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Notability and low vision

How I use the free Notability app for completing assignments in high school and college.

When I transferred to a new high school during junior year, I met with the educational technology specialist to figure out a good workflow for receiving accessible digital copies of classroom materials. Since I have a print disability that impacts my ability to read standard print as well as dysgraphia that makes it challenging to write legibly, I needed to find an application that would support large print, typing, using a stylus, and accessing a variety of classroom materials. Oh, and it needed to be easy to use for both me and my teachers.

I figured that there was no way a single application could do all of these things, but the educational technology specialist surprised me (and my case manager) when they shared the Notability application, and came up with a fantastic solution for distributing and submitting digital class files. Here is more about how I use Notability as a student with low vision, and how I’m still using it over ten years later!

Notability overview

Notability is a free iPad app that allows users to draw, type, and annotate various types, including photos, documents, and notebook templates. The original content of a file cannot be altered in Notability, though users can write on top of documents, type notes, or use Notability as a notetaking application. Notability is free to use, with the option to upgrade to Notability Plus for premium features and content for $15 a year.

Notability does not require users to register for an account, though accounts can be used to enable public note sharing. To use Notability, users will need to connect at least one cloud storage option for note backup, such as Google Drive, OneDrive, Dropbox, WebDAV, iCloud, or Box.

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Setting up Notability for school

In order to streamline the process for providing accessible materials and me turning in completed assignments, the educational technology specialist created a shared Dropbox folder for me and all of my teachers, with a folder for each class. At the start of each class, I would go to the folder and download the assignments for the day, and then save the completed assignments to a folder marked “complete”, changing the file name in the process.

If I had to take an exam with Notability, my iPad would be set up with Guided Access enabled so that I couldn’t access any other applications or the internet while working on my test. While internet access is required to upload/download documents, Notability can otherwise be used offline.

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Adding and organizing files

Import from a cloud storage software

To import a document from a cloud storage software:

  1. Select the Import icon, which is a downward arrow icon on the top right section of the screen
  2. Select the source
  3. Select the document for import, changing the subject tag if necessary
  4. Select done

Import from another app

To import a document from another app, such as Blackboard or Google Chrome:

  1. Open a file such as a PDF or DOCX
  2. Open the Share menu, which is a box with an upward arrow
  3. Select Share to Notability
  4. Create a new note or add the content to an existing note in Notability
  5. Select a notes title and subject, and then select Import.

Exporting

To export a document:

  1. Select the Share icon, which is on the left side of the Notability ribbon
  2. Choose a destination- this can be the share menu, email, OneDrive, printer, link, or other cloud service
  3. Unless Notability files are deleted, they are automatically saved on the iPad as well as in the cloud
  4. To share Notability files from outside applications, use the File Browser on iPad

New note page

Users can also create a blank note page for notetaking, drawing, or other activities by selecting the New Note (blue icon) or New Template (white rectangle) icons on the bottom right section of the Notability homepage. Alternatively, users can scan in a document by long-pressing on the New Note icon.

Organizing notes

Notability content can be grouped into subjects or by dividers. As an example, I have subjects for each of my classes, and use a divider to divide content by semester or school year- this is helpful if I need to access something from a previous college class, or for dividing between school and work related documents.

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Customizing Notability

Page setup

Notability users can select templates for creating Notability content and customize details such as the page color, line spacing, and other design elements. The default page template can be changed in the Settings menu under the Document section, and pages are set up to have a seamless view/continuous scrolling by default.

Typing and handwriting

To add text in Notability, select the Text/T icon in the toolbar and tap anywhere on the page to insert a text box. Design elements like the font size, font style, spacing, indenting, and use of bulleted lists can be customized in the text toolbar that is directly on top of the keyboard. Default text settings can be changed in the Settings menu in the Typing section.

To add handwriting, drawings, or text highlighting, select the pencil or highlighter icon in the toolbar and use a finger or a stylus to write text. To customize the ink color, size, or texture, double tap on the pencil or highlighter icon.

Recording audio

Another option for improving notes in Notability is to record audio by selecting the microphone icon in the toolbar, which records surrounding audio that can be played back while reading through notes. This is different from dictation, which is used for speech-to-text.

Notability file formats

By default, Notability content is exported as a PDF, which is what my teachers would request. Other options for exporting Notability files include the Note proprietary file format for sharing with other Notability users, images, and rich text files/RTF. RTF notes do not include audio, handwriting, or PDFs.

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Notability accessibility and using Notability with assistive technology

Notability and large print/high contrast

Notability does not support Dynamic Text or large print sizes, but a large portion of the app can be navigated without having to read text – I memorized the order of icons and other tools to use the app more efficiently.

For high contrast, there is a dark mode and customizable color schemes for the Notability application, as well as options to use the system wide inverted screen setting in iOS.

Notability and screen magnification

Notability can be used with screen magnification tools like Zoom, and I prefer to use the Lens view since I don’t need to have everything on the screen displayed at once. New users may benefit from using the Docked view to magnify a portion of the screen, such as the toolbar.

Users can also activate zoom mode to enlarge text by selecting the magnifying glass icon in the bottom right corner of the screen. Zoom mode focuses on one part of the screen in a docked view that can be resized and dragged across the document. Text can’t be edited in zoom mode, but drawings, handwriting, and highlighting can be added or removed.

To enable zoom mode, open the Settings menu and select zoom mode in the Handwriting section.

Notability and text-to-speech

Text-to-speech can be adjusted in the Text-to-speech section of the Settings menu. To read text out loud, double tap on a text box and select the Speak option from the drop-down menu.

Notability and VoiceOver

I don’t use Notability with VoiceOver, as it does not recognize the text from imported PDF documents or similar, and VoiceOver also does not recognize the Import button or a few other functionalities.

Notability and Apple Pencil

Notability has several integrations with the Apple Pencil, and it is my favorite stylus I have used with the Notability application. Notability does not support Scribble, or converting handwriting to typed text.

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Examples of ways I use Notability

Some of the ways I have used Notability in my classes over the years include:

One of the primary reasons I prefer to use my iPad for classwork is because I can easily fit it on a desk or carry it around a classroom, and I can also position the screen below the lined bifocial lens in my glasses for easier reading, something that is more difficult to do with a laptop or desktop computer.

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More thoughts on how I use Notability with low vision

By Veronica Lewis/Veronica With Four Eyes, www.veroniiiica.com

Updated April 2024; original post published December 2017.

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