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Tag Archives: screen readers
Yes, that’s a hash tag in my title. It’s a sign of the times. I only recently learned about it. And, no, I’m not about to talk about Twitter. I’m going to talk about two organizations who are unwittingly working together to bring about a revolution in technology accessibility for the blind. It may be my own opinion and it may not even be that well informed, but here’s what I think.
Ever since the first crude systems for braille and speech output began appearing on personal computers, two things have been axiomatic. It’s going to cost a lot, and it’s always going to be behind the curve, leaving the blind out of the latest and greatest trends in technology. Both problems are still with us, but times are changing rapidly and for the better.
Let’s start with Apple. As I understand it, it was not the first to offer some level of accessibility in its mainstream products, but it has certainly made the biggest commitment. From the Nano to the Power Mac, everything in Apple’s product line ships with full OS accessibility built in. It isn’t perfect. I’m not a Mac user, but I’ve been following some Apple forums and now know that office productivity apps such as Microsoft Office don’t work with Voiceover, the screen reader that Apple products use. That’s a rather major omission. Granted Microsoft may be part of the problem there, but Apple’s own productivity products for presentations and complex word processing aren’t working either from what I understand. I hope that’s something they will address, but still I give them credit for building so much right into their products.
I mentioned in previous posts that I recently bought an iPhone and I may never buy anything else again. Though I’m glad for the efforts Google is making with Android, Apple clearly has the lead in this area and I applaud them for doing such a good job. Knowing what I know now, I have to retract the statement I once made that if I were buying my first computer it would be a Mac. I need the ability to make presentations and do complex word processing. However, the fact that you can now buy a computer and have it work for you out of the box without the additional expense of software that may cost as much as twice the price of a lower end machine makes the somewhat pricy Mac products a good deal for the right buyer.
Is that still too much money? Enter free NVDA, a screen reader from non-prophet NV Access out of Australia. You may have to fumble along with Narrator (Windows’ rudimentary screen reader reportedly a little better in Windows 8,) until you can download and install it, but it is all many users will ever need. I have played with it before and written about it in previous posts, but it has grown a little since then. I used it for a few hours shy of a week this last time and didn’t really miss Window-Eyes, my usual screen reader that much.
In fact, the reason why I fired it up was that Window-Eyes is becoming a real pain in the backside with some pages in Firefox. NVDA handles things just fine. It’s much faster in Microsoft Word, though admittedly not as capable. Working with some applications requires navigating with the object model, which can be a little daunting, but I got used to it. Application specific configurations would cure a lot of the annoyances I did find with NVDA. Hopefully that will be something they add in the future. I definitely intend to send more donations their way in support of future development. This is a great product that is going to change the landscape of accessibility for the blind on the PC.
There may always be a niche for the powerhouse screen readers to fill. I still need Window-Eyes at work for sure and there are still a few tasks at home that I can’t do with NVDA. I wonder though how long that will remain true. The SMA I purchased a few months ago may be the last one I’ll ever need. I might just dispense with ZoomText too when that day comes. It is only the need for full-screen magnification combined with the fact that Window-Eyes is incompatible with Aero that keeps me running it now.
I have nothing against the for-prophet screen reader makers. They have performed a great service for many years. I like Window-Eyes and GW Micro, the company behind it. It would not at all surprise me if it finds a way to add value to Window-Eyes in the future that once again cements the program’s status as the only thing I would ever want to use. Now that the company has established Window-Eyes as the scripting superstar, perhaps it will turn its attention to taming the application’s increasingly frustrating behavior on web pages and updating it to use the latest accessibility standards. Of course now they also have to keep it current with Windows 8, so I can only hope the next release will bring both.
There’s nothing like competition to make products better for everyone. Between Apple and NV Access, competition just got a lot stiffer. More than ever a blind person has options. One company can’t hold a lock on the market by partnering with corporations and state agencies so that many don’t even know there are other options. The ubiquity of Freedom Scientific in the area where I live has frustrated me to the point that I contemplated trying to subcontract with the GW Micro dealer whose territory I am in to market what I consider to be a superior product to JAWS, FS’s screen reader.
