Twenty-five years ago, I walked through the halls of my secondary school carrying a fifteen-pound Braille writer in one hand and wearing a bag weighing around forty pounds containing the Braille volumes that were fractions of the books I'd need for classes. Later on, I got a well-designed Australian computer called a Eureka A4 which, weighing four pounds, freed me of considerable weight. The battery wasn't reliable enough to get you through a whole school day. Also, Ebooks had yet to arrive on the scene so I still crushed people into walls carrying my forty-pound pack of fractions of books if they got too close behind me when I turned a corner. That experience stays with me. Whenever I receive new accessible technology, I'm always tempted to see how much it can do for students. How much might this or that new device be able to do? How much lighter might it make one's school bag? Might it also help in social ways giving opportunities for relationship and play with others? My equipment tended to baffle others who couldn't read or write Braille. They mostly had a hard time understanding the Australian voice of the Eureka A4 and it had no screen.
Contrast this with an iOS device. These are extremely portable and easily powerful enough for average day to day tasks. They're easily kept charged with a very small and affordable external battery. A battery no larger than a deck of cards can store 10000 MA of ready power. That's enough to easily recharge a modern day iPAD Pro. Smaller iOS devices like the iPHONE7 I write this on have internal batteries which hold around 1800 MA when fully charged. Accessories like Bluetooth keyboards, bone conduction Bluetooth headsets or Apple's AirPods make it possible to operate completely without wires other than those used to recharge what you're using. Nothing protrudes from your back. You don't even have to worry about wires getting snagged on things or pulled out of their ports. Pretty much every student on the planet has heard of your iPHONE, iPOD or iPAD. If he or she doesn't own one, a friend or family member will. You can use these devices to play some of the same games, read the same books, share favorite songs. You didn't have to pay any more to make this device accessible. You might well have gotten it at the same store as your classmate. Here's the stupendous part. Most of this equipment could be carried in a pocket. You'd have enough storage for thousands of accessible books, your favorite music, any apps you needed, and much more. Presuming it was an iPHONE, or you acquired a GPS receiver, this device would also help you navigate. It would serve as your handy communication device and credit card, identify objects and even read print pages for you. Provided you had Internet connectivity, you could dictate notes or obtain answers merely by asking.
The only part of this setup which wouldn't fit in a pocket would be the extremely light and thin Bluetooth keyboard and/or a portable refreshable Braille display should you wish to write something substantial or read without needing synthetic speech. This can be handy when in class situations or trying to read notes as you give a presentation. There are smaller keyboards which are said to collapse to pocket size. However, these smaller keyboards are cramped and lack rigidity so couldn't be used on one's lap.
All this is very compelling. However, students need to be able to write more than just notes effectively. They need to tackle assignments. That's why a Bluetooth keyboard small enough to be portable but spacious and rigid enough to be used comfortably and quickly anywhere comes in handy. Most Braille displays have their own relatively comfortable keyboards. Braille is useful but not necessary at all times. Ordinary Bluetooth keyboards are universally far less costly than even the most inexpensive Braille displays.
Writing presentable documents in iOS has been problematic for blind people. Back when I first got my iPHONE4, I never would have dreamed of creating anything important or lengthy on it. Using the on-screen keyboard was anything but fast and efficient. It just made sense that one's phone was simply not designed for authorship. A laptop served that role. Attempting anything longer than a brief email was just begging for a first class trip to insanity. The same holds true for attempting to keep up with a lesson taking notes at high speed.
The issues extended far beyond the small completely flat virtual keyboard. VoiceOver initially didn't have an easy method for selecting text to be moved or copied. The finger spreading and pinching technique left much to be desired. Also, it can be difficult to get a proper sense of how a document will look visually due to many things such as how lines rapped on such small screens and how documents were moved through. There was also the whole question of trying to avoid jumping accidentally to a different part of a document than you intended. Sighted people literally see their documents as if on a page or as close as the sise of their device permits. Blind people hear their documents in a more linear sequential fashion. While spellcheck was possible, it remains an annoying and finicky process. Autocorrect can prove more troublesome than helpful with its presumptions regarding what one meant to type being far from actual intention. Who hasn't heard jokes about people getting into trouble because they trusted autocorrect and didn't look before sending that fateful text message?
Over the years, things have slowly gotten better. As VoiceOver and iOS have improved, these problems have begun to be addressed. Selecting text is a crucial example of this. The process now relies on the rotor. Set it to text selection, flick up or down to choose the unit of measure, [character, word, line, page]. After that, flick right to move forward by the unit of measure or left to move backward. You can even do things like select a line of text, flick upward to change the unit of measure to words, flick left to remove the two or three words you don't want selected when you press the delete button, and then remove precisely what you regret having written. It's the sort of solution that you wonder why nobody thought of originally even while overcome with gratitude that someone finally has. The lack of an efficient easy way to select text was the largest impediment stopping me from adopting iOS for serious writing.
