New iTunes U Course on UDL and iOS Devices

I recently published a course on iTunes U called nABLEing All Learners with iOS Devices. The course is organized according to the nABLE framework or heuristic I use to help me with technology integration. In designing the course I have tried to incorporate a number of UDL principles as a model:

  • Multiple pathways (UDL Checkpoint 8.2: Vary demands and resources to optimize challenge). Throughout the course there are “Dig Deeper” post that encourage learners to explore a given topic in more depth. This gives the learner some choice: skip these Dig Deeper posts and go through the course at a basic level designed to provide the most essential content; or follow the links and other resources available in these posts to go through the course at a more advanced level. The choice is there for the learner.
  • Accessible Materials (UDL Guidelines 1 and 2): I have paid attention to this guideline in a number of ways: all of the videos I have authored include closed captions (and soon I will be uploading transcripts as well). With the ebooks and other documents, I have paid attention to accessibility by adding tags for screen readers in the case of PDF and by including options such as accessibility descriptions in the case of ePub. For third-party content, I have tried to choose accessible content as much as possible (the resources from CAST are great in this respect).
  • Prompts for reflection and discussion: Throughout the course, I have made use of the new Discussions feature of iTunes U to prompt learners to reflect on their learning. I am going to keep these discussions, but I think in the future I will add some activities with apps (apptivities if you will) to make the learning even more concrete.

I invite you to visit the course and enroll if you are interested in learning more about UDL and how to support its implementation with the wonderful accessibility features available on iOS.

iOS 7.1 Accessibility Update

The great news this week is that Apple has released iOS 7.1 with a number of improvements as reported in this Macworld article.  A number of publications, including Macworld are reporting that the use of the camera as a switch is a new feature (actually, this feature was already included when iOS 7 was released in the fall).

AppleVis also has a really nice writeup aimed at blind and low vision users that includes a list of the different VoiceOver bugs that have been fixed in this update.

I thought I was the only one having issues with the camera  when I updated to iOS 7.0.6 recently. On my iPhone 5s the camera was no longer recognizing faces and announcing them with VoiceOver as it had done before.  Great to see that this is fixed in iOS 7.1 (which I was able to test and happy to report it works again the way I am used to).

As a quick summary, I did the following video that compares some of the features as they work on iOS 7.0.6 (on the left) and iOS 7.1 (on the right). Features discussed in the video include:

  • Reduce motion now works in more places, such as with the multi-tasking animation.
  • Bold text also now works in more places, including the keyboard. This is more noticeable when the dark keyboard is the one shown, as it is when doing a search with Spotlight. I too wish there was an option to always use the dark keyboard (as was the case in an earlier beta) but this is an improvement for those who need additional contrast with the keyboard.
  • Button shapes can be added to make them more perceptible.
  • Increase contrast now includes options for darkening the colors and reducing the white point.

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.

Overview of Accessibility Features in iOS 7

Update: My good friend and fellow ADE Daniela Rubio has created a similar post for our Spanish speaking friends on her Macneticos blog.

The long wait is over. It’s finally here: iOS 7, the latest and radically redesigned version of Apple’s mobile operating system.  Along with the redesigned interface, iOS 7 has a number of new and updated accessibility features which I will outline here (with videos to come soon). I will organize these according to the kinds of supports they provide.

The first thing you notice is that it is now easier to navigate to the accessibility area in the Settings. In iOS 6, Accessibility was toward the bottom of the General pane . In iOS 7, it is much closer to the top of the pane, so that you don’t have to scroll. A small change, but one that hopefully will get more people to explore these settings and to become aware of the powerful assistive technology that is built into their devices. It will also aid with navigation for the people who actually use features like VoiceOver and Switch Control.