I wonder what happens to the big players from here. Will all screen reader prices come down? Will they focus on specialized applications, abandoning the personal market for smaller niches and higher prices yet to compensate? Will they shift their attention to the hardware business? Will they find ways of adding value to their products such that those who can will continue to fork over the dollars for them? It will be interesting to see and I can’t help but think that consumers will benefit.
The hardware market is changing too, largely thanks to the iPhone. I now have a magnifier app that cost around $6 and replaces units costing as much as $800. One can play audiobooks on any i-device for free or just a few dollars depending on the format. E-books are slowly but surely becoming accessible. I have a $20 OCR app on my iPhone that replaces…well…nothing. Unfortunately that one isn’t working out so well, but I have hope. Specialized GPS units that cost hundreds of dollars are replaced in many cases with free alternatives, though you need to shell out a little money to get something that works well.
Like everyone else, we tend to complain about what we don’t have, but what we do have is so much better than what we used to have. I’m excited to see what the next few years bring, and thank Apple and NV Access for leading the way.
I was really hoping the latest update to Window-Eyes would make my life easier. So far, not so good. It’s true that none of my issues were specifically addressed, but some were close enough i thought maybe they’d fixe mine by accident. I was amused this morning when I saw the update notification posted on Twitter. I read it with NVDA. Just moments before I got fed up with Window-Eyes in Firefox and closed it down. It got stuck in browse mode, even though the setting in the Window-Eyes control panel said it was off. The release notes didn’t address that specifically, but they did make mention of auto-activation of browse mode in edit boxes with auto complete. The way they wrote it led me to believe that they might have actually coded for specific edit boxes on specific sites. I hope not since that would be bad coding. Nevertheless, my initial results have not been good. I am writing this blog entry in Scribefire. I wanted to see if the problem went away since I have it here. It did not. I have to turn auto-load off or browse mode keeps getting activated. Auto-complete isn’t involved here, and the issue may now be limited to Scribefire, but experience suggests otherwise. Time will tell.
Also in the update notes were fixes for Windows Live Mail, some specific to systems with Internet Explorer 9 installed. I don’t use WLM, at least not on this computer and not regularly on the netbook. I thought however that windows Live Writer might be based on some of the same code and it stopped working properly with Window-Eyes after IE 9 was installed. So I fired up live Writer. No luck. Browse mode still activates and when you turn it off Window-Eyes reads nothing.
As for stability again time will tell. The last release also claimed to be for stability, but after installing it on both my Windows 7 machine here and my XP laptop that is used for work both systems seemed to become less stable. I never could pin the blame for certain on Window-Eyes though, since a ZoomText update came out around the same time and I had another suspect program running on my system, which is now history. They’re always messing with our machines at work so I won’t even try to figure out what was happening there.
Despite my complaints, I keep coming back to Window-Eyes. NVDA actually does some things better, particularly regarding web browsing, but there are other things it just can’t do. My flirtation with System Access lasted just a few hours since it wouldn’t work with Firefox. I used JAWS at work a few years ago and came to hate it, in part because of the lack of support from Freedom Scientific and in part because it required too much effort to adapt to new applications. I will give credit where credit is due however. The latest version has oCR capability on the screen, which should make applications that don’t follow standards accessible in some cases. This is an overdue innovation, probably delayed in part because you need a good fast machine to pull it off without unacceptable lag. I hope that pattent issues won’t keep GW Micro from including a similar feature in the future.
I’m sure I will have more to say after a few days with the latest release. I’m going to load it up at work also and see how things go. Stay tuned.
Ok, sorry everyone else. Today’s musings are once again related to access technology. Maybe at least that much of the blog needs to be redirected and promoted to the people it would serve best.
