Comparison of Today’s Portable Technology: Meeting the Needs of the Blind & Visually Impaired

The purpose of this research is to compare the value of the original knfbReader made available for blind people with the value of smartphones and tablets available in today’s market. Can popular mass-market items be modified easily and cheaply to work for blind people? That’s the question that is answered below.

The original knfbReader Classic came out earlier this century as a portable document scanner for the blind. It was a bold, brilliant step created by the joint efforts of the Kurzweil Organization and the National Federation for the Blind.

Today, in mid-2012, it has evolved into a cell-phone based tool, but is it still cutting edge technology? How does it compare both feature-wise and price-wise with other items available like Smartphones or  Tablets? Has modern technology made it easier to modify portable electronic devices so that blind people can access and use them independently? Here we look at not only the KNFB Reader and it’s successors, but Tablets and cell phones as well.

knfbReader/knfbReader Mobile

 

The Kurzweil-National Federation for the Blind (K-NFB) alliance was the catalyst for creating a portable device that would help blind people have access to printed material. The original reader (not compared here) was an ingenious marriage of a PDA (anyone remember what these were?) and a small digital camera.

This combination of PDA and camera created a bulky item that had a great camera lens and true processing power, allowing blind people to “take pictures” of things like restaurant menus and having them read to them. Priced at about $2,500 it was both an amazing technological tool and a rough piece of engineering. It was brilliant.

Being designed for blind people, when taking a picture of a page, the KNFB Reader gives audio feedback regarding the edges of the page and the size, helping the user to know if they have the camera pointing properly. For many people this was surprisingly easy to use after a few tries.

This wonderful feature was passed on to the second iteration of the KNFB Reader,  called the kReader which is a Nokia N82 phone with the KNFB Reader Software installed. To use the cell phone as a cell phone, another $250 paid for the custom-made software that spoke all the menus and options and read the screen.

The third phase of this fantastic product, called KNFB Reader Mobile is Nokia-compatible software that can be installed on several of their phones, allowing greater flexibility for the end user.

Despite the great creativity and engineering that went into this unit, by today’s standards it falls short is several areas. The Nokia system does not have a large number of “apps” that can be installed. These phones do not browse the web, do not have touch screens and do not sell well in the United States.

iPhone / iPad

Apple’s Operating System for their computers, tablets and phones all come with a screen reader called “Voice Over” built in. It’s an awesome product and fortunately Apple has worked hard to have this product work well, and it’s current version is a great improvement over the first.

The history behind the development of Voice Over bears telling. Near the turn of this century, both Apple and Microsoft were selling computers that had very little accessibility-related features for blind users. In both cases, 3rd party software companies filled the gap with their own, expensive products. However, because the Apple market was relatively small, the share of that market that needed the screen reader was so small, all 3rd party efforts failed to be able to stay in business/production. Apple found itself selling computers that were not accessible by blind people at all.

Impressively, Apple refused to allow that situation to continue and rose to the challenge and started to develop “Voice Over” and include it as a part of the operating system. The third version, which came out in early 2011, is a strong product, equal to the task and to it’s Windows-based competition. Now Apple-based computers have a significant advantage over Windows-based computers for blind people, because they don’t need to purchase 3rd party software costing between an additional $250 to $1,100 after buying the computer.

With this strong background, Apple enters the Tablet/Smartphone environment bringing Voice Over as part of the Operating System. Because Apple took this seriously, and devised a clever set of gestures to replace keystrokes, it means that all Apple products are VERY accessible to blind users who learn how to use Voice Over. Brilliantly, Apple replaced keystrokes on their computers with gestures on their phones. Once these gestures are absorbed by the user, using their smartphone is a joy.

Android Tablets

Google created an Operating System for tablets and cell phones called “Android” which has become the most common system in smart phones as of 2011. In a fashion similar to Microsoft’s approach with Windows, Google is relying on 3rd party developers for a lot of products, including accessibility ones.

Unfortunately, developers are not jumping on the bandwagon as fast as the blind community would like. But that’s true of all Android software in that while a lot is being written for the phones, much less is being written for the tablets. Many of the apps written for the tablets, are merely poor rewrites of the ones written for the phones, which do not take advantage of the larger screen. Google has not aggressively pushed for higher quality apps for the tablets to this point, it seems happy with the work being done for it’s phones.

