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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 July 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 4

In This Issue

Editor's Page

CSUN 2002

This Conference Report is a close-up view of the annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, hosted by the California State University at Northridge Center on Disability–Deborah Kendrick and Jay Leventhal

How Accessible Is Windows XP?

A follow-up to AccessWorld's overview of Windows XP, this Product Evaluation examines Microsoft's newest operating system in more detail–Joseph Lazzaro

Braille on Display: The ALVA Satellite Traveler and the Braille Star

This Product Evaluation compares two of the newest braille displays on the market, from Alva Access Group and Pulse Data HumanWare—Jim Denham

Networking at Lunch (Part 2)

This follow-up article on how to build a home computer network answers the questions: How do I select and install the hardware? and How do I share files and printers?–Jim Kutsch

Going to the Dogs Doesn't Mean a Life Without Computer Access

This article shows how dog guide schools are responding to consumers' need to access assistive technology while they are training–Deborah Kendrick

Assistive Technology Specialist Competencies

This article investigates why there are shortages of assistive technology trainers and what can be done about it–Anthony R. Candela



Editor in Chief Jay Leventhal
Contributing Editors Paul Schroeder, Senior Editor
Crista Earl
Deborah Kendrick
Mark Uslan
Executive Editor Sharon Shively

Editor's Page

June 21, 2002, marked the one-year anniversary of enactment of Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The law mandates that federal agencies must consider accessibility when purchasing software, computers, printers, copiers, fax machines, kiosks, telecommunications devices, or video and multimedia products. Federal web site designers also must create sites that are accessible to disabled users. The $45 billion spent by the government annually for technology products and services should serve as a huge incentive for companies to produce products that are more accessible. The General Services Administration supports a web site, <www.section508.gov>, that provides accessibility standards, as well as a database in which technology companies can provide information about their products.

Consumers may benefit from Section 508 by gaining increased access to government information of all types. And, we may also benefit because as more companies produce more accessible products for purchase by the federal government, those products will also be available to us. Many companies became aware of Section 508 in early 2001, and, since product development cycles often cover 18 to 24 months, we should find additional accessible products on the market throughout the coming year. And, as advocates, we still have a lot of work to do on the road to accessible cell phones, voting machines, kitchen appliances, public kiosks, and, of course, a myriad of web sites.

In this issue, Joe Lazzaro, of the Massachusetts Commission for the Blind and a freelance author, evaluates the speech-friendliness of Windows XP Professional. He covers basic Windows navigation, the Start Menu, Task Bar, Notification Area, Desktop, and burning CDs. He found that two of the most attractive features of Windows XP, the Remote Desktop utility that allows you to control remote computers over a network or the Internet, and Remote Assistance, which lets another person take control of your computer over a network or the Internet, were not accessible with speech. The bottom line is that there is no compelling reason to buy Windows XP, but it is already difficult to buy a computer without it.

Jim Denham, National Program Associate, Technology, at the American Foundation for the Blind, reviews two braille displays—ALVA's Satellite Traveler and Pulse Data/HumanWare's Braille Star. Several new braille displays have come on the market in recent months offering enhanced access to screen reader and Windows commands without returning your hands to the keyboard, and the ability to upload, store, and edit files. This article explains the new features to consider if you are in the market for a braille display, and reviews two of the newest products.

Dr. James A. Kutsch, Jr., Vice President of Technology for a global leader in outsourced customer service and billing, presents the second of a two-part series on building a home computer network. This time, his lunchtime discussion covers selecting and installing the hardware, and sharing files and peripherals, including printers.

Deborah Kendrick writes about assistive technology available at three schools to people training with new dog guides. She discusses her recent experience at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, and also describes what is available at The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey and Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York. She shows that you don't have to choose between your dog guide and your computer, even while you are in training.

In this issue's Trainer's Corner, Anthony R. Candela, National Program Associate, AFB, discusses the findings of a survey of assistive technology-related services at state and private agencies. He outlines the reasons for the current critical shortage of professionals who are qualified to provide specialized computer skills assessment and training. In response to this problem, the Assistive Technology Specialist Competencies Task Force, consisting of AT specialists and supervisors, university-based teacher trainers, and consumer representatives was formed. Input from trainers and consumers is welcome at <www.lwsb.org>.

Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief

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Conference Report

CSUN 2002

One of the limitations in selecting assistive technology products for people who are visually impaired has long been the difficulty in examining products. You cannot go to a local computer superstore and look at screen- magnification products, screen readers, or refreshable braille displays. Of course, that's why you read AccessWorld. But there's no substitute for actually seeing, hearing, or touching a product before you buy it.

For people who are visually impaired—or anyone who works in the field of assistive technology for visually impaired people—the most efficient way to encounter lots of new products in a short time is to attend a technology conference. The annual Technology and Persons with Disabilities conference, hosted by the California State University at Northridge Center on Disability, has become a pinnacle opportunity to see the newest and most innovative hardware and software available and to learn from others how to mix and match products and applications for the best solutions. From March 18 to March 23, over 4,000 people attended the 17th annual conference, now known throughout the industry simply as CSUN (pronounced C-SUN). Held at the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and Los Angeles Airport Hilton hotels, the conference included over 350 speakers, more than 150 product exhibits, and participants representing every state in the United States and its territories, as well as 37 other countries.

Products large and small, hardware and software, offered sometimes remarkable solutions to barriers presented by specific physical or mental disabilities. Product demonstrations featured a reading "pen" that scans and announces written words for people with learning disabilities, an on-screen sign language-translation program to boost literacy among deaf children, an environmental control system that enables a quadriplegic to control everything from the telephone or VCR to light switches and food preparation with as little as the intake of breath. There were exhibits of toys for children with limited physical movement that can be operated by a variety of simple switches, word processing programs that speak and highlight text for students with learning disabilities, and a wide array of "augmentative communications" devices— electronic boxes with speech output for children and adults who are unable to speak for themselves.

The number of products, demonstrations, and breakout sessions relevant to visual impairment was so great that the AccessWorld staff literally had to scramble to take in as much as possible. Some of the new products represented were a cell phone from the Netherlands that has a small PDA keyboard and speech output for all data that are stored, text messages received, and more; a Linux-based braille note taker from Papenmeier in Germany with web browsing and MP3 capabilities; and some exciting new looks for tactile graphics. Upgrades to the Freedom Scientific and Pulse Data/HumanWare note takers were demonstrated, as were a wide array of video magnifiers, including one that was shown on prime-time television when a grandfather was able to see his grandson win a gold medal at the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Sessions ranged from beginner to advanced levels and offered demonstrations, training, and techniques.

CSUN organizers have done a remarkable job of covering all the bases in terms of accessibility. There are interpreters, listening devices, and captioning for people who are deaf or hard of hearing; accessibility for mobility impaired participants in both hotels; and wheelchair- equipped, lift-equipped shuttles running between hotels. For people who are visually impaired, all the program materials are provided in the media of choice. The braille was particularly impressive. Each day of the program schedule is provided in a separately bound volume, and considerable care has been taken to use headings, page breaks, and other formatting considerations in ways that facilitate the rapid location of needed information. Braille readers were also provided with a booklet of tactile maps, including one of each hotel and of all the major meeting areas within each hotel.

The CSUN conference began in 1985. In the beginning, it was held on the Northridge campus and drew only a few hundred people, according to Jodi Johnson, associate director of the conference at the California State University Northridge's Center on Disabilities. Today, the event is planned by a full-time staff of 4 and a part-time staff of 29 and involves a 16-month planning cycle. Although Johnson and other conference organizers feared that attendance might be down this year with more apprehension regarding travel, attendance was higher than ever, and there was a waiting list of exhibitors and presenters.

Space for exhibits and sessions was added this year, as were new approaches to sharing information. The most exciting change in 17 years, Johnson says, is probably the nature of sponsorship. "In the beginning," she says, "our sponsors were vendors in the assistive technology field." Today, sponsors are mainstream technology leaders—Hewlett-Packard, Compaq, Microsoft, and many others. "Looking at our sponsors," Johnson says, "it's clear that this issue is now recognized as part of the mainstream, considered by all companies as an important part of the overall picture."

Many of those mainstream corporate entities specifically targeted visually impaired consumers as customers. SAP, for instance, provided the backpacks given to all braille-reading participants to contain the braille materials; not only were these sturdy backpacks emblazoned with SAP's company logo, but embossed braille characters reading "CSUN 2002" had been added to the back pockets. In other words, the business of potential customers who are visually impaired is being taken more seriously as real business by entities beyond the assistive technology industry.