A couple of weekends ago I spent another day with the latest release of NVDA. Version 2011.2 finally reads Outlook 2010, and since I liked its handling of web pages in Firefox so much the first time I tried it, I decided to try it again. I was seriously considering that NVDA might replace Window-Eyes as my primary screen reader. As it turned out, the only reason I finally abandoned the idea was that NVDA still had too much trouble with some controls. Quicken was unusable, which is more Intuit’s fault than the screen readers’. Also there’s still nothing that beats the speed and responsiveness of Eloquence for speech synthesis. I purchased Ivona SAPI voices to try with NVDA, and they are the best I’ve used for speed and clarity, but they can’t match Eloquence for going really fast and still being reasonably understandable. NV Access, the non-profit behind NVDA, is looking at a deal to package NVDA with Eloquence for a reasonable price. That would definitely be a winner for people looking for speed above all. The free speech synthesizer that comes with NVDA is serviceable but worth about what it costs.
My near switch got me to thinking. The big players in the screen reader market need to rethink their approach. There will always be a need for what they do. There will always be specialized applications for which we require a powerful screen reader that can be scripted to read exactly what we need. I could not use NVDA effectively at work because I need the ability to script how text is read to me in our mainframe application. In the ISPF editor everything has line numbers and they are integral to the way one works with code. However, they really slow down reading. I need the ability to cut those line numbers out of what gets read to me. In the case of the application we use, that’s more complicated than it should be. Simple windowing should work, but QWS doesn’t reliably position things in the off-screen model even though they appear to be in the same place visually. So, I built a script to analyze each line as I move to it and excise the line number from what is read back to me. I have a toggle key so that I can hear line numbers if I want to. NVDA might become that powerful, but it’s not there yet.
I follow a JAWS user who constantly gripes about the problems he has with basic tasks. I do my own share of griping about Window-Eyes. Though I still believe Window-Eyes is the better of the two, I think they both have fallen into the same trap. They have sacrificed basic usability in favor of advanced feature sets. If the screen reader doesn’t work, it’s no good. I’m writing this blog entry in a text editor because with the release of Internet Explorer 9 Live Writer doesn’t read properly anymore and none of the various ways I can publish from Firefox directly has worked very well for several releases of Window-Eyes. To be fair, whatever Microsoft did broke NVDA too, so I can’t blame the live Writer thing on Window-Eyes. NVDA also has a little trouble now with Firefox that it didn’t have the first time I tried it. That’s probably due to the changes in Firefox. Keeping up with the latest technology has always been a problem for screen reader makers. Overall they do better than they ever have, due in part to greater awareness within the larger development community that blind people need access to their products.
The market is changing. Free NVDA is becoming a viable alternative for someone with basic computing needs. Windows 8′s Narrator will have new functionality that may give it enough power to be sufficient for many users. It appears from the elicit demo that I listened to that Microsoft took its cues from Voiceover on the Mac. The days of $600-900 screen readers being a necessary part of every blind user’s computing experience are numbered. Perhaps that is the reason for their focus on fancy feature sets. They are going to have to sell the product based on the things it can do that truly add value to the customer. Another company, Serotek, has taken this approach to a new level. System Access costs considerably less than the competition and offers additional services that blind users may find useful. I tried the program but gave up on it when it wouldn’t read menus in Firefox. I may hot have given it a fair shake, as I discovered later that Norton Antivirus was flagging it’s files as malicious and may have deleted necessary components.
I can see a day fast approaching when my home computing needs may not require the likes of Window-Eyes. I think GW Micro is a great company with a great product and a superior technical support staff, but the day may come when I simply don’t need to keep paying for upgrades. If I still need them for work I will still buy them, because our company approved screen reader is JAWS. I do not like JAWS and I do not like Freedom Scientific, the company behind it.
I have always said that the screen reader should just work. That has been one of the strengths of Window-Eyes throughout the years. The latest versions allow scripting and they do so using common languages instead of something proprietary, but the objective should be that no scripts are needed. Having said that, there is an advantage to adding functionality through scripting instead of in the base package. It allows the screen reader to be leaner. Users can add only what they need. If I’m the rare individual who doesn’t use word, I can remove the Word scripts and save memory. Window-Eyes just worked, and that’s why I stuck with it. I’m a programmer, but I’m paid to program for my company, not just to make my screen reader work like it should.