Bluetooth keyboard support has gotten much better than it used to be. Instances of dropped connection are quite rare. Also, the horrid lag which formerly made Bluetooth headsets useless for blind people needing snappy responses to their gestures from VoiceOver has been reduced to near non-existence. Pairing multiple devices is a lot more reliable and easier than it once was. Energy efficiency has also greatly improved.
These improvements make it easier to use various word processing apps on iOS such as Pages or Microsoft Word. Spellcheck in particular is still harder than it has to be. However, you can now at least get your words in the right order and type them easily. Also, the spellcheck functionality built into iOS will at least tell you when it thinks you spelled a word wrong as you read over it. Proofreading and formatting documents accurately remain troublesome issues when using the more popular word processors with VoiceOver. Most word processors operate on a principle called WYSIWYG or what you see is what you get. This is perfectly sensible for sighted people who can look at their documents seeing how they will appear when printed. This presents problems for blind users. Even when VoiceOver announces formatting or other visual information, it can be hard to grasp how the end result will look or where the influence of commands such as emphasis, line breaks, etc begins and ends. What is immediately obvious to the eye is not so for the ear or fingers if Braille is used. I needed to find a better solution before leaving my laptop behind and using my iPHONE to do serious writing.
A big part of the solution was suitable accessories. Over the years, I've found a good sturdy Bluetooth keyboard from Microsoft designed specifically for mobile devices. It's compact and rigid enough to be used on one's lap. Even better, a small lapdesk that was just large enough to fit the keyboard and my iPHONE next to each other. An Aftershokz Trekz Titanium bone conduction headset serves me well when I'm travelling outdoors and don't want to lose my AirPods from Apple. These Airpods are far more portable, longer lasting wireless earbuds which deliver far better sound. A pair of external batteries completes the basic load. One is a 3500-MA battery the size of a lipstick. It fits easily in a pocket. The other is a far larger 26800-MA battery which would easily keep all my gear powered for a week or more. All of this fits in a small shoulder-bag along with a Bluetooth speaker if I'm going somewhere I might want to share what I'm listening to. In total, it weighs well under ten pounds. Far less if I ditch the large battery and speaker as I would on most day trips.
The very last stumbling block was a good writing solution. I needed an app which would let me write easily and have full control over the formatting of what I produced. For me, the Ulysses app was a pricy but very compelling possibility. The big equalizer is the use of Markdown XL. This is a set of formatting and other commands you insert using standard punctuation symbols. These commands are easily read by Voiceover giving you full and accurate control of formatting. They are acted upon when you export your document into a chosen format. For instance, hash signs indicate headings so text following one or more hash signs within a paragraph will become a heading in a pdf or html document. There are simple commands for doing everything from underlining text to adding footnotes or links. With everything in text characters VoiceOver can detect, nothing gets misplaced or forgotten and proof-reading becomes possible. Spellcheck at least tells me if something is spelled wrong. I hope this situation improveds, but thanks to dictionary/thesaurus apps like Wordbook and Terminology, I can easily live with that slight compromise.
The Ulysses Writing App In Depth:
This app won an Apple award at last years WWDC, a conference for app developers. Shortly after this, the app was made accessible using VoiceOver. The app is designed to be a writing tool which scales from short documents through to novels. Simplicity and no clutter are key design principles. Writers can focus on actual writing. Using Markdown language to insert formatting instructions removes the need for toolbars and other things which clutter and distract writers using other word processors. Other features include the ability to set writing goals, keep your writing nicely organised, and much more. Everything you write is instantly backed up to iCloud so no need to worry about saving progress.
This app rewards mastery of the rotor as well as exploration of the screen. Accessibility is good in most areas but a work in progress for less critical things like goal setting. It's still possible but somewhat harder than they might be. To keep clutter to a minimum, options are nested within others. Exploration and experimentation pay off handsomely when learning to use this app to its full potential.
A sheet is what this app calls a document. You don't need to give a sheet a title. A single sheet can contain as much text as you want it to. Therer are no imposed sise limits. Sheets can be put into groups which can be organised in many different ways. For instance, each major section of my guide to iOS is a sheet. I can duplicate, delete, export or change the order of these sheets easily at any time. I can cut, copy and paste text into sheets. Also, I can atach writing goals, notes, and keywords to sheets. Groups of related sheets can be exported as a single document. It is ideal for creating books. This is a very flexible powerful organizational system. Groups can have goals assigned to them. Groups can be sorted in the best way for their specific contents. My group of AMI Audio files is organised by date while the group of sheets comprising the guide I'm writing is organised manually.