Keynote Address

Gregg C. Vanderheiden, founder and director of the Trace Research and Development Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was this year's keynote speaker. Vanderheiden is a professor in the Industrial Engineering Department (Human Factors Program) and Biomedical Engineering Department. He is also the principal investigator of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research Center on Information Technology Access and a coprincipal investigator for the center on telecommunications access. In addition, he is the lead investigator for the National Computational Science Alliance's efforts focused on universal design of computation science and web infrastructure technologies.

The theme of Vanderheiden's address was that we must think beyond what is possible technologically today. Vanderheiden listed ongoing research projects and the possible products they could produce, including a $10 text-to-speech chip from Windbond; a jacket with a built-in cell phone from Philips; a robot from Honda that walks stairs, which someday could become a personal aide; and web servers the size of a pea, which in the future, when they are attached to everything in your house, may allow you to search for your lost socks on the web. Vanderheiden closed by challenging attendees to "think about things in different ways; don't just re-create what was. Why stop with human abilities when we can make new ones?"

Bob Regan, product manager for accessibility at Macromedia, described the company's efforts to make Flash accessible. Flash is an application that allows you to view animation and interactive multimedia presentations with your browser. Macromedia's web site claims that "Independent surveys show that over 98.3% of web users already have Macromedia Flash Player installed." Flash has previously been totally inaccessible. Macromedia has used Microsoft Active Accessibility to make information about text buttons and movie clips available to GW Micro's screen reader Window-Eyes. As a result, it is possible, using one screen reader, to tab through a Flash presentation and identify and select buttons to hear information about the presentation. A lot more work is needed before all screen-reader users will be able to get anywhere near as much information from a Flash animation as a sighted person gets, though.

SAP is a large, Germany-based company that produces business applications used by corporations, including IBM and Coca-Cola, for such functions as payroll and bookkeeping. Dena Shumila and Audrey Weinland, of SAP Labs' Accessibility Competence Center, based in Palo Alto, California, described their company's efforts to comply with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act, which requires software purchased by the U.S. government to be accessible. SAP staff used IBM's Home Page Reader to test their HTML-based software. They chose to focus on web-based applications first, rather than on SAP software written in Java or Windows, since, like other companies, SAP is migrating its software to the web. Accessibility testing is conducted inside SAP and with customers. Staff of the Accessibility Competence Center also spread the word about accessible software design to developers throughout the company.

Blackboard, Inc., is a Washington, DC-based manufacturer of software that is used by many universities as a platform for online course materials. Instructors use the tools provided to create web sites for their courses for managing collaboration and communication, file sharing, and discussion boards. Greg Ritter of Blackboard discussed his company's accessibility efforts. Blackboard software contains nonstandard Windows controls, such as buttons. Designers were trained in the Web Accessibility Initiative guidelines. The current version 5.5 was audited for accessibility, and the next release will include appropriate Alt tags for images and meaningful titles for frames.

E Description

Rick Ely, project manager at the National Center for Accessible Media, reported on his evaluation of a new audio description method that will give blind children additional description to enhance their understanding of visual information. Typically, an educational documentary affords little time to insert audio description. With E Description, the pauses in multimedia material can be extended to allow sufficient time to insert audio description. The extended pauses allow for rich, informative text to be placed in videos.

CSUN 2003 will take place in the same venues, the Los Angeles Airport Marriott and Hilton hotels, on March 17–22. If your budget and schedule allow you to go to only one technology-related event per year, this would be the one to try.

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Product Evaluation

How Accessible Is Windows XP?

Windows XP is the latest operating system from Microsoft Corporation, having been on the market since October 2001. If you purchase a new computer, it will come loaded with XP. In March, AccessWorld took a brief look at XP, but now it is time to examine this newest operating system in more detail.

Windows XP comes in two basic flavors: XP Home and XP Professional. This article evaluates XP Professional (hereafter XP Pro), which allows you to log on to both peer-to-peer and client-server networks and has increased security, letting you encrypt your files and folders. Microsoft touted Windows XP as the most accessible version of any of its operating systems to date. I found that, in general, XP Pro is about as usable as previous Windows versions. There are plenty of minor and serious inaccessibility issues that definitely need fixing, and you have to do a lot of configuring to make it work properly with a screen reader.

Since JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes are the two most popular Windows- based screen readers on the market, it is only logical that I chose to review XP using both these packages. But this review should not be confused with a review of JAWS for Windows or Window-Eyes. I am also not comparing JAWS for Windows to Window- Eyes in this review. Moreover, because Windows XP is such a large and comprehensive operating system, it is impossible to evaluate every feature in the space allotted. This review attempts to cover the features that typical users are likely to use in their daily interactions with their computers. These features include basic Windows navigation, the Start Menu, Task Bar, Notification Area, Desktop, menus, burning CDs, and how robust XP is in general using speech output.

One important point must be emphasized first: To use any version of the Windows operating system with any screen reader, including XP, you must have some basic troubleshooting skills because none of the many flavors of the Windows operating system is yet fully compatible with adaptive technology. Microsoft tried to address the problem with Active Accessibility (MSAA.) But MSAA is simply not robust enough to close all the accessibility holes and is not universally supported by the adaptive vendor community.


I tested Windows XP Pro on a Dell computer equipped with an 800 MHZ processor, 256 MB of RAM, and a 40 gB hard drive. The Creative Labs Sound Blaster PCI sound card was also used for this review.

In general, I was able to perform many functional tasks with XP, but there were some glaring disappointments. I was able to navigate easily through the Start Menu, Task Bar, Notification Area, and Desktop, all of which seem to work much as they did before with some differences that I will explain later. I could easily locate programs using the Start Menu, launch them, and switch among them using keyboard shortcuts. A lot of things work just like they did before, but I was particularly discouraged by the lack of accessibility for some new features found in XP, such as Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance. Remote Desktop is a utility that allows you to connect to and control remote computers over a network or the Internet, and it just doesn't work yet with screen readers. Remote Assistance, which lets another person take control of your computer over a network or the Internet, also does not work with screen readers yet. I find it troubling that Microsoft has failed to make these important parts of XP accessible for users who are visually impaired, even after all the work that the disability community has done to educate the software giant.

Start Me Up

As is the case with previous versions of Windows, the Start Menu is the main menu of the XP operating system. The Start Menu has the same basic functionality under XP in that it is the menu that points to all your installed software and documents. The Start Menu under XP still performs the same function as it does in previous versions of Windows, and the hot key to activate the menu is still Control-Escape, but its appearance has been slightly altered. The main difference is that the Start Menu comes up in two columns when popped up with the Control-Escape key sequence. The left column shows you your most frequently used programs, and the right column is a complete list of all your installed applications and documents, just like the old familiar Start Menu.

Furthermore, the left column of the Start Menu has two discrete areas. The upper portion represents applications that are pinned to the Start Menu, similar to shortcuts on the Desktop. But instead of filling up your Desktop, they appear on the Start Menu in a list. The lower portion of the left column is a list of your most recently used programs. The default number of programs that this list contains is six, but this number can be modified. When navigating the Start menu, you can arrow down the left column and then automatically wrap to the top of the right column.

While I found this difference in functionality a bit confusing at first, I was able to adjust to it fairly quickly. But if you prefer the more traditional appearance, you can change back to the classic look under Start menu Properties. Doing so changes the appearance of XP to resemble Windows 9X.

Getting Down to Tasks

The Task Bar has long been an important object under the Windows operating system, and shows you the list of currently running programs. You can move through the Task Bar by using any arrow key. Arrows move you in the direction they're marked and move by one program at a time. Repeated strikes of any arrow key will eventually wrap back to your starting point. I was initially confused by this behavior, since arrowing on the Task Bar did not wrap in Windows 98, but I adjusted to the new scheme.

Same Old Desktop

The Desktop is still an object under Windows XP and is a list of programs and documents that you can launch. This has never been a user-friendly part of Windows because this list is not orderly. The Desktop does not behave like a list box that you can navigate by using your up and down arrow keys, similar to the Start Menu. Instead, you have to hunt around, using left, right, up, or down arrow keys, to move from one object to another. The Desktop appears only if you have set the view to the Windows Classic style. The Desktop is certainly way overdue for an overhaul!

System Tray

The Windows System Tray is now called the Notification Area, and this is a list of programs that are running in the background, similar to previous versions of Windows. Programs running in the Notification Area do not show up as icons in the Task Bar. You navigate to the Notification Area by using the Tab key. The Tab order sequence takes you from the Start Menu to the Task Bar to the Notification Area and finally to the Desktop. There are hotkey commands in JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes that take you directly to the Notification Area. Windows XP also uses pop-up programs in the Notification Area to alert you of tasks that need to be performed, such as when files are waiting to be written to the CD drive, if you have MSN Instant Messenger messages waiting, or if you haven't yet activated your copy of Windows with Microsoft. I finally was able to turn off these pop-up Notifications, but there doesn't seem to be a way to do so across the board.

