By Sarah Cranston
For years, blind students have had several ways of reading electronic textbooks. Many scan their books and read them using a computer. Others use notetakers and read them in Braille. Still others read books using a portable electronic book reader such as Humanware’s Victor Reader Stream or APH’s Book Port Plus.
Recently, a few blind students have started using iPads to read their textbooks. The iPad’s affordability, popularity and built-in accessibility make it an attractive option in an area that has been dominated by products designed for blind people.
Though at around $500 the iPad costs more than a pocket reader, it can be had for a fraction of the cost of a notetaker such as a BrailleNote or Pacmate. Even without a refreshable Braille display, a notetaker will probably cost around four times what the iPad does. If the notetaker in question has a Braille display, the difference can be as much as tenfold. Because the iPad is a mainstream product, it can be purchased locally, whereas a notetaker must be sent to its manufacturer. This often means a period of several weeks when the student is unable to read his or her books.
The iPad would never have become an option for blind students if it weren’t for VoiceOver, its built-in screen reader. One touch on an icon causes VoiceOver to speak its name. A quick double tap activates an icon. The native apps are fully supported by VoiceOver, including iBooks, the iPad’s bookreader. Students are able to get electronic textbooks from Bookshare.org, for example, and load them into iBooks. They can then be read by VoiceOver, either using synthesized speech, a refreshable Braille Display connected via Bluetooth, or both.
Textbooks for blind students, once large enough to require whole rooms for their storage, have been getting smaller and smaller during the last few decades. Miles of shelves containing Braille books were replaced by cassettes and a Walkman, all of which could easily fit in a backpack. These, in turn, were replaced by notetakers and pocket readers, capable of holding hundreds of thousands of pages of text. Now, with the arrival of the iPad, students have the option of reading their textbooks using their preferred methods of speech, Braille or both, using a device whose popularity in the mainstream world is increasing faster than Apple can manufacture them. For the first time, blind and sighted students can and will read the same book on the same device, giving blind students a measure of equality never enjoyed before. It’s no exaggeration when educators and students call the iPad the wave of the future.