Lately that stellar reputation is getting smudged. Web pages are increasingly frustrating to work with. They constantly reload even though Window-Eyes is set not to do that. They constantly switch back into browse mode while I’m trying to edit. I have to remember to turn autoload off. The script that was supposed to fix that in Firefox only made browse mode even more unpredictable. NVDA appealed to me primarily for the one reason that it let me use Facebook’s standard home page without constantly reloading and making me lose my place. Discovering that It let me edit and even knew about new content though no reload was done. The fact that it also identified spelling errors everywhere and not just in Word was an added bonus. As I mentioned, editing wasn’t as smooth with the latest version of Firefox, but the latest version at the time was 5. I may try it with 6 and see if it works any better. My point is this. It just worked. A free program developed by one guy in Australia did a better job at some tasks than a behemoth on which I have spent probably something close to $2000 including upgrades along the way. The big players will always have their niche, but if they want to hold onto the average user, they’ve got to do better on the basics.
We really do live in in an amazing time. Today I read an article by Jonah Goldberg on the National Review web site that pointed out how much better we live than we used to and how inexpensively. That’s not to deny the economic trouble that is upon us and bound to worsen, but it helps to have some perspective. We have it good.
I was just thinking about this from the perspective of someone who is blind. I’m sitting in front of a computer that is reading the words I type and magnifying them to somewhere around twenty times so that I can see them too. While the system doesn’t always run smoothly, it is amazing that I can sit here and type at full speed while it tracks right along with me. Sitting to my left is the laptop I use for work, outfitted with the same software combo. It’s not a perfect world. The reason I’m writing to you at this moment is that they’ve pushed some kind of install that has kept the laptop tied up all morning, but a mere twenty-five years ago what I am doing now would be near impossible. There were things out there, but they cost as much as a small car and few of us could acquire them. Beside that is a CCTV magnifier that allows me to put printed material or anything else that will fit under it for a highly magnified view. Those unfortunately haven’t come down very much in price.
Now I don’t even need to go to the office, but if I do, the bus will automatically announce the streets as it takes me to the train station. The train will do the same for all the stops. I take along with me a cell phone that keeps me in touch online and reads everything out just like the computers do. That is possible because the thing has its own computer that has exponentially more powerful than the first PC I used back in ’88. I can use the phone or my dedicated digital audio book player (a Victor Reader Stream from HumanWare) to access all kinds of reading material. We wouldn’t call these items cheap, but I don’t currently know anyone who needs them who hasn’t managed to get one, though admittedly this is often with help from the government. Though I will not deny that government has played a role in advancing the availability of some of this technology, knowing how intervention distorts markets makes me wonder what amazing things we would be seeing if assistive technology companies couldn’t rely on state contracts to keep prices high and had to design and build directly for the consumer. That’s another topic for another time.
Now we’re beginning to see things I doubt many of us thought would happen. I don’t know which is more exciting, the advent of functional open-source free software for the blind, or the inclusion of accessibility in mainstream products made for the general public. I’ll tackle the latter first, since I don’t yet have any personal experience with it. Whatever you think of Apple, the fact that fully functional accessibility features are now integrated with all of their major offerings from the IPod Touch to the Power Mac is an industry first. If I were going to buy my first PC today, it would probably be a Mac. They cost more, but if I bought a PC with add-on software I would have to spend an absolute minimum of $300 extra. That as I recall is the low-end price for the least expensive commercial screen reader on the market and I’m thinking I’m short $100. That more than offsets the extra cost of the Mac. It’s likely that I would have to spend considerably more to get what I really need, amounting to the cost of the PC plus a Mac. I almost bought one when I went shopping for a new PC earlier this year. The only reason I backed out was the investment of time and money I already have in PC based software.
I can’t say that without pointing out one thing. I don’t have any specific information on this, but I do wonder if Microsoft’s tepid attempt at a screen reader doesn’t have at least something to do with the opposition it encounters when it is perceived as running other companies out of the market. Though I’ve been a fan of GW Micro and Window-Eyes for years and would hate to see them suffer the upheaval of having to find other markets, that’s economic reality. I can’t help thinking that if MS is willing and felt free to do so they could build a complete screen reader solution that would work better than anything we have today since they know the platform.
