Microsoft Office Specialist Certification and Low Vision


I had the opportunity to take a class my junior and senior years of high school that allowed students to test for Microsoft Office certifications. These certifications, which are internationally recognized, included Word, Word Expert, Excel, Excel Expert, and PowerPoint. The Word, Excel, and PowerPoint certifications were done the first year, and the Expert certifications, which are two part exams, were done the second year. These certifications have always stuck out on my resume, and many people have asked me about them.

I was lucky to have a teacher who knew low vision extremely well, as they have a parent with macular degeneration. As a result, they were more than willing to help me with accommodations and to help ensure that I could access everything. Here are some of the tips and tricks we used for training and testing for the certification exams. We used Certiport for testing, and I received my Microsoft Office Specialist Master certification in 2015.

Testing Accommodations

My teacher requested accommodations for a magnification tool and for double time on the test, very similar to the accommodations I receive for other standardized tests. We never had any issues with getting these accommodations, though it was determined that it was impossible for me to use Microsoft Access, a database software, so I never became certified in that. Accommodations were filed over a month before I sat for the first exam and we did not need to re-submit them for the other exams, they were automatically approved.

Enlarging Office applications

I had my own special computer in the computer lab that no other student was allowed to use. On this computer, there were two types of magnification software, one created for testing and one for normal use. The display was scaled to 200% so images and windows were larger. Text was also enlarged as large as possible. The Microsoft applications had a colored tint as a background and high contrast buttons as a result.  For more on Windows 10 accessibility, click here.

Practice tests

For class exercises, we used a software called GMetrix, which allows students to practice doing different tasks and creating documents. Instructions can be enlarged by clicking on the white box with text and then holding down the control (ctrl) and plus (+) keys until desired text size is reached. One thing is that before submitting work for review, the user must scale the font size down to the original size from when the document was opened, or the software will mark the question as wrong- same goes for the certification exam.

How the certifications have helped

While studying for these certifications, I was able to learn a lot more about the functions of Microsoft Office. I was able to learn how to create accessible materials quickly, a skill that has benefitted me many times. In addition, I was able to learn how to create high quality projects, and have consistently had the most impressive PowerPoint class project designs. I’ve also been able to help many of my fellow students with Microsoft projects- my suitemates last year would frequently ask me questions about using Microsoft Excel.

Overall, I couldn’t have been more lucky when it came to getting my certifications. Not only were they a great addition to my resume, but I have been able to use skills I learned from them every day.  This class also helped prepare me for taking the Information Systems CLEP exam. Getting one of these certifications is way better than taking an AP class, in my opinion- after all, most employers will be more impressed that you passed an Excel Expert exam than if you passed an AP History exam. I highly recommend taking these exams, no matter what you may study in the future, as this technology is used in every career.

All of the Technology in My Dorm Room


I spend almost my entire day using some type of technology. It’s very rare to see me without at least two of my devices, and when working in my room, I’m often using three or more at once.  While I do consider myself technology savvy- my major does have technology in the name, after all- I’m not using anything particularly advanced, and I have found that these devices can benefit students no matter what their major or skill level with technology is.

Here is a list of the devices I brought to college with me and what I use them for. Please note that I chose to exclude my E-Bot Pro and Eschenbach SmartLux, as I did not want to include assistive technology devices in this roundup.

HP Sprout desktop computer

I love working on my desktop when it comes to my virtual classes, as it has a giant touchscreen display as well as the capability to be hooked up to multiple monitors. It comes with a unique touchpad display which doubles as a 3D scanner so I can enlarge objects and view documents on the upper and lower screen. It syncs with my laptop nicely and I’m yet to encounter a document or file that couldn’t be made accessible by that computer.  Read here why I love having a desktop computer in college.

Microsoft Surface

I purchased this my senior year of high school and it still works like new. It fits on even the smallest desks in my classrooms and also has amazing battery life, with ten hours on a single charge. It’s also very lightweight to carry and I can type on it for hours without a problem. The small display is not a problem because I have many accessibility settings enabled. While I can run programs like Photoshop and Microsoft Visio on the Surface, I choose to use my desktop whenever possible, as my Surface has issues running several intricate applications simultaneously.

iPad

I’m not really an Apple products user, but I can’t imagine life without my iPad. With so many accessibility apps available and beautiful large font displays (read about accessibility settings here), it’s one of the best inventions of the century, in my opinion. I also use it to talk with friends and family after class, look up information, and can rarely be found without it.  In addition, all of my textbooks are on my iPad- read more about digital textbooks here.