Getting to Help:
There are instructions and help available in the app and on the developer's web site:
The instructions are in special groups of sheets found in the main library. You'll be going into the editor to read any sheets which interests you. The first group of instruction sheets is called "first steps" Double-tap on this to enter the group of sheets. Flick right until you pass the "first steps" heading and you'll be at the first sheet which is "quick overview". Doubletap on a sheet to open it. Flick right until you hear instructions being read. Once this happens, you can simply leave it to read the full sheet of information. No action is necessary. When finished, hit the "back" button at the topleft of the screen and proceed to find the next sheet or group you want to look at. The rotor is your friend. Set it to move by character, word, etc, and/or to select text for sharing or movement. Once a sheet is opened, you'll find a counter which may display total characters, words, sentences, etc. This is only visible when the keyboard is dismissed and not on the screen.
The Ulysses Editor:
The heart of Ulysses is the editor. Once you open a sheet, you're viewing it in the editor but not able to write or change the contents. From this external view, you can set goals, change editor settings, and export the sheet if you wish. Buttons to do all these things are found at the top of the screen to the right of the "back" button. Buttons are "editor settings", "export preview", "new sheet", and "attachments". Next comes the text field. To start writing, double-tap on the text field. Now, when you move onto the text field, it will say "is editing". This remains the case even if you move off the text field to use the on-screen keyboard. To leave this writing mode, double-tap the "dismiss keyboard" button which is one move to the right of the text field. Think of it like capping your pen. The app takes advantage of the autocorrect and spellcheck facilities built into iOS. These are useable but can be annoying. To minimize this, I have autocorrect turned off and simply use spellcheck. It will tell you if the word you move onto is spelled wrong. Navigate through the document using the rotor setting it to character, word or line as desired. Use the rotor to select, cut, copy and paste text.
Move past the edit field while you're still in editing mode and you'll find a "dismiss keyboard" button, a "search" button" and a sort of toolbar. This contains "undo/redo", paragraph tags", "inline tags" "special characters" and left/right buttons. The "tags" buttons give you access to the Markdown language commands you'll use while writing if you can't memorise them. You don't have to use this toolbar equivalent at all. I never do but it's there if needed. I recommend learning the Markdown XL commands and simply typing them in when required. Find them in the Markdown XL group of introduction files. This is immediately past the "first steps" group.
The Attachments Button:
While editing a sheet, you can push the "attachments" button one flick to the left of the text field. The "attachments" button lets you attach keywords, goals and notes to sheets. It is the most difficult area of the app to use with VoiceOver at this point but the developers are aware of the difficulties. You need to explore the screen with your finger and do some experimentation to figure this out. Feel for the buttons related to goal setting. The "at least" button can be double-tapped and will change to "at most". There are six sliders which are possible to increase or decrease. Each represents a digit which can be set from 0 to 9. You can use these to attach a goal to a group or sheet of a target number of words to achieve or not to exceed. Very useful for motivation or school assignments. It's just annoying to have to deal with sliders rather than an edit box letting you just type in a number.
Ulysses Completes The Student or Writer's Toolkit:
Things have at last reached a point where producing professional good-looking documents is possible on iOS for blind people willing to learn some extra commands. We can know precisely where formatting is applied and what will happen when documents are exported for distributing or printing. the use of a Markdown language plus VoiceOver improvements combine to make this a truly viable option. This is especially the case when you add a good Bluetooth keyboard into the equation. Ulysses has extensive support including many keyboard commands. Find these in the "details" group of introduction files. To round out your writing toolkit, other apps can address spellcheck challenges and research capabilities. I recommend the Wordbook app or the Terminology app. These are fully accessible apps which combine dictionary and thesaurus.
I don't use Ulysses for jotting down quick notes. It takes a little time to get in a sheet and double-tap on the edit field. Another app called Drafts happily solves that problem by dumping you instantly into an edit field whenever you open it. Much more convenient for quick notes. The calendar and calculator built into iOS plus the Timeglass, Google and Wikipedia apps available from the app store round out my primary writing tools. Most of these apps are free. Timeglass is an app which allows the creation of timers which can have multiple stages and alert you with sounds when each stage is reached. This can be very helpful regarding time management. Ulysses costs around $34 Canadian but is well worth the price for people who need the portability of an iOS device but want the full power of a serious author's workstation.