Of course, I could go with a free screen reader. Yes, there is such a thing. It’s called NVDA, and I’ve been trying it out on some other computers. It lands somewhere between Windows Narrator and a commercial solution, but initial tests are encouraging. So far I have only used it to do some light web browsing and word processing, but it has done a good job with Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word 2003. It is supposed to work with Open Office, something Window-Eyes can’t do. I have not verified this but I don’t think any of the commercial packages do. I haven’t given this a try yet.
NVDA did get me out of a jam. My wife’s new laptop runs Windows 7. We took it to church to run a DVD video for the class she is teaching, but it did not play as expected. Neither of us knew how to navigate out of the wrong video that was playing and get to the right one. I had already learned the hard way that Windows Media Player will not show protected video with Window-Eyes (or JAWS for that matter) running, but I needed speech. Having foreseen that this might happen, I had brought NVDA along on a USB flash drive. I quickly loaded it up and was able to find the navigation controls to get us back on track. It worked because NVDA does not hook into or disable features in the Windows Video subsystem. More time and testing will tell, but it looks like I could take this free screen reader to any PC that will allow software to run from a USB drive and have instant accessibility. If this proves out I will gladly donate to the project.
There’s other good news on the operating system front. If you go back a few posts in this blog you’ll find my first look at Vinux, a fully accessible installation of Linux. One common problem blind computer users face is that even if accessible solutions are available for their operating system of choice, there is no way to install the OS itself without help. Vinux addresses this problem by loading a fully functional copy of Linux from a CD. One then starts installation to the computer via a desktop icon, allowing the process to be spoken with the Orca screen reader. Since my original post a new Ubuntu based version has been released that addresses many of the problems I had with the older version. I have not had a lot of time to play with it, but so far I like what I’m seeing (and hearing.) Unless I just trashed it the other day trying to install MySQL, this version will be the platform from which I learn Linux and the tools I will need to set up a web server.
Accessibility is always a challenge. There are standards, and if all developers followed those standards then it would be easy to build solutions that allow the blind to use the same tools that everyone else is using. In the real world this doesn’t happen. That would not have to be a problem if any new elements or techniques were designed from the beginning with accessibility in mind, but most people are not aware of the problem. That or they think it will be too expensive or compromise their design to implement accessibility. That’s why there will always be room for add-on products that bridge the gap.
I recently encountered such a product, and amazingly it also is free, though donation is encouraged. I am still evaluating it and I’m not sure it isn’t causing some stability issues on my system, but with so many things running and updates constantly being applied it’s hard to tell. I think it’s a keeper. It’s a programmed with a name that makes you wonder what they were thinking. It’s called Qwitter. The site would probably tell me, but I’m guessing it’s a combo name for something like Quick Twitter. That would be a good way to describe it. My Twitter account exists primarily as a conduit for getting content to Facebook with the added benefit of exposure through another popular service. I always have Firefox open and use an add-on called Twitter Bar to quickly post status updates. My blog feeds Twitter which then feeds Facebook. That’s a bit redundant since FB picks up the blog anyway, but its RSS interface is not exactly timely, so the effect has been to spread notifications out over a few hours thus increasing the possibility that people will see it.
I follow a few people on Twitter using its RSS feature, but mostly I stick to Facebook. That may change now. For one, I hear there may be plans to add Facebook functions to Qwitter, but even without that this program is a uniquely effective way to handle real-time Twitter monitoring and participation for a screen reader user. It works directly with your screen reader of choice or you can use Windows’ SAPI speech interface. It relies on a collection of hotkeys much as your screen reader does and therefore can be used from anywhere. There is no need to switch to the window where it is running. It’s as close as you will get as a blind person to having a docked program on the screen like a sighted person might use for a similar purpose. It notifies you when new things come in and you then interact with it through the keyboard to read and respond to the posts. There are a lot of keystrokes to remember, but they are mostly tied by pneumonic to functions you’d expect. It can do just about anything with Twitter that you can do on the web site. The only exception I found was changing basic account information, which I suspect Twitter doesn’t provide API calls to do.