Visual Supports

  • Large cursor for VoiceOver: you can now choose to have a larger, thicker cursor when VoiceOver is enabled. This is great for me, as I always had a difficult time seeing the old cursor’s faint outline. This option is found at the bottom of the VoiceOver pane.
  • Enhanced voices and language support: The Language Rotor option for VoiceOver has been replaced with a Languages and Dialects pane which provides a lot more flexibility. In this pane, you can specify a default dialect for your language (U.S. English, Australian English, etc.) and add languages to the rotor like you could in iOS 6. For each dialect or language, you can now download enhanced versions of the voices as well as separately control the speech rate.
  • VoiceOver’s option to use phonetics now has a few options (off, character and phonetics, and phonetics only), whereas before you could only turn the feature on and off.
  • You can use a switch to disable the VoiceOver sound effects. These are the sound cues that let you know when you are at the edge of the screen and so on.
  • New options in the VoiceOver rotor: you can add the option for turning sound effects on and off to the rotor, and there is a new handwriting option. Updated (09/18/13, 3pm): The handwriting option allows you to enter text using your handwriting. For example, you can open up the Notes app and start entering text by using the screen as a canvas where you write your text. The handwriting mode supports a number of gestures: two finger swipe left deletes, two finger swipe right adds a space, three finger swipe right adds a new line. You can also switch between lower case (the default) and upper case, punctuation and numbers by swiping up with three fingers. For navigation on the Home screen, you can enter the a letter and VoiceOver will announce the number of apps that start with that letter (even if they are not on the current screen). If there are several apps that start with the same name, you can swipe up or down with two fingers to navigate the list, then double-tap with one finger to open the desired app when it is announced. The handwriting option also works on the lock screen, where you can use it to enter the numbers for your passcode (it even defaults to numbers). In Safari, you can use the Handwriting feature to navigate by item type (for example, you can write “h” for headings, “l” for links and so on then swipe up or down with two fingers to navigate the various headings, links, etc).
  • Updated (09/18/13, 3pm): VoiceOver has a new gesture for accessing the help from anywhere in iOS: a four finger double-tap will allow you to practice VoiceOver gestures. When you’re done, a second four finger double-tap will exit the VoiceOver help.
  • Enhanced braille support: VoiceOver now supports Nemeth Code for equations, and there is an option for automatic braille translation (supporting U.S., Unified and United Kingdom options).
  • The Large Text option is now called Dynamic Type and it can work with any app that supports the feature rather than the limited set of built-in apps in previous versions of iOS. The size of the text is controlled using a slider rather than by choosing from a list and a live preview shows how the text will appear.
  • Bold type and other visual appearance adjustments: overall, iOS 7’s new design has less contrast than previous versions. However, in addition to large type, there are a number of adjustments you can make to the UI to make it easier to see items on the screen. You can make text bold (requires a restart), increase the contrast when text appears against certain backgrounds, remove the parallax motion effect, and enable on/off labels (I’m guessing this feature is for people who are color blind. The feature will add a small mark to indicate when a control is in the on/off position, which would be helpful because green is used quite a bit throughout the interface and the changes in state could be difficult to perceive for those who are color blind to this color).

Auditory Supports

The big addition here is a Subtitles and Captions pane. This pane brings the Closed Captioning support under the Accessibility area of the Settings, whereas before it was found under Videos. It is a global setting that will control closed captions throughout iOS.

In addition to having a global control for closed captions, the Subtitles and Captioning pane also allows you to select from several presets that make captions more attractive and easier to read. You can even go further and specify your own styles for captions, with many options ranging from font, text size, color and opacity to the color and opacity of the box the captions sit on.

Learning Supports

Guided Access now allows disabling the Sleep/Wake and Volume buttons in iOS 7. You can also access the other options in your triple-click home shortcut (which has now been renamed the Accessibility Shortcut) while Guided Access is enabled. This will allow you to use VoiceOver, Zoom and other accessibility features along with Guided Access.

Like VoiceOver, Speak Selection has enhanced language support, including selection of different speaking rates for each of the supported languages and dialects as well as enhanced quality voices that are available for download as needed.