Chromecast

At $35, the Chromecast is one of those devices that has paid for itself time and time again, with many coupons for free movie rentals and Google Play credit. I love it because I can broadcast anything from a Google Chrome tab, be it from my phone, iPad, or computer. It’s also great for watching longer videos while working on my iPad, or streaming Netflix.  Read my full review here.

Android phone

I use many accessibility apps on my phone, and also often cast the display to my Chromecast so I can easily see messages and work with other apps. I also use it as a USB storage device for my computers when I lose my flash drive. A lot of the apps my college recommends that students download, like the bus schedules and emergency services apps, are also on my phone.   Read my posts on making Android accessible using third party apps here, and with native settings here.

TV

I don’t really watch a lot of cable TV, though I do get free cable with my apartment and use it to watch local news. My TV typically is acting as a second monitor for something, or being used with the Chromecast.

Laser printer

My Brother laser printer has been an incredibly useful resource when I have to print something for class or check for formatting issues. The scanner function has also been helpful, as well as being able to quickly make copies. Since I got it on super sale, it wound up being cheaper to have a printer in my room than to pay for printing at the library.

Amazon Echo Dot

This is the newest addition to my technology collection, and it’s been extremely helpful. Besides making it extremely easy to listen to music, I have used it to order products, set alarms, check the weather, set reminders, as a calculator, and even as a translator. I’ve used it so much, my suitemates thought at one point that I was genuinely talking to a person named Alexa.  Read my full review here.

Having all of this technology in my room has helped me a lot as a student with a disability. I access materials in a different way than most students, and having the resources to make things accessible quickly has been invaluable. For a lot of people, technology makes things easier, but for people with disabilities, technology makes things possible.

Why I Brought A Desktop Computer to College


As a student with low vision and chronic illness, my college experience has been very unique. I have learned to rely a lot on technology for my success, and having a desktop computer in my apartment has helped me be able to balance everything. Here are ten of the reasons I bought a desktop computer for college, and how it has helped me often. Please note that my computer runs Windows 10 with these accessibility settings enabled.

Virtual classes

A little less than half of the classes I have taken in college have been virtual. This is due to several factors- my chronic illness, low vision, and some classes being exclusively offered online. It helps to have a dedicated place where I can work on my courses. Read more about why I take virtual classes here.

Typing

For the most part, I do not handwrite assignments, as I have dysgraphia, which is the inability to write coherently as a result of an organic condition, such as low vision or a brain issue. I also run this blog, and frequently spend hours at the computer typing up posts. It feels much more natural to type for long periods of time on my desktop keyboard.

Synchronizes with laptop

One of the awesome things about having two computers is that all of the data synchronizes, meaning my class notes, photos, and other information is easily accessible on each of my devices. I find it helpful to switch between the two computers, especially since I have neck issues that can be aggravated by hunching over for a laptop screen. My laptop is a Microsoft Surface Pro 3 running Windows 10, and I cannot imagine using any other laptop in class as it easily fits on any sized desk and the battery life is awesome.

Large screen

While a large screen does not necessarily mean a computer is accessible for low vision, my computer’s 22″ screen enlarges text very efficiently and can easily display large navigation tools, windows, and images. Windows 10 is fantastic for this, as I am able to use large, bold print.

Running software

While my Surface can do many things well, running multiple intricate software applications at once is not one of them. Luckily, my desktop computer can run all of the applications and then some, making it easy to be productive.

Easy to print items

In addition to bringing my desktop computer, I also purchased an inexpensive Brother laser printer with wireless capabilities. I can quickly print out an assignment for class, scan in pages, and make copies. Because I got the printer and toner on super sale (start checking advertisements now!), it’s cheaper than having to go print out items at the library.  To register a wireless printer, follow the same instructions listed here for registering an Amazon Echo.