Command Prompt and DOS Applications

Windows XP has a command line interpreter that lets you perform many familiar DOS-style commands. The command prompt lets you copy, delete, rename, and perform batch operations on files, similar to DOS mode under 9X or Windows Millennium. Keep in Mind that XP is similar to Windows NT in its lack of support for DOS programs and does not have a DOS box that can run most software. I found that using the command line was powerful and familiar, and it operated just like previous versions of Windows. You can, however, trick XP into running some legacy DOS programs by running the Command.com file stored in the Windows/System32 directory. I used the Run command off the Start menu to run the c:\windows\system32\command.com file. I was able to run Vocal-Eyes using a DECtalk Express synthesizer connected to a com port. I was also able to run WordPerfect 5.1 using this method. But you should be cautioned that these DOS applications are not supported or even widely publicized.

Writing CD-ROM Disks

Windows XP includes software that lets you burn your own CD-ROM disks, and this is one of my favorite features. You can use this software to backup important data files and for burning general-use CD-ROM disks. I found this feature easy to use using a screen reader. All you have to do is open up the directory with the files you want to burn, highlight the target files, open up My Computer, arrow down to the CD-ROM drive icon, and then paste the contents of the clipboard. The last step is to click on the File menu, and arrow down to "write files to CD." It's simple, easy to use, and speaks properly.

Last Words

In summary, Windows XP does not break any new ground in terms of accessibility. The installation process is not fully accessible for visually impaired people, and the system must be configured properly to speak correctly. The fact that my wife, Cindy, is a Microsoft-certified engineer instructor and was able to answer my many questions about XP provided a lot of valuable help. I found that I had to switch the XP look back to the Classic style to make it speak correctly and had to make lots of changes that were not well documented.

I found XP somewhat of a disappointment because many of the new and tasty features like Remote Desktop and Remote Assistance are not yet accessible. All in all, Windows XP is usable with a screen reader, but leaves you longing for something a bit better.

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Product Evaluation

Braille on Display: The ALVA Satellite Traveler and the Braille Star

This article evaluates the features of two of the newest braille displays on the market. Though the functionality of these displays varies, depending on which Windows-based screen reader is driving the displays, the features of the displays are separate.

In the early 1980s, Telesensory Corporation's VersaBraille was the first product to use a refreshable braille display. The text on the display was changed by raising and lowering different combinations of pins electronically to produce in braille what appeared on a portion of the screen. Since then, refreshable braille displays have increased dramatically in features and functionality. However, the cost of braille technology has remained extremely high—about $70 per braille cell. Recently, several new displays have come on the market that offer a variety of attractive features.

Displays typically have a variety of keys for navigating around the information on the screen, and some displays have a great many more keys than others. A braille display, like a speech synthesizer, requires software to run. In Windows, it is the screen reader that provides the interface between the braille display and the computer applications you need to use.

Because the screen reader presents information that appears on the screen and determines the relationship among items, the manufacturer of the screen reader is responsible for providing the programming that allows a braille display to handle navigation. This interplay between the braille display and the screen-reader software makes it difficult to sort out the unavoidable access problems that come up while using a display. It is usually unclear whether a different screen reader or another braille display would work better or if the quirk is an intrinsic characteristic of braille.

Testing was done on a Sony Vaio Pentium III 866 MHZ with 128 MB RAM, Windows 2000, and JAWS for Windows, as well as on a Pentium II 233 machine with 64 MB RAM, Windows 98 SE, and both JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes.

Braille Star 40

The Braille Star 40 is the newest refreshable braille display from Handy Tech and Pulse Data International. Although it is manufactured by Handy Tech, it was jointly developed by both of these companies and is sold and supported in the United States by Pulse Data HumanWare. The Braille Star 40 is a powerful refreshable braille display that also contains a fully functioning editor and file system. These features allow you to create, edit, and read files when Braille Star is not connected to a computer.

At First Look

One of the first things that catches your attention when you examine the Braille Star 40 for the first time is the detachable, laptop-sized QWERTY-style keyboard that sits on top of the unit. This keyboard can be used either to enter text in the editor or to control your PC. In front of the keyboard is a concave area containing 40 braille cells and 40 cursor-routing keys. This concave setup places the braille cells on a unique angle for reading. At both ends of the line of braille cells, Handy Tech has placed a rocker-type control. These controls are known as triple-action keys. Each of these controls can be pressed at the top, in the center, or at the bottom. Pressing in each area performs a different action. Ten thumb key-style controls are located at the front edge of the product. These controls represent eight braille input keys and two spacebars. The product connects to a computer using either a USB or a serial port. The back panel contains both these ports, as well as a switch for controlling which port is currently active. For laptop users, the minikeyboard can be detached and the top panel can be slid back, creating an extended shelf. Although this procedure is well described in the manual, we found the process difficult to perform when we evaluated the product.

Using the Braille Star 40 as a Display

The Braille Star 40 is supported by Jaws for Windows and Window-Eyes, both of which take full advantage of Braille Star's array of features and controls. The triple-action keys, for example, are used by both packages to move up or down one line. Scrolling within a line is accomplished by using either the left or right spacebar. Although most of these key combinations worked well, we found a few of them to be less than intuitive. In JAWS for Windows, for example, pressing the middle of the left triple-action key and pressing down on the right triple-action key is the command to simulate an ALT Tab. Pressing the middle of the left triple-action key and pressing up on the right triple-action key simulates a Delete key. When we evaluated the product, more than one item was accidentally deleted when we tried to switch between applications. While in display mode, the braille input keys on the front of the Braille Star are used to toggle many popular screen-reader functions, such as the grade of braille being displayed. It is important to note that these braille input keys can be used only to input text to the Braille Star's internal editor. They cannot be used to braille text directly into the word processor on your PC.


Text can be entered in the Braille Star's editor using either the mini-QWERTY keyboard or the braille input keys on the front of the unit. While evaluating the product, we found that the angle and texture of the braille input keys made it uncomfortable to enter braille for an extended period. Regardless of how you enter text, you have Braille Star's editor at your disposal. This is a fully functioning editor with a variety of features, such as cut and copy, insert or overtype modes, and the ability to set up to 10 bookmarks per file.

Files can be sent between the Braille Star 40 and a PC using a supplied communications program. These files can be either text files or Grade 2 braille files, such as web-braille books. The Braille Star 40 has four megabytes of available memory for storing such files. Once a file is stored, it can be viewed, opened for editing, or deleted. The Braille Star does not give you the ability to rename files or to organize them in any type of directory structure.

The Braille Star 40 does not have any type of braille-translation capabilities. That is, files are stored and transmitted exactly as they are entered. So, if you use the braille input keys to compose a document and transmit that document to your PC, you will have a document in Grade 2 braille on your computer. Or if you send a text file to the Braille Star, you will have to read that document in computer braille.

Menu System

While in editor mode, the Braille Star offers an extensive menu system. These menus can be used to save and retrieve files, check the status of the device, change numerous options, and load different braille tables. Braille Star uses braille tables to decide which dots should make up each braille character for menus and messages. This feature comes in handy when you are working with multiple languages.

The Braille Star 40 is powered by four user-replaceable rechargeable batteries. According to the manual, when fully charged, these batteries should last for approximately 20 hours of use. The batteries can be fully recharged in approximately 3 hours, and the Braille Star is fully operational while charging. The status menu contains several items that give current information on the batteries. This information is, however, in a submenu of the status menu entitled ACCU. It is unclear what ACCU stands for, but placing this information under this heading may be confusing for a new user of the product.

ALVA Satellite

The ALVA Satellite series is not a newcomer to the braille display market. These versatile displays have been around for a number of years. What is new, however, is ALVA's new Traveler. This 44-cell display is the newest product in the satellite series and can run exclusively on USB power. Thus, no batteries or power cord are necessary when using the display as a USB device. When connected to a computer via a serial port, an external power supply can be used to power the Traveler. This loss of on-board batteries significantly reduces the weight of the unit. This lighter-weight sibling still has all the features of the other products in the satellite series. These features include two rows of cursor-routing keys, two sets of six keys for controlling Windows and screen-reader functions, six front-panel keys for scrolling the display, and a menu system for changing numerous aspects of the display. All this in an ergonomically designed case.

