevil #1 Audio Edition is not the first audio comic book. Superman Lives!  has been around since 2005.  Batman–The Complete Nightfall Series appears even earlier, circa 1994. However, this seems to be the first time Daredevil has shown up in audio format (though the movie, Daredevil, starring Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, does have audio description).

According to an Associated Press release, senior Editor Stephen Wacker said that the audio version of Daredevil # 1 came about after he and series writer Mark Waid thought the Matt Murdock/Daredevil character might appeal to visually impaired fans.  Wacker relates that he has “received several letters since editing the character. Many spoke of being visually impaired or sharing the character with friends who were.” Wacker was thus inspired to present the first issue of the reset title as an audiobook.

Full panel descriptions are provided directly from Daredevil writer Mark Waid’s script, the same descriptions that the artists use to inspire their drawings. We gave a listen to the audio sample and, after a slightly awkward introduction, it has all the earmarks of an enjoyable read. The descriptions are clear and well-detailed without being overblown, making the action  easy to visualize, and the voices used, while not professional actors, are well done.  The cover has the innovative detail of a red-costumed Daredevil, swinging via billy club across a aurally-depicted grayscale cityscape. All the buildings and even the birds flying by are made from the words their sounds make. For instance, the birds’ outlines are filled with the word “flap” repeated over and over.

While this seems to be Marvel Comics first foray into the world of audiobooks (a summary internet search did not turn up any other available Marvel titles), as huge fans in our own right (Spiderman rules!), we hope they will be inspired to make many more.

The American Council of the Blind Joins with Google to Conduct Assistive Technology Survey

The American Council of the Blind and Google are conducting a survey to gather information about computer Usage and Assistive Technology by blind and visually impaired persons. The survey can be completed on the web or by phone and will be used to better understand how blind users interact with the web. Survey respondents will be asked to describe which assistive technology tools they use to access the web and how they make decisions to change or upgrade these tools.

“At Google we’re committed to making our products accessible and we’re currently hard at work making improvements,” said Alan Eustace, Senior Vice President of Knowledge at Google. “By connecting with American Council of the Blind members, we hope to gain valuable insight into how the blind use the Internet and how their needs are evolving with technology.”

The survey is available now and will run through the middle of September.

6dot Innovations Debuts New Portable Braille Labeler

White portable Braille printer with black buttons6dot Innovations is launching a new, battery-powered, portable Braille labeler which can quickly print out Braille labels. The labels are well suited for prescription bottles, microwave touchpads, canned foods, and just about anything else that needs a label.

6dot founder and chief executive Karina Pikhart said that, while there are a number of other Braille labelers on the market, they tend to be too big and bulky to take along to the pharmacy for example.

The company is based in Palo Alto, California. They have already sold out their first production run of the electro-mechanical labeler which embosses small adhesive labels that stick to just about anything, Pikhart said. She said 6dot is seeking to target the 37 million people worldwide who are blind and will expand to serve the 650 million people around the world with disabilities.

The battery-powered labeler can be an important tool for helping blind people be independent in their everyday lives, Pikhart said. You can connect a standard keyboard to the device so that people who are not Braille literate, such as parents and teachers, can also create labels.

Pikhart, a first-time entrepreneur, started working on the idea at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in a product design class in the fall of 2008. She and two other co-founders, Trevor Shannon and Robert Liebert, developed the original prototypes. They won several contests, including the MIT Ideas Award, the ASNE Mechanical Innovation Showcase, and Stanford University’s product showcase. 6dot is currently raising funds through a Kickstarter campaign.

6dot has received design consultation from the Perkins School and Michael May of Sendero Group. They expect the labeler to sell for about $200 and to begin shipping in the next several weeks.

Olympus DM-620 Still Accessible After All These Years

Silver Olympus DM-620About a month ago, I purchased the Olympus DM-620 digital voice recorder in my ongoing quest to acquire the latest and greatest in nonvisually-accessible digital recorders.  The Olympus DM-620 digital recorder is the latest in a line of Olympus digital recorders with voice guidance that makes most of the recorder’s settings and features nonvisually accessible.  Other Olympus models that can be purchased with voice guidance are the Olympus DM-420, DM-520, DM-2, and DM-4.