Two screens

Why have one screen when you can have two? I hooked up a 26″ TV monitor on an adjacent table to use as a second monitor for my desktop computer. I commonly use this when running multiple applications, or when taking notes on a video.  I also can stream tabs on my Google Chrome browser to my TV monitor using a Chromecast.

Make materials accessible

I developed a macro on my computer to make documents accessible nearly instantly in Microsoft Word (more on how I did coming soon), something that I had trouble running on other computers. I love that I can turn almost any document into a format that I can read quickly and easily. I also can read materials from Bookshare, Nook, and Kindle.

Utilize library resources

Libraries have resources that go beyond print materials, such as databases, remote desktop applications, and even digital materials. I can access all sorts of library tools from the comfort of my desk. Read more about campus libraries here.

I don’t need the space on my desk

Having low vision means that I don’t have to worry about lots of papers, heavy textbooks, writing, or other similar tasks. My computer does everything for me, so I don’t need anything else on my desk.  I live in a room by myself, and always lock the door when I leave, so I have never had to worry about anyone else messing with my computer.

I have been extremely fortunate to have both a desktop and laptop computer at college.  I have been able to do everything from homework to take entire courses without having to leave my apartment.  This is especially helpful with my chronic migraines, as I can create a study environment that’s free of triggers, and all of my computer settings are exactly as I like them.

Kindle Fire for Low Vision Review


A few months ago, Amazon did a special where you could purchase a refurbished Kindle Fire 7″ tablet for about $30. Now, I’m a huge fan of the Nook e-reader, and have been since it first came out, but I had been curious about Prime Reading and Kindle Unlimited, especially with the audio features. So I decided to try out the tablet, and here’s what I discovered. I was not compensated in any way for this review.  Link to tablet here.

First impressions

Having been an Android user since Eclair (2010), I naturally thought that the interface would be very familiar to me, especially since Android has been accessible to low vision in the past. I went to use my tricks to make Android accessible…and found a lot of them didn’t work on the tablet, because of Amazon’s custom operating system, and I couldn’t use any Android third party applications, which I rely on a lot. So this tablet was definitely going to be for reading only, not using any other applications.

The screen reader

I was surprised how much I liked the screen reader built into the system. It is enabled by touch, instead of needlessly reading through settings. I have to triple click to get to anything, so I decided to disable the magnifier. I normally do not use screen readers, and prefer large print or magnifier tools when possible.

Viewing the library

Because of the small screen, I decided to view what was available for the Kindle on my computer. As a Prime member, I have access to several titles for free, a lot of which I recognized from popular series, and can check out an unlimited amount of books with this service. I can also check out one book a month with the Kindle lending library. A handful of books are synced with Audible narration, so I can alternate between reading and listening- not many are, though. There’s also magazines available, but I prefer to read those using the Zinio app (more on that here).

Kindle Unlimited

There’s another feature available called Kindle Unlimited, which gives users unlimited access to about a third of the catalog for $10 a month. A lot more of these titles have Audible narration available, which is fantastic for users who prefer audiobooks. This is especially helpful for users that are blind that prefer natural speaking voices, as opposed to the screen reader.  However, a majority of the titles can also be found on Prime Reading, so it doesn’t make much sense for me to have it, especially since I don’t use the Audible feature a lot.

Actually reading

I kept the screen reader turned on when reading, but found it extremely difficult to turn pages. I ended up turning it off and using the Audible narration built in. I’m sure there’s some trick to page turning that I don’t understand yet, but the large print was generously sized enough for me.  Here are my typical preferences for print materials.

Using other services

I use Bookshare, a special service for people who are blind or have low vision to receive accessible books. I had problems trying to load these books onto the tablet, even though they were in the universally accessible EPUB format. I consider myself extremely tech savvy, so this was a strange experience. I did not see any accessible reading apps from Bookshare available on the Amazon app store either. OverDrive, a book service my library subscribes to, worked very well on the Kindle though (more about that here).

Review

I found the Kindle Fire to be a good tablet with a bit of a learning curve. It’s not the most accessible tablet for people with low vision or blindness, though. I am going to keep using it to see if it improves over time, but for right now my recommendation for eReaders has not changed. I continue to recommend the Nook GlowLight for books and for using Bookshare, and iPad for textbooks and magazines. If Amazon improves navigation with the screen reader or gives users larger text options, this will change.

