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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 March 2000 Issue  Volume 1  Number 2

Caption: Should you be captured by this book? What screen reader works best with the Web? Why is AOL being sued? Read on for answers to these questions and more.

In This Issue . . .

Editor's Page

Access Issues

Book Review

Product Evaluation

Questions and Answers

Product Evaluation

AccessWorld News


Editor in Chief Paul Schroeder
Contributing Editors Crista L. Earl
Deborah Kendrick
Jay D. Leventhal
Mark Uslan
Managing Editor Sharon Shively
Marketing Manager Sharon Baker-Harris

Editor's Page

No one can doubt the central place of the Internet in our lives. The barrage of "dotcom" advertising has put the Web address on a par with the street address. With that realization comes the inevitable question: "What about those who do not have access to the Internet—the digital 'have-nots?'"

Corporate, political, and civic leaders are now expressing ardent concern about the access dilemma facing many minorities, low-income persons, children of single-parent households, and rural residents in obtaining access to the Internet. But, what about the access challenges facing people with disabilities, especially those of us who are visually impaired? The barriers we face in using the Internet are generally ignored or minimized by the media, politicians, or corporations.

As a result of a suit by the National Federation of the Blind against America Online, access to the Internet for people who are visually impaired is, at least temporarily, making national news. This issue of AccessWorld reports on the developments in that suit, puts the suit in context, and evaluates how AOL's accessibility efforts measure up.

Another recent development in the news is the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's consideration of whether telecommunications access requirements should be applied to telephone calls and other communications made over the Internet. At the same time, a Congressional subcommittee is expressing concern about the harm that the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) could cause to the Internet.

The World Wide Web Consortium is to be applauded for its continued work on guidelines to improve access to the Web for people with disabilities. But we cannot depend on such voluntary efforts alone to ensure access to the Internet. Public policy must make clear that information technology is a public good that all Americans deserve an equal opportunity to access.

This issue's AccessWorld News reports on developments at the FCC and the World Wide Web Consortium. It also features Product Evaluations of newly released hardware and software that bring visually impaired people closer to being digital "haves" rather than "have nots."

In closing, I would like to invite all readers to join us at the CSUN (California State University, North ridge) "Technology for People with Disabilities" Conference, where AccessWorld editors will be presenting and exhibiting. Harry Murphy, who brought March madness to the assistive technology industry through his founding and leadership of the CSUN conference, is retiring, making this conference one of special historical importance. CSUN regulars will probably find it hard to imagine future conferences without Harry. We wish him well in his retirement and thank him for his many contributions to the assistive technology field.

Paul Schroeder

Editor in Chief

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Access Issues

Who's Got Mail?

Asked why the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) is suing America Online (AOL), Curtis Chong does not miss a beat. "They're big and pervasive … Everywhere it's 'get free AOL!' And we've been getting calls from our members because [AOL's] software doesn't work with screen readers." NFB, its Massachusetts affiliate, and nine individuals took their complaint about AOL to federal court in Boston last November, alleging that AOL, the nation's largest Internet service provider with over 20 million subscribers, is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

Chong, who heads NFB's Technology Program, says the suit is really about software more than the Internet. "There needs to be a standard way for screen readers and applications to communicate with each other to allow access for the blind user," Chong says. AOL, he says, lacks the interface that would allow the screen reader to "interrogate AOL to find out what's going on."

Indeed, the suit provides details about how AOL's proprietary Internet software does not function in the standard way required for the screen access programs used by people who are visually impaired. Among other things, AOL's proprietary software is said to rely on unlabeled graphics, commands that require mouse action, custom controls "painted on the screen," and forms with missing or meaningless field labels. Because of these and other practices, AOL is accused of violating the ADA's requirements that public entities remove communications barriers and provide auxiliary aids so that individuals can enjoy the use of their products and services.

Chong expresses frustration at the inconsistency of AOL. "Sometimes prompts and buttons can be read and then all of a sudden you can't find out what's going on." Tom Wlodkowski, who works with the National Center on Accessible Media (NCAM), echoes the point, noting that AOL often creates windows that combine accessible with inaccessible elements.

Why Bother?

