Monday, October 20, 2014

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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

My Quest to Divorce the QWERTY Keyboard

By Chi Hung Luke Hsieh, Assistive Technology Advocate at Riverside Community Access Center

image of keyboard with a blue swipe line through the keys

I have recently—yes, only recently—gotten friendly with swype input.  As someone who has the word "technology" in his job title, the shame and dishonor of such wilful neglect brought upon my person is incalculable.  However, thanks to my new state-of-the-art Android phone, I have had the chance to turn this narrative of shame into a narrative of redemption, and nobody needs to commit hara-kiri!  Oh, and in case you do not yet know what swype is—the words swipe and type combined—and  it’s the input mode where your finger goes from B to E without stopping when typing the word “because”. You literally swipe your finger from B down to E without picking up your finger.

I first came across the trace typing technology at the annual CSUN International Technology & Persons with Disabilities Conference in 2011, but respectfully ignored it, because I figured that there's nothing swype can do that typing with auto-correction and/or word-prediction can't do faster. Strictly speaking, I wasn't far off; for someone with minor motor skills impairment, I could swype no more accurately than I could type. If I was to use a stop watch I am sure that I can type as fast, if not faster, than swype. To my surprise,  it only took less than a month of switching from iPhone 4S to Android Jelly Bean to turn me into a believer—to the extent that I started searching for a non-existent tablet-like flat keyboard for my Windows 7 based PC. I also started hating the QWERTY keyboards that have been my friend for the last 25 years. Oh, loyalty can be so fleeting.

Why do I adore swyping so much, if it's not the speed? Well, here is the short version: dragging the finger all over a virtual keyboard uses less muscle than a traditional keyboard, especially for someone accustomed to typing with two fingers. And that's it—that's the reason I am willing to divorce my QWERTY keyboards. And, the quickest way Microsoft can convince me to purchase a Surface RT tablet, is to tell me that I can use it as a swyping keyboard for my desktop computer.

Right now, arguably the best third-party swype applications apart from the ‘trace typing’ offered by google keyboard are Swype from Nuance  (based in Massachusetts) and Swiftkey by TouchType Ltd. (based in London),  although all three keyboards are designed for use with the Android platform. The user experience for Swype and SwiftKey are almost identical:  both make use of individualized word prediction, analyzes the user’s vocabulary patterns, and both have price tags of $3.99. So, the choice really comes down to individual preference.  Personally—even though I have a soft spot for everything British—I  chose Swype over SwiftKey because I needed the Asian Keyboards, and Touch Type’s  is still in beta testing.

Now, how does one use trace typing on a Windows based Desktop PC? To the best of my knowledge, trace typing is not offered by Microsoft for Windows 7 or 8 based computers, nor can one purchase an integrated third party keyboard (physical or software) for this purpose, so the only way one can use Swype on Desktop PC is by using Chrome Remote Desktop.  Chrome Remote Desktop is an free add-on from google for the Chrome Browser that allows one to remotely operate window based computers via Android Smartphones, and the technology is definitely not new. If you remember PCs anywhere from the late 1990s, such technology always suffered from either insufficient processing power or Internet speed, but neither problem exists in 2014, since my smartphone has as much processing power as my desktop computer at home. So, fortunately the speed bug of the 90s is unlikely to be much of an issue today.

A potential problem with this technology, though, is that it threatens to turn the world into a hacker’s paradise and is,  therefore, a nightmare for IT professionals.  Even I have concerns about the security implications of the technology and I am not usually the paranoid type.

But at least we now know that it can be done and it has been done, so the question for me now is how much of a security risk I am willing to take to use trace typing on my PC…

Here is a great video demonstration of SwiftKey Flow Hard:


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Voting Independently

by Justin Harford

Yesterday, June 3, 2014, I cast my first ballot independently as someone who is blind, using an electronic voting machine at my local polling place. This experience brought me a lot of satisfaction both because I was participating in the electoral process as a good citizen who had done their homework, studying up on the issues and candidates, and because I was carrying out my civic responsibility with complete independence, and anonymity. However, it took me many years to come to this point.
When I celebrated my 18th birthday in 2006, and the civic responsibility of voting and elections became a reality, I wasn’t really sure how to react. People around me seemed to think that I should be excited, but I wasn’t.
In fact, I had a lot of fears around voting, and skepticism of how much my vote really mattered. I grew up hearing scary stories from fellow blind people about being assisted by voting judges who try to manipulate their decisions. Electronic voting machines meant a whole new set of worries for me. Sure the voting process would be accessible, but there had been some significant questions about certain models of electronic voting machines designed by a company whose leaders had ties to a political party.  I wondered would if the machines could be hacked and made
Pictured: Justin Harford tests the Dominion Voting Machine at the California Secretary of State's office in May 2014. He is sitting in front of a machine with headphones on wearing a suit and there is a woman behind him also sitting at a table with a machine
Pictured: Justin Harford tests the Dominion
Voting Machine at the California Secretary of
State's office in May 2014.
to drop votes, or cast votes for different candidates or measures then the voter had intended? So how would I know that my vote would count? How would I know that the electronic voting machine wouldn’t just be another form of automated voting judge, which would listen to my choices, and either question me on whether I was making the right decision, or simply put whatever it wanted on the ballot without me knowing?

Nevertheless, over the years my attitude did change. I selectively voted in certain races that particularly interested me, such as Obama for president in 2008, “Yes” on the speed train initiative, while ignoring others like proposition 8, which I came to regret later on after they passed it. Maybe it would’ve been different if I had voted. My mother would help me fill out mail ballots, and I found her to be a lot more trustworthy than a stranger at a precinct.
During my experiences working as a community organizer, I have come to realize the power of interacting with the folks who represent and serve in our local, state and national governments. I have seen individuals step up to the podium at City Hall meetings, bring up issues which I didn’t think anyone would ever care about, and actually elicit a positive reaction from the Council, stopping measures from going through or at least getting their passage delayed for more consideration. I have learned that the vote is the strongest form of nonviolent power that enables people living in a democracy to effect real change, not just because it can get an official elected or put out of the job, but because of the signal that it sends to those who represent us-- that we care about how they treat our issues.
That is why I plan to continue voting independently in all future elections as someone who is blind. That is why I am proud to represent the interests of the disability community, so that there will never be anything about us without us.
Justin Harford is the Disability Community Advocate at FREED Center for Independent Living in Grass Valley, CA.