Kindle for low vision

After doing some research, I discovered that there is a Kindle system specifically configured for users with low vision or blindness. It comes with a Kindle PaperWhite, which does not display color. It also includes a special audio adapter so the user can control the system using their voice, something that would have been an amazing feature on this Fire tablet. It also comes with a $20 Amazon credit to defray the cost of the additional adapter, as Amazon believes it shouldn’t cost extra to have accessible materials, something I really appreciate. I have not tested out this system, but it seems to be a much better layout for people with low vision.

Overall, I was not overly impressed with this tablet, especially since I am a devoted Bookshare user, and the service did not work very well with the Kindle. However, I see potential in this device, and if it can improve its accessibility features, or be compatible with the voice control system, it would be a great resource for people with low vision.

What’s in my Bag- Class Edition


As a college student with low vision, chronic pain, and chronic migraines, the items I bring to class to help me succeed are often vastly different than my classmates. This doesn’t mean I have an unfair advantage, but rather that I use different tools to ensure my success in the classroom. Here are the items that I often have when I go to my classes. For reference, I live on campus, have a file with Disability Services for use of assistive technology, and my university embraces the use of student technology.Writing

Sharpie Pens

I use this ultra fine tip pens for writing on assignments in lieu of pencil when needed. I try to get materials digital whenever possible, especially because I have dysgraphia, but sometimes there are assignments where the teacher is worried about having a digital copy floating around. I tend to use bright colors, though try to avoid red whenever possible.

Scented Markers

I decided to try these out on a whim for my math class this semester, and they have been a phenomenal resource. The scented markers are easy to hold and write/draw with. Why scented markers? There is a study that shows that having the same scent in the learning and testing environment helps with memory retention, and I use different colors for different topics when studying.

Cardstock

With the use of pens and markers, I need paper that will not fall apart or bleed through. I got a large package of cardstock that is 8.5″ x 11″ from Amazon, and it has been excellent for doing scratch work.

Personal Technology

Microsoft Surface

I use a Microsoft Surface Pro 3, with Windows 10, in my classes that require a lot of typing or the use of Windows apps. Some of the classrooms have very small desks, and I have found that the Surface easily stays put and doesn’t hang off the edge of the desk. Check out how to make Windows 10 accessible here!

iPad

Oh, my beloved iPad. I have no idea what I would do without it. In addition to the apps I use in the classroom (more on that here), I also use it for internet research and for class activities. It’s a lightweight device, something I appreciate when I have to walk around the classroom.  Check out how to make iPad accessible here!

Android Phone

While I don’t use this as frequently in the classroom as my other two devices, my phone is a fantastic resource for apps. Some examples include a portable scanner, discreet magnifier, and apps from my iPad synced to my phone. Not many of my professors have a no-phone policy, but the ones who did had no problem with letting me use mine, as long as I had headphones plugged in or sound otherwise disabled.  Check out how to make Android accessible here!

Assistive Technology

E-Bot Pro

Depending on the class, I would bring my E-Bot Pro to help magnify items. Even though it is lightweight by CCTV standards, I bring it in a rolling bag or a similar method because of the weight on my shoulders and back. I have most frequently used the E-Bot Pro in math and science classes, and teachers have been very receptive to it. It usually requires an additional desk for me to be able to use it.  Review here.

SmartLux

My portable CCTV has been an awesome resource, especially in my English classes. One example of when I used it is to read a graphic novel/comic that was not available digitally. I especially appreciate the built-in stand.  Review here.

Pain relief

Peppermint essential oil

When I feel a migraine coming on, sniffing peppermint essential oil helps me to delay (not prevent) the symptoms of a migraine from taking over. Having peppermint scented items has a similar effect- one of my friends wears a necklace that acts as a diffuser for essential oils.

Lidocaine Patch

If I suddenly have a spasm or intense pain, I will go to the bathroom and apply one of these. The cooling, numbing effect helps me begin to manage the pain. Just make sure to take them off after twelve hours. Mine were prescribed by my neurologist, but there is a version available over the counter as well.

