Apple Keeps Us Moving Forward

It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to. You would cry, too.

After spending a year plus editing Larry Lewis’s book iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible,multi color apple store it had a pregnant shelf life of exactly nine months. That’s because Apple pushed out a new baby shortly thereafter. And did I mention NBP edited, transcribed, proofed, pressed, and designed Larry’s book in seven different formats?

And now it’s happening again. After spending ten months with the remarkable Janet Ingber on her new book, Learn to Use the Mac with VoiceOver: A Step-by-Step Guide for Blind Users, an email arrived in my inbox: Will Janet be updating her Mac book this fall when Yosemite is released?

I didn’t reply. Instead, I went out and bought myself an oversized, anti-viral, ultra soft, aloe-soaked box of Kleenex and had myself a cry party. And then… sniff…

I got a tweet from that rascal Jonathan Mosen that he was already working on version 8 of his book, iOS 7 Without the Eye, which we transcribed last year. I stopped mid-sniffle and dashed off an email: Johnny, same deal as last time? You bet, came the reply. And then the incomparable Anna Dresner phoned: Will we want her to update Getting Started with the iPhone? Yes, please.

Not a word of complaint from Larry or Janet or Jonathan or new products Our indomitable authors (and consumers) are already moving on. It’s the way things are. Our authors, who are also consumers, have been “in the game” since 1984, when NBP published “A Beginner’s Guide to Personal Computers for the Blind and Visually Impaired.” I haven’t calculated how many technology books have shipped out since then, but I do know we’ve sold 11,844 iOS books alone.

James Baldwin said, “People can cry much easier than they can change.” It appears some do; others move on.

Blind iPhone Empowerment

I bought my first iPhone 4S only after downloading the first of NBP’s great books on the subject in 2011. Just three weeks ago, I was visiting my youngest son, Getting Started with the iPhone and iOS for Blind Users book coverDavid, in New York City and we decided to trek to the big Apple store in Grand Central Station so I could finally consider an upgrade to the iPhone 5S. I really wasn’t sure I wanted to upgrade just yet, but having a really experienced user with me to perhaps interpret anything that the salesperson was doing would be a help.

Upon entering the store, David says “There’s a blind guy with a guide dog working the sales counter.” NYC Apple storeSo naturally, we walked up to him and I began talking to him about the pros and cons of upgrading my phone. After a minute, he stops me and asks “What’s your first name?” When I tell him, he grabs my hand, “It’s Kyle Street from last summer’s ACB convention.”

My partner Kae and I had gone out with them for a great dinner last summer in Columbus; I had never met Kyle or his wife Chevonne before. He had been working at the Apple store in Raleigh – Durham at the time and transferred up to the New York City store the first of the year.

Finding Kyle at work ready to knowledgeably upgrade my phone made the decision really easy. For the next 45 minutes, we talked about the most useful blind friendly apps, what we liked and didn’t, and he gave me some pointers on using the 5S from our shared unique perspective. Kyle’s boss came over to listen and watch and get educated. Apparently, she had never seen him interact with a blind customer. We talked about NBP’s books and the braille screen protector guide on my phone, resources with which she was not familiar.

Nothing really unusual, right? Just a customer and a knowledgeable salesperson engaging in a transaction. Or, a great example of blind empowerment.

An App That Would Make Louis Braille Proud

Ever since National Braille Press announced that the 2014 Louis Braille Touch of Genius Prize for Innovation would be for an accessible app to promote braille or tactile literacy, I have been trying to imagine what kind of thing app developers might come up with that would qualify as “genius.” As a braille reader and an iPhone user, I have a number of apps on my phone that, in one way or another, involve braille.

I know firsthand how difficult BARD Mobile logoit can be to develop a braille-related app. In 2012, my employer, The National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, began developing both an iOS and an Android app for playing audio and braille books on iDevices. We had a collection of more than 12,000 professionally translated and formatted braille books as well as thousands of issues of braille magazines and more were being added all the time. We wanted to provide a reading experience that was as similar as possible to reading a paper braille volume.

Our iOS app, of course, got its accessibility from Apple’s VoiceOver. One of our first challenges for this version was realizing that the braille on an iDevice was simply a braille version of whatever the speech had spoken. There was no regard for formatting. We told our developer that we wanted users to be able to see things like multiple blank spaces and blank lines on their braille display. This took considerable finesse to accomplish. The challenges were numerous but with a considerable amount of effort; our developer was able to overcome almost everything and produced a braille-reading app that we are all enormously proud of.

The challenges for the Android app were even greater. We have not yet been able to produce an acceptable braille reading experience. Our work on the Android version of the app continues.

I have served on committees responsible for administering the Touch of Genius Prize since its inception. Each year, as we review the latest crop of entries, I hold my breath waiting to see the results of someone’s genius applied to braille. But, up until now, these folks have had the entire range of the physical world to draw upon. Does an app developer have such options? I suppose smartphones can be connected to things.

In the iOS world, we already have a good app for braille reading and we have several good apps for inputting braille. But there must be more. If an app developer is going to display text, they will need to be mindful of the relevant aspects of the braille code and think hard about how the braille will be used. Will the user need a braille display? What could be done that didn’t require a braille display? There are vibrations but they are sequential; there’s speech but that sequential as well. Hmmm, what could it be?

Perhaps an app could AirPrint to an embosser—send it a map or the results of my efforts at drawing. Maybe someone will make a modern-day version of the Optacon—a 1970s device that allowed a blind person to read print with a vibrating, tactile display—and, in my opinion, the greatest device that has ever been developed for blind people.

Angry Birds logoSo, the challenge is definitely on. But, the more I think about it, the more I realize that what I really want is a braille version of Angry Birds!

An iPad Book Giveaway: Because We Can All Use the Help!

iOS Success by Larry L. Lewis, Jr.

iOS Success by Larry L. Lewis, Jr.

A question I hear a lot is: “I finally bought an iPad for my visually impaired daughter! Now what?”

Parents of children who are visually impaired know that iPads are being used in schools or by their kids’ TVIs. But that doesn’t mean they know what to do with an iPad after it comes out of the box!

I was in this position, too. I am “Mom” to the sweetest and cutest little boy, Ivan. Ivan is eight years old and was born blind and multiply disabled. I had an iPad, and I knew it was supposed to be “good” for my son. Now what? I didn’t even know where to start!

That’s when I wished for a guide like iOS Success: Making the iPad Accessible. Larry Lewis’s new book is designed specifically for parents and teachers and takes you step-by-step through iPad basics. He shows you how to set up your iPad and get the most out of the accessibility features. As a blind iPad user himself, he absolutely knows what he’s talking about and (best of all) he writes in a clear and tech-free language that is easy to follow!

Ivan and mom playing with their iPad.

Ivan and mom playing with their iPad.

Larry’s book starts at the beginning (he actually writes about taking the iPad out of the box and what you can expect to find in the box) and works up to much more complicated features (like connecting the iPad to a refreshable braille device or using the iPad as a word processor). And because the book is so easy to follow, it’s pretty simple to skip ahead or jump back based on your own comfort with the iPad and what you need to know.

I would say this book is a must-read for any teacher or parent planning to work on an iPad with a child who is blind. To enter to win a free print copy of the book, visit the iOS Success Giveaway Page and enter your name in the drawing. The contest will run until July 20th at midnight.

Amber Bobnar runs the website, a support and information site for parents of children who are visually impaired.