If several browsers and E-mail software programs give relatively good access to the Internet for users of assistive technology, why bother with AOL? First, because AOL is a large, well-established national Internet service provider, there are likely some places where it is nearly the only option for access to the Internet. Second, the service is aggressively promoted with "free AOL" offers—and free sounds good, especially for people who have not yet tried the Internet. Finally, there are a large number of proprietary services and features included with AOL, such as customized news, weather, and stock reports; AOL's instant messenger, which allows users to send and receive messages back and forth like a telephone conversation; buddy lists, which allow users to know automatically if their friends or family are on-line; and features that allow parents to block objectionable Web sites from their children. AOL also has groups and forums on a variety of topics; these are available only through AOL's proprietary software.

Where Has AOL Gone Wrong?

Is AOL truly less accessible to blind users than other service providers? AccessWorld tested AOL's features and services with several screen readers to see how usable AOL's software is.

Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are the gateway to the Internet. The ISP may send a CD-ROM with software, but if the browser and E-mail programs do not work well with a particular screen reader, another package can usually be substituted.

AOL is a different matter. Users can substitute a different browser for the one it provides. So, for the most basic browsing activities, AOL is equivalent to a generic ISP. But, E-mail and other AOL-specific services, such as chat, instant messaging, and buddy lists, require the use of AOL's proprietary software. Similarly, to read information on the extensive AOL service itself, it is necessary to use AOL's proprietary software.

Tying the Screen Reader's Hands

AOL's E-mail software has a number of frequently used commands that cannot be executed except with the mouse. Although it is possible to use screen reader features to get the mouse pointer to a button and click on it, it is at best tedious and at worst impossible. The right approach is to ensure that all features and commands can be activated from the keyboard, and AOL fails this test.

AOL's E-mail software and many other features are loaded with unlabeled buttons and icons. So, even users who know how to move the mouse around a screen reader will miss the "reply" icon if it is not labeled. Again, AOL fails the basic accessibility requirement that all buttons and controls be accompanied by text labels.

Virtually all of AOL's features and functions appear in a single large window (Internet browsing is an exception). Yet, one of the chief advantages of the Windows operating system is the ability to have separate activities in separate windows. Thus, Windows-based screen readers are designed to detect one window from another so that a user can read a new dialog box or know that a new program has started, for example. However, the consequence of AOL's single window approach is that the screen reader cannot distinguish E-mail from a separate action such as a search using key words. So a screen reader cannot be configured to provide specific information about separate AOL activities. For example, screen readers treat the spell checker in Word as something different from the document window and can read the misspelled word, the word in context, and so on. In AOL, there is no practical way to have a screen reader treat E-mail separately from instant messages.

An additional problem with this one-window-fits-all approach is that the old information is not cleared from the screen when a new activity is begun. It is possible to tell most screen readers to read this large window as it changes or on demand, but if a user is reading E-mail and someone sends an instant message, that new message shows up on top of the E-mail text and graphics. Reading the entire body of the window means hearing part of your E-mail and the instant message, along with anything else left from before you started your E-mail.

Moving through the text of E-mail messages using the keyboard seems like a common feature in many E-mail programs, but AOL's E-mail program opens each message in a window with no cursor. Although AOL has added keyboard navigation, the absence of a cursor prevents the reading of a specific line or area, so it is necessary to either read the entire window, including extraneous background material, or use screen-reader navigation commands to "review" the window. The message area can be designated as a unit to be read by some screen readers, but the E-mail message does not appear in a consistent location and is not a consistent size. It is not its own self-contained active window, so it is nearly impossible to read only the current message without receiving background information.

Interacting with AOL's dialog boxes to carry out tasks such as writing E-mail or entering key words requires working with many peculiar controls. After we "reclassed" them using screen reader features designed for such a purpose, some boxes read fairly well. However, buttons could not be activated by pressing the Enter key on them. Instead, we had to use the space bar, which can be a source of constant confusion for a user switching between the AOL interface and the conventional Windows interface. The solution to this is to design programs using conventional controls in dialog boxes.

We also found that AOL's discussion forums, or chat groups, are largely inaccessible to people using screen readers We looked at the "Chess" forum, but clicking on every part of the window resulted in sketchy information, which was mostly unlabeled, and undifferentiated graphics. We tried AOL's "key word" feature which, in theory, provides access to a rich variety of content. Unfortunately, beyond a small list of 10 popular key words, we were not able to view the comprehensive list of words. AOL is loaded with special content and features that may be valuable. Unfortunately, screen reader users will miss out on most of it.

