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.

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.

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

What I’ve Learned About Print Disabilities

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 sharing things I wish I knew about having a print disability back when I was in high school, and things I have used.

I was at a doctor’s appointment this summer when my mom noticed that I kept confusing the letters B and D on the eye chart, as well as a few other letters. She asked me afterwards if those letters looked like they were the same to me when they were on their own, and I said yes. She then asked me if that’s why I always had issues with matching questions on tests, where the student writes a letter to match a word and a definition. Suddenly, it all made sense as to why I always seemed to miss questions that seemed so simple. While I could distinguish the letters B and D when they were in a word (since the brain doesn’t read every single letter), I had trouble distinguishing them on their own. My mom then jokingly told me I could have been valedictorian if we figured this out sooner, and I pointed out “it’s hard to be valedictorian if you don’t know the alphabet.”

Following this conversation, I started thinking about things I wish I would have known sooner about having a print disability, and tools that have helped me succeed in high school and college. Here are ten things I thought of, and how they help me.

Explaining what a print disability is

A print disability affects a person who cannot read normal materials because of a visual, learning, or other disability. I have low vision and cannot read anything smaller than size 24 point font, and have trouble with serif fonts such as Times New Roman. A great simulation to show someone how I see printed materials is to tell them to slant their eyelids with their fingers and look down. I also found that this YouTube video sums up what happens when someone hands me materials I cannot see, in a comedic way.

Portable CCTVs

How I wish I had one of these when I had to do chemistry worksheets, but this device has been fantastic in many of my college classes. Read my full review of the SmartLux here.

Use colorful language

No, this isn’t to say use swear words, but incorporating color into accessible materials has allowed me to really absorb more information. One thing that has really helped me in math is outlining letters and numbers in different colors- A is red, 2 is blue, C is green, 4 is purple, etc. This helps prevent me from confusing symbols and lets me easily see exponents and symbols that are traditionally smaller.

Colored backgrounds

It’s easier on the eyes to read things on a colored background as opposed to sharp white, since sharp white can cause glare. My backpack was nicknamed “bag of rainbows” because I used pink, blue, yellow, and purple colored papers for my schoolwork. It helped to reduce eye fatigue and I noticed I could read much faster than on bright white paper.

Larger paper for math, science, and music.

When it comes to math and science, it is very important not to cut off any symbols, since that can dramatically change the information presented. The same goes with music, where having one note cut off can throw off the entire piece. As a result, I receive my math and science work on 11 x 17 paper, with a colored background, and my music on the same sized paper, requesting the paper be either off white or yellow because I wear sunglasses while playing.

Textures

I am not a Braille reader, however I have found that tactile labels and textured markers have really helped me with processing information on a page. Typically, I layer washi tape on top of graphics to provide extra contrast. Another cool trick I learned is to trace white glue over lines or graphs so that way I can feel what is on the page without it being overly obvious. This is especially great when it comes to working with items on a number line.

Patterns

When working with digital materials, I assign different patterns on lines (zig zag, dashes, squiggle) and have them in different colors so I can see where they intersect and what type of lines they are. This has been especially useful in my database programming class while working with Microsoft Visio, where different ends of lines give important information and lots of lines are intersecting.

eReaders

I was one of the first people to buy the Barnes and Noble Nook when it came out when I was in seventh grade. It allowed me to read almost any book I could think of, all in glorious large print. It had a cellular data connection too, so I could download a book in thirty seconds, which was extremely helpful when the teacher would randomly assign us books to read. eReaders are so inexpensive now that it would be insane not to have one. Here is the model I use now.

eBooks

I love Bookshare, but there are so many other services to read books for free. Here is a post I wrote about services at local libraries to help people with print disabilities. Using all of these tools, I have only ever encountered one book that I ever had to read in print in the last five years.
Another great resource is accessible instructional materials organizations. My state has AIM-VA, which will enlarge textbooks, classroom materials, and more for students with an IEP for print disabilities. 

Digital formats for assignments

I have an entire post on why I prefer my schoolwork digitally, and it helps to make sure materials are in an accessible format before giving them to a student. I request that teachers give me materials in .doc, .docx, .ppt, .pptx, or if absolutely necessary, .png or .pdf. I find it easier to have editing capabilities so I can quickly fix materials if I find them difficult to see, but have rarely had any problems with .pdf or .png formats, as long as I can see them clearly.

