Smartphone Apps: Solutions in the Palm of Your Hand

For many of us, when we go about doing things on a daily basis we utilize and rely upon the use of computer technologies for a variety of reasons: simply to meet our own personal needs or our work obligations. Mobile computing technologies have become the most conventional medium used for communications, information sharing, and instant connection via wireless Internet.

We make use of computer technologies consistently, such as a cellular or Smartphone, smart TV, personal computers, tablets, digital book reader, digital cameras, and many other devices. We use these technologies to perform specific tasks or functions we enjoy and primarily to meet the competing demands of our lives. We use mobile devices for communications to connect with others instantaneously by sending text messages and sharing information through social media. We are constantly connected and interact through a mobile device as our means to function efficiently and create an environment that is conducive to our lifestyles.

Most people who have functional limitations or with disabilities, whether physical or sensory, tell me that they are able to function more effectively and independently with the availability of assistive technology.

What is assistive technology?

Assistive technology is any device or tool that helps an individual with a disability perform a specific task or function that otherwise would have been impossible or rather difficult to do independently.

The most common and accessible form of assistive technology for individuals with disability is the use of a smartphone or a mobile PC. According to Forbes Magazine, in 2013 there were close to a million smartphone apps in the Apple App Store alone. Many apps are available for other devices, too. Once downloaded (for free or purchase) into a smartphone device or mobile PC, they become tools for maintaining an active lifestyle and living more independently.

Log daily activities or track calorie intake for someone with diabetes. Scan a bar code for information about a can of soup or other product. Magnify small print or enlarge an object. These are just a few of the tasks that a smartphone or mobile PC can perform—easily and effectively—right in the palm of your hand.

What is an app?

Barb Squires and Michelle Toy, specialists at Blind Rehabilitation, VA Puget Sound Health Care System at American Lake, have listed some favorites apps that have been most popular with veterans at the center and are regularly used by their students (military vets learning to use smartphone functions and applications):

Labeling and Money Identification

oMoby (free) takes a picture of the label or paper currency. It does a fair job of identifying common products and searching for information about the product. The first time it takes a picture of a bill, it takes a long time to identify. Once the bill is in its history, identification is much faster.

TapTapSee (first 50 photos are free). Take a picture to identify an item.

DigitEyes ($19.00) scans barcodes and lets you create your own bar code labels for things that don't have bar codes (printed from the DigitEyes website).

LookTel Money Reader ($9.99) identifies bills fast and flawlessly. It requires little training. Just hold the phone a few inches above the bill.

LookTel Recognizer ($9.99) helps the user identify items with barcodes. It is not as easy to use as an ID Mate, which has an Omni Directional scanner (allowing fast reading at any angle).

EyeNote (free from the US Department of Treasury) works almost as well as LookTel's Money Reader (above). Most totally blind individuals who manage their own cash will appreciate the smoothness of the Money Reader.

Recording

AccessNote is a new notetaking app from American Federation for the Blind. It interfaces with Dropbox and allows you to take extensive notes and access notes from your computer via Dropbox. For more information, refer to the Dropbox Quick Start Guide as Dropbox is not a fully accessible website.

List Recorder lets you name files yourself, with a Bluetooth keyboard or the iPhone's keyboard. It is for power users who want to organize files.

Reading (OCR)

TextGrabber ($5.99) does a fairly good job scanning good quality text and reading it aloud. Good lighting and a stand are two important items needed. The Justand stand works with iPad but the iPhone stand used at the VA is home made.

ZoomReader ($19.99) works inconsistently well, not as good as the Text Grabber program (above).

ZoomContacts ($4.99) does a nice job of magnifying contacts. One can start an e-mail from this app. It works only in landscape position.

GPS

Ariadne GPS ($5.99) has a "Where Am I" button that can give you information about your nearest address; record and save a landmark as a Favorite (user must be physically located at the landmark when recording); provide voice guidance/directions to a saved landmark (a Favorite); and give directions in clock face language (distance between two points).

Sendero Lookaround (free) can provide your nearest address, name of nearest street, and nearest cross street, as well as nearby points of interest (POI), by category. POIs are listed by name, distance from user, and compass direction.

Google Maps (free) offers turn-by-turn voice guidance to a specific address or business. The user can choose a pedestrian, vehicle or transit route. Google Maps has its own voice, but VoiceOver also works if the user needs to have information repeated. When set to pedestrian routes, Google Maps will shake the iPhone just prior to voicing the next instruction.