What is AOL Doing to Fix the Problem?

Even before the suit was filed, AOL was apparently reaching out for help. Last April staff from the American Foundation for the Blind met briefly with representatives of AOL. (AOL had seen the article published in the August 1998 Journal of Visual Impairment & Blindness citing many access problems with AOL.) Last May, AOL contacted NCAM. By then, according to Larry Goldberg, NCAM's executive director. "They were fully aware that many if not all of their services were inaccessible to blind and visually impaired computer users who use screen readers." "They asked for an analysis of their existing software along with their next release," he adds.

According to AOL's point person on accessibility, Michele Cavataio, "The next version of our software will be accompanied by specific announcements about accessibility improvements." Beyond mentioning standardizing keyboard controls and providing text labels, she gave few details about those improvements, but did say that the guidelines established by the World Wide Web's Web Accessibility Initiative formed the basis of much of their access efforts. NCAM's Tom Wlodkowski says that the blueprint for the next version looks good, but he hastens to add that NCAM has not yet seen a beta copy of the software.

Much of the problem with AOL's software is a legacy of the code it uses to develop its content. According to Wlodkowski, the proprietary software language known as "Rainman," does not allow the use of common keyboard navigation approaches such as Tabbing among links, nor does it allow for the creation of text labels for icons and controls. The good news is that AOL is apparently moving more toward HTML (the language of the Web), which is far easier for screen readers to access. However, the service has hundreds of thousands of pages of content in Rainman.

AOL may be working with some screen reader developers. Both GW Micro (producers of Window-Eyes) and Henter-Joyce (producers of JAWS for Windows) confirmed that they are talking with AOL, but provided no details on the discussions. Neither Ted Henter, president of Henter-Joyce, nor Doug Geoffray, vice president for Product Development at GW Micro, sounded optimistic. "It will be difficult to create the kind of accessibility that we have come to expect," Henter says "The type of information that a screen reader needs just isn't there," he added. Geoffray says, "Although it is a bit early in the development stages, unfortunately, no real progress has been made yet, at least as far as I know."

When asked if access to E-mail and Web browsing with AOL would be a sufficient start, Curtis Chong responds, "That's not the issue. We need to be able to use proprietary services only available through their front-end software, shopping channels, news, and parental control. I think they've got to do a lot more than just E-mail and the Web."

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Book Review

Captured by the Net: An Internet Guide for Blind Users, by Olga Espinola, National Braille Press, 1999; available in braille, print, cassette, and computer disk for $19.99.

If you happen to read the disclaimer in the first chapter of this book that it is "not a tutorial," you will be far more satisfied with Captured by the Net than if you turn to it for how-to instructions. If you want to have a general understanding of the Internet—its history, magnitude, and the tools required to access what it has to offer—this book is for you.

Get All the Facts

Captured by the Net is thorough and detailed, providing organized information on every aspect of the Internet and the World Wide Web, from sending a simple E-mail to researching a major project. Concepts are presented simply (and sometimes repetitively) in myriad mini sections divided into seven chapters, adding up to a clear picture of how the Internet can be used and enjoyed by computer users who are visually impaired. You will learn about sending and receiving E-mail, the difference between shell accounts and PPP accounts, and the variety of software available to read E-mail or search the Web. Information is provided on news groups, search engines, general reference sources, and shopping.

Stroll Through the Internet

If you want a quick read with all the answers in one concise package, however, this book is not what you are looking for. The author rambles comfortably into her subject, sometimes describing more than once (albeit in a few different ways) the same basic piece of information.

Particularly in the earlier chapters, the book moves at a snail's pace at times, so the impatient reader might be heard to say, "So get to the point!"

The author does get to the point—and into her stride—in Chapters 5, 6, and 7. These latter chapters move along at a steady pace and are packed with useful information on the World Wide Web. Even the novice reader will understand something of the breadth and vastness of material available after studying these chapters and will find sound direction regarding the choice of browser and types of information to pursue.

Find Out More

Want to know how to join a news group or catalog your collection of musical CDs? You can find out in this book, too. Best of all, if there is something you do not understand, you can find out from this book where to go for answers.