Compression Sleeve

When I have numbness/pain in my arms or legs during class, I will put on a copper-infused compression sleeve to help with symptoms. I keep one for my arm and one for my leg.

Nonperishable snack

I keep two small protein bars in my backpack for when there is a break during class or when I can’t concentrate on anything but food. My teachers don’t usually mind students having small, non-messy foods. I would recommend not having any with peanuts or peanut butter, in case someone is allergic.

Ear Plugs

In one of the buildings on campus, there is a very noisy fan that makes it difficult to concentrate. These ear plugs have been great with helping me focus on what’s important, and are extremely comfortable too.

Unless I am bringing my E-Bot Pro, all of these items easily fit into my rolling backpack, and I have had no issues with bringing them around campus. If needed, I will put everything else into a backpack and then put the E-Bot Pro into the rolling backpack. All of these materials are stored easily underneath my desk or in front of my feet.

App Accessibility Checklist for Low Vision


About a month ago, my friend recommended an application to download on my phone. I wasn’t sure if they had thought about this, but there are many apps, even popular ones, that are inaccessible to people with low vision or photosensitivity. Right as I was about to ask, my friend said “don’t worry, the text can be enlarged to your size and there’s no strobes.” I was happy that not only my friend had checked for these things, but that the app developers had thought ahead of time and made their app accessible to people with low vision and photosensitivity.

Too many times, accessibility is considered a last minute thing to add to an application. With so many people identified as having a disability, app developers should be more aware of how important it is to consider diverse users when developing an application. Here are seven accessibility settings I check for when downloading an application, either on my Android phone or iPad. While this is targeted towards users with a disability, this also helps seniors and adults who simply forgot their reading glasses.

Can text be enlarged?

While some applications support the operating system’s default text settings, there are other apps that use their own fonts. Check that these fonts can be enlarged to a legible size- typically, I use a size 24 font, though bigger is almost always better. If there are different font style options, that is awesome too- people with certain print disabilities benefit immensely from weighted fonts like Comic Sans.

Can screen readers be used?

Many users use a tool like VoiceOver (Apple) or TalkBack (Android) in order to access text. Adding alt text image descriptions is also important so the user isn’t left guessing what was in the picture. If the image is purely decorative, write “null” or “decoration.” And please, have a skip navigation option, so the screen reader isn’t reading through unnecessary information.

Is everything displayed?

When the font is enlarged, make sure that all text, as well as buttons, are displayed on the screen in a logical manner. Some apps have text run off the screen, or do not enlarge buttons, which makes it impossible to use the app.

Is there sufficient contrast?

Is it easy to read the text on the screen? Having options to change the colors of the background or other buttons can be helpful in ensuring that users are able to see an app clearly. Having a night mode with a dark color scheme also can help reduce glare.

Are there strobe or flashing effects?

I have used a couple of applications that had random strobe or flashing light effects, or that used strobe notifications that could not be disabled. I even had a phone for about an hour that was a giant strobing mess. These apps were uninstalled immediately, and the strobing phone was returned as well. While a light at the frequency of a car blinker is fine, do not use strobe or flashing light effects, especially in red/blue colors, and give the user no way to disable them. For more information on who can be harmed by these effects, read this.

Can I use my own keyboard?

Some applications prevent the user from accessing a third party keyboard, or even the speech-to-text option. Allow users to be able to use any keyboard for maximum compatibility.

Do I have to think about using this?

If the user has to remember a complex series of steps to take because of accessibility settings being enabled, then the app isn’t worth using. One of the main design principles is that if the user has to think while using a product, then the designer has failed. Make sure users don’t have to jump through too many hoops.

Accessibility is very important to me, and I am always grateful when developers keep users like me in mind. While there are so many other disability areas to remember, I hope developers will continue to remember those of us with low vision and photosensitivity when creating apps.

Why To Take Virtual Classes in College

Living with chronic illness, it can be very difficult to get out of bed, let alone get to class. While I am able to push myself to get to a majority of my classes, sometimes I just want to be able to do school work without having to move too much. Because of this, I have chosen to incorporate virtual classes into my college schedule, and it has helped me a lot in managing my time and improving my grades. Here are some of the reasons I appreciate virtual classes, and my tips for success. As of spring 2017, I have taken 13 virtual classes in four semesters of college.