With the voice guided prompts, most of the recorder’s features are nonvisually accessible.  It is still not possible to set the date and time without sighted help, and information about how much memory and/or recording time you have available is still not spoken, but the important settings can be adjusted with the help of voice guided prompts.

I needed a little bit of sighted help to install the batteries and to identify some of the buttons.  However, after only a few minutes, I was able to operate the DM-620 and change settings on my own.

Pressing the Menu buttons starts the voice guidance which allows many recorder settings to be changed.  The first thing that you will probably want to change is the speed of the voice prompts which, by default, are set to speak fairly slowly.  Another setting that you might want to change is the format of the recording files.  I prefer to use the MP3 format at 128KBPS.

The Olympus DM-620 provides five folders that can be used to hold audio recordings.  They are labeled “Folder A,” “Folder B,” and so on.  Each folder can hold up to 200 files (i.e., recordings).

I have found with some digital recorders that it is often a bit tricky to know which folder you are using.  What I have done to overcome this problem is to record an audio file in each of the five folders stating the name of the folder.  For example, in Folder A, I record a file which says “Folder A”.  Then, I lock the file so that it cannot be erased accidentally.  Files can be easily locked and unlocked through the menus, and all of this is accessible with voice guided prompts.

There is an electronic version of the User’s Guide for the Olympus DM-620, available as a PDF document: DM-620 Detailed Instructions (English). While much of this is readable with screen access technology, the file is formatted for visual presentation, and some of the information consists of unlabeled graphics.  Nevertheless, I found that, with some effort, some useful information can be extracted from the PDF document.

All of the Olympus digital recorders I have used over the years have the ability to pause during recording and playback.  This means that you can stop the recorder at any time to avoid recording any unwanted information or pause while listening to long recordings.  Unfortunately, there seems to be no ability that I am aware of in the Olympus digital recorders with voice guidance to insert or add to recordings after they have been stopped.

All in all, I believe that the Olympus DM-620 is a very useful digital recorder, and it is reasonably accessible to the nonvisual user.

I was able to purchase this recorder on for about $126. (Currently listed on at $119.)

Contributed by Curtis Chong of Technology for the Blind


The Free Screen Reader Challenge

NVDA logo vs. Thunder logoDarren Burton and John Lilly, of the American Foundation for the Blind tech lab, pit the free and open source NVDA screen reader against the free Thunder screen reader in a series of computer tasks. They evaluated the two screen readers on several different computers equipped with Windows XP and Windows 7. The tests included productivity applications such as Microsoft Word and Excel, and online activities like banking, shopping, and using iTunes.

NVDA proved to be the overall winner in the tests and was judged to be a close competitor to the commercially available screen readers. You can read the complete results in their detailed report in the August edition of Access World.

RoboBraille Converts Just About Any File into Accessible Format

RoboBraille logo

RoboBraille is an email and web based service for converting documents into any one of a large number of accessible formats. It is easy to convert a plain text document into Braille, ePub, or audio formats. You can also convert between other formats such as rich text format word (both .doc and .docx), Excel, and PDF. And, just about any image format like JPG, BMP, PCX, TIF, and PDF can be converted into text. Tools are provided for splitting files and changing the character set of a file. RoboBraille supports fifteen different languages and is free for non-commercial use. This is the best file converter we have seen. It is very flexible and produces high quality results (although it did not make much sense of our cell bill).

IBM PC Turns 30

Vintage IBM PC with green screen monitorThis week is the 30th Anniversary of the IBM PC. Some of us are old enough to remember the early days of Henter-Joyce and even the Video Voice screen reader from a small Berkeley startup called Grassroots Computing. Those were the days, when DOS could talk, and there was no graphical user interface to spoil the fun.

The original IBM press release promoted the first PC as “the computer for just about everyone who has ever wanted a personal system at the office, on the university campus or at home” with an introductory price of $1695. An original review of the new PC said that it was professionally put together and “the whole world and its grandmother will soon be frantically” writing software for the new computer. Leave a comment and let us know about your first computer and screen reader or other assistive technology experience.

