assistive technology

A Tribute to Torsten Brand

Less than a decade ago, the only way a blind person could send a text message was through a website, or by connecting some models of phone to a computer. Less than a decade ago, the only way a blind person could navigate the menus and change settings on their phone was to memorise the sequences of key presses required, or carry around a Braille cheat sheet. And then, two brilliant people began collaborating. Marcus Groeber and Torsten Brand formed Brand and Groeber communications, and they got our phones talking.

The original Talx, yes it was spelled with an X in those days, worked on the Nokia communicator, a PDA device with a qwerty keyboard. Later however, Talks was released for S60 phones. In 2003, I purchased a Nokia 6600, and I’ll never forget the phone starting up after I’d installed Talks. It was almost unreal. After 13 years of not being able to use all the features of my phone and really set it up the way I wanted, my phone was truly accessible. He made this dream a reality for blind people all over the world, in numerous languages.

Those very early versions of Talks were somewhat luggish, and had numerous issues. But we stuck with it because we knew it was ground breaking technology. Over the years, Marcus and tenacious Torsten kept at it, to the point that Talks is now a very robust, reliable, speedy solution.

Talks became so successful that eventually it was acquired by Nuance Communications, who thankfully kept Torsten and Marcus on to manage and develop the product.

In looking back at the email correspondence I’ve had with Torsten over the years, and the times we’ve met up to chat or have dinner, a few words come to mind. Thoughtful, intelligent, committed, good fun, and great company with that distinctive German accent of his, when we’d catch up at CSUN or some other conference.

As a blind guy himself, Torsten used the product he managed every day. I have always believed this makes a big difference. It is reflected in the power, and elegant user interface of Talks. Talks gets an awful lot done, very simply, with in many cases only a number pad and a few other keys to work with. He took user interface and efficiency extremely seriously, sometimes considering esoteric issues like how many syllables a prompt contained, because as a speech user himself, he knew all of that stuff mattered. Most recently, he and Marcus worked together on a very elegant implementation of an accessible interface for the S60 Fifth Edition touch phones.

Torsten was in his prime, with many more great ideas on which he and Marcus would have collaborated. His passing is a tragedy for the blind community.

Let’s not also forget, Torsten was a husband, and a dad. There are two things I send to Torsten’s family. Firstly my sincere condolences. But secondly, I send my deep appreciation. The work Torsten did changed lives for the better. If you can leave this world a better place than you found it, in whatever endeavour you pursue, your life has been worthwhile. Torsten led a most worthwhile, and worthy life. He has earned his place in the history of assistive technology.

Ever since I heard the news of Torsten’s death, every time I pick up my Nokia handset, so much more powerful than the first one Torsten helped to make accessible, I pause, and say a little thank you to him.

You will be missed Torsten.

Forwarded from Neil Barnfather.  For more information, please go to

New Audible Pedestrian Signals Tested

In Grand Haven, Michigan, new audible crossing signals are being tested to guide visually impaired citizens across one of the busiest streets in the town so that they have easier access to shopping and entertainment.

The new signals feature an audible instruction for when it is safe to cross the street.  The activation button itself also features a small speaker that emits a short chirping noise so that any visually impaired person should be able to find it with relative ease.

There are currently four other locations in Michigan which utilize this technology and it has proved to be very successful in every instance.

Amy Shreiner, an orientation and mobility specialist for the Michigan Association of the Blind and Visually Impaired said, “While you can see the walk/don’t walk lights, my clients can’t.  You are modifying their environment so that they can have access.”

Hopefully, the success of these programs in Michigan will spread to other states.  With the addition of these relatively simple systems, towns and cities can greatly increase accessibility to their blind and visually impaired citizens, allowing them greater freedom and independence.

To read the original article, please go to

Blind iPad Review

Cheree Heppe is a Ziegler reader and she decided to send me her fantastic review of the newest product from Apple, the iPad.  Thanks for sharing, Cheree!  Enjoy.