Better scheduling

I’ve found that there were a few classes that either were held extremely early in the morning or late at night. Since my vision fluctuates throughout the day, these class times are not a good fit for me. With virtual classes, I can work on assignments while my vision is doing well.

Get ahead easily

Many of my professors post several weeks of class work in advance, so if I am feeling well, I will complete the assignments early,  in case I wind up feeling not-so-well later on. Professors also seem to be more flexible about students turning in late work if an emergency comes up- I was able to easily get extensions on assignments when needed.

Take classes from anywhere

The only reason I got credits my first semester was because of virtual classes. I had two separate medical emergencies happen in the span of November 2015 and spent over six weeks at home (several hours from school) recovering. Basically, I disappeared right after midterms and only came back to school because I had to take a final exam. While I was recovering at home, I was able to continue with my virtual classes and stay on track, and I didn’t even tell my virtual teachers how sick I was until after the class had ended. With the flexibility to take classes anywhere, I was able to do very well that semester.

Use your own assistive technologies

With virtual classes, I can use all of my own technology which is fine-tuned to my preferences. I also can learn which devices, applications, and extensions work best for certain classes and how to create accessible documents. Bonus- I don’t have to balance five devices on a small desk.

Less “fluff” work

One of my friends was often complaining about having to do group projects and other frustrating assignments in one of their classes. I took the same class virtually and only had to worry about reading material, answering three questions a week, and writing a total of two essays. That was it! I didn’t have to worry about investing a ton of energy into a general education class, and I could spend more time on my other classes.

Get used to working independently

One of the common complaints about virtual classes is that there is no one to reinforce deadlines and other materials. This is actually a good thing, as no one is going to be around to remind you of every little thing in the real world. Learning to budget time and research topics online are important skills to have.

You won’t be seen as a disability

While it is important to share your disability services file with your professor, you don’t have to worry about sticking out in class discussions because of your disability, if you are worried about that. In one of my classes (that I dropped immediately), lots of students and even the professor were staring at my blindness cane like it was some type of foreign object and asking a lot of strange questions. In virtual classes, no one can see you.

Take tests in your own environment

Not all virtual classes are like this, but being able to take tests and quizzes in your own testing environment is an awesome advantage to taking these types of classes. I always appreciate being able to take a quiz from the comfort of my own desk, or to take a test with one of my pain relief wraps on.

Adjunct professors

Professors can teach from anywhere in the world, and this is often beneficial as the student is able to learn information from someone in the field, or get a global perspective on a topic. For my global understanding requirement, I had a professor who had travelled to many different countries and was able to educate the class on many different topics related to global health and policy. Another one of my professors was popular at another university from halfway across the country, and we got to take a class with them. I’ve even had professors living in other countries.

Learn more about yourself

This may seem weird, but I have learned a lot about how I access materials and learn through taking virtual classes, probably because I rely on technology a lot. With the ability to take a variety of different classes, I have been able to learn how I process information best, and which technologies are most helpful. I know that virtual classes will help me a lot in the future as well, especially since I want to work with accessibility.

Virtual classes have been an amazing resource for me. I am grateful that my college has really embraced virtual education and that I have been able to take almost any class that I want.

Google Chromecast Review

Occasionally, I have trouble focusing my eyes to read text on my phone or tablet. In these cases, zooming in is futile, and I find it easier to focus through the top half of the bifocal in my glasses. Instead of bending my head at weird angles or holding my device up higher, I use a Google Chromecast to project my screen onto the TV- no wires or cables necessary.

The Chromecast is a $35 device that allows the user to connect their computer, tablet, or phone to their TV. The device is plugged into a HDMI port on the TV, and it also uses a power outlet. By using the same wifi hotspot as the other device, the Chromecast can project internet tabs, apps, and more onto a TV. My family has at least three of these devices in the house, and I even brought one to college with me. Here are some of the ways I have used it, both as assistive technology and just as a useful resource with my various devices.

Setting it up

To set up the device, simply plug one end into the wall and the other end into the HDMI port of the TV, which is best described as a rectangle with a smaller rectangle on top. After that, go to the Chromecast set up website or app to finish the process, which includes connecting it to a wifi hotspot and giving it a name.