Two Rows of Cursor Routing Keys

One unique feature of the ALVA Satellite is its two rows of cursor-routing keys. With most screen readers, the bottom row of keys serves as traditional cursor-routing keys. The top row of cursor routing keys, or Double Touch cursors, can serve a variety of functions, depending on which screen reader is driving the display. These keys can execute actions, such as a right mouse click on a single character, or announce additional information about a character, such as its attribute information—underline, bold, and so forth.

The Satellite also contains two six-key Satellite Keypads, positioned below and at either end of the line of braille cells. ALVA refers to these keypads as the Windows keypad and the screen-reader keypad. True to their names, they allow you to control Windows and basic screen-reader functions. While the screen reader decides which of these keys will do what, ALVA's menu system provides the ability to reverse these keypads. If your Windows keypad is located on the left keypad, for example, and you are left-handed and want to access the functions mapped to the screen-reader keypad quickly, you could easily reverse the role of these keypads to suit your needs.

What Is My Status?

Status cells are a feature of several new refreshable braille displays. They are a small number of cells that display information about what is being shown on the rest of the display. Status cells may, for example, indicate how much of the current line of text is being shown on the display or which cursor is currently active. The ALVA Satellite has three status cells. Using the internal menu system, the user has the option to have these status cells appear on the left or right side of the braille display line or have them not appear at all. When the status cells are active, they are separated from the rest of the display by a single empty braille cell. Screen-reader vendors not only take advantage of these status cells for displaying important information, they also make use of the cursor-routing keys above the status cells for performing additional functions.

Internal Menu

The ALVA Satellite has an internal menu system that allows you to change many aspects of the display. Through this menu, you can decide where or if the status cells will be positioned, rearrange the functions of the front panel controls, and even change the dot pressure of the braille cells. Setting a lighter braille-cell pressure makes the braille appear faded, whereas increasing this setting makes the dots appear sharper. The internal menu system also allows you to check the status of the display.

Connecting the Dots

Both these products offer a variety of features that make it convenient to use a braille display with a Windows-based screen reader. Their innovative controls and configurability give the braille user a wealth of options. The Braille Star contains features that make it more than a simple braille display. ALVA's menu options make the Satellite much more configurable. If you are in the market for a braille display, I would highly recommend taking a careful look at both of these products.

Manufacturers' Comments


"The ALVA Satellite braille display series was specifically designed to enhance the performance of a blind user working within a graphical user interface, such as any of the Microsoft Windows operating systems and Office suites. The combined features of the Double Touch Cursors, Satellite keypads, and front-panel navigation keys significantly improve efficiency for the user by reducing the amount of hand movement between the braille display and computer keyboard. Most recently, ALVA released a new set of hardware drivers, version 3.0, which not only made the ALVA Satellite braille displays compatible with Windows XP, but improved the overall performance and response of the braille display with a screen reader. In late summer 2002, a new edition to the Satellite series will be available in answer to those customers who desire an 80-character display. The ALVA Satellite 584 will have all the features of the popular ALVA Satellite 570 Pro, but in an extrawide profile. Finally, we are also expecting to release the first braille solution to the Macintosh in late summer 2002. Our objective is to provide a variety of choices within the ALVA Satellite series to satisfy the needs of both students and professionals who demand high-quality refreshable braille to access computers."

Pulse Data HumanWare

"Added to all the standard capabilities of an ergonomically designed braille terminal, Braille Star 40 continues functioning when it is unplugged from your computer. Go to a meeting, review or take notes, read a book on the bus, or move files between your computer and the Braille Star. An 80-cell Braille Star is expected in summer 2002."

Product Information

ALVA Satellite Traveler

Manufacturer: ALVA Access Group Inc., 436 14th Street, Suite 700, Oakland CA 94612; phone: 888-318-ALVA (2582); e-mail: <info@aagi.com>; web site: <www.aagi.com>. Price: $5,995.

Product Information

Braille Star 40

Manufacturer: Pulse Data HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle, Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393; web site: <www.humanware.com>. Price: $5,995.

Product Features

Braille Star 40

Number of braille cells: 40, Number of cursor routing keys: 40, Status cells: No, Internal menu system for controlling features: Yes, Direct control of Windows and applications: Yes, Audible status/error tones: Yes, Ports: USB and serial, Can physically support laptop: Yes.

ALVA Satellite Traveler

Number of braille cells: 44, Number of cursor routing keys: 88, Status cells: Yes, Internal menu system for controlling features: Yes, Direct control of Windows and applications: Yes, Audible status/error tones: Yes, Ports: USB and serial, Can physically support laptop: Yes, when the tray is extended.

Product Ratings

Braille Star 40

Braille quality: 4.5, Documentation: 3, Setup and configuration: 4, Hardware scrolling features: 4, Cursor routing keys: 4.5, Flexibility of features: 3.5, Portability: 4.5, Audible feedback: 4.5.

ALVA Satellite Traveler

Braille quality: 4.5, Documentation: 4.5, Setup and configuration: 5, Hardware scrolling features: 4.5, Cursor routing keys: 4.5, Flexibility of features: 4.5, Portability: 4, Audible feedback: 4.

The Product Evaluations in this issue contain ratings charts. The following are explanations of the ratings used in those charts.

  1. Little functionality; the device gives users little opportunity to function well
  2. Less than adequate functionality, with much room for improvement
  3. Good functionality but a definite need for improvement
  4. Very good functionality with minor improvements expected in the future
  5. Functionality equal to what a sighted person gets from an equivalent device

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Access Issues

Networking at Lunch (Part 2)

Editor's Note: In May, the author discussed the reasons for building a home network and defined the computer terms involved. Now, in Part 2, we listen in on two more lunchtime conversations. The first covers selecting and installing the hardware. The second concludes the series with sharing files and peripherals, such as printers.

Lunch 3: How Do I Select and Install the Hardware?

Before you select the hardware, it's important to analyze the physical environment. Will all the computers and the high-speed Internet connection be located near each other in the same room? Or will the network cover computers in multiple rooms, possibly on different floors in the home? If different rooms are to be connected via the network, how easily can a network cable be run between these locations without incurring the wrath of the home decorator in the family? Finally, how comfortable are you with pulling cables inside walls and through attics, basements, or crawl spaces?

Your answers to these questions will help you decide whether to use a wired or a wireless network. Wired network hardware is less expensive and runs at a higher speed, but wireless eliminates the drilling of holes and pulling wires from room to room. The best compromise is to use wired network components in the main location, where the Internet Service Provider (ISP) cable or DSL modem and at least one computer are located, and wireless for the connections to any computers located too far away from that room for easy connection by wire. Resist the temptation to stretch long runs of wire in the open where they become hazards that people can trip over. Remember, when a family member or household pet gets caught in exposed wire, not only can someone get hurt, but serious damage can be done to the computer at the end of that wire.

A combination router and switch is the best choice for the central point of your home network. It is available from a variety of manufacturers, both with and without a wireless access point included. For example, the Linksys EtherFast BEFSR4-1, a DSL/cable router with a four- port switch that supports both 10 and 100 Mbps speeds, is sold in most local computer stores for about $80. The Linksys EtherFast BEFW11S4, the same router/switch combination that also includes a wireless access point, is sold for about $180. If you want to read more about these products, check out the web site <www.linksys.com>. Netgear <www.netgear.com>, Belkin <www.belkin.com>, and DLink <www.dlink.com> offer similar units at similar prices. From personal experience, I know the Linksys unit is easy to install and configure. Also, all the status and configuration screens are presented as web pages via your browser, which are fully accessible with a screen reader. From here on, I'll be describing details specific to installing and configuring the Linksys router. The setup of other manufacturers' routers would be similar, but not exactly the same in every detail.

Getting the NIC Knack

As we discussed in our first lunch, each computer will need a network interface card (NIC). Many computers come with a preinstalled NIC. But, if not, any 10/100 MBps NIC will do fine. Remember to select a wireless NIC for any computer that will be located out of your main area. Some router manufacturers even offer routers that connect to a laptop or desktop computer via the USB port. So, if you selected one of these routers, you don't even have to install a NIC.

The router is connected to the computers not using wireless NICs and to the DSL or cable modem by CAT-5 network cables. CAT-5 cables are "category 5" cables that are suited to carry the high-speed data signals without suffering from any interference from electrical devices in the area. They have RJ-45 male connectors that look like slightly oversized modular telephone plugs on both ends and come in a variety of lengths. The 6- or 14-foot lengths are usually adequate for the connections from the router to the computer and modem. If you decide to build a wired network to other rooms, CAT-5 cables are also available in 50- and 100-foot lengths. The connectors have a plastic cover, so the cable can be pulled through walls or attics without being damaged.