I actually did it! I took the light rail to the Apple store and saw one of those iPads in the flesh on the Saturday morning that it went public. For me, the pictures do nothing to allay my curiosity, since I am totally blind.
Portland, Oregon boasts both corporate and non-corporate Apple stores. The Apple store I visited was a corporate one.
That whole up-scale inner city mall was jumping with people, so it was no problem finding directions down to the Apple store.
When I got off the escalator, there was this incredible double line nearly to the escalator. The line reminded me of a snake dance, except most of the would-be customers were keeping their excitement under tight rein and were standing still, maybe afraid to dance while being videoed by the TV station.
Someone saw me on TV because the Apple store crowd was being panned by the TV station reporters. I wasn’t dressed for TV photographing, just my hair swept back with a silver headband, long, wool, cranberry cloak and jeans and Kili, my black and tan German shepherd dog guide in her white harness.
It was busier in that apple store than at a Vegas casino!
There were Apple staff outside the store directing traffic. One of these guys escorted me inside and arranged for me to see the demo model with it’s case on, but the demo model which came newly unpacked ran out of charge and the Apple rep and I moved to the display tables to continue my examination of one of the plugged-in models.
I have been stopping by the Apple store, dipping my figurative big toe into the stream for months now, wanting to migrate from the Windows based platform with its third party accessibility to the integrated Apple platform, but hadn’t felt Apple systems welcomed blind users sufficiently to be fully accessible until now.
The iPad feels about like a MacBook Air in thickness; it feels slimmer than my NetBook. The glass is flat to the edge of the horizontal surface with a circular, concave Home button embedded flush into the face of the glass very near the bottom middle of one short side. The active portion of the screen starts maybe a half-inch in from its edge.
The Apple rep explained how the icons are arranged on the screen. This is standard and once you get the feel for the gaps and positions, it all stays the same. That’s what he told me. There is a physical volume toggle switch near one end of one long side. No fiddling with screen settings for volume, just handily bump the toggle up for loud or down for soft. The earphone jack is on one short side near a corner, flush with the metal side but easily recognized by touch and out of the way. The sound is good and the jack would hold earphones solidly so they wouldn’t fall out while being ported or moved. There is a physical switch near one end of the long side of the iPad to lock it into whichever position, portrait or landscape, the screen is oriented.  There is a recessed connector on the opposite short side of the iPad from the earphone jack to charge it or interface it with a computer. This is apparently called a doc connector. The on/off switch is located on the edge of the iPad, but I can’t recall exactly where. The back and sides are metal and the sides are curved inward from their widest point where they interface with the glass to where they taper in a rounded way to the back side. The back side felt flat with no features, but I didn’t look really carefully and the case covered the back of the device.
Even while not being facile with Voiceover or the tap and flick finger navigation motions, I got the iPad to go on to a website, to go into E-mail and apps store, and to read a book.
The iPad can interface with a Windows based or Apple based computer.
The cover or case that it now comes with is the first cover before everyone else makes something. It looks like the outside of a thin notebook without the binder rings. It opens from the long end and the flap tucks behind the iPad with the bottom edge tucking into a built-in slot in the back of the case. This allows the iPad to sit at a comfortable slant.
Apple plans to have a dock for a keyboard if the user remains stationary. The Apple guy suggested getting a wireless keyboard and Bluetooth to pair the two if one plans to be mobile.
The iPad should not be thought of as a tool solely for low vision people. I’m a no-vision user and can work the iPad well, for being a new user and having no experience with configuring the Voiceover settings.
To use the iPad well, a blind user should have a strong spatial sense. I mean that the touch method for the screen depends on knowing where the icons reside in space in relation to other icons on a flat glass plain.
I speculated that if a blind user wanted to use a certain app a lot, such as the typing virtual keypad feature, a tracing could be made of the positions of the icons and someone could cut out an overlay of light plastic, like a glorified check writing guide or a stencil. That way, a blind user could tactilely locate the positions quicker. Imagine a sheath of light plastic overlay cut-outs the shape of the screen for different standard uses, such as typing or web surfing, carried in a sleeve or pocket inside the front cover of the iPad case. This idea is based on knowing virtually nothing about how the icons refresh or whether they change position, etc.
What a gadget! Accessible right out of the box. If Apple can insist on accessibility across the entire platform as standard foundational basics for any app developer, blind consumers will have a lot of amazing possibilities with this device and won’t have to be shunted off to the separate-but-equal, but not quite accessible, side of things.
Apple has caused a totally unexpected paradigm shift with this iPad, at least in my thinking.

LookTel: The Future of Mobile Accessibility

LookTel is a company whose aim is to sell software than can be downloaded onto mobile devices, making them completely accessible to the visually impaired in ways that are truly incredible.

The software they’ve designed will be tethered with camera enabled smart phones and features artificial sight programs used to identify objects and landmarks.  For example, by pointing the phone’s camera at a can of peas, the phone will speak aloud to its user, “Peas.”  If you move the phone to the next can which happens to be corn, the phone will say, “Corn.”  Beyond that, you can actually create custom labels for the software to recognize.  So if you have a Tupperware container of salad in your fridge, you can stick a unique label onto it and teach the phone that that label means salad.  Whenever it sees that label, it will say, “Salad.”  It can also recognize every denomination of US currency.