If you are setting it up at college, you may need to register the MAC address first, as I explained in my post about the Amazon Echo Dot, since chances are you have to use a username and password to log on to the school wifi. My school has a device registration website where the user can register up to five wireless devices that connect to the unsecured internet hotspot. By registering the MAC address on the college website, which can be found in the Chromecast app settings, it can be used on a college campus without any complicated networks to set up. I found that I am able to easily use the device no matter what wifi hotspot my other devices are connected to.

Android phone

With most later versions of Android, 6.0 and up, the user can easily cast their entire phone screen by swiping down on the status bar and selecting cast. I use this late at night when I have trouble focusing my eyes on text messages, or when I am using an app that has small font. This is also useful when I am demonstrating a function on my phone to someone, as it is more practical to look up at a screen than to look over my shoulder.

iPad

Many apps on the iPad support streaming to Chromecast, including Netflix, YouTube, Google Chrome, Google Video, and others. I use Google Chrome the most out of those three apps to broadcast tabs I am working on, watch videos, enlarge files, and more. YouTube has also been very helpful when I have to take notes on something at the same time- the video or app doesn’t have to be open on the iPad in order for it to broadcast. With the Google Video and Netflix apps, I have been able to watch movies with my friends who live in other states and iMessage or talk about the movie at the same time.

Google Chrome

With my desktop and laptop computers, I have been able to mirror tabs open in Google Chrome onto my TV flawlessly. Because some websites are impossible to zoom in on, I often will broadcast them to the TV to read information better. Extensions such as Adblock are still able to be used on the screen. Most recently, I broadcast a PDF file that I opened in Google Chrome to the TV so I could see it better.

Bonus offers

At times, the Chromecast will have special offers available for users. Some offers have included free trials, free movie rentals, and even Google Play credit which can be used to buy apps, movies, books, games, TV shows, etc in the Google Play store.

Overall review

In the two years I have been using it regularly, I have found this device to be incredibly useful and an affordable alternative to a smart TV, and it’s incredibly easy to use- my parents who describe themselves as technology challenged are able to use the device with ease. With all of the bonus offers, the device has paid for itself, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who benefits from a larger screen.

I received no compensation for this review and purchased this item on my own.  This is a completely unbiased review.

Amazon Echo Dot Review

Last month, a new device joined my technology collection, and has quickly become one of my new favorites. I don’t have to worry about making it accessible, because it is perfect right out of the box. I can control it with my voice and get more information about the world around me. This little device is the Amazon Echo Dot, with Alexa technology. Here are some ways it has helped me as a college student with low vision.  This post is in no way sponsored by Amazon, and I received no compensation for writing about it- I just genuinely love this product.

What is Amazon Echo?

The Amazon Echo ($180) and Amazon Echo Dot ($49) are two devices that use Amazon’s voice assist technology, called Alexa. The only difference between the Echo and Echo Dot is that the Echo has a large speaker built in, while the Dot does not. When the device is summoned by saying the name Alexa (or Echo or Amazon, depending on the set wake word- my brother uses the word Computer), the user can request it to complete several different tasks.  I have the 2nd Generation Amazon Echo Dot in white.

How do you set it up?

If you are using the device at home, simply connecting to the wifi hotspot is sufficient. However, if you are setting it up at college, where the wifi requires a username and password, the setup is a little different. My school has a device registration website where the user can register up to five wireless devices that connect to the unsecured internet. By registering the MAC address on the college website, which can be found in the Amazon Echo app, the Amazon Echo can be used on a college campus. I keep my Dot across from my bed, on top of my printer, and it can easily pick up my voice no matter where I am standing in my dorm room, without picking up on my suitemates’ voices in the hallway.

What common functions do you use the most?

I’m constantly asking Alexa what time it is, as I don’t have to worry about focusing to read numbers on a clock. I also can easily set timers and alarms, though it isn’t as easy to get the alarms to turn off, which I think is a good thing because I am prone to sleeping through alarms. I also have found the weather forecasts to be very accurate and helpful. In addition, I have used the Echo to add items to my Amazon Fresh shopping list and place orders through Amazon, or just add a product to my wishlist, something that’s especially helpful when I am reading something. I also love Amazon Music and have that on frequently.

