Better Living Through Assistive Technology

Photo of Brian Meersma, Cornell Student and AT expert

My Three Favorite AT Apps


There are three AT apps that come to mind for me, as a college student with dyslexia, that are really helpful. The first is Bookshare, which I use to read many of my books. I can download a book very quickly and listen with a text to speech voice. There are over 400,000 titles in the Bookshare library. It’s a great thing for me, as it opens up a lot of doors and allows me to explore my interests.

Learning Ally is also great, and is similar to Bookshare, except that books are narrated by human voices which some people prefer. Having the ability to use the Learning Ally app and download books in it is really helpful for studying or reading for pleasure.

The third app I really love is Voice Dream Reader. It’s really amazing! Just being able to throw any type of file into the app, whether Bookshare file, PDF, webpage, whatever, and to be able to tap “play” and have it read to me has been really great. Voice Dream Reader is especially useful in college where many of the materials are online. Just having the VDR app to put these materials into and then have them read to me is huge. The new VDR 4.0 update is also really great. Having the ability to use the available split screen, which enables me to multi-task is really helpful. I can have VDR on one side of my screen and read my textbook, while also having something else on the other side, like a flash card application which I can use if I’d like to make flashcards from the reading.

Other Apps I Like

A few other apps I like are KNFB Reader and Prizmo. Both are apps where you can take a picture of a newspaper or page of a book and the apps read it back to you. These are very helpful when I’m at a talk and the material is not available to me online. To be able to just take a picture of something and literally, within a few seconds, have that text be digitized and able to be read with text to speech Is really great. KNFB Reader and Prizmo are on my list of my most used assistive technology apps on my iPad or on my iPhone, and Bookshare and Learning Ally can be used across most devices. I have access to whatever I need wherever I need it.

The Student Disability Services (SDS) and Academic Life

My university’s Student Disability Services office (Cornell University - SDS) has been very supportive with respect to my accommodations, understanding my needs, and helping me to communicate these needs to my professors. The office staff seems to really stay on top of things which is very helpful because things can get really busy. In general, the SDS staff makes sure I have what I need in terms of accommodations. Most of my instructors are supportive and have a good respect for the SDS, so when I give them my accommodations letter, they have an understanding of what I need and why I need it, including extended time, etc.

These days, I find it is much easier to blend into the college classroom while using assistive tech on my iPhone or iPad. It’s so common, and almost all students use some kind of technology, so I can use my devices and not draw attention to myself.

I find the letter of accommodations from the Student Disability Services office helps me to create relationships with my professors. My accommodations letter, which I must present to each professor at the beginning of the semester offers me a nice excuse to make an appointment with each professor during office hours to get to know him/her a little bit better.

Some Accessibility Challenges

One of my professors had chosen to use an online quiz taking software which was inaccessible to me, so I couldn’t use my technology tools to read the quizzes and complete them . It was pretty frustrating trying to figure out a solution. It took a lot longer than I expected and I fell behind on several of the quizzes which was frustrating. I was able to work with the SDS office to get the material converted into an accessible format. Then rather than using an on-line, interactive feedback system, which was inaccessible, the Cornell SDS office got the answer key from my professor, and would grade my quizzes. It was a bit of a longer process to get the quizzes returned to me, but in the end it worked out. I guess it just shows that the SDS office is willing to do what it takes to get the items you need and to make these items accessible if they aren’t already.

Beyond College: Requesting Accommodations in the Workplace

One thing college students with dyslexia can do to help prepare themselves for the world of work is to become comfortable asking for accommodations and being clear about why they need them. That way, when they enter the workplace they can then request these accommodations without hesitation to help them be their best. In terms of the interview process, I think it would be helpful for college career services centers to discuss with students the right time to disclose their disabilities in the job interview. Knowing when to disclose can be difficult, but it can also be essential for some to have accommodations during the interview process so that they may perform their best to get the job.

It’s important to get comfortable with the technology available before entering the workplace. For young students, it's a good idea to get started as early as possible, beginning at the elementary level, if appropriate, and continuing throughout the high school and college years. This way, when it's time to enter the workforce, you won’t have to worry about learning and integrating this technology into your workflow, as you’ll already be comfortable using it.

HR personnel need to know about the various types of technology available, so that they can recommend something which would be most beneficial to an employee. It’s also important for employees to know that they can ask for this type of technological support from HR. Beginning the process of self-advocacy early in one’s academic life will help make a difference in your ability to communicate your needs as an adult in the workplace.


Future Plans and My Blog

I’m looking forward to interning with Microsoft this summer, so I’ll be taking a bit of a break from reviewing any new Assistive Technology apps and products on my Assistive Technology Blog, located at http://bdmtech.blogspot.com/

Brian, Thanks for sharing your insights with us!

You can visit Brian’s blog at http://bdmtech.blogspot.com/ to read some great reviews on Assistive technology apps and tips on how to use them!

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