Android Phones

While Apple phones and tablets have the advantage of having a screen-reading product built-in, the Android line is not hopeless. For approximately $95, most Android cell phones will accept a program called “Mobile Accessibility” which allows totally blind users to use virtually all the features of their Android-based smartphone. In fact, Sprint advertises that they have done more than any other carrier to make sure that MA works very well with all Sprint Android phones.

This program works so well, that the blind community is divided between using iPhones and Mobile Accessibility powered Android phones. Both operating systems have their devotees, and I can see why. Attached is a listing for each of the apps designed for blind people to use on either device.

Windows Tablets

First, let’s realize that blind people all over the world are using Windows-based PC’s in all lines of work and at home. Basically, they get a program which is a “screen-reader” for anywhere between $250 (System Access) and $1,095 (Jaws) and learn how to use it with Windows. There are also free programs, with lower quality voices such as NVDA and Thunder. There has been tremendous success in this area and it is currently the number one way that blind people access computer technology.

However, currently, the software used by Windows-based PC’s has not migrated to Windows-based tablets. The software works great using keystrokes on PC’s, but tablets are designed for gestures and the companies developing the screen-readers for Windows have not yet made the changes for tablet use.

At this time, mid-2012, Windows tablets are not really usable by blind people. This can be expected to change in the near future. Windows 8 is expected to come out in October, and there have been no published reports about how the accessibility programs will work with it’s greater emphasis on touch screen usage.

Windows Phones

The current version of the Windows phone operating system is about to be replaced with Windows Phone 8, expected to come out about the same time as Windows 8, later this year. While current Windows based phones do come in last, as they are being both the Apple phones and the Mobile Accessibility equipped Androids, it is very reasonable to expect Microsoft to push for great improvement with the new operating system.

Kindle/Kindle Fire/Nook/Nook Color

Both Amazon and Barnes & Noble have come out with their own eReaders, which allow people to read books, magazines and websites, using a lower cost reader than a full tablet. There are trade offs, and yet these are both very popular.

For the legally blind, both of these do have 8 different text sizes available, which helps when reading. The Kindle has a more reflective screen, and both have settings for adjusting not only brightness, but also for switching to white text on black background for those that need it.

While the Nook does have some audio in books, it is in only a small percentage of them and inconsistent at this time. It is not meant for the blind, but for reading to children.

Also, both are better at showing webpages than eBooks, curiously enough. To enlarge the  text on a webpage, simply put 2 fingers anywhere on the screen and slowly separate them from each other while still touching the screen: a “reverse-pinch” if you will. This will easily and simply scale the whole document, fonts and pictures alike. Yet, when reading an eBook, one must go through a menu to pick a size.

Comparison Table of Features and Cost

 

  KNFB

Mobile

Apple1 Android2 Windows5 eReaders
Email N Y Y N N
Texting Y Y Y N N
Phone Y Y Y N N
Web3 N Y3 Y3 N N
eBook N N N
DaisyBooks Y Y4 N N
eDocs N N N
Paper Y N N
Braille N Y Y N N
ID Money6 Y Y Y N N
Starting Cost7 $300-550 $400-700 $50-550 $100-550 $80-380
Extra Cost7 $250-$1750 $40-80 $90-120 ? ?

Notes:

  1. The screen-reading program, VoiceOver is built into the operating system.
  2. The user needs to buy the app “Mobile Accessibility” for about $90.
  3. Not all websites are speech-friendly, some rely on graphics so much that screen readers cannot interpret the site well at all.
  4. With the purchase of the $20 Learning Ally Audio App, members of Learning Ally ($99/year membership) can access the 70,000 books in Daisy Format they offer. As of this writing, the app is only written for iOS.
  5. As stated before, while third party vendors have done a great job for the Windows PC platform, they have not yet translated their work into Windows Phone platform. I was unable to get a date from any of them over the phone.
  6. As of this writing, the eReaders do not have cameras.
  7. Starting cost is for the hardware, This varies greatly as prices for phones and tablets vary greatly. Extra cost is for software to improve accessibility beyond the basics.

