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.

College Libraries and Low Vision


This shouldn’t be overly surprising, but I don’t really go to libraries that often. I appreciate their existence, and believe they are very important, but they often don’t have services for people like me- students with low vision. There aren’t very many large print books available, and the few books that are large print tend to be romance novels or board books. College libraries have even fewer large print books, if any at all, and it can seem like there is no benefit to using the libraries. However, a lot of colleges have recently improved their libraries for patrons with low vision. While I’m still yet to find a large print book to check out, there are still tons of great resources for students of all vision levels. Here are ten unexpected tools I have been able to use through my college library, free of charge.

Assistive technology

Even at the smallest campus library, there are CCTVs and computers that have accessibility settings enabled. These computers often contain magnification softwares, screen readers, adapted keyboards, and similar. I’ve also seen computers that have switches enabled for people with physical disabilities at another library.

Testing center

While my college has a dedicated testing center for students with disabilities in another building, there are still computers that can be used for testing. These are available for students without disabilities, though if there is an issue with the testing center and student does not require any elaborate accommodations, they can take an exam on one of these computers. This only applies to tests that are in a digital format or that use a software like LockDown browser.

Equipment rental

Our library has lots of great equipment that students are able to rent. Laptops are usually the most common to rent, but students (of all majors) can also rent cameras, video recorders, sound equipment, and even projectors. Another unexpected tool I have been able to use is a fast loading scanner, connected to the computer lab.

Recording studios

One of my favorite recording studios in the library has the user plug in a flash drive, push a button, and then they are recording a video that is downloaded to their flash drive. This has been incredibly helpful for people who need to do a simple video with no editing for a class, and I’ve seen people with blindness really benefit from the simple interface. Other recording studios are also available for students to use their own (or borrowed) equipment, as well as create audio recordings.

Remote Usage

Unable to leave your dorm room and need to access a specific piece of software for a class? Several schools offer remote desktop solutions so that students can work from their own computers, with their own accessibility settings. Some softwares may require advanced reservations, but I’ve always been able to log on immediately. I have tried this on my Windows 10 laptop and desktop computer with great success, and iPad with mixed results, as sometimes data would run off the screen.

Electronic media

I have been surprised to find many books and scholarly papers available digitally that I could immediately access, no matter what device I was on. There are a lot of digital items that students can check out and cite, and this has helped me with many research papers. I found this materials by searching the library catalog and then filtering it by selecting “digital materials.”

Journal applications

My college supports an application called BrowZine, which allows students and staff to search scholarly journals written by people at the university, as well as browse some magazines. Some professors require students to cite at least one article from these types of databases, and the fact that I am able to enlarge these articles on my iPad makes it easier to do.

Study rooms

While I haven’t done this, one of my friends had a creative way of dealing with a sudden migraine attack that came on in the middle of the library. Since there weren’t many people around at the time, they rented a study room, which was closed off to the rest of the library and free of light and sound, and went in there to lie down until their roommate could come get them. This is against library policy, however because the roommate was arriving in less than ten minutes and no one else was waiting for the room, they allowed it. I’m including it not only because my friend suggested I do, but also because this was one of the most interesting solutions I have ever heard of for dealing with sudden migraines, and reminded me of how the library can be a safe space for people with disabilities. These study rooms can be great for students who need a modified studying environment, or that feel a migraine coming on and need to be in an environment that will not further trigger migraines.

Databases

My college has databases for nearly every major, filled with software, scholarly articles, videos, ebooks, web resources, and so much more. These are separate from the traditional library catalog, and I found I was able to access all of the databases regardless of my major. I was able to find resources for assistive technology across several different subjects.

Workshops

For students that have trouble using certain softwares, the library frequently offers workshops on popular softwares, and students can request workshops as well for groups of three or more. I attended a workshop on a software I had to use for creating a digital research library, and was able to get all of my questions answered.

Not all libraries may have these resources, and some may have even more resources than what I have listed. It’s great to stop by and ask what resources are available digitally or to students with disabilities. You never know what you will find!