Both of these features are also supposed to get new APIs which I will verify once I can locate apps that implement them. For Speak Selection, a new speech API will allow apps to tap into the built-in voice support of iOS. The idea is that by not having to include as much voice data, the apps can be smaller and take up less space on the devices. In the case of Guided Access, a new API will allow developers to hide parts of the screen to reduce distractions. This builds on the previous version’s feature of disabling touch in certain areas of the screen.

The built-in dictionary feature now supports additional languages which can be downloaded and managed in the Define popover. When you select a word in a foreign language and tap Define, iOS will open the definition in the appropriate language if you have that dictionary downloaded. This is a nice feature for language learners.

Motor Supports

Probably the biggest addition in iOS 7 for accessibility is Switch Control.  This feature has the potential to do for people with motor and cognitive impairments what VoiceOver has done for the blind community. With Switch Control, items on the screen are highlighted with a cursor sequentially, and when the desired item is highlighted it can be activated by tapping the screen or a separate adaptive device connected to the iOS device over Bluetooth. A menu can also be brought up to access scrolling, saved gestures and a number of device functions such as clicking the Home button. Switch control is highly configurable in iOS 7:

  • you can enable auto scanning and adjust the timing parameters for the auto scanning feature, including the number of times it will loop, how long you have to hold down the switch to activate an item (hold duration) and so on.
  • you can adjust the visual appearance and audio effects: for the visual appearance you can choose a large cursor and select from a number of colors for the scanning cursor (I actually wish this feature were available for VoiceOver as well). For audio, you can choose to hear an audio cue when the cursor advances, as well as enable speech and adjust the speaking rate. This last feature may be helpful to someone who needs to use a switch device but also has low vision and needs the audio cues for the items on the screen.
  • You can add multiple switch sources, and the switch source supports three options: external, screen and camera. The first two are pretty self-explanatory. You either tap on an external device or on the iOS device’s screen to activate an item. I set my iPad up to interpret a tap on the screen as a select action and my external switch (a Pretorian Bluetooth switch/joystick device) to pause scanning. The last option is pretty interesting. The camera can be set to recognize your head movements as an action, and you can assign different actions to either a right or a left head turn.  When a head movement is added as a switch source an option for adjusting the head movement sensitivity will be available. One thing to note is that you should probably have your iOS device on a stand if you plan to make use of the camera as a switch source. Otherwise, moving the device may cause the camera to not recognize your face as desired.


Although not considered an accessibility feature, the improved Siri personal assistant with higher quality male and female voices could come in handy for people with disabilities when they wish to look up information or control their devices quickly.  For example, Siri recognizes a number of new commands: you can turn some of the settings on and off with a simple command (“turn Bluetooth on,” or “enable Do Not Disturb”), or navigate to specific areas of the Settings with a voice command (“open accessibility settings” or “go to accessibility settings”).

Similarly, the new TouchID feature (currently available only on the iPhone 5S) should make it easier for individuals who are blind or who have cognitive disabilities to access the information in their devices. As great as VoiceOver is, entering text has never been a strength, even when it is just a few digits on the lock screen. Using the fingerprint reader built into the Home button of the iPhone 5S (and hopefully future iPads) will make it easier to unlock the device while also ensuring privacy. For individuals with cognitive disabilities, the passcode becomes one less thing they have to remember.

On the iPhone, the Control Center includes a Torch feature that uses the flash to provide a constant source of light. I can see this feature being useful for those who need to scan documents in order to perform OCR. Along with the improved cameras in the new phones released with iOS 7, the additional light could improve the performance of the scanning apps used by many people with print disabilities.

iOS 7 also added the ability to perform automatic updates for apps you own. This could have some accessibility implications because you may have an app installed that is accessible in its current version but may become inaccessible after an update. To prevent this from happening, you can turn off the option for automatic updates in Settings > iTunes & App Store > Updates. The App Store also supports the option for redeeming gift cards using the camera (a feature already available on the Mac with iTunes). For individuals with low vision, the redeem codes on iTunes gift cards can be difficult to read, and this option to scan it with the camera makes the process of redeeming gift cards much easier.