For the adventurous, large spools of CAT-5 cable without connectors are also available. The cable without connectors on the ends is easier to pull through walls and can be cut to any length, but requires that you buy the connectors and a crimping tool to complete the job. Since the individual wires in the cable are color coded and must be crimped to the appropriate pin in the connector, this option requires assistance from a sighted person.

The DSL or cable modem must be an external modem, not one installed in your computer. Furthermore, it must be one that offers an RJ-45 CAT-5 connection, not a USB connection. Be sure to specify this requirement when you order DSL or cable modem service. If you already have an internal modem or USB-connected modem, you will have to call your ISP and request that it be replaced. In most cases, your ISP will not install the DSL or cable modem to a home network. Ask the ISP to install it to your primary computer via the NIC in that computer. Then, after the installer leaves, disconnect the modem's CAT-5 cable from the computer's NIC and plug it into the WAN (wide area network) port in the router. Use another CAT-5 cable to connect the computer's NIC to one of the LAN (local area network) ports in the router.

Getting Online

Now the router needs to be configured to access the Internet via the DSL or cable modem. DSL and cable modems must authenticate with the ISP to prevent unauthorized connections. In some cases, they do so by entering a host and domain name or with a log-on and password. If your service requires this kind of login, you must enter the authentication information in the router. Some cable modems look at the MAC (media access control) address of the NIC to which the cable modem is connected. A MAC address is a unique identification on every NIC. By checking the MAC address of your computer's NIC, the cable modem can ensure that it hasn't been stolen and installed elsewhere in the ISP's service area.

Since your cable modem will be connected to the router instead of your computer, it will see the MAC address of the router. Here, you have two choices: You can call your ISP and ask the ISP to change your authorization to the MAC address of the router, or you can change the MAC address of the router to be the same as the NIC in your computer where the cable modem service was installed. The Linksys router has a great feature called "mac address cloning" that allows you to set the router's WAN-side MAC address to anything you want. Changing the router's MAC address is a better choice, since it will allow you to connect the cable modem directly to your computer in the future if you need to troubleshoot a connection problem. Later, we'll discuss where you can find the MAC address of the NIC in your computer. After you obtain this address, you can tell the router to use it for the cable modem port.

In any case, to configure the router, you must connect to it via your browser. But, first I have to digress into IP addressing for your network. Most DSL or cable modem services offer a dynamic IP address to the computer. Remember the discussion of IP addresses and DHCP (dynamic host configuration protocol) from our previous lunch? When a DSL or cable modem is connected directly to your computer, the ISP's DHCP server provides an IP address to your computer when you boot your system. DHCP client software on your computer actually requests to lease an IP address from the ISP network. With the router installed, your computer still needs to lease an IP address, but it needs to get one on your home network, rather than on your ISP's network. In addition, the router still needs to be assigned an IP address on the ISP network. Remember, a router is the bridge between two networks with different IP addressing on each. So, the Linksys router serves both functions. It acts as a DHCP client on your ISP's network, requesting and being issued an IP address in the ISP's address space. It also acts as a DHCP server on your home network, responding to your computer's request for an IP address by leasing one from a pool of IP addresses in your home network's address space. All this should work properly without any need to configure your computer if your cable modem service was working properly with your computer before you installed the router.

When you open your browser the first time after installing the router, you will not be able to find your normal Internet home page. After the connection attempt times out, enter the address where you would enter any other URL, such as www.afb.org. The IP address is the default address of the Linksys router. A security screen will appear, asking for login and password. There is no login, but the default password is "admin." After you enter the password, you will be on the router's main status page. From here, click on the "DHCP" link, then on "DHCP Clients Table." Here you will see a table of all the computers in your home network that have obtained IP addresses from the router. Along with the leased IP address, the MAC address of the system is shown. Carefully note this address and then go back to the router's main page. Now, select the "advanced" link and click on "Mac Addr Clone." On this page, enter the MAC addresses noted previously and click "apply." At this point, you should unplug the power from your router and cable modem for a couple of minutes or so and then power them back up and reboot your computer.

Now, your system should be working properly on the Internet through the router. Note that if you decided to register the MAC address of the router with your ISP, you can skip the cloning steps. If you decide to take this approach, you will need to provide the router's default WAN-side MAC address to your ISP. It can be found on the router's initial status page.

There are two other ways to find the MAC address of the NIC on your computer. For sighted users, it is usually printed on the NIC or on the box. Also, there are commands on the PC, such as "winipcfg" or "ipconfig," that will reveal the details of the network connection using your NIC. But they are different, depending on the version of Windows you are using, which is why I prefer to look up the MAC address in the router's DHCP clients table.

Additional computers can be added to your home network simply by connecting another CAT-5 cable from a LAN port on the router to the NIC of the computer. Note that all computers must be configured to "obtain an IP address automatically," that is, to request an address from the home network's DHCP service in the router. Wireless connections can be made by configuring a network name and encryption code in the wireless access point on the router and then configuring the computer's wireless NIC to use the same network name and encryption key.

As the final step in router configuration, it's always a good idea to change the administrative password from the factory default of "admin" to something known only by you. There's a link on the router's main page that can be selected to do so.

If you want to share the Internet connection only across multiple computers in your home, you can stop now. But if you want to share files and printers, stay with us for one more lunch.

Lunch 4: How Do I Share Files and Printers?

The true power of networking goes far beyond sharing a high-speed Internet connection. Once you have experienced shared printers and shared disk areas, it's difficult to imagine living without them. The specific details of these topics vary across Windows 95, Windows 98, Windows NT, Windows ME, Windows 2000, and Windows XP. Since we won't have time to cover all key strokes on each of the operating systems, we'll discuss the concepts and leave you to discover the specifics. Don't panic. By this time, you are becoming a network guru, having already successfully installed your home network. As a side note, one of the really nice things about networking is that the computers on the network do not have to be running the same version of Microsoft Windows. Your old system with Windows 95 can link up with the newest PC running Windows XP with no problem.

How to Communicate

First, back to some more basics. In addition to an IP address, a computer that will share any of its resources must be configured to do so. The "client for Microsoft Networking" must be installed through the network section of the control panel. Each of the computers in your home network should be assigned a unique name that's easy to remember and type. Names like "Jim," "Joan," "kitchen," or "office" all would be fine. Don't worry what these names sound like to outsiders. They will be known and used only by those who use computers in your home network. Besides the computer name, a work group name needs to be selected and set the same way on every PC in your network. Again, the various tabs under "network" on the control panel are used to add these names.

Finally, again under the network section on the control panel, you need to allow printer and file sharing. Note that most computers have this feature disabled by default. Without the added security provided by the firewall feature of the router, a PC that is directly connected to DSL or a cable modem service can become vulnerable to outside attack when these printer- or file-sharing features are enabled.

To set up remote access to a printer on a different computer, you use the "add printer" feature under printers. Assuming that the computers and work group have been named as discussed and printer sharing has been activated on the system that has the printer, there's not much more to do. Let's say the computer named "office" has a color printer and you want to print to it from the computer named "bedroom." On the bedroom system, go to install a new printer. Early in this process, you will be asked how the printer is connected. Choose network connection; then when asked, specify "office" as the computer to which the printer is actually attached. You may or may not be asked for the install disk that came with the printer, depending on the operating system being used and the specific printer model.

Once the printer has been installed as a remote printer on the bedroom system, it can be used there by any program just as if it was locally attached. However, as should be obvious, the office computer must be turned on for it to work. The same remote printer can be installed on all of the other computers in your network. Also, multiple remote printers can be set up. In my network, I have the black-and-white laser printer on my system, and my daughter has the color ink jet printer on hers. However, we both have the other printer installed as a remote printer. Thus, I can print on her printer when I need color, and she can print on mine when she wants a higher speed.

Sharing Shows You're Caring

Sharing files is even easier than sharing printers. Any directory on one computer can be made available to another computer on the network. The shared directory can be limited to read-only access or can be given full access for read, write, or delete. Or the level of access can be determined by a password entered on the remote computer. If a directory is shared, all the contents of that directory, including all subdirectories, will be shared. There are two parts to sharing. First, the security on the directory must be changed to allow sharing. You do so by highlighting the directory in Windows Explorer and modifying the items under the Sharing tab. Sharing can be found under the File pull-down menu or as a tab in the Properties dialog box, depending on the version of Windows. Here, you select the sharing level, choosing among full, read-only, password controlled, or no sharing. Then you enter the name that should be used on other computers when referring to this directory. The share name does not have to be the same as the directory name. For example, I share the "My Documents" directory simply as "docs" to make it easier to reference on the other systems. Note that if printer and file sharing have not been activated on your system via the control panel, "sharing" does not appear under Properties or the File pull-down menu.