Another feature is that the software will be able to recognize landmarks, namely street signs and storefronts, to help the user navigate.  It even goes so far as allowing the user to access assistance if they need it.  By using the GPS imbedded in most smart phones, the user could connect to someone else, transmit live video of where they are, and the other person could see what the phone sees, as well as their location on a map, and guide them to their intended destination.  This feature gives added comfort to those who may be able to navigate most places very easy, but will require help from time to time.

The software also incorporates a text-to-speech feature, allowing the user to take a picture of any text and listen to the phone read it back to them.  Beyond that, it makes touch screens entirely accessible by using a different operating system that gives spoken feedback and relies on easy to remember pattern placement of common phone functions.

This is a huge step forward in accessible mobile technology that can literally open up the world to people with visual impairment.  The software is being released in spring of this year as a beta test, and will most likely be available for purchase late this year.  It will be compatible with every major US cellphone carrier.

To read more about the LookTel software, go to

Full-Sized, Refreshable Braille Displays on the Way

While current refreshable Braille displays are only able to show one line of text at a time, technological advances will allow for a full screen Braille display to show all of the text displayed at one time.

Peichun Yang, the man behind the development of this new display, says, “If you add another line, that’s a big help.  A full page; that’s another world.”  His new design would be a massive leap forward for this device.  The display would consist of many, tightly packed, container-like nodes that are filled with a liquid.  When an electric current is applied to the node, it contracts and pushes the liquid upwards into a small bead reservoir, creating a tactile bump.  It is, as Yang calls it, a “hydraulic and locking mechanism.”   These small bumps would combine to create Braille letters and even the outline of pictures, so that images would essentially appear as they would on regular computer monitors.  With this system, the display would be capable of refreshing in milliseconds, allowing the user to read with almost no noticeable pause whatsoever.

While this product is still in early development, Yang and his colleagues hope that a fully functional demo display will be available in one to two years, with a finished product ready to be sold to consumers arriving on shelves within five years.

To read the original article, please go to

Contributor Robert Kingette – Accessible PDF with WebbIE

The sad truth is that many e-books are not very useful for the visually impaired.  I have come across numerous instances where I can’t even read a book, let alone navigate it. And here I’m supposed to study it for class!  All I can do is hunt, peck, and, yes, even beg in some cases for another format of the same book. PDFs can be like potluck. I’ll be lucky if I can even read one line.  Stay tuned, however. I’ll tell you about WebbIE’s free “Accessible PDF Reader”—which may help, at least with non-DRMed e-books. The developers describe WebbIE as “A web browser for blind and visually impaired people,” and I think it’s a great step in the right direction.


What it’s like being me

I’ll be in 12th grade in high school this year, and I love books.  My eye condition, which is something called retinopathy, arising from a premature birth, means that I can see only in one eye, and it has tunnel vision.  If you don’t know what I’m talking about, make a C around your left eye, and cover the other eye completely. Presto, you’re me!  With this issue comes smaller ones, also annoying. I can’t read a regular book unless my nose and it are meeting face to face, even with a magnifier. That’s why I live on the computer, or just get audio books.


Limited audio book choices

I can’t find everything in print in audio. A good example would be the Darren Shan series. There is no audio version of that here in the United States, and I can’t get it through National Library Service for the Blind, so it kind of irks my tidy mind when someone says it’s the best book that I will ever read, if I can. I love how he puts the “if I can” part in there. Makes me feel so much better. It is as if I smelled a delicious candy bar but couldn’t buy it because the store wouldn’t take my money.


Hopes dashed: No vampire story, just gibberish

I looked for an eBook version of the Darren Shan series, and I discovered many options.  I downloaded a copy from and opened it up with Adobe Reader. My screen reader, JAWS 9.0, a text-to-speech program that sounds like a robot to those who are not used to it, said “blank” when I first opened it up. I thought it was just the cover page, and it was. With my nose pressed to the screen, I tried the next page where I could see some text.  So I pressed the down arrow, but instead of hearing, “My name is Darren Shan, and I’m a vampire,” all I heard was blank, blank, blank, blank. I also heard, “Unlabeled graphic =+36756? 4. Image.gif.”

Wow! I didn’t know that was there! I tried exporting it as a text file, which you can do in Adobe Reader within the File menu, and I opened up the text file ready to dive into some spooky story. I tried pressing the down arrow, and heard nothing. All I heard was blank, blank, blank. I half expected my computer to say, “Nothing’s there, Ding bat. Stop pounding on me.” But it didn’t, and I did a search for a different novel.


