Assistive Technology Highlight: C-Pen (Reader Pen)

Today I’m sharing an assistive technology highlight with thanks to the wonderful people at Reader Pen. They reached out to me a few months ago and invited me to review their Exam Reader Pen. I trialed it myself for a week or so. I also passed it to my 13yo dyslexic son (Joshua) who checked it out for about an hour or two. Then, we passed it to my 62yo tech-savvy dyslexic mother (Stephanie) and she trialed it for a few days. I feel like we’ve given it a relatively rigorous run through. We explored its features and settings; tested it across several mediums, particularly including the ways we’d like to be able to use it; and I feel like we made some relatively decisive findings.

Sadly, I feel sad that I can’t give the Reader Pen a glowing review, but I have to be honest about our findings. Unfortunately, there were enough failings with the device that it’s very much worth being aware of the pen’s capabilities and weaknesses before making a purchase. So, without further ado, I give you, our thoughts on the C-Pen.

The Advantages

  • It reads most common serif and sans-serif printed fonts.
  • It does work on coloured text and coloured backgrounds.
  • The C-Pen could assist with learning pronunciation (particularly for ESL).
  • It’s great for checking an individual unfamiliar or tricky word.
  • It can read texts that have been scanned backwards in the correct order.
    – i.e. scan left-to-right or right-to-left and the reader always reads the text left-to-right.
  • The Exam Reader is approved for use in examination settings.
  • The device is compact and light; it can fit in a pencil-case and comes with its own protective case.
  • It’s compatible with headphones and USB charger;
    and continues to function while plugged in and charging.

The Challenges

Requires concentration

The Reader Pen requires a surprising amount of concentration to use. This is probably something that more regular use over a much longer period of learning would ease. Within our shorter trials, we found the concentration required almost as draining as actually reading the text for ourselves.

One aspect that required concentration was the need to maintain a steady hand and trace the text in a straight line. A wobbly scan resulted in a wobbly reading. I don’t know if it’s common of all dyslexics, but Stephanie, Joshua, and I all found it difficult to scan lines and words with a steady hand. Stephanie started using a ruler to assist with this. The ruler itself serves a powerful benefit in helping us read the text so it offered no real benefit to the use of the C-Pen.

Another was in needing to concentrate first to scan then line, and then wait to hear the text read back to us. It was almost as if we doubled up on every part of the process. Again, this is something that we do as dyslexics a lot anyway. The C-Pen didn’t really create an assistive function in that sense.

Cumbersome for longer texts

The above challenges were particularly noticeable when attempting to use the C-Pen for longer texts. While scanning a single word in a paragraph of text is very useful. It wasn’t really suitable if we wanted the Reader Pen to read the entire paragraph. It will scan a whole line, but when you lift the pen from the page you have to wait until it has completely finished reading that line before scanning another or it will cut off in the middle of what it was reading.

This challenge means it’s not really a suitable assistive technology for reading entire pages or a full book. In this case, audiobooks, WhisperSync, and text-to-speech softwares on computers, phones, and tablets are most definitely superior.

Sometimes results in gibberish

There were many occasions where the Reader Pen did very well when reading plain, simple, typed texts. There were also a great many instances when the result made a complete mess of what was scanned. This was true for texts that were too large or too small. The C-Pen has about a one centimetre tall scanner and seems best suited to scan fonts ranging from 10pt to 16pt. Anything outside of this range seemed to cause problems.

Other causes of gibberish were related to font choices. Standard sans and sans-serif fonts like Arial or Times New Roman were understood fluently. But, less common fonts like Dyslexie lead to the C-Pen reading back gibberish. This again, narrows the margins for when this device is useful.

Can’t read on reflective surfaces

Okay, while this one isn’t really a deal breaker it was definitely something we wished it could do. Joshua plays a lot of video games which can be relatively text heavy. So can online social media. It’s not always convenient to have text-to-speech features turned on when using these programs. As such, this is something I really hoped the C-Pen could accommodate. Being able to read a few lines from a computer monitor, television screen, smart phone, or tablet would be useful in this context. Unfortunately, the Reader Pen would not function on these sorts of reflective surfaces. It did, however, work on plain, non-glare sheet protectors and some laminated printed pages.

Requires time and patience

While the device itself is relatively easy to use straight out of the box, it can require time and patience. After scanning a word or line there is a short pause to listen to the response. After scanning a full line of text we had to wait to listen back to each line rather than complete sentences. If you start to scan the next line before it had finished reading the last one the reading would cut off.

While some people with language and literacy difficulties would find using the C-Pen in an exam speeds up the process, others would find it is just as time-consuming to use as it would be to decode and read the text independently. So, even the assistance in that setting may not offer as many advantages as one might first think. It’s very definitely something you should train yourself to use effectively and efficiently before attempting to use it in a professional or examination setting.

Lacked some visual tools – e.g. battery remaining?

One thing Stephanie noted is that she had trouble knowing how much longer the battery would last while she was using it. While there is a gauge of sorts, it’s difficult to know the duration of each segment. Will it read for ten minutes or ten hours? Thankfully, we did find that the device will continue to work while plugged in and charging. The lack of these visuals, however, left us uncertain how long the battery would last in certain settings.

Relatively outdated

Sadly, this is perhaps the most pressing of the challenges. Given other technologies in today’s market, the C-Pen doesn’t break any particular ground for accessibility. It is a useful tool as an approved Exam Reader but for general use other tools, such as phones and tablets, are far superior. Technologies allow for the photographing or scanning of texts and then the implementation of text to speech softwares that make the C-Pen relatively obsolete. Ebooks and audiobooks, particularly features like Kindle’s WhisperSync, are much more convenient and user-friendly when reading longer texts. Tablets are powerful tools in the classroom, allowing students to take photographs of notes on the board for later reference, type notes on a keyboard, draw images, and have inbuilt accessibility tools such as text-to-speech read aloud from PDFs and other documents. For typed text, a computer, phone, or tablet can do everything the C-Pen can do.

Expensive

Finally, we felt the Reader Pen was relatively expensive for what it is. While we all agreed we would love it at $50 we didn’t feel it was worth buying the C-Pen Exam Reader for $385 AUD (incl. GST), particularly given the other technologies available as mentioned above. For the price point it may make more sense to invest in a tablet or iPad. These have a much more diverse range of assistive technology features and can perform the same duties as the C-Pen. The biggest advantage of the C-Pen is perhaps for Exam settings where more advanced assistive tools could also present opportunities for cheating. Perhaps, it would be suitable to expect schools, universities, and other bodies that require written, exam-like settings, to provide C-Pens as required accessibility tools for people with disabilities rather than individuals being required to purchase their own device.

A final word

There are a lot of fantastic accessibility tools available and we are very lucky to live in a time when technology grants us so many more opportunities to support our weaknesses and develop our strengths. I have a great respect and gratitude for companies that break ground in creating technology to aid individuals with language and literacy disabilities. I was truly honoured to be approached by Reader Pens to review their C-Pen Exam Reader as it was a tool I had been itching to trial but could not afford.

This sector has experienced a lot of fabulous advancements in technology and I’m looking forward to seeing what other innovations companies come up with in the years to come. If you’d like Aulexic to trial an assistive technology you’re considering, or that you represent, please do get in touch with us.

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