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.

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.

Testing Accommodations For Low Vision Students

Finals week is fast approaching for college students and I have to say I’m not nervous at all for my finals. It helps that my first college final week last year was a whole new level of stressful because I had just been in a car accident two weeks prior and couldn’t think straight because of neck pain, so any finals week in comparison is remarkably less stressful. Another thing that helps is that I have testing accommodations that allow me to focus on the test, as opposed to stressing my eyes out trying to process the material. Here are the accommodations I receive through disability services in college, and some that I received in high school that were written into my IEP.

Colored paper and Arial font

I did a science project in eleventh grade about how colored backgrounds were easier to read for long periods of time as opposed to sharp white, and I have found it’s easier to focus my eyes on a shaded background than white. I usually received tests in high school on light blue or light yellow paper. Arial font is important because it reduces the risk of mistaking letters for one another and it’s clear to read, as well as the fact it scales well on the paper.

Single sided paper 

So one day in tenth grade, the paraprofessional enlarging my work decided to print my tests double sided, something that had never happened before. When I started writing on the test, the sharpie pens I wrote with bled through so I didn’t notice there was information on the back. My math teacher approached me after looking at my test and said “great news! You did really well on half the test…you just didn’t see the other half.” Thankfully, she let me redo the other half, and I never received double sided papers again for testing.

Ear plugs

I have what my family calls super sonic hearing, meaning that my sense of hearing is elevated to compensate for my lack of sight. As a result, I can get easily distracted in testing environments by water dripping from a faucet, the air conditioner, and even voices from halfway across the hall. As a result, I would wear ear plugs, or sometimes just headphones unplugged from my iPod, to muffle background noise and help me concentrate better.

Time and a half 

For timed tests, I receive time and a half so that if there is a problem during the test or if I just need the extra time, I have it. While I don’t often use it, it was extremely helpful during my SAT and ACT tests

iPad apps, when necessary

I rely on certain apps for my learning on the iPad, including a calculator. I have been able to use the myScript Calculator for the state standardized tests, called the SOL in Virginia, the SAT and ACT, and in the classroom as long as guided access is enabled on my iPad.

Sharpie pens

Most tests require students to use pencils, but I am unable to see pencil due to the very faint gray color of the lead. While this is no problem in college to use, I had it specifically written into my IEP that I could use pens. Obviously, I did not use Scantrons.

Low light testing environment

I have pretty intense photosensitivity and bright fluorescent lights are one of my enemies. For my standardized tests, ACT, SAT, and college tests that I take where I am the only one there, the lights are dimmed 50% so my eyes don’t burn from the light. In college, the overhead lights are not used and I have a lamp next to me instead.

E-bot Pro

I have a more in depth review, but this little machine is the reason I have done so well on tests this semester. It is a CCTV that broadcasts to my iPad so I can adjust contrast and zoom in from my iPad. It also can read text when needed. It uses its own personal wifi connection so the iPad can’t access any other apps or the internet. According to a vendor I spoke with, it is approved for state standardized testing in Virginia as well as the SAT and ACT. It is a relatively new device, and one I wish I had in high school.

Large table

All of this assistive technology starts to pile up very quickly on a normal sized desk. While I don’t believe this is written into my accommodations, taking a test on a larger table in the classroom is always something I request. My geology professor lets me set up all of my technology on her desk, and there’s always been a large table lying around somewhere back in high school.

High contrast images, graphs, and maps

When I took geography as a ninth grader, my teacher noticed I had trouble reading the maps and enlarged them on PowerPoint for the entire class to use so that the symbols were clearer. He noticed test scores went up because everyone found it clearer to see. Having images that are easier to read benefits more than just the student needing the accommodation.
While it may seem like I receive tons of accommodations to take a test, most of these are very basic. Although I had one teacher say that me receiving testing accommodations was unfair to the other students, none of my other teachers have said that these give me an unfair advantage. Testing accommodations just help me to show what I know on a test, just like the other students get to do.

Make Any Android Smartphone Accessible For $8

Make Any Android Phone Accessible for $8.png

I have been an avid android user since I got my first smartphone almost seven years ago. While I love exploring new apps, there are some things that I just don’t like messing with, and those are the ones that control basic functions on my phone. Without these, I wouldn’t be able to use my phone as efficiently as I do. Here are five apps that I use multiple times a day and that are so simple, I don’t even have to think about using them.

Buzz Launcher

This app replaces the typical home screen layout with icons that are difficult to see, and allows the user to enlarge icons or even switch to a fully gesture based layout with no icons at all. No account is required to use it, and there are no ads. I have uploaded the theme for my home screen here  so users can download it. Another cool function is a built in light filter that filters out blue lights that cause eye strain (read more about reducing eye strain with technology here). I use a gray tint for my phone display and it helps me greatly, without being distracting for other people who may borrow my phone. The entire app is free, and always will be. It is the first thing I download when I get a new phone as I have used this app for four years.  Get it here.

Thumb Dialer by welldonecom

This is a gesture based dialer. To set it up, the user chooses a gesture and assigns a phone number to it. For example, by swiping from left to right on the top of my screen, I can call my family’s landline number. It can support up to twelve phone numbers with the presets, and after the initial set up, it can be used without looking down at the screen. It costs $1.37, but I have been using it for over five years and never had a problem with it.  Get it here.

Big Font by Sam Lu

When the largest font on the system font isn’t big enough, this app can increase the font size by up to 250% for free, and up to 1000% for $3. I set my system font to the largest, high contrast version of the system font (learn how to do that here), and then use this app to increase it by 250%. I have never felt a need to have it larger than that. One downside is that I can’t see the clock in the top status bar on my phone, however that does not bother me because I can’t see it with the smaller font. I have used this app for four years and never had any issues with it.  Get it here,

Mood Messenger by caLea

While the Big Font app makes it possible to use the messaging app that came with my phone, I prefer to use this well designed messaging app. It displays texts on a dark background when night mode is enabled, a setting I recommend enabling whenever possible. The user can also choose custom colors as the message background- I chose teal and orange. Different fonts for the messages are also available- I chose a bold weighted font that I can easily read. This app is free and also integrates well with the built in screen reader.  Get it here.

a.i Type by a.i

This app replaces the standard keyboard on the phone, and does not store the information you type, meaning that the company cannot see your data. The text can be scaled to fill up the entire slot for a letter, and flashing effects can be turned off. Touch tones and vibration can be customized or turned off. Themes and colors for the keyboard can also be customized- I use the around the clock theme which changes depending on the time of day. One function I really like is the custom autocorrect dictionary, where I can type in a series of letters and have it correct to a sentence. Some phrases I have input are “iham” meaning I have a migraine, “icst” meaning I can’t see that, and “dywgf” meaning do you want to get food. The app has a free trial, but requires a $4 purchase to use in full. I have used this app for three years and have never switched keyboards since.  Get it here.

So for less than $10, you can have any Android phone you want and have it be accessible for someone who has low vision or who has difficulty using a standard smartphone.  For more on choosing a smartphone, read this post on choosing a phone with photosensitivity. 

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