Tangling with Adobe Reader

I found one I could read, but not post to a text file so I could easily navigate it. I had to fight with Adobe to just make it read the table of contents. I kept pressing the down arrow, reading line by line, and not by paragraph like I could have done if I had it in a plain text version.  This soon grew so frustrating I just deleted the book altogether. Also, all the unlabeled images and all the weird graphics in the book were honestly giving me a headache. I didn’t like hearing image.567.gif, and untitleddarrenshanimage=67.gif. I vowed never to read e-books again!


WebbIE to the rescue

Not to be discouraged, I did read another e-book the next day, and it was part of the Darren Shan series. I did it with the help of WebbIE’s “Accessible PDF” part of the accessible programs package. When I saw this on Google, I wanted to race outside in my underpants!  “Could this be my solution?” I wondered.

I downloaded it and installed it right away.  Even my sweat was sweating when I fired up the program and tried to open a PDF with it. It worked! I saw text on the screen, but was it like my math paper? Did it have jumbled numbers or did it contain actual words? I tried pressing the down arrow to hear the first line and luckily it read it without any issues.


Easy to use

Accessible PDF is actually the simplest thing you can ever come across. It also works in high contrast; so if you, like me, want to have black text on white, it’s no problem. If you want to have white text on black, it can do that as well.  The program is actually simpler in terms of navigation than in Adobe Reader. All the menus are nicely laid out at the top of the window, and you can change the font size and color. It is, like my sister’s room, very clean and organized; and like my brain, it works all the time.

Don’t get me wrong. I have complaints about Accessible PDF, and it won’t make the whole PDF accessible.  To make it perfect, some part has to be done by the author.

Unfortunately many authors are so afraid that by opening PDF’s to accessibility, they also open them up to copyright issues, as well.

For example, in accessible PDF, I don’t know why, but the Darren Shan books were not formatted right. I tried reading by paragraph but it skipped roughly twenty pages, and it went to the end of books in some cases.  This is how I had to read this fast-paced book…

He ran to the
And found something
That resembled
A pea.

Imagine reading with so many pauses. Gosh! Boring, right? I want to have a book be interesting. I guess I shouldn’t complain, but then again I wouldn’t have to be reading like this if authors would make their e-books accessible in the first place.


How Accessible PDF could be still better

Accessible PDF is great over-all, but in some ways it irks me.  To start, there’s no reflow function. In Adobe there is something called reflow, under view mode, that makes the text wrap all the way to one side of the document, if it’s allowed to do it, anyway. I have only come across maybe seven out of the 56 books I’ve downloaded which had this feature. It was great since I had a high magnification.  Another shortcoming is that you have to open a PDF file within the application, a small, time-wasting annoyance.

It also won’t convert images to text. If an author of an e-book has provided Alt text descriptions to images, then it will just look like another paragraph.  If they don’t, you wouldn’t even know it’s there.  The application can even read documents from Web pages, but I have never gotten this feature to work at all, leaving me to fill up my hard drive with e-books.  That said, it’s easy to navigate through the program with just the keyboard and the buttons are labeled well. I really do love this program.

This simple little program will make blind people jump and scream in delight no matter how careless the author is towards the blind and or disabled. It may even make things better for some sighted people as well.  While the program still has some minor bugs and glitches, doesn’t have as many features as it could have, and is hard to find on the Web, it sure did make me want to run with glee outside in my underpants. This will be the program that will break down the walls of bad PDF tagging, and open a door that I’m sure never occurred to the author’s mind. It would be a good marketing tool for authors as well if they want to get their e-books sold or distributed to a wide variety of people.

That being said, not all PDF’s will open, and that is due to the bad tagging in the documents. This is getting tiresome, isn’t it?. Do we honestly have to fight so hard for equal access to books? I mean it’s kind of sad that a completely different program has to be made, distributed, and downloaded just so that blind people can read PDF’s. In my book that’s awfully pathetic.  Like a Lifesaver, though, this program is sweet, good, and it’s long lasting. Will it be better in the near future? Will it be the main tool used for PDF’s? Who knows. But checking out this program is definitely a start and I highly recommend it.

Visually Impaired Photographers Waiting for iPad

The iPad is Apple’s newest device that slated to change the way many people use computers in their everyday lives.  It is already supposed to be a big hit in the blind community because, like the iPhone, it has accessibility options built in right out of the box.  While most would expect a device only controllable by a touch screen to be entirely useless to the visually impaired, Apple has routinely impressed everyone with how easy they have made it for anyone to use their products.  With an audio read-back of screen elements as your finger glides over them, the iPad will serve as a great computing option for the visually impaired with its ease of use and little necessary training.