Of the new accessibility features, I am most excited about the captioning styles and Switch Control. These two features build on Apple’s strong support for the blind community to extend accessibility to even more people (especially so in the case of Switch Control and its potential impact for people with motor and cognitive disabilities). What are your thoughts? What are you most excited about in iOS 7 with regard to accessibility?

Accessiblity Descriptions for Images in Book Creator for iPad

I commend the team at Red Jumper Studio, the creators of Book Creator for iPad, for adding an option that will let book authors add accessibility descriptions for images in version 2.7 of their app. This was already one of my favorite apps for content creation on the iPad, as it makes it really easy to create ebooks for the iPad that can include images, videos and audio recordings.  I created the following short video that shows how to add the accessibility descriptions in Book Creator for iPad:

Tecla Access Shield and VoiceOver

Jane Farrall has posted an excellent review of the new Tecla Shield from Komodo OpenLab. This is a new switch interface that allows one or more switches to communicate with the iPad. Switch access for the iPad has been available for some time, but only for certain switch compatible apps. I have to admit that I am not an expert in this area, but I enjoy learning about cutting edge technology and this is an area of accessibility where exciting new developments are still ahead of us.

Tecla Shield is one of a new generation of interfaces that promise full switch access to the iPad (another is the iPortal from Dynamic Controls with its Accessibility add-on). Alternative access (which includes access with switches) has been an issue since the iPad first came on the market, so it’s great to see creative solutions that focus on this area. As Jane noted, the Tecla Shield device depends on VoiceOver hooks in IOS to allow switch access to the iPad.

The fact that both Tecla Shield and iPortal rely on VoiceOver to provide alternative access to IOS devices presents a great opportunity for us as people with disabilities to come together and push for accessibility in the form of VoiceOver compatibility. Now it’s not just people with visual disabilities who benefit from an app that has been properly designed for VoiceOver compatibility. A whole new population of people with mobility, motor and cognitive impairments benefit as well. So many times even we as people with disabilities tend to adopt a “that’s not my problem” or “that doesn’t affect me” attitude. Thus, some people with visual disabilities don’t really care too much about captioning for those with hearing disabilities and some people with hearing disabilities don’t care too much about screen readers. Unfortunately, that shortsighted attitude keeps us from achieving the kind of unity that would give us a stronger presence to push developers into really paying attention to all of our accessibility needs.

Accessibility in iBooks 2 and iBooks

Today’s post will focus on some of the lessons I have learned about the accessibility of ebooks created with iBooks Author and accessed on the iPad with iBooks 2.

I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Apple included an option for adding a description for images and other objects when it released iBooks Author. I don’t remember this feature being discussed much at the event where Apple unveiled iBooks 2 and iBooks Author, and only found out about it while test driving the software.

An even better surprise was learning that closed captions are now supported for any video that is embedded in an iBook. This is a great feature that will benefit a range of different learners (not only those with hearing disabilities). I think these new accessibility features of iBooks Author and iBooks 2 will go a long way toward facilitating the adoption of iBooks in the schools by meeting legal requirements for accessibility set by the U.S. government (for a summary of the legal requirements, please see the Dear Colleague letter and the follow-up clarification from the U.S. Department of Education).

Apple has published a support document  with  advice for making iBooks created with iBooks Author more accessible.  However, the article focuses mostly on the accessibility of images and other visual content, and does not include any information about closed captions. I would add a couple of bullet points to the advice given in the Apple support document:

  • the article suggests adding descriptions for all images, including background images. Web accessibility guidelines state that decorative images should have a null or empty alt attribute so that they are skipped by a screen reader, but there is currently no way in iBooks Author  to indicate that an image should be skipped by VoiceOver on the iPad. In my testing, I found that when you leave the description field for an image empty in iBooks Author, VoiceOver will read the entire file name when it comes across the image in iBooks 2. This is a problem because most people don’t use very descriptive file names before they add their images to a document. In my test iBook, I forgot to add a description for one of the placeholder images included in the iBooks Author template I selected. When I accessed the iBook on my iPad, VoiceOver read the following: “1872451980 image”. Imagine how confusing this would be to someone who is blind and relies on the VoiceOver screen reader to access content in iBooks.  For the time being, I would suggest following the guidance from Apple and marking up all images, including those that are used for decorative purposes, but I would recommend marking up  decorative images (those that don’t add any content that is essential for understanding) with the word “Background” in the description. By default, VoiceOver will say the word “image” so it is not necessary to add that to the description. While it would be better for the image to be skipped by VoiceOver if it is not essential, I would rather hear a quick, single-word announcement that is much easier to ignore than a long number read aloud in its entirety by VoiceOver, or an unnecessary description for an image that does not add in any way to my understanding of the content.
  • as much as possible, image descriptions should focus on the function of each image rather than its visual appearance. Writing descriptions (or alternative text as it is more commonly known in the web accessibility world) is as much an art as it is a science, and much of it is subjective. There are many sites that provide information on how to write good alt text for images on websites, but I have found very little guidance on how to write descriptions for other online content such as ebooks. My recommendation would be to focus on three C’s when writing descriptions for images in iBooks Author: Context, Content and Conciseness. First, I would ask myself if the image is properly described in the surrounding text. If it is, then it might be more appropriate to mark it up as a decorative image (“Background”). Next, I would ask myself “what information does this image convey?” and focus on the key idea or concept supported by the image rather than its visual details. There could be a few exceptions where you might need to focus on the visual details of the image, but these cases should be the exception rather than the rule. The final consideration is to keep the description as brief and concise as possible. I would try to keep it to no more than 8-10 words if possible.

The second aspect of accessibility supported in iBooks Author is closed captioning. If a movie added to an iBook in iBooks Author has been captioned, you can view the captions in iBooks 2 on the iPad by going to Settings, Video and making sure Closed Captions is set to On. If you know a file has been captioned and you don’t see the captions on the iPad, you may need to go into the Settings app and turn the captions off and then on for the captions to show up. This appears to be a bug that will likely get fixed in a future update to iBooks or IOS.

To create a captioned file, I have found that a workflow using MovieCaptioner and Compressor has worked well for me. I like MovieCaptioner for creating the captions because it is affordable and easy to learn. To learn more about how to create captions with MovieCaptioner you can view this tutorial I have made available on the Tech Ease website at the University of South Florida.

The only difference with my current workflow is that rather than exporting a captioned QuickTime video file from MovieCaptioner I’m only using the software to create the SCC file that has the caption text and timecodes. I then use Compressor to make sure the video file is in the correct format for the iPad and to add the captions. I found that when I exported the movie from MovieCaptioner I would get an error message in iBooks Author and the software would refuse to import the movie. Once I have exported my SCC file (Export > SCC in MovieCaptioner), I use Compressor to combine the two as follows:

  1. Open Compressor and choose Add File from the toolbar, then locate the desired video on your hard drive.
  2. In the Settings pane (Window > Settings) choose the Destinations tab, then find Desktop (or your preferred destination ) and drag it into the Batch window.Drag Destination from Settings pane to Batch window.
  3. Switch to the Settings tab and choose Apple Devices, H.264 for iPad and iPhone, then drag that setting on top of the destination in the Batch window.
    Drag H.264 for IPad and iPhone setting into the Batch window
  4. With your movie selected, open the Inspector (Window > Inspector or click the Inspector button on the toolbar), select the Additional Information tab and then Choose to find the SCC file on your computer.
    Select Choose from the Additional Information tab in the Inspector
  5. Select Submit to start the export process.

Once your movie has been exported from Compressor you should be able to drag it right into your iBook in iBooks Author to add it as a widget. As with images, make sure you provide a description in the Inspector.

Students with disabilities have traditionally had a difficult time with access to textbooks. iBooks Author provides a platform for making textbooks more accessible for all learners as long as a few accessibility principles are kept in mind. What an exciting time to be working in educational technology and accessibility!