How do you use it as assistive technology?

The talking clock has been a great feature, but the Amazon Echo can be used for other assistive technology purposes. I installed a calculator function on it from the Alexa App Store, and can use it to perform basic calculations, much faster and less frustrating than a traditional calculator. It can read daily news stories from several different news outlets, sometimes with a live feed of the news channel, so I don’t have to worry about reading or flashing lights on the TV. I can also perform simple Google searches and other tasks.

What about those other devices you can hook up to the Alexa?

I haven’t tried any of the lightbulbs, thermostats, or other environmental control devices yet, but I’m hoping to set some up in my room next semester!  They look awesome.

Can you create your own Alexa functions?

Yes! Stay tuned, I will have a separate post on this soon. By using the app If This Then That (IFTTT), you can sync the Amazon Echo with several other apps and devices. I have mine hooked up to my Android phone and iPad.

When do you mute the Amazon Echo?

I mute the device when I will be leaving the apartment for more than three hours or when I’m on a voice or video call with someone who enjoys summoning the device (shoutout to my friend that frequently asks Alexa to add bananas to my shopping list while we are on voice calls together). From where it’s sitting, the Dot can’t pick up on anything going on in the hallway or any other room, only in my room. It can hear if someone on speaker says “Alexa.”

Does the Amazon Echo Dot use strobe or flashing lights?

I have never seen the device use strobe light effects. It uses a mild flash effect when processing information, but not one that is intense enough to cause a migraine or seizure- it’s similar in frequency to a car blinker. Sometimes it may cycle through the color gradient at a slow speed when loading information or syncing, but it will not flash.

Aren’t you worried about the device spying on you?

Not really. My other devices are spying on me anyway. I have taken cybersecurity classes and understand that the device is always listening to me, but I don’t say anything that would cause alarm, or anything particularly exciting.

Overall Review

I love this device and it has greatly helped me with accessing information. Almost anyone can learn to use it in two minutes or less, and it has many great functions that can replace more expensive assistive technology devices, such as talking clocks. I would recommend it to anyone, especially college students and people with low vision.

My Phone Isn’t Paper

Back in high school, I had teachers who didn’t believe that my vision was as bad as I said it was. They believed that I was like the rest of my friends- texting, reading, and driving around. These teachers would often ask me, my friends, my parents, and even my case manager why I could be texting (or doing some other task) but not able to see what was on the board or on my non-enlarged classwork. And honestly, it was very frustrating to explain time and time again.

I have many accessibility settings enabled on my phone and also use third party apps in order for me to see my phone clearly. The font size on my phone is the same as the font size I receive for print materials, and I have a high contrast filter applied. As a result, I am able to text my friends easily and use my phone as much as anyone else.

I also use an eReader to read books,enlarging the font size to the largest one available. I have a print disability, meaning I cannot read small text, which is why I had an IEP in school with accommodations that included large print. Comparing my ability to read accessible materials and my ability to read inaccessible materials is unfair.

As I’ve gotten older, more and more teachers have asked me if I drive or have a learner’s permit. Since I could barely see the board even with visual correction, I was always confused when teachers were surprised that I don’t drive. One teacher went as far to ask my friend sitting next to me if I was able to drive, trying to see if they could trick my friend into telling what they believed was the truth. Of course, my friends often laughed at the idea of me behind the wheel, saying I would have six casualties before I even pulled out of the driveway.

The most frustrating comments of all were when I was asked why I couldn’t see perfectly, even with glasses. Just like crutches don’t make someone walk perfectly, glasses don’t make someone see perfectly, it only gives them the maximum correction. That may not mean perfect eyesight, and they might need some accommodations to ensure they are able to see things. Never doubt that someone could have low vision just because they are wearing glasses, and don’t compare their sight loss with correction to someone’s sight loss without correction. Also, if someone has an IEP, chances are they need the services they are provided, and it is a bad idea to argue that they don’t, especially when it comes to low vision. Assistive technology has come a long way, allowing people with disabilities to seamlessly integrate with their friends, and I will always be grateful for the technological advancements that have helped me succeed.