What visually impaired photographers are waiting for is an announcement that the next generation of the iPad will include a camera.  Aside from the fact that it would enable people to use video chat services like Skype on the go, it would also give the photographers the largest LCD screen currently attached to a camera.  Instead of straining, sometimes without avail, to see the picture on the small screens that most cameras offer, the iPad’s 9.7 inch screen would allow them to take a picture and be able to review it with much greater ease.  It will eliminate the vast amount of guesswork that visually impaired photographers currently have to deal with.  Also, with the enormous amount of photography applications that will surely be made available, they could edit the photo right then and there and upload it onto the internet if they wished.

With so much new technology being born into the world at such a fast rate, developers need to find a way to set themselves apart from the rest of the pack.  Apple has been able to accomplish this due to their streamlined designs and user-friendly interface, but also because they have taken into account that visually impaired people deserve to have the same products as everyone else and that they shouldn’t be forced to purchase more software to make the device usable.

To read the original article and browse a blog devoted to blind photography, please go to

Sight by Tongue

A British soldier who was blinded by an exploding RPG in Iraq has now been given the ability to “see” with a device that sends vibrations to his tongue.  He can read words, decipher shapes, and walk entirely unaided. 

The device includes a small camera attached to a pair of sunglasses that’s connected to a length of wire with a plastic lollipop on the end that the user puts in their mouth.  It works by converting images into a series of electrical impulses that stimulate the tongue.  The changing strengths and patterns of the stimulation allow him to create a picture of his surroundings and navigate around objects.

He says that the impulses feel like “licking a 9-volt battery or like popping candy,” but that they allow him to build up an image accurately enough to read words and visualize objects in the space in front of him.  He says that even though the device is still in the prototype phase, it has changed his life immensely.  He can now reach out and pick up objects easily without having to fumble around trying to find them. 

Currently, the device sends information to 400 points on the tongue.  But the developers are hoping to create a much more advanced version that sends impulses to 4,000 points on the tongue, enabling the user to interpret the information faster and with greater clarity.

To read the original article, please go to

Don’t Run Away from this Mouse

A new computer mouse has been created so that blind users can use it to navigate through text and even pictures on their personal computers. 

The mouse, called the Tactile Explorer, replaces the standard clicking buttons of a regular mouse with two, four by four pin pads.  When the cursor is passed over text or the outline of a picture, the two pin pads create either Braille letters or a segment of the outline for the user to follow.  As the user continually drags the mouse across text, the letters pop up against the user’s fingers, enabling them to read them in Braille.  For example, if you moved the cursor over the word “magazine,” when it touched the M, a Braille M would pop up on the left pin pad.  As you moved the cursor to the right, a Braille A would pop up on the right pin pad.  As you continue to move the cursor, the A would shift to the left pin pad and the G would pop up on the right and so on, until the end of the word “magazine.”

Text is not its only trick, though.  It also allows the user to feel graphics with the same pin pads that produced Braille text.  In a demonstration, it was shown that someone could move the cursor over a map and experience what the shape of India is.  No other peripheral exists with this kind of technology.

This new mouse has some serious potential as a teaching aid for children and also as a tool for regular computer users.  What’s also beneficial is that it can be taken anywhere and used on any computer as long as the software is installed.

While the mouse is still in the final stages of its testing, the company, Techshare, hopes that they will be able to release this model to the public in the second half of this year.

To read the original article, please go to

Browse Aloud

So what is BrowseAloud? 

BrowseAloud is free software that reads web pages out loud. It can help anyone who has difficulty reading on-line, including people with mild visual impairments, low literacy, English as a second language, or learning disabilities, such as dyslexia.  Once you have BrowseAloud installed on your computer, all you need to do is hover your cursor over a selection of text. BrowseAloud will highlight the words and read them out loud.  BrowseAloud also has features like a translator, the option to change the reading voice, and a dictionary if you’re unsure of the meaning of a word.  It’s a very nice tool, and it’s completely free for you to use.

You can download BrowseAloud from the BrowseAloud web site: Browsealoud Downloads  Follow the instructions on the download page to install BrowseAloud on your computer.

For more information on how to use BrowseAloud, please go to

Frequently Asked Questions

Video Tours

PC User Guide

Mac User Guide

System Requirements

If you need more help with installing the program or have questions about how to use it, you can email or call:

1-877-778-6977 (toll free)