To answer a common question, I do not mind having a print disability, and I don’t necessarily feel like I am “missing out on the world” because I have one. I have never been able to read small fonts, so I don’t know life any other way. With all of these technologies and different techniques, I am able to access materials just like my sighted friends, and read alongside them.

How To Buy Digital Textbooks

Welcome! In this series, I will discuss how to start the semester off right, with all of the tools and tricks I have learned. Topics covered will include scheduling, navigation, textbooks, and more. If you have a specific request for a topic, please comment below and I will do my best to accommodate your request. Today, let’s talk about textbooks.



Once upon a time, I received digital textbooks in high school that didn’t have pictures, charts, or graphs. This was particularly stressful, especially in my chemistry class where those are a pretty big deal. Because the textbook was out of date, my mom was able to purchase a cheap used copy, rip the book apart, and scan it in, page by page, into the computer so that I would be able to access it digitally (note- this is legal), a process that was very time consuming. Now, there are many options for digital textbooks that not only contain all of the same things the print copies do, but also can be enlarged clearly, highlighted, annotated, and more. I’m lucky to go to a college that embraces digital textbooks and technology in the classroom for everyone, regardless of their level of sight, as digital textbooks become the wave of the future. Just make sure you will get the same access codes and other material as the people who buy print textbooks do. Here are the digital textbook services I have used in college so far.  

1. Amazon Kindle– This app is at the top because it is my most used app. It’s easy to find digital textbooks at reasonable prices here, and even large textbooks can be downloaded in under a minute. The images are clear and the book itself can be navigated quickly. Annotations are also easy to search, and the user can create flash cards to help study the material. It also responds flawlessly to display accommodations and zoom on the iPad, and integrates well with VoiceOver.

2. Barnes and Noble Nook– I have purchased digital textbooks from here and order books from the Nook store when they aren’t available elsewhere. The fonts can be customized, as well as their size. In addition, line spacing, background color, margins, and brightness can be adjusted. However, pictures tend to look a little funny if they are small, and the pages take longer to load compared to the Amazon app. It’s easier to read on this app for prolonged periods of time because the user can increase font size and contrast higher, so eye strain is reduced.

3. Chegg– Chegg is a textbook service that allows users to rent or buy textbooks and eTextbooks. The built in dictionary and Wikipedia features are great, but the spacing of the display seems awkward as it only displays a quarter of the page at the most. For pages with more than three pictures or graphs, VoiceOver seemed to get a bit confused and skip around. However, the images were high resolution and adapted well to my display accommodations.

4. Apple iBooks- While I haven’t personally used them in college, a lot of my friends swear by iBooks. With videos, animations, and easily enlarged pictures and graphs, it’s very easy to read. Text is clear to read, and it is flawless with VoiceOver. I don’t use it because I am sensitive to flashing lights and flickering effects, and was worried the videos and animations might use those.

5. VitalSource Bookshelf– Two of my professors publish their textbooks on this platform. It was hard to read text on this app because it was scanned in from a print copy so it was lower resolution than an ePub file. It’s easy to pages or take a screenshot to import into Notability, but the images were lower resolution than screenshots from any other app. VoiceOver was impossible to use.

6. Pearson- I have used digital textbooks from Pearson for classes where the teacher had their own website on the Pearson SuccessNet platform. There was no application to view the textbooks on my iPad, as it was Adobe Flash based, so I had to use the computer. However, it is easy to read for long periods on the computer, and there is a large amount of study materials available.

And to answer the debate over whether to rent or buy the textbooks, I choose to buy books that I might use in another class and rent the ones I won’t. Usually, there isn’t a huge price difference when it comes to renting or buying digital textbooks, though digital textbooks are much cheaper than physical books- my sighted friend took my advice last year, and found it was cheaper to buy an iPad and all their textbooks digitally than it was to buy all of the books as physical copies. If a textbook is only available in print, I will use a CCTV to access it or utilize my school assistive technology services to convert the book to a digital format- my school requires a receipt for book purchase and my Office of Disability file in order to convert the book.

Another good thing to remember is to check with the professor about whether it’s okay to buy a newer edition if that’s all that is available digitally. My professors have never seen a problem with it, but it never hurts to check. After all, a textbook with relevant information is almost as important as having a professor that will follow your accommodations. Check back tomorrow for my next post on tips on educating professors on your accommodations!