Save Bookshare

Author’s note- Bookshare, a service that provides large print and Braille digital books for people with print disabilities worldwide, is currently in danger of losing federal funding. As a student with low vision, I have been using Bookshare since 2011 and it has dramatically changed the way I read. Below, I have written a sample letter for my local congressmen and senators so they can see how important this service really is. Feel free to use my letter as a template to send to your local representatives.  Read more about Bookshare here.



Dear (representative),

My name is Veronica, and I am a college student here in Virginia studying software engineering and assistive technology, to develop tools for people with disabilities. I graduated from Virginia public schools in 2015 with an advanced diploma and a 3.8 GPA. In addition, I run my own blog about assistive technology and disability life at www.veroniiiica.com. This wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have Bookshare, an accessible media library that’s in danger of losing federal funding in the FY2017.

I have low vision, which means that I can’t access standard print materials and require large print. Large print books can be very expensive and hard to find, and sometimes the font size isn’t big enough. Bookshare digitally scans in books so that users can access them in whatever format suits them best- large print, Braille, or audio. Almost any book that can be found in the local library can be found on Bookshare, and I can read the same books that my peers are reading. I’m not just limited to the small large print selection at my library or the even smaller selection at the local bookstore.

I have been using Bookshare since 2011, and it has helped me tremendously both inside and outside of the classroom. Before I had Bookshare, I would have to order large print books that would take weeks to come in, and then I would have to catch up with the rest of the class on the reading. My classmates would talk about books they had read for hours on end, and I would often be excluded from the conversation because large print wasn’t available for the book they were talking about, or the book would be too heavy for me to carry around, like in the case of the Harry Potter series. Once I got Bookshare, I could carry my books around on an eReader or tablet, and download a book almost instantly to read in class. I started reading more and more, and was able to join more discussions in class. Education is invaluable, and with accessible materials, more students are able to learn and go on to pursue higher level education, enter the workforce, and contribute to society. By making these materials accessible, students can thrive in the educational environment, as opposed to failing because they can’t see the materials and believing that they just can’t learn.

People with disabilities are one of the fastest growing minorities here in the United States, with about 1 in 6 people having some type of disability. Disability affects all economic classes, races, nationalities, and other demographics. By funding Bookshare, it ensures that more than 400,000 people with print disabilities are able to access materials. Without it, the responsibility would fall on state and local governments to provide for their students, and the selection wouldn’t be as large, easy to access, or as inexpensive as Bookshare is- Bookshare is able to create materials at a cost that’s fifteen times less than the previous national program.

I hope that you will advocate to restore the Technology and Media FY2017 budget line to $30 million, the same as it was in 2016. Bookshare is extremely important to me, and so many other students, and we don’t want to imagine life without it.

Sincerely,

Veronica Lewis

All About Bookshare

Welcome to Print Disability Week, where I will be posting once a day about ways to receive services for a print disability, with a webinar on Thursday in collaboration with AIM-VA, an accessible educational materials provider for students with print disabilities in grades K-12 in Virginia. Today, I will be talking about an organization that was the catalyst for my interest in assistive technology called Bookshare.

In 2011, my family took me to an assistive technology event at what would be my future university. We didn’t know much about assistive technology, and went there to find resources and answers to many questions we had. It was there that someone asked us if we had heard of Bookshare, and we shook our heads no, since we weren’t very familiar with assistive technology resources at the time. Little did I know, this service would revolutionize how I read. Here are some of the questions I had when I first started using Bookshare, and my personal experiences with it.

What is Bookshare?

Bookshare is an accessible digital library for people with print disabilities. There are over half a million titles available, from New York Times bestsellers to cookbooks and even textbooks, though there may be issues with displaying images. Materials are downloaded from their website instantly in the DAISY file format, which can be converted to audio, Braille, or large print.

How do I qualify for Bookshare?

If you have a diagnosed print disability from low vision, a physical disability, or a learning disability, you can qualify for Bookshare instantly. My mom faxed in a letter from my ophthalmologist certifying that I have low vision and require large text, however the process is now done online through a personalized link where users can upload documents.

