While many people associate assistive technology with specialized devices that are expensive or hard to find, many mainstream technology devices have started supporting accessibility features and built-in assistive technology that can make specialty tools more financially and publicly accessible for all. One of my most-used mainstream devices for entertainment is my MP3 player and other streaming music applications, which allow me to listen to my favorite music and discover new music as well. Here are features to look for when buying an MP3 player or choosing a streaming music application for users with vision loss, as part of my ongoing Mainstream Technology and Low Vision post series.
Physical buttons vs touchscreen
Some touchscreen displays can often be difficult to magnify or enlarge and do not provide tactile feedback for nonvisual users. In these cases, physical buttons or controls for a music player may be preferable for users with low vision. Tactile dot or Braille stickers may be added to the device’s physical buttons so that users can easily orient themselves to the device controls- these stickers may be added temporarily for users learning a new device or they may be permanently affixed to the device for everyday use.
Another option for controlling an MP3 player or streaming music application is the use of gestures- for example, many devices will shuffle songs or play a random song if the user shakes the device. This can be turned on or off in the device settings menu.
Headphone connection types
Some MP3 players only support wired or only support wireless headphones for listening to music, so users that have a favorite pair of headphones should check to make sure their new device supports them. I prefer to use wired earbuds when listening to music on-the-go because over-the-ear headphones hurt the back of my head, though I have also used bone conducting headphones that allow me to still hear my surroundings. For devices that do not have a traditional headphone jack, there is a USB C to audio jack converter available for a low cost that works with multiple types of headphones, but means that the device cannot be used while it is charging.
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Text-to-speech/screen reader support
A growing number of MP3 players and streaming applications support text-to-speech and screen readers that allow users to navigate their device in a nonvisual way. The most popular MP3 player to offer screen reader support is the iPod Touch, which comes in several different storage sizes and offers VoiceOver support. Other MP3 players may advertise text-to-speech capabilities that read song names and titles out loud.
Display color scheme and font size
Many MP3 players offer a high contrast display mode that can make it easier to navigate menus, as well as adjustable font sizes for menus and song displays. Users may prefer to hold the device close to their face to read text, or rely on audio feedback such as clicking to select items from a menu.
- Choosing High Contrast Color Schemes For Low Vision
- Black Or White: Choosing Dark Mode For Low Vision
How is new music added?
MP3 players that do not have internet access often require the user to connect their device to a computer to add new music. This can be done with the File Explorer, where users drag and drop (or copy/paste) new music files into a folder, or with a music management application such as iTunes or Windows Media Player.
When it comes to sourcing music, users have a few different options:
- Download music online from a digital seller, i.e Amazon, iTunes, etc
- Import songs from a CD with a music management application- this can be done automatically by configuring automatic import settings
- Instead of choosing individual songs to be added to the device, users can choose to automatically synchronize their device with all music that is saved in their music library
- Some streaming applications support offline listening- users can download songs to their device and access them through their streaming music application
My favorite resource for downloading music is the Freegal Music website, which is a service from my library that provides users with 3-5 free song downloads a week and ad free streaming. While I have not extensively tested this website with a screen reader, I find that it is easy to navigate with screen magnification tools and I can easily add songs to my music library.
Connect streaming music to a smart speaker
Smart speakers are a popular option for listening to music with low vision as they often use voice controls, eliminating the need for visual displays, and many smart speakers have audio jacks as well. I use the Amazon Echo Dot for streaming music because it supports several different popular services including Amazon Music, Spotify, Apple Music, TuneIn Radio, and others. The Echo Dot can also be used as a Bluetooth speaker and connected to a MP3 player in the same way wireless headphones would be connected, and provides users with simple voice control support (next song, volume up/down, repeat song, etc).
Popular paid and free music streaming services for low vision users
Several paid and free music streaming services offer accessibility support for users with low vision. Some of the most popular options that my friends and I have used include:
- Amazon Music
- Apple Music
- Freegal Music (free, requires participating library card)
- Hoopla Digital (free, requires participating library card)
- YouTube Music
- Digital Library Resources For Vision Impaired Patrons
- Creating Audio Description for Music Videos With YouDescribe
Summary of features to consider when choosing an MP3 player or streaming music application with low vision
- Device controls- are there physical buttons, or is the device controlled with a touch screen?
- Audio connection types and what kind of headphones will be used
- Text-to-speech/screen reader support for reading menus out loud
- Device display color and font size
- How is new music added- is a third-party app needed?
- Support for smart speakers, i.e Amazon Echo Dot or Google Home