Files in a shared directory can be accessed on other systems by using the computer name and share name in the path name. Earlier, I said my computer was named Jim and the My Documents folder was shared as docs. Therefore, my daughter can open the file "groceries.doc" by typing "\\Jim\docs\groceries.doc." While full paths to files on a PC start with the drive letter followed by a colon, remote file paths start with a double backslash, the remote computer's name, another backslash, and then the share name of the remote directory. This method of addressing remote files can be used anywhere that a file name can be specified. Windows Explorer can be used to open and peruse a remote directory, but I find just using the Run dialog box to be an easy shortcut to open a remote directory. For example, pressing the Windows key "r" for run, then entering "\\Jim\docs" will open the remote directory in Windows Explorer.

It is also possible to have a remote directory appear as a disk drive. For example, the docs directory on Jim could be drive letter J on another computer. Setting up this method of remote access is accomplished through the "map network drive" option in Windows Explorer or "My Network Places" on the Windows desktop. It's called "Network Neighborhood" on older versions of Windows. It's even possible to have the shared directory be mapped automatically every time you start your PC. My Network Places (or Network Neighborhood) is also an interesting place to investigate. There you can find what computers are on your network and what printers and directories they are sharing. Once you have started sharing directories, the possibilities are endless. Important documents and files on one computer can be copied to another as a backup. Programs that require large amounts of disk space can be installed on only one computer and run on the other computers. Special devices like a CD burner can be installed on only one system, and files from all systems can be copied to it over the network.

Before we end this last lunch, let's close with some more discussion of security concerns and how the router acts as a firewall. Through these lunch discussions, we've opened lots of doors into and out of your computers. Yes, there are great advantages to be gained from doing so, but there's always a risk/reward equation to consider. Wide-open, full-access shared directories are dangerous. Anyone on your network can enter a shared directory and hit Delete, either accidentally or intentionally. A remote delete is the same as a local delete; afterward, the file is still gone. Exercise care in deciding what should be shared and at what access level. Do not share your entire C drive. I recommend that everyone start small. Create a directory intended only for sharing. At first, do not put your only copy of an important file in the shared directory. Use read-only access control where it makes sense. My music library is a great example. It's fully available to the other computers on my network, but limited to read-only access so no accidents can happen.

The router is a good firewall, especially if you stay with factory defaults on port forwarding and DMZ Host definition. But, remember that if you change these defaults or temporarily remove the router and connect your computer directly to the DSL or cable modem after you allow file sharing, you are open to access worldwide via the Internet. In this case, a software firewall on your PC becomes essential.

This LAN Is Your LAN

There's still much more about networking that we haven't discussed. The different options under the TCP driver configuration in networking on the control panel is but one example. There's enough to discuss on that alone that it could form the entire topic of another lunch sometime in the future. But don't let concerns over security or what you don't know yet stop you from joining the network world. Just be aware. Most of all, think how much you will enjoy your home network while you are sitting on the back patio with your wireless network-connected laptop reading future issues of AccessWorld over the Internet.

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Access Issues

Going to the Dogs Doesn't Mean a Life Without Computer Access

When you depend on technology for personal or professional work and correspondence, traveling anywhere can add stress to your life. For those of us who use dog guides, time spent at a school training with a new guide once meant isolation from all the information access comforts of home. Not anymore!

I recently trained with a new dog at Guide Dogs for the Blind in San Rafael, California, and was pleasantly surprised by the forward strides made by the school to accommodate students who are visually impaired in ways that are far beyond the canine encounter. Guide Dogs for the Blind operates two campuses, one in San Rafael and another in Boring, Oregon. The accommodations described in this article are available at both facilities.

As with many dog guide schools, training takes place in San Rafael at two physical locations. In the dormitory, where students sleep and eat meals, time is spent taking in lectures on everything from grooming and feeding the new canines to the basic elements of working dogs onto escalators, through crowded city streets, and down country roads. Several hours of each day are also spent working out of the school's "downtown lounge," a building owned and operated by the school to which students are transported each morning and afternoon. Working directly from the lounge puts students in an area rife with guiding opportunities for dogs and humans— downtown traffic, shops, flower stands, and sidewalk cafés to work through and around in training routes. In the past, all additional time in either location was left to the students' preparedness and imagination. If you brought a book to read or sweater to knit, in other words, "down time" was spent productively. Otherwise, your option was to sit quietly or chat with classmates.

Down the Hall to the Computer Room

In our initial orientation to the dormitory, one immediate highlight was a quiet room whose braille signage reads simply Computer Room. Here, students find four complete workstations that are set up to meet the computing needs of most students with visual impairments.

Each workstation is equipped with ZoomText for screen magnification, and boots up "talking" with JAWS for Windows in Windows 98. The Start menu offers quick access to Microsoft Word, Excel, and Access, as well as to America Online software for students with AOL accounts, Instant Messenger, RealPlayer, Internet Explorer, and personal e-mail for every student. A high-speed DSL line ensures that whatever time is available for surfing the web or reading e-mail is used efficiently. One of the four computers is linked to a laser printer, and another is linked to an Index Basic braille embosser. (All the stations include Duxbury Braille Translation software.)

Finding Your Identity

To provide each student with personal e-mail while in training (from two to four weeks), the information technology staff of Guide Dogs for the Blind has used the Identities feature in Outlook Express. An "identity" has been assigned to each room in the dormitory. If your room number is 10b, for example, you select Outlook Express from the Start menu, arrow down to 10b, and find the familiar e-mail setup waiting to send and receive messages.

The Start menu also offers items of specific value to students in training: a list of downtown businesses with addresses and phone numbers, simple instructions for using equipment in the computer room and elsewhere at the school, and a few files of general interest to Guide Dog students. In the downtown lounge, a computer with an identical setup is located, without the attachment of printer or braille embosser. Students who choose to train at the school's Boring, Oregon, campus will find identical computer accommodations.

Meeting Every Reading Need

For students who have hard-copy print to read, the computer room also includes a Clarity closed- circuit television and a stand-alone Arkenstone reading machine. If you didn't bring anything to read, there's help for that, too.

A few doors down the hall is the one-room library, a quiet room lined with a remarkably eclectic assortment of books in braille, large print, and audiocassette. For the audio books (a generous assortment from both the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped, NLS, and commercially recorded titles), a table is filled with standard-issue NLS-provided Talking Book cassette players. This room includes another Clarity closed-circuit television (CCTV) and stand-alone Arkenstone reading machine for students to use.

Icing on the Cake

Most of us who are blind know the frustrating experience of being in a hotel for the first time and wondering which button is for Power on the television remote or wandering into the vending area in an unfamiliar office building and trusting to luck that the random button we press may deliver our soft drink of choice. Access is everywhere at Guide Dogs for the Blind. Phones in dormitory rooms have large buttons for easy identification by users with low vision and braille labels on auxiliary buttons for those who are totally blind. The bedside talking clock radios are conveniently labeled in braille, as are the entire video collection and oversized remote in the gathering area for students to relax in the evening. Snack machines, laundry equipment, and fitness machines all sport easy-to-read braille instructions and labels, too.

Listening to Consumers

The technology accommodations were the direct result of "exit interviews" conducted with students following training, says Aerial Gilbert, the director of volunteers at Guide Dogs, who advises the school's information technology department on access applications. A committee was formed, vendor demonstrations were conducted, and selections of equipment were made. The computers available to students are set up exactly like those used by the staff in all the campus offices, so that trouble-shooting and upgrades are relatively easy. Each January, new equipment is purchased and all existing software is upgraded. New features, Gilbert stated, are considered according to students' requests. As it stands, the model for accessibility at Guide Dogs for the Blind is one that could serve as an excellent model for both corporate and nonprofit environments everywhere.

Other Dog Guide Schools

Other dog guide schools are also recognizing "Forward" as more than a command given to a working dog. The Seeing Eye in Morristown, New Jersey, and Guiding Eyes for the Blind in Yorktown Heights, New York, have also made significant progress toward accommodating students with regard to technology.

Jeff Dunn, Guiding Eyes coordinator of technical support services, is a classic example of an enterprising person with a talent parlaying what began as volunteer work into a full-time paying job. As a student training with a dog at the school in 1991, he recognized the need for technology. In 1994, his efforts moved Guiding Eyes into position as the first dog guide school with a presence on the Internet. From there, Dunn began assisting the school with upgrading from a DOS environment of individual computers and lots of shared floppy disks into the world of Windows and a Local Area Network (LAN). The need for adaptive technology for students was recognized, too, and he worked to acquire and set up assistive technology systems.

