Accessibility news from the Apple iPad Announcement

This week Apple gave us quite a bit to look over. I am still trying to catch up with the many updates that were made available when Apple unveiled not only new Macs and iPads, but also a new version of OS X (now free!) and its iLife and iWork apps for the Mac (yes, now those are free too!). After spending a few days playing with Mavericks, as the new version of OS X is now called (I do miss the felines), here are a few noteworthy additions from an accessibility perspective:

  • Switch Control is now available for OS X. This was a feature that was introduced in iOS 7 for iOS devices and for the most part it works in a similar way on the Mac as it does on iOS.  Rather than writing a lengthy description of this new feature, I created a video for you:
  •  Caption styles. This is another feature that first appeared in iOS 7 and now works in pretty much the same way on the Mac. You can create custom styles to make the captions easier to read on your Mac. Again, I have created a video that shows how this works:

  • Creation of Speakable Items with Automator. Automator is a Mac app that allows you to create workflows for automating repetitive tasks you might want to do on your computer. Speakable Items is found under Interacting in the Accessibility area of System Preferences, and it lets you control your Mac with your voice. You can perform commands such as launching apps, checking your email and more. With Mavericks, you can now create your own Speakable Items using Automator. This video shows you how. For students with physical and motor challenges being able to automate actions so that they can be performed with their speech opens up a lot of possibilities.
  • Improved dictation. In Mountain Lion, Dictation worked well but it was limited to short phrases and it only worked when you had an Internet connection. In Mavericks, Dictation can now work while you are off-line, and it has been improved so that you can speak your text continuously. As before you start Dictation by pressing the Function key twice, but you don’t have to do that again to see your text shown in your editing software. You can just continue speaking and the text will appear as you speak. I see so many applications of this feature for working with students who have writing difficulties, since now they will get almost real time feedback of their editing. The one thing to note is that enabling this feature does require an 800 MB file download so that it can work offline. To me, that’s a small price to pay for adding this cool new feature to my Mac.

Now, Mavericks was not the only big announcement. New versions of iWork and iLife, as well as iBooks Author were also announced. And iBooks and Maps finally come to the Mac. I really like the simpler design of all the iWork apps, and their support for VoiceOver has improved. However, there were two other changes that I found especially exciting:

  • The iWork apps now allow you to enter an accessibility description for your images in the new Format pane. This is huge for giving people the option to create more accessible documents. I also found that when I exported my Pages documents as ePub books, the image descriptions were preserved. This fix addresses what I saw as a big shortcoming with the old version of Pages.
  • Embedded closed captioned videos are supported. I do a lot of presentations, and when I present I try to model what I preach by including captions in my videos. However, in the past I had to jump through a few hoops to get my captions to show up (such as creating a captioned video file and then screen recording it before adding it to Keynote). No need to do that anymore. I can just drag my video that includes captions into my Keynote deck and it will even do the optimization in case I want to add the Keynote file into an iBooks Author project.

Speaking of iBooks Author: it now appears to preserve the captions when you add a Media interactive. This was a big problem before, where you had to use Compressor (not the friendliest program for the teachers I often work with) to combine the original video with a captions file created with MovieCaptioner. Well, now I can just export my video out of MovieCaptioner using the SCC Embed with QT option and then drag it right into an iBooks Author project and it works with no error warning. iBooks Author will do the compression (optimization) for me. One tip is to make sure your video matches the specs for video on the iPad as much as possible. Otherwise, this optimization, which you cannot disable, will take quite a long time.  Previewing your captions in a book is easier too, since iBooks is included with Mavericks and you do not have to connect your iPad to do a preview of your book.

The new iBooks app for the Mac is pretty much what you would expect if you have used the iOS version. All of the supports our students need are there: highlighting, notes, dictionary lookup, study cards for multi-touch books, etc. I really like that you can see the Notes in the margin by pressing Command +3, which works really well in full screen mode to create a nice reading experience.  Another nice feature is that you can open two books at once, which helps if you have a second book that you need to keep referring to while reading. Speak selection is available when you select text, from a contextual menu, but I was surprised that word highlighting is not included. This is one of my favorite features of Speak Selection on iOS and it makes it such a valuable tool. I hope this gets added soon.  My other beef is that some of the buttons at the top when you’re reading a book are missing labels for VoiceOver. Overall, I think having iBooks on the Mac will be welcomed news to many educators and I’m really excited about the convergence of the two platforms. It makes it much easier for those of us who need accessibility support, as we are not really learning different platforms with all the similarities between iOS and OS X.

On the hardware front, I was most excited about the new iPad mini with Retina. After having the original mini, I don’t see myself going back to the larger iPad. I just love the portability of it and it does everything I need it to do. Having Retina is not a huge deal for me (my own retinas don’t really know the difference), but having a better chip will make a difference if it leads to improve performance for VoiceOver, Speak Selection and all those accessibility features I love to use. I can’t wait to get my hands on a 32GB model.

After doing all of the updates on the many devices I own and use, I’m still learning about all that is new. Did I miss anything? Let me know and I will look into it. I’m always learning.

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