In Conclusion

The KNFB reader kicked off a technological revolution for blind people, allowing them to carry something as small as a cell phone and powerful enough to allow access to texting, phoning and even reading data in braille. It excels at making one-page paper documents and a normal cell phone usable by blind people.

Today’s tablets and smart phones can surf the web, send text messages and check email. They do all this and often for significantly less money. Tablets don’t make phone calls, and most phones don’t surf the web as well as tablets do. Whether to purchase a tablet or smart phone depends on one’s needs, on what one plans to do with the device..

In the debate of Apple versus Android for phones and tablets, it appears that those seeking  more convenience would prefer the Apple products while those that like to tinker and personalize things more would prefer the Android system with Mobile Accessibility.

At this time, neither the Kindle nor the Nook, is very accessible to blind people at this time. With the popularity of digital books increasing, it is reasonable to expect that these 2 companies will soon modify their offerings to accommodate the blind and visually impaired in the future.

As never before a legally blind/visually impaired person today can get technology to make life both more convenient and more productive. It is no longer necessary to buy a piece of equipment specifically designed for use by legally blind/visually impaired people, as mainstream products, adapted with software, are just as effective and much cheaper.

Resources

About.com webpage at: http://assistivetechnology.about.com/od/ATCAT6/tp/Top-10-Iphone-Apps-For-The-Visually-Impaired.htm regarding top 10 iPhone apps for visually impaired.

Access Tech Geek blog at: http://www.accesstechgeek.com/2011/05/19/what-about-the-nooks-accessibility-features/ about the Nook and the lack of accessibility features.

AccessWorld June 2011 Issue, Volume 12. Article on Cell Phone Accessibilty, webpage at: http://www.afb.org/afbpress/pub.asp?DocID=aw120602

AiSquared website at: www.aisquared.com regarding their magnification/reading software for Windows PCs.

Android Access, www.androidaccess.net, a website dedicated to helping blind users get the most out of Android-powered cell phones and tablets.

Apple Accessibility website at: http://www.apple.com/accessibility/voiceover/ regarding Voiceover for both the Mac and the iPhone/iPad.

Code Factory website page at: http://www.codefactory.es/en/products.asp?id=415 regarding Mobile Accessibility and other accessible apps for the Android

Consumer Reports, January 2012 Issue, “Best & Worst Cell Phones & Plans”

Drumbeat Blog page at: http://drumbeatconsulting.com/blog/2012/02/02/is-the-kindle-fire-accessible-for-the-blind-not-yet/ regarding the need for improvement for the Kindle.

Freedom Scientific website at: http://www.freedomscientific.com/ regarding both magnifying and speech software for Windows PCs.

KNFB Reader website: http://www.knfbreader.com/products-classic.php (the classic version, no longer available)

kReader website: http://www.knfbreader.com/products-kreader-mobile.php (the 2nd version)

knfbReader website: http://www.knfbreader.com/products-mobile.php regarding the software that runs on various Nokia phones.

NFB-Newsline (June 4, 2012) edition, announcing their App’s availability at the Apple App Store for iPhones, iPads and iPods Touch. This allows subscribers easy access to over 300 newspapers, 40 magazines plus numerous wire feeds and personalized television listings.

NVDA website at: http://www.nvda-project.org/ regarding their free screen reader for Windows PCs.

PC World “New iPad vs. Android Tablets: Is it Game Over” published March 16, 2012

Reader’s Digest, “Buying Guide: Which Tablet is Right for You?”, December 2011 Issue

Serotek Website at: http://www.serotek.com/ regarding screen reading software for Windows PCs.

Sprint Announcement about it’s services and working with Mobile Accessibility:

http://community.sprint.com/baw/community/sprintblogs/announcements/blog
/2012/01/09/sprint-makes-android-powered-smartphones-more-accessible-to-
customers-who-are-blind-or-have-trouble-reading-print-on-screen-due-to-v
arious-disabilities?ECID=SM:TW:20120109:AccessibilityID

Thunder website at: http://www.screenreader.net/ regarding their screen reader software for Windows PCs.

Wall Street Journal, “The iPhone Finds Its Voice”, October 12, 2011

Wall Street Journal, “Kindle Catches Fire”, published November 29, 2011