"At first," he recalls, "we had two computers and a modem in the living room." Today, Dunn is responsible for keeping workstations in both the Yorktown Heights facility and its White Plains lounge in working order, setting up e-mail accounts for all students who request them, and heading up a web committee that keeps the school's web site up-to-date and accessible. Each of the school's two adaptive technology resource centers features three computers that are networked with all other computers used by staff. Each is equipped with JAWS for Windows and Window-eyes, ZoomText, three scanners, both Kurzweil 1000 and OPENBook OCR software, two laser printers, a braille embosser, braille displays, and one CCTV. All staff members have braille-production capabilities at their computers, and other workstations featuring adaptive technology are scattered through the training facility. For students who bring laptops or Internet-ready devices to school with them, high-speed Internet connectivity is available in every bedroom, and Dunn is available to assist with the setup.

At The Seeing Eye in Morristown, the Student Technology Center was opened in the fall of 1993. "While we do not offer instruction in computer or access technology," explains David Loux, "we are pleased to assist in meeting students' needs for the short time they are here in Morristown."

The Tech Center includes five work stations on a LAN, running on Windows 98SE and Windows 2000, respectively. Work stations are equipped with Window-Eyes, JAWS for Windows, and ZoomText. Also available are ALVA Satellite and PowerBraille braille displays, a laser printer, and a Juliet braille embosser. Students have high-speed Internet access in the Tech Center, but only dial-up capabilities in their individual rooms. Each student is provided with an e-mail account if requested, and assistance with setup is available. Atlas Speaks (a talking map program), Home Page Reader (a self-voicing browser), Kurzweil 1000, and OPENBook are additional software packages available for students to use or explore while in class.

Unique to The Seeing Eye is the presence of a cabinet in the Tech Center housing two Kenwood radios with voice chips. When a student requests access to the radios, the school confirms the status of the student's license and call sign via the web. At that point, the student is issued a key to the radio cabinet.

Other dog guide schools are in the process of establishing computer access centers for students while in training. The good news inherent in all this activity is that more schools are recognizing that potential students are customers—ordinary citizens with jobs or families or interests to maintain. When given a choice, most of the students will lean toward the environment with the best access, amenities, and accommodations. In the 21st century, that means offering technology and an uninterrupted connection to online resources.

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Trainer's Corner

Assistive Technology Specialist Competencies

A critical shortage of professionals who are qualified to provide specialized assessment and training in computer skills, as well as hardware and software installation, configuration, and customization services, significantly affects the competitiveness of people who are visually impaired in this society. Since most jobs that people with visual impairments hold require the use of computer-based tools, inadequate and untimely training in both computers and assistive technology (AT) contributes to the persisting unemployment rate that is 15 times higher than that of the general population. Long waiting lists, insufficient time for training to be done properly, and increasing strain on the already overloaded service delivery system only make things worse.

Gathering Information

To gain a fuller understanding of the nature and causes of the shortage of AT specialists, in 1999, AFB surveyed state and private agencies about their technology-related services. In 2000, AFB held a series of consumer focus groups in eight locations around the country, whose participants included end-users who had received technology-related training. Another set of focus groups sought input from AT specialists, their supervisors, and administrators of training centers. The daunting list of problems that emerged from the survey and focus groups coalesced to a few major themes.

Public and private rehabilitation agencies reported that the most significant challenges they faced in delivering AT services include insufficient training resources; difficulty finding, recruiting, and retaining qualified AT personnel; providing training for consumers who live in rural areas; inadequate methods of determining the qualifications of independent contractors; and an acute shortage of trainers in particular regions of the country.

Consumers' comments tended to be more negative than positive. Although many consumers reported receiving high-quality training and having greater self-confidence from learning how to use computers, a number of them thought that training was simply not available often enough to meet their needs. Many complained about training programs that lacked proper equipment or flexibility. For example, one setting had no computers connected to e-mail or the Internet available for consumers. Other settings lacked commonly accepted AT, such as speech in combination with screen magnification.

A number of consumers wished their training had included deeper coverage of their ATs and more detail about their work-related application packages. They asked for more time to learn the material being taught and more comfortable training situations (e.g., smaller training groups or classes where slower learners were not mixed with faster ones). They thought that group instruction with students using different ATs unnecessarily diluted the attention the trainers provided. Finally, many consumers complained that trainers were forced to cram instruction into an insufficient number of training hours, were inflexible about changing their teaching style to accommodate the students, and lacked sufficient knowledge about certain assistive and mainstream software packages to teach them adequately.

The AT specialists generally agreed that the shortage of AT personnel around the country is caused by the scarcity of resources for them to obtain necessary knowledge and skills, forcing them to struggle to find training from a variety of sources. They stated that because there is currently no widely accepted way to judge their qualifications, more training resources and a unified set of standards would be desirable. Generally balking at the notion of certification, they worried aloud that there is so much to know that unless standards are developed in such a way as to allow practitioners with different types of skill-sets to be certified, many current AT specialists will be put out of business. Moreover, there is no organization in the United States that they regard as a viable certifying body.

What AT Specialists Need to Know

Both the consumers and AT specialists agreed that AT specialists should have competencies in certain critical areas. AT specialists are expected to know about common hardware, a wide variety of ATs, technologies, mainstream application software packages, and even nonassistive technology, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants.

AT specialists are also expected to know a great deal about training and support services, including contacts and resources, as well as be competent in core elements such as file management, keyboarding, and troubleshooting. They also need to have the same life skills (mobility, grooming, and proper humor and demeanor) as everyone else. They need sound office and professional (business management, writing, public speaking) skills, as well as good teaching, problem-solving, and independent study skills.

Most AT specialists work in more than one environment. Some evaluate and train consumers. Many work in schools or agencies, and some work at job sites, training centers, and other venues. The plot thickened when the variety of tasks that AT specialists actually perform in these environments was evaluated. Many teach basic AT and application software skills, others go into work environments to interface AT with complex networks. Still others work as consultants to large governmental and corporate entities, advising them on the accessibility of systems.

AT specialists currently obtain their professional skills in unsystematic ways. Their professional development often occurs through apprenticeship arrangements, learning their skills from master trainers. AT specialists also take short courses when they can find and afford them; participate in workshops and "vendor trainings"; attend technology conferences; and make extensive use of training manuals, tutorials, listservs, and occasional online classes. Many take Microsoft and other mainstream computer and networking classes, and some take the California State University at Northridge (CSUN) certificate program—a cross-disability course that provides a detailed overview of AT and ergonomics.

In 2000 and 2001, only a few programs provided training to AT specialists. Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, developed a certificate program for trainers of AT for people with visual and reading impairments. Lions World Services for the Blind <www.lwsb.org>, in Little Rock, Arkansas, provided training in a variety of skills to AT specialists who wanted to acquire basic and upgraded skills. The Colorado Center for the Blind <www.ccb-denver.org> created the PTAT (Professional Training in Assistive Technology) program to train computer-literate people to be AT specialists.

A noteworthy distance-learning option, offered by Cathy Anne Murtha <accesstechnologyinstitute.com>, combines PC- based teleconferencing technology (for lectures) with the Internet to teach a variety of courses in AT and mainstream applications. Most of her students are AT specialists, who often cannot afford the time to attend conferences or classes.

In the United Kingdom, the Royal National Institute for the Blind, in concert with the British Computer Association of the Blind, modified the teaching standards of an existing Information Technology trade organization. Together, they created a teaching competencies certification system that is designed to ensure that AT specialists who work with people who are visually impaired provide high-quality instruction. The group also gained the cooperation of technology vendors to provide standards for teaching the use of their technology.

Solving the Problem

Meanwhile, in the United States, several organizations called together professional conferences to come up with solutions to the shortage of AT specialists. The conferences reached a consensus about a core consumer training curriculum and, what was more groundbreaking, they recommended adopting the concept of minimum competencies for AT specialists as a reasonable alternative to certification. The key to the solution was the compilation of a comprehensive list of competencies, some or all of which AT specialists could strive to achieve.

Thus, in March 2001, with the support of consumer organizations, the AT specialists and vision rehabilitation professionals attending AFB's Josephine L. Taylor Leadership Institute created the Assistive Technology Specialist Competencies Task Force. Consisting of AT specialists and supervisors, university-based teacher trainers, and consumer representatives, all willing to work on specific tasks, the task force was charged with compiling and obtaining a consensus on a list of competencies.

The task force is also charged with developing ways to assess whether AT specialists have actually mastered any or all of the competencies on the list. The purpose of this difficult and detailed process is not to create a certification process, but to stimulate the growth of train-the-trainer courses throughout the United States. Armed with the competencies and measurement protocols, master trainers, vendors, and university personnel will be able to develop a variety of basic training and continuing education courses.

