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★ Memoirs of a Blind Switcher: 5 Years On

by John Panarese

It’s hard to believe that I have been a Mac user for nearly six years now. I look back on the original article I wrote on my early days as a switcher from Windows to the Mac, and I am truly amazed. I can’t believe how much time has passed, and I certainly am so proud and thrilled to have been a part of something that has progressed so quickly and so impressively. Indeed, if there is someone who is “truly a happy Mac user”, I surely fit the definition.

That’s right folks. VoiceOver on the Mac is still going strong. It wasn’t a “quick fix” Apple was legally “forced” to create to keep them from facing lawsuits from disability groups. It wasn’t a one-shot deal that would never see improvements. Apple hasn’t decided to throw it by the wayside because us blind folks make up such a small segment of a potential market. It hasn’t become stagnant or left behind as Apple has come out with new operating systems.

So many of the detractors and critics said all those kinds of things over the years. But, after Tiger came Leopard, and after Leopard, Snow Leopard was released. And this summer, Lion will become the latest operating system Apple will produce for the Mac. Through it all, VoiceOver has continued to evolve and improve, and I have no doubts at all that this trend will only continue. Apple is committed to accessibility, and it’s becoming harder and harder for the doubters and detractors to make the claims of the past, especially as the iPhone became accessible and we, as blind people, have access to the iPad and all of the latest iPods.

Here I am with my Mac Book having been replaced by a Mac Book Pro in 2009, and I own an iPhone 3GS, an original iPad, and a 2nd generation Apple TV as well. I also still use my 4th generation iPod Nano just about every day. Yes, as Apple has expanded the accessibility in their devices, it seems their products have found their way into my home. I don’t deny it in the least that I have become an Apple "fan boy".

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★ Blind Faith: A Decade of Apple Accessibility

From time to time, various organizations and individuals have taken it upon themselves to either denounce Apple’s accessibility efforts, or to call to arms the visually impaired community against imagined past or future slights by Apple’s engineers. Thankfully, these occasions are becoming fewer as the Mac and iOS community of visually impaired users grows, and it becomes more difficult to perpetuate myths about Apple’s platforms.

Not all these attempts, however, have been malicious in nature. In many cases, they spring from the well of false information that was seeded in years passed, or out of simple ignorance. In an attempt to distill these muddied waters, let’s take a look at the history and myths regarding Apple’s accessibility efforts in the last decade.

To find one of the most common stances of Apple’s critics in the VI community, we have to go back a decade to Apple’s transition from Mac OS 9 to Mac OS X. This was a complete rewrite of the operating system from the ground up. As a result, detractors will argue, outSpoken for Mac, the screen reader of choice for Mac systems of the past, was no longer a viable option, leaving Mac’s visually impaired community without access. This is, however, a blatant manipulation of facts which does not hold up under critical scrutiny.

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★ iOS 4.0 Has Arrived - What’s New in VoiceOver

It’s another late June day. If you’re north of the equator, you’re likely enjoying all that this time of year has to offer. School is out! It’s beach weather! The sun and the smell of clover hangs in the air. Oh, and there’s an update waiting for your iPhone or iPod touch device. Sweet!

The net is flooded with news, reviews, and tips on the latest version of the operating system for Apple’s i-devices. That being the case, I’m going to focus primarily on just the accessibility related changes, and VoiceOver in particular in this installment. There is quite a bit here.

This is only a preliminary first look, and we will be supplementing this information over the coming days.

VoiceOver

SOme of what has been added to VoiceOver we’ve seen previously on the iPad. Other features are entirely new. Here are some highlights.

New Gestures

VoiceOver brings with it some gestures we first saw on the iPad. Among these are the single finger triple tap to perform what would be a double tap to non-VoiceOver users, the two finger scrubbing motion to activate a "Back" button if present, and the four finger swipe up or down to move to the start or end of an area. I found that, with my larger hands, the four finger swipe was difficult, though not impossible, to perform. Users with smaller hands will doubtless find that gesture more useful.

Text Entry

When entering text, the rotor now has an additional setting called "Typing Mode". Like the iPad, you can select "Standard" or "Touch" typing modes from here.

Standard typing leaves your input method unchanged from the previous versions of VoiceOver on your iPhone or iPod touch. That is to say, that you must double or split tap to enter a character.

Touch typing allows the user to touch a key on the keyboard, and have that key automatically entered when you lift up off the screen. If you touch the wrong key, simply slide to the correct key before lifting your finger.

Unlike the iPad, however, the VoiceOver engineers have solved the problem of entering special characters while in Touch typing mode. For example, when in Standard mode, you could perform the pass-through gesture, ( double tap and hold), on the period character, and then slide across the screen to select variations on that character, such as the ellipsis. Similarly, this same method applied to the ".com" key, to select other top level domains. On the iPad, this option does not work well, since the first tap of the pass-through gesture would enter the normal character before you had a chance to select the alternative.

In iOS 4.0, if you are using Touch typing, touching a key and performing a split tap prevents that key from being entered. You can then perform the pass-through gesture and select the alternative you wish to enter. It works remarkably well.

Like the iPad, it is now possible to navigate through editable text line-by-line. Text fields that span over multiple lines can be read smoothly by sliding a finger across the lines. This makes text navigation much more natural, fluid, and convenient.

Apple’s original information on iOS 4.0 released after WWDC noted a practice mode for typing, but we were unable to find such a feature.

Language Selection

One feature described in the iPad manual, but peculiarly only available on display models in Apple Stores, was the "Language Rotor". This has finally made its way to users in iOS 4.0. A new setting in the VoiceOver options allows you to select and reorder available languages. When active, a Rotor setting called "Language" is available. Flicking up or down will cycle through the languages, (and/or voices), you chose in Settings.

Previously, the only way to change VoiceOver’s language was by changing the language and region of your enter device. This is a welcome feature for multi-lingual users, students studying foreign languages, or users, such as myself, who prefer the Australian voice to the US, for example.

The Web Rotor

Also in the VoiceOver settings is the ability to customize your web rotor. You can select which elements are available to jump to, as well as the order in which they appear. Many new element types are available here, such as lists, tables, buttons, text fields, etc.

A mysterious option called "Landmarks" is also available, but we have not determined to what this refers at the time of publication.

Braille

iOS 4.0 supports many BlueTooth Braille displays, and has the ability to display contracted or computer Braille.

Web Content

More element types are identified in MObile Safari and other applications which present web content. This has been very elegantly accomplished without unnecessarily increasing VoiceOver’s chatter. For instance, lists are now identified with a simple "List Start" or "List End" after the first or final item in the list, respectively.

More to Come

Over the next week, we’ll be covering other changes in iOS 4.0 and how they effect accessibility, so keep checking back.

★ Happy Birthday VoiceOver

On 29/April/2005, Apple Inc. released Mac OS X 10.4 Tiger, the first commercial operating system with a built-in screen reader: VoiceOver.

A lot has changed since the introduction of VoiceOver. Here are some highlights:

★ A First Look at the iPad #4 - iBooks

"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."-C.S. Lewis

In the fourth installment of our ongoing examination of the Apple iPad and its accessibility with VoiceOver, we take a look at iBooks, Apple’s e-reader and e-book store application.

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