I would be remiss if I didn’t give credit to Rick Harmon of the Blind Geek Zone for turning me on to this program. Check out his site for all kinds of info on all things technological as a blind user.
All that is just to say we are blessed to be living here and now. I don’t know what the future holds. In fact if things go the way I think they might, a statement like that may not be so easy to make in a few years. That is unless Jesus’ return is immanent, which seems very likely though we cannot know for certain. For now, appreciate what you have. Find ways to share with those around you. This is a pretty amazing place, but nothing compared to that which awaits those who trust in Jesus. If you don’t yet have Jesus, all the cool toys aren’t going to be worth anything in the end. I’d be thrilled to talk to you more on that subject if you are interested.
Thanks to the folks that invited me to join as a friend on Facebook. I have to tell you though that it is a frustrating site for someone who uses a screen reader. I’m not sure I could have used it at all were it not for the little vision I have. As you’re signing up, it has drop-down lists that update as you go. You’re supposed to click one of the choices, but if you’re using a screen reader you don’t even know they are there. I don’t know if it is essential to click one of the choices, but it appeared that there was hidden info for each choice that you couldn’t enter if you couldn’t’ see the list. For example, I can type in Texas Tech, or Oak Park High School. In the first case it might have been an exact match and picked up Texas Tech in Lubbock, but what if I had typed Texas Tech University instead? Oak Park is listed simply as Oak Park High, not Oak Park High School, and there are several of them. Chances are my entry would not be matched appropriately at all unless I could see to click the list item that showed Kansas City as the location. Admittedly that wouldn’t matter a lot to me. It was a big place and I didn’t know how to make friends. A lot of people knew who I was because I could be seen in the halls with a cart full of the extra things I needed to help with class work, and a few were unfortunately run over by it. I didn’t know many people. I think I might remember one or two names. Then there’s the visual confirmation. I understand why they do that. In fact, I use it on the church’s site out of the same necessity. It keeps malicious people from running scripts that sign up multiple accounts and spamming everyone they can find. I have an audio confirmation link so that someone who is blind can get past the confirmation, and to their credit so do they, but I couldn’t understand it either. It too must be garbled to keep someone from employing voice recognition and getting through. On the second one I encountered I finally gave up after several misses on different phrases. To get around dealing with that, you can have your account confirmed with a text message sent to your cell phone. That’s great if you can see or can afford to shell out several hundred dollars for a phone that can talk. To top it all off, they don’t give you a confirmation password box, so if you mistype your password as I apparently did you will not know until the site refuses to let you back in. Maybe it was there and I missed it, but if so why did it let me in the first time? The reset screen has the confirmation, but the page’s underlying code is not designed in a screen reader friendly fashion, so again I resorted to magnification.
I went through with it though. Our church needs to get in touch with younger people. This is one of the ways people communicate now, so I’ll eventually get around to setting up a Myspace profile too. This just highlights the need for what we’re doing. This post is a bit plaintive, but the truth is the world doesn’t conform to our needs, and should not be required to. Though I am thankful for the help I get and know I couldn’t’ do without it, I am ultimately responsible for my life. That is true for all of us. Though I have indulged in a little complaining about a less than accessible web site, it’s up to me to deal with the world as it is. I can ask for changes, but I have no right to demand them.
What I can do is make the world a little better for someone else, and that’s what we’re trying to do. I’ve always been against creating enclaves of people with disabilities. We need to be out in the “real world” doing what we were meant to do. However, I see the need for a system of outreach and support that brings people to that place. There are numerous organizations that will meet physical needs, and that’s important. I expect we’ll do that and our church certainly does. Sadly lacking are churches seeking to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of people affected by disability. That has a physical component, in that we must go to them. Many cannot come to us. I have the same problem. I’ve been known to pick churches simply because I could get there. We have in mind a network of small churches in geographically convenient locations that can meet the needs of people like us. We must give out of what we have been given. We are blessed to be a blessing.