Apple and accessibility: Helping students with dyslexia

Can you imagine not being able to read printed words? What would your life be like if books, newspapers, websites, email, and even signs were all virtually incomprehensible to you? How would you get through the day? For up to one in five people like me with dyslexia these are not hypothetical questions, they are our reality. Yet, thanks to accessibility technologies built into Apple's iPhone, iPad, and Mac, it's a reality that can be challenged.

Dyslexia makes reading a simple paragraph, let alone textbooks, a tedious and frustrating process. Spelling and written expression can also be very difficult.  Despite this, dyslexia does not impact intellectual ability. It doesn't cause people to read backwards or see words upside down. It does, however, make figuring out what sounds go with which letters difficult. Deciphering unfamiliar words on a page can be extremely difficult, if not impossible. So what do people who have dyslexia do when they encounter printed text? Some simply avoid it or give up. Others find methods to help them succeed.

For me, and many like me, reading using our ears is the method we use. It's the way we get meaning from the printed word — by listening to it being read aloud. While this approach may not be considered "real reading," by some, when I and others like me listen to words being read aloud, the end result is the same — we get information from printed text. Assistive technology allows us to do this independently; it is our lifeline to the world of information.   Text-to-speech technologies that allow me to listen to text let me explore topics that I find interesting. Speak Selection on iOS and OS X allows me to quickly highlight text and have the text read back to me using text-to-speech. With it, I can read webpages, newspaper articles, emails, and more. On iOS, Speak Selection even highlights words as they are being spoken to help me follow along. Instead of struggling through reading, Speak Selection allows me to listen while I follow along with the words.   Dictation allows me to fully express myself in the way I want withouthaving to rephrase an entire sentence because I don't know how to spell words I want to write. Both text-to-speech and dictation are integrated into iOS and OS X. Coming this fall with iOS 8, Apple will also be introducing a predictive keyboard that will help with poor spelling by suggesting words based on the first few characters. With these integrated technologies and apps, people with disabilities can have access and more readily use their abilities instead of being held back by their disabilities.

Many developers and organizations including Apple have done a tremendous job of integrating accessibility features into their apps and services, opening up a world of possibilities for people with disabilities. Every new iOS device or Mac comes standard with accessibility features built-in. These features allow more people to use Apple devices more effectively and serve as a foundation for other assistive apps to build on.   Third-party developers add enormous value to Apple products in so many ways, and accessibility is no exception. Two of the most important tools I use are services that provide me with accessible books that I can listen to. One of the services, called Bookshare, provides downloadable books that can be read with text-to-speech. Bookshare offers over 280,000 books that can be downloaded and read directly on an iOS device or Mac through apps. The other service, called Learning Ally provides human-narrated audio books that can also be downloaded to a wide variety of devices.

Prizmo is an app I use on my iOS devices. With Prizmo, I can snap a picture of an article or document and Prizmo will recognize the text using optical character recognition (OCR) and read it back to me using text-to-speech in a matter of seconds.

All of these tools give me access to text and help level the playing field for me. The apps and services mentioned above are just some of the dozens of tools that can help people with dyslexia and I would encourage people to explore other options as well.

The accessibility of Apple products and the accessibility of other related apps are such an indispensable tool for me in school and at home. With these tools I'm able to focus on my strengths. Similar built-in accessibility features, apps, and services benefit others with different disabilities.

This fall, iOS 8 will further improve on the built-in accessibility features which will further improve the inclusivity of iOS. I'm so thankful to all the people who help make devices and services more accessible and usable to all. Hopefully, the increased focus on accessibility from sites such as iMore will help push innovation even further.

Brian Meersma