Should my school create my account?

While a school can set up an account for multiple student users, I actually recommend that a student set up their own account. It is much easier to download content, since the user doesn’t have to worry about requesting downloads from their sponsor, and it also gives them an opportunity to learn how to access materials for themselves. Plus, you can continue to use the account even after you graduate, as the service is free for students in grades K-12 and college in the United States, and $50 a year after that.

How many books can I download?

A user can download fifty (50) books per month.

How do I read the materials on an iPad?

Bookshare has their own online web reader that works beautifully, and they also have other member recommended reading apps. While it is the most expensive, I prefer the app Read2Go and have been using it for years with no issues.

How do I read the materials on an eReader?

I purchased a Daisy to ePub converter from Don Johnson in order to convert books to an ePub format so that I could have them on my eReader. This works great for books with no images. The page numbers tend to be a bit off, so if I’m reading a book for school and have to cite page numbers, I have an agreement with my teachers that I can cite the first sentence of the page rather than the page number, and if the teacher told the class to turn to a certain page, they would give me the first sentence so I could search for it.

What titles can I find on Bookshare?

Almost any book you can think of is on there. It’s very rare that I can’t find what I am looking for, though it has happened. Typically I enjoy reading fiction and popular bestsellers.

Is this even legal?

Yes, through the Chafee amendment, which allows organizations to create materials for students with print disabilities without publisher permission and without violating copyright.

My testimony

I have been a proud member since December 2011 and have enjoyed being able to read the same books as my peers. At my local library, before they partnered with an ebook service, the only large print books available to me were romance novels, which I had zero interest in. Thanks to Bookshare, I have been able to read whatever I want and join in on conversations. I wasn’t limited by what the library had to offer, and could read age appropriate books alongside my peers.

Right now, Bookshare is in danger of losing a large amount of federal funding, and I can’t imagine going without this service now that I have used it for so long. My best advice for users is to write to their representatives and encourage them to preserve these services. I will be posting a sample letter here on my blog.

I have been incredibly grateful to qualify to receive these services, and the benefits I have received have helped me to read more than I ever thought I would, even though I have low vision. Bookshare also inspired me to pursue an interest in assistive technology, as I was amazed to see that I could combine my love of technology and helping others. I hope that this posts helps more people learn about this incredible service that I recommend to every person I meet who has a print disability.

Four Online Services Libraries Have For Low Vision Users (and everybody else!)


I’m used to walking into libraries and sighing because I’m in a giant building of things I can’t see. Most of the large print sections at libraries I’ve been to consist of romance novels, which I show no interest in reading, or books that have larger than average font that I still can’t see. Luckily, there is a growing number of libraries supporting these awesome services that allow a person like me with a print disability to read what my family is reading. All of these are free with your library card at participating libraries.  For more on accessing college libraries, click here.

Zinio Magazines

This allows users to download magazines from a variety of topics and read them free of charge on their devices. I frequently read food magazines, but there are so many different genres that there is something for everyone. Text can be scaled as large as necessary and pictures are high contrast as well.

OneClick Digital

Audiobooks that can be played through an Android, Kindle, or iOS app downloaded from their website, or downloaded from a computer and onto another device using a special file manager that can be found online. I like how everything is sorted by genre and how easy it is to find things.

OverDrive

Check out up to eight books at a time for up to 21 days and read either on an Android, Kindle, or iOS app, or download to your computer and convert the file using the free Adobe Digital Editions software and put it on any ereader you want- just know the title will disappear after you return it. I like the large amount of new releases, but it can get frustrating when there are too many people requesting the book.

Freegal Music

Accessed through freegalmusic.com, users can download three free songs a week from a massive catalog, or stream for up to three hours a day. There are audiobooks available and they are downloaded as MP3 files and can be played wherever MP3s are played. I download them to my iPod.

Because of these websites, I have been able to increase my access to materials that are accessible to me and so many other people.  I am so grateful that libraries are adding items that aren’t just books, they are services that can benefit a large amount of people.  Check today to see if your local library allows access to these services!