Progress to Date

After several meetings in 2001 and 2002, the task force completed its preliminary list of competencies and measurement protocols. It has also begun asking vendors to develop standards of their own to ensure that when they train AT specialists in how to use and give instruction in their products, there is clear evidence that the AT specialists have mastered the skills required. Examples include writing configuration files for a screen reader, teaching effective use of portable note takers; properly installing, configuring, and teaching the use of braille displays; and assessing a consumer's efficiency in using screen-magnification software and all its features. Thus, the task force has begun systematically surveying vendors to develop a comprehensive list of vendor training courses, material covered, and criteria for awarding certificates of completion.

By publishing articles such as this one, the task force hopes to receive feedback from the visually impaired community and the professionals who work with them. An e-mail address has been set up for this purpose. (See the information at the end of this article for details.)

Increased training opportunities will make it easier for AT specialists to learn their trade and keep up with new information and will make it more desirable for newcomers to enter the profession. Combined with greater attention to high-quality training by product vendors and improvements in standards for awarding certificates of completion, AT specialists will find it easier to prove to the world that they have a particular set of skills.

Recognizing the value of obtaining high-quality instruction, more AT specialists will seek opportunities to develop their portfolios. Accumulating well-earned certificates and other documents to display their qualifications will improve their prospects and increase their stature among the mainstream information-technology community. AT specialists will then be able to command greater compensation for their work. Shortages will abate.

If people who are visually impaired have adequate opportunities to obtain training in technologies that can give them equal access to information and employment, they will truly have a fair chance to participate fully in the benefits of our society. In the long run, the hope is that positive comments will outnumber negative ones when the next set of focus groups takes place a few years from now.

The Competencies

AT competencies fall into four major categories: assessment, equipment (hardware/software installation, configuration, customization), training (delivery), and professional competencies. Each category contains a series of competency clusters, and each cluster contains a set of specific competencies. For the complete list and to comment on the competencies, please visit the task force web site at <www.tsbvi.edu/technology/afb>.

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Access World News

Want to Be a Trainer?

Lighthouse International developed a new program to teach others how to use assistive technology, develop strategies for teaching people with visual impairments, and set clear training objectives and goals. The Lighthouse International Assistive Technology Instructor Training Program is for users of adaptive technology who are unemployed or underemployed, computer technology instructors, and teachers of people who are visually impaired. The 10-week program, which is open to up to six participants per session, includes four eight-hour classes a week and independent lab work. After formal instruction is completed, participants will complete a six- week internship. One-week follow-up institutes will be held periodically to update program alumni on latest technological developments and refresh their skills. Program graduates will possess the competencies to provide services as either an independent consultant or through an agency. The program costs $6,300. For more information, contact: Glenda Such, director of computer training programs, Lighthouse International; phone: 212-821-9337; e-mail: <gsuch@lighthouse.org>.

Read All About It!

Two books were recently published on workplace accommodations for people with visual impairments. A Practical Guide to Accommodating People with Visual Impairments in the Workplace was recently published by the Computer Center for Visually Impaired People at Baruch College, City University of New York. The book is intended to serve as a reference for employers who are considering hiring employees with visual impairments, and offers information on reasonable accommodations, low-tech devices, assistive technology, and sources of information. The book is available in print or disk for a cost of $11.95. For more information, contact: Computer Center for Visually Impaired People, Baruch College, City University of New York; phone: 800-490-6609 or 212-802-2140.

Accessible Technology in Today's Business: Case Studies for Success was recently published by Microsoft Press in conjunction with Microsoft's Accessible Technology Group. The book is intended to encourage businesses to utilize assistive technology to provide people with disabilities the tools they need to work. The book includes a discussion of the business value of providing accessible technology; information about current assistive technology products; and case studies that showcase solutions implemented in healthcare, retail, manufacturing, government, and financial organizations. The 256-page book was written by Gary Moulton, LaDeana Huyler, Janice Hertz, and Mark Levenson. Available in print, with accompanying CD-ROM, the cost is $34.99. For more information, contact: Microsoft Press; web site: <www.microsoft.com/MSPress/books/5588.asp>.

How to Construct Accessible Web Sites

Constructing Accessible Web Sites, by Jim Thatcher, Cynthia Waddell, Shawn Henry, Sarah Swierenga, Mark Urban, Michael Burks, Bob Regan, Paul Bohman was published in April 2002. The book was written for web professionals who would like to learn how to create and retrofit accessible web sites. It includes discussion of the technologies and techniques that are used to access web sites, and the legal stipulations and precedents that exist in the U.S. and around the world. This practical book includes step-by-step examples that are supported by a Section 508 checklist. The 400-page book is published by Glasshaus and costs $49.99. For more information, contact: Jim Thatcher, Accessibility Consulting; phone: 512-306-0931; e-mail: <jim@jimthatcher.com>; web site: <www.amazon.com>.

Listen and Learn

Verbal View of Windows XP, by Peter Duran, is a tutorial of the Microsoft Windows XP operating system that is designed for beginner and intermediate computer users with visual impairments. The tutorial has 37 chapters and is offered in print, braille, PC-formatted Word or text files via e-mail, and on tone-indexed two-track audio cassettes. The costs are: $120, braille; $55, e-mail; and $95, cassette. For more information, contact: BRL Inc.; phone: 877-993-4994 or 770-716-9222; e-mail: <comments@wyfiwyg.com>; web site: <www.wyfiwyg.com>.

Online Technology Mall

In May 2002, Serotek launched an online shopping mall service for the Freedom Box Network, an Internet portal that provides content and services specifically for the disabled community. The new addition to the site is designed to enable subscribers to shop by voice command. The Freedom Box Network is an online subscriber service available to owners of the Freedom Box, which offers browsing software, speech-recognition and audio technology designed to allow users to access and navigate e-mail and the Internet by using voice commands. In addition to the online shopping mall, the services offered by the Freedom Box Network include e-mail, news and information services, employment searches, entertainment, browsers, and Internet-hosting services. In the future, Serotek plans to offer document scanning, Internet chat, online banking, and an online movie channel featuring films with narrative description on the Freedom Box Network. The cost for Freedom Box and access to its network costs $999-$1,499. For more information, contact: Serotek; phone: 877-661-3785; web site: <www.freedombox.info>.

Accessible Games

"Alien Outback" is the newest arcade-style computer game from ESP Softworks designed to be accessible to people who are visually impaired. Released mid-June 2002, the game's hero is Busha Bob, an Australian man enjoying the finer things in life, when the outback is invaded by aliens. The game features include over 20 levels, sound effects, and real-time score reporting. The cost for the CD-ROM game is $29.95. For more information, contact: ESP Softworks; web site: <www.espsoftworks.com>; e-mail: <sales@espsoftworks.com>.

On the Move

Pulse Data/HumanWare has moved. The new contact information is: Pulse Data/HumanWare, 175 Mason Circle; Concord, CA 94520; phone: 800-722-3393; web site: <www.humanware.com>.

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July 15-20, 2002

8th International Conference on Computers Helping People with Special Needs (ICCHP) Conference.

Linz, Austria.


Klaus Miesenberger or Barbara Arrer, ICCHP 2002, University of Linz; phone: 011-43-732-2468-9853; e-mail: <icchp@aib.uni-linz.ac.at>; web site: <www.aib.uni-linz.ac.at/icchp/exhibition.html>.

July 22–25, 2002

Designing for Usability, Flexibility, and Accessibility.

Madison, WI. The workshop is for product developers and consultants in the information technology or telecommunications fields.


Kate Vanderheiden, Trace Research and Development Center; phone: 608-265-4621; e-mail: <vanderk@trace.wisc.edu>; web site: <www.trace.wisc.edu>.

September 18–20, 2002

International Conference on Disability, Virtual Reality, and Associated Technologies (ICDVRAT).

Veszprém, Hungary. The conference will address visual impairment.


Professor Paul M. Sharkey, ICDVRAT 2002; phone: 011-44-118-931-67-04; e-mail: <p.m.sharkey@reading.ac.uk>.

October 3–5, 2002

World Congress and Exposition on Disabilities.

Orlando, FL.


World Congress and Exposition on Disabilities; phone: 877-923-3976 or 201-226-1446; e-mail: <wcdinfo@wcdexpo.com>.

October 17–19, 2002

20th Annual Closing the Gap Conference on Computer Technology in Special Education and Rehabilitation.

Bloomington, MN.


Closing the Gap; phone: 507-248-3294; e-mail: <info@closingthegap.com>; web site: <www.closingthegap.com/conf>.

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