The First Alert Wireless Talking Smoke Alarm

White, octagonal First Alert Talking Smoke Alarm

First Alert Talking Smoke Alarm

The new First Alert Onelink smoke and carbon monoxide detectors with voice alarm keep your entire home safe by communicating with each other wirelessly. You can hear an alarm no matter where you are in the house and the integrated voice announcement tells you where the alarm originated.

This means that if an alarm sounds in your basement, all of the alarms will sound and critical moments are not lost waiting for the smoke to reach an alarm near where you are sleeping. You will be sure to hear the 85 decibel alarm and the programmable voice will tell you where the danger is in your home.

Chris Grabowski of Mystic Place Blog and Podcast demonstrates how to set up and use the First Alert Onelink in his latest podcast.

PLEXTALK PTP1 DAISY Book Reader Puts Everything in Your Pocket

Photo of a white and a black PLEXTALKThe PLEXTALK Pocket PTP1 is smaller than most cell phones, yet it is packed with powerful potential—everything you would want in a digital book reader, plus a few great features you may not have known were possible. It supports all of the popular book formats, including NLS/BARD, Book Share, Learning Ally, and Audible. It has integrated support for Microsoft Word files, encoded Braille, HTML, and plain text using the built-in speech synthesizer. The big difference between the PLEXTALK Pocket and other digital book readers and music players is its compact size (approximately four by two inches, or ten by five centimeters), outstanding recording capability, and built in wireless network access features.

Before we look at the amazing new wireless features, let’s examine the unique recording and playback capabilities. The PLEXTALK Pocket will play back audio in MP3, WAV, WMA, OGG, and AMR WB+ formats. It is easy to navigate through the files using the keypad and arrow keys and enhanced navigation support is provided for DAISY titles. You can also set bookmarks and optionally record annotations and it will remember your last reading position for up to one thousand books.

The quality of recordings made with the PLEXTALK Pocket is some of the best we have heard. There are two recording modes. The long format, or main recording mode, using the internal microphone, an external microphone, or a line-in from another device, saves recordings to the SD card. This mode is suitable for recording lectures or other live events.

The short format is for recording “voice memos.”  These recordings can be up to one minute long and are stored in MP3 32 kbps mono format. Since they are stored in the PLEXTALK Pocket’s internal memory, voice memos remain with the PLEXTALK Pocket even if you change SD cards. There is enough internal memory to hold about thirty minutes of recorded memos.

The PLEXTALK Pocket has some unique features for controlling the recording. You can monitor the recording using earphones and receive periodic audible feedback about the recording input level. You can either start a new recording or append to an existing one and select from either automatic or manual gain control. Of particular interest is the DAISY recording feature that allows you to set index heading levels from one through six during recording or playback and later use them to navigate through the recording using any DAISY reader. You can edit your recordings using the selective delete function of the PLEXTALK Pocket or the included PRS Pro DAISY editing software.

We think the best feature of the PLEXTALK Pocket is the wireless networking. Once you establish a wireless connection to your router, you can access some pretty exciting features. You can listen to a variety of streaming Internet radio stations through one of the best speakers we have heard on any portable reader. It is easy to select a station from the list provided or to add your own favorite stations. And, both MP3 and WMA stream types are supported.

We really like the podcast download support and consider this to be reason enough to get a PLEXTALK Pocket. You can edit and maintain a list of your favorite podcasts and select new episodes to download as they become available. Episodes download in the background so you can do other things, like read a book or listen to another podcast. The PLEXTALK Pocket will automatically keep track of the podcasts you have heard and show any new ones that are published. Finally, you can use wireless networking to connect your PLEXTALK Pocket to your computer instead of fumbling for the right USB cable. (This is a nice bonus for those of us who tend to misplace our cables.)