Documents

Pages allows you to name and rename documents even when not using a Bluetooth keyboard; however, if you try to drag documents into folders, you do not get feedback using VoiceOver as you do on the Home Screen, so the process is not accessible. SpellCheck does not offer suggestions. Note: There have been problems with accessibility in Pages when using a Bluetooth keyboard. It appears and sounds as if you are ready to type but nothing appears in the text area as you type. Sometimes ejecting the keyboard and connecting again helps.

Envelope Maker was a bit challenging to figure out and may have a few buttons to rename, but works well. Buttons can be renamed when using VoiceOver by using a two finger tap/hold (hold down on the screen on the second hit with two fingers) to bring up a dialogue that allows you to rename the button.

Books and Radio

BARD Mobile allows a registered National Library Service user the ability to download and read digital books on an iPhone or iPad. Books must be added to a Wish List before being downloaded. A user can add the same book to both devices.

Airs-LA offers free podcasts from the Audio Internet Reading Service of Los Angeles. An account log-in is required but the app provides a wide variety for listening (Car Talk, Oprah, technical broadcasts, topics related to blindness, etc.).

Reference

ViA (Visually Impaired Apps) reviews and recommends apps that are accessible.

VO Starter ($0.99) is a fun app that introduces users to basic VoiceOver gestures. This app is useful for someone who needs a lot of practice to master gestures.

Useful apps for everybody

There are many more apps in the mobile technology marketplace. These lists are just a few examples of smartphone apps that are available through iOS (Apple) and Android mobile technology. All mobile technology users can really take advantage of the availability of using specific assistive technologies that have been developed for persons with disabilities but their practicality also work for the mainstream consumers.

OneBusAway is an app that provides public transportation schedules in Seattle-King County. Another useful mobility orientation app is Android's TalkingCompass.

For someone with learning disability or difficulty with reading print or extended text reading, Text-2-Speech app is gaining popularity. EyeReader is a great tool for anyone who has difficulty reading small print—especially in the dark (e.g., restaurants)—because it provides a magnifier, LED light from the phone, and zoom capability.

For those concerned with their well-being and health management, MyFitnessPal and Glooko (for diabetes management) have received good ratings and reviews.

These apps can be very beneficial to an individual with a disability or with specific need because they could improve one's daily functioning or ability to independently manage their health or daily activities thereby making life more convenient and productive to some extent. It is certainly worth learning more about these mobile technology devices and applications and to try them out to see how they could be useful for you or someone you know with a functional limitation.

The mobile technology and apps mentioned in this article are not intentionally endorsed. They are offered as examples of the range of accessibility technology available to the general public. Choosing products and usability features is a personal decision. It's up to you to find out if they meet your needs.

Don't hesitate to experiment—especially when the app is free. Try out several to decide what will enhance your active lifestyle. You may also want to talk to someone you know who is already using a mobile technology—like a family member, friend or neighbor—and find out what works for them. You can also talk with technology representatives in stores that sell these devices—they should be able to explain features and use and help you make a decision about the best mobile technology for you.

Apple stores offer training and classes for new users on how to operate these mobile devices like the iPhone, or iPad and other products they have. This is one way to be knowledgeable about assistive technology and take advantage of these devices to make your daily activities and functions more feasible.

If you are not sure where to start, go to your local mobile phone carrier and talk to a technology specialist about your specific needs.

For people with disabilities, the Washington Assistive Technology Act Program (WATAP) provides information and resources to Washington residents with disabilities about making decisions or obtaining technology and related services needed for employment, schooling and independent living. WATAP also provides device demonstrations and training, as well as low-interest loans on some technologies. For more information about WATAP, contact 1-800-241-8731 or watap@uw.edu.

If you have no experience with technologies, get connected with your nearest library or community college, or make a free call to the 211 Community Information Line or Senior Information and Assistance for information about local technology training resources. Learn more about computer technologies and new mobile devices to see how they can make a positive impact in your life.

Contributor Eva Larrauri, MA, CRC is a training and information specialist at the Region 10 Northwest ADA Center, which serves Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. The Center is located at the University of Washington's Center for Continuing Education in Rehabilitation. For more information about the Center's work, e-mail nwadactr@uw.edu, visit www.dbtacnorthwest.org, like it on Facebook or follow it on Twitter.