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There are many great apps appearing for mobile devices that help people with disabilities access content and perform tasks that before required expensive standalone products. While some hail this as the end to standalone devices for people with disabilities other decry this as a way provide ineffective technologies to employees or clients without having to spent the money that is needed for a proper accommodation. In this post I hope to expound that both mediums are important and there is a place for both inexpensive apps and standalone products.

One such app is the video magnifier application. Several companies such as AI Squared make applications that use the camera on a device such as the iPhone 4 as a video magnifier. In the case of the Zoom Reader it also performs optical character recognition (OCR). These apps are inexpensive ($19.95 for Zoom Reader with others being free) and provide very useful functionality. However, there are some limitations. For example, the size of the screen is limited to that of the iPhone. Controls appear on-screen and thus take up additional on-screen room when displayed. The controls are also touched based and often mean changes require moving of the device to choose the settings and then refocusing on the item. The magnification level tends to be based on the distance from the object is designed for up close magnification and constrained by the limitations Apple places on the camera. Some apps support the LED flash feature on the iPhone 4 to illuminate the viewing area. Unfortunately the app will not run on the iPhone 3gs or iPod Touch 4, even if it did – having no light would likely have been an issue.

Standalone products on the other hand tend to be quite a bit more expensive (generally $395 to $795). These devices however tend to have mechanism buttons and controls located on the sides of the units allowing changing of settings without moving the device from the desired location. Additionally, the whole screen which can be larger than that of the iPhone can be used for the magnified area. The standalone screens also generally support a wide viewing angle (as does the iPhone but unlike some other mobile devices). Some of the more expensive standalone units have features that provide additional zoom beyond moving the camera closer to the object and support magnification of distance viewing much like a camcorder. Also the standalone units tend to have flip handles that allow the user to hold the unit from a handle like a traditional magnifier (although I’m sure someone could create an iPhone case to do the same).

Both the apps and the standalone devices have many common features such as changing of colors, image freeze, etc. Both apps and standalone products have their benefits and detractors. Both should continue to be an option for consumers who are visually impaired. It is important that employers and agencies such as those that provide rehabilitation services for people with visual impairments understand both the limitations and strengths of the products and help the customers obtain the product that best meets their needs. In some cases users may want to use different products in different situations.

Similarly there are a lot of great mobile apps for people who are deaf or hard of hearing. Apps include text relay apps, video relay apps (VRS), instant messaging, and sound amplification.

One benefit of relay and instant messaging applications on mobile devices such as iPhones is that users only have to carry one device around to facilitate communication. Additionally, some applications such as instant message unification apps can interface with many other standard instant messaging applications allowing communication with others who do not have a specialized application installed. Some video relay services apps allow for video based signing include point to point and via an interpreter. These mobile apps are very inexpensive compared to standalone devices.

However, some believe that these applications are not equivalent to the more expensive standalone devices. For example, these apps all require access to WIFI or cellular service for communication. Additionally, standalone devices typically have more tactile keyboards and may facilitate faster communications than touch screen keyboards. Still others want a choice in what device is used for communications without an employer or organization making the decision to use an app for a mobile device for them.

There are benefits to specialized applications and to standalone devices. It appears that often there is a different device for different situations and for different users. Organizations and employers should continue to seek the input of people with disabilities in making decisions about technology purchases and use to ensure that technology is as inclusive as possible.