We were interested in the PLEXTALK Pocket when it was first introduced but the new wireless support and a special sale price from Freedom Scientific put us over the top. It gets a strong five robots rating from us and it will get a big work out during the coming school year. If you would like to learn more about the PLEXTALK Pocket, Jonathon Mosen of Freedom Scientific has produced a very nice podcast demonstrating its myriad functions and features in detail at the FScast website.


NVDA Free Screen Reader Latest Release

NV Access has announced a new version of NVDA, the free and open source screen reader for Microsoft Windows. That’s right, I’ll say it again, free and open source screen reader.

NVDA logoAccording to the NVDA website, the screen reader provides “feedback via synthetic speech and Braille, it enables blind or vision impaired people to access computers running Windows for no more cost than a sighted person. Major features include support for over 20 languages and the ability to run entirely from a USB drive with no installation.”

And it’s free!

The new release, version 2011.2,  lists several improvements. NVDA now includes:

  • configurable levels, custom labels and character descriptions for punctuation and symbols
  • no pauses at the end of lines during “say all”
  • better ARIA support in IE
  • improved XFA/LiveCycle PDF documents
  • greater access to text written to the screen
  • access to formatting and color info for text written to the screen

The creators and developers of NVDA, Michael Curran and James Teh (yes, I typed that correctly, autocorrect!) felt that people should not have to pay extra to be able to use a computer just because they have low-to-no vision.

In a quote from the Queensland University of Technology website, Mr. Teh said, “A sighted person takes for granted that they can sit down at any computer and use it.We really are in the information age – everything is online these days. So access to computers for the blind and vision impaired is incredibly important, which is why we wanted our software to be free. …[NVDA] can also be copied to a USB stick, which can be used on any PC at school or university, with no installation required.”

What is your favorite screen reader? Do you think screen readers should be included with the operating system, a la Voiceover? Give us your opinion in a comment.

Tracking Down Accessible Books


One of the challenges we face every semester is tracking down all of our textbooks in accessible media. It can be a real scavenger hunt picking through the wide variety of sources and formats available today. In a single semester, the mix may include recorded AccessText Searchaudio, plain text in PDF format, or any of the various indexed formats such as DAISY and epub. And then, when no other source can be found, there are the dreaded scanned textbooks that come with their own set of problems.

Most schools and universities have a professional who assists students with the task of procuring textbooks in accessible media. However, there are many times when it is necessary for us to do the leg work ourselves to ensure we have all the materials we need. A great resource for finding the books we need for school is the AccessText Network .

The mission of the AccessText Network is to help “college students with print disabilities by connecting their disability service offices directly with leading textbook publishers” to obtain textbooks in accessible media. Although membership to the AccessText Network is limited to educational institutions, the free search engine available on their web site is a very convenient way to search the catalogs of a growing number of textbook publishers and accessible media providers including the National Library Service, Book Share, and Learning Ally.

In order to search for textbooks, navigate to and click on the “Accessible Textbook Finder” link. Select “ISBN” or “Title”  and select the catalogs you would like to search (all are selected by default) and click on the “Search” button. The page is very accessible and easy to use with a screen reader.

Let’s give it a try. A search for the commonly assigned Computer Science textbook “Introduction to Automata Theory” found one result. Since the result was found in the AccessText Network catalog, the accessible media edition will have to be requested through the university’s disabled student services office. Had the book been found at Book Share or Learning Ally, we could have immediately downloaded from their web site using our personal membership accounts.

What about general reading titles? We decided to try a search for a title by one of our favorite Science Fiction writers, Jim Butcher. The first book in his Dresden Files series is called “Storm Front.” We clicked on “New Search,” changed the search type to “Title” and typed in the name. Scrolling down to the search results, we found that the book is available from both the National Library Service and Book Share. This means we have three accessible media format choices: formatted Braille (BRF), Digital Talking Book (DAISY) from Book Share, or  recorded audio from the National Library Service. The ability to search the National Library Service, Book Share, and Learning Ally in a single search is perhaps the best feature of the book finder for most individual readers.

What hoops and hurdles have you faced in your quest for higher learning? Leave a comment with some of your experiences with tracking down books in accessible media.