Handiham World for 28 March 2012

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drawing of transceiver

Off the shelf

Most of us have heard the expression “off the shelf” when it comes to purchasing an item from a store. We generally understand this to mean that the item is readily available so that we can simply walk into the store, find it on the shelf, put it into a shopping cart, and head for the checkout line to pay for it. Buying an item “off the shelf” means that it is produced for a mass market and therefore the manufacturer can take advantage of spreading the production costs over a large number of units, thus keeping the price as low as possible. Conversely, an item that is not available “off-the-shelf” is probably produced in limited quantities for a much more specialized customer. Because the production costs per unit are quite high due to the fact that there are fewer units manufactured, the customer must expect to pay more for that item.

This is basic economics. It is the reason why specialized adaptive technologies such as standalone DAISY players can command a price of hundreds of dollars more than simple digital audio players that are produced for the mass market and available anywhere.

Amateur radio equipment is rather specialized as a category in itself because it is produced for a limited market of amateur radio operators. You don’t expect to be able to go to a big box store in your neighborhood to buy a transceiver. Some amateur radio equipment is manufactured with speech frequency read out built in, while some radios have an option for an additional speech module for blind users. Within the specialized category of the amateur radio equipment, this additional adaptive technology adds only a modest amount (under $100) to the total purchase price. Considering the size of the potential market, this is very reasonable.

Personal computers, now a mainstay of the modern amateur radio station, have moved steadily toward “off the shelf” accessibility. Many assistive technology features are now built into operating systems. Apple provides a built in screen reader that is relatively full featured. Microsoft also provides a somewhat less complete screen reader and a very good speech recognition dictation system. Screen reading software and speech recognition software used to be expensive additional purchases that were definitely not “off the shelf”. Today there are more options than ever to get many of these features already installed on the computer you buy at a local retailer. Rather than being optional at considerable extra cost, they are now available to everyone at little or no extra cost. This is the power of mass production and mass marketing to bring costs per unit down and provide an excellent benefit to those of us who need assistive technology.

Earlier this week I talked with a Handiham member who was wondering about more “off the shelf” solutions for people who read DAISY books. Of course specialized standalone readers are available, but they are expensive and they are something else to carry around. Some of them, such as the Library of Congress digital player, work well and are readily available free of charge from the government for anyone qualifying for NLS services, but they are not portable and thus not convenient to use in more than one place. The fact of the matter is that blind people need to be out and about for work, shopping, and all the activities of daily life just as anyone else does. We agreed that it would be better to have a portable reader that could easily be carried around all day long.

This, as you might expect, led us to the obvious conclusion that an already available “off the shelf” device that most of us carry around should also be able to function as a DAISY reader. Of course that device is the modern smart phone, which might be an Android or an iPhone.

Neither of us knew whether it was possible to turn a smart phone into a DAISY reader, so when we finished our phone conversation I turned to the iTunes store and the Android Market (now called Google Play) to search for DAISY reader apps. Guess what? There are some, available from a cost of free to around $15 available for my own Android smart phone. The best bet for Android looks to me like it is the Darwin Reader that reads both Daisy formatted text and audio books and is also compatible with Bookshare and Librivox. That one is $14.95. Compare that to hundreds of dollars for a standalone digital player. And you already have your phone with you if you are like me! Daisy Worm is under a dollar and available for iPod or iPhone. There is also a Learning Ally app for iPhone for around $20.

The neat thing about the off the shelf smart phone is that it can also run Echolink, which can be useful when you are on the go and want to maintain your regular net check-in schedule via the HANDIHAM conference.

Consider, if you will, the profound difference in access “off-the-shelf” can provide. By finding ways to make things like screen readers and DAISY players available on mass-produced devices, we ultimately make these things available to almost everyone.  
For Handiham World, I’m…
Patrick Tice, [email protected]
Handiham Manager

ARRL volunteers make an impression

cartoon people lined up holding hands, big, little, different colors, one using wheelchair
I just got off the phone with a fellow who is studying for his first amateur radio license and is entering the hobby as so many of us did ourselves, as a listener who tunes around the bands. Recently he had occasion to buy a new antenna, but really needed some help figuring it out. When you are a beginner, you probably don’t know much about antennas and feed lines. A call to ARRL yielded a couple of resources, the Handiham program and a volunteer ARRL technical adviser. To make a long story short, this young fellow was able to call the ARRL and get a very encouraging welcome to amateur radio along with the offer of technical assistance. A Handiham volunteer also responded with the willingness that we see so often in our amateur radio community. Kudos to ARRL and Handiham volunteers and to ARRL and their wonderful programs.
Pat Tice, WA0TDA, is the manager of HANDI-HAM and a regular contributor to AmateurRadio.com. Contact him at [email protected].

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