At the back of the book is one of the best compilations of useful resources on the subject I have ever seen. The book would be well worth its price for these pages alone. Information about how to find products, Web sites, books, search engines, news groups, and more—nearly anything an Internet user who is visually impaired might want to locate—is probably listed in the resource sections at the end of Captured by the Net.

Let Yourself Be Captured

If you are the kind of reader who prefers to find "just the facts" and find them in a hurry, you will not immediately be captured by this book. Let yourself be. All the information you need is there—it just takes time to find it.

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Product Evaluation

Optelec's ClearView 700 Video Magnifier for Use with Computers

Over the years, closed-circuit television systems for visually impaired persons (today often referred to as video magnifiers) have been slow to change. The implication was that there were not many ways to design a product that provides basic electronic magnification. But that is no longer the case. Anyone who has attended an exhibit of assistive technology where video magnifiers are on display will tell you that almost every vendor has launched a new model. Some manufacturers—such as Optelec, which was acquired by the Dutch company Tieman in 1997—have introduced a whole new line of video magnifiers.

Although this innovation is undeniably a good thing, the question remains: How good are these new video magnifiers?

This Product Evaluation reviews Optelec's ClearView 700, a video magnifier designed to work with a computer. ClearView 700 uses a color camera and offers the ability to split the display screen for use with both the video magnifier and the computer. It uses autofocus technology, which is relatively new in video magnifiers, but what really sets it apart are the function and location of its controls. In an attempt to improve ergonomics, Optelec placed controls on the x-y table, the moveable tray upon which is placed the material to be viewed.

The ClearView 700 was tested on two computers: an older Gateway (75 MHz) with a Gateway EV700 monitor and a new Dell Optiplex (450 MHz) with a Dell Trinitron monitor and a built-in video card. In addition to observations of resolution and contrast using a black-and-white text document, a color photograph, color pages of a phone book, and a medicine bottle, particular attention was paid to overall usability.

Although the ClearView 700 is undergoing design modifications, and it is likely that the product that will be available when this evaluation is published will be different from the product that was tested, the product is now on the market and consumers deserve to see an evaluation. Because technology changes so rapidly and products are constantly updated, consumers should always check with the manufacturer to find out about new and updated features.

Getting Up and Running

The ClearView 700 is easy to set up. The manual was in draft form at the time of testing, but it was in large print and was clear and easy to follow. To enable the split-screen function, it may be necessary to go into the Windows Control Panel and reset resolution and refresh rate. The ClearView 700 requires a resolution setting of either 640 x 480 or 600 x 800 and a refresh rate of between 60 MHz and 75 MHz. The newer Dell computer tested was set at a higher resolution and had to be reset. If the settings are compatible, a green LED on the base of the ClearView 700 lights up.

Basic Form and Function

The ClearView 700's large, black x-y table is mounted on a base that extends beyond the x-y table at the rear of the unit. A support arm is affixed to the back of the base and rises over the middle of the x-y table. The camera and a light source are recessed within the support arm. At the back of the base in the right corner is a control panel and in the left corner is a pencil holder. The pencil holder is a useful feature that is unique to the ClearView 700. Hand grips on each side of the base are used for lifting the unit.

Two aspects of the ClearView's x-y table are particularly noteworthy: the two front corners of the x-y table are designed to be wrist rests, made of hard rubber, and between the wrist rests is a control panel. Push button controls on the x-y table set brightness, camera mode (black on white, inverse video, or true color), focus, and zoom (magnification range is 5.2x to 52x). In addition, there is a locator button that shines a red LED dot on the x-y table designed to help find the current location on the page.

Below the x-y table is a lever that can be set to four possible positions: locking the x-y table in a stationary position, giving the table full freedom, or limiting it to either side-to-side or back-and-forth movement. To operate the lever control, the user first presses it downward to disengage it.

The ClearView 700 model that was evaluated was designed to be placed next to the computer monitor. It was not designed for in-line viewing, in which the monitor is located on a platform directly above the camera.

Controls at the rear of the unit include four push buttons and two rotary knobs. A mode button is used for toggling between a camera-only mode, a computer-only mode, and a split-screen mode. In the camera-only mode it is possible to use another push button to display vertical or horizontal line markers. In the split-screen mode, this button selects a horizontal or vertical split. There are also two rotary knobs for controlling the split: one controls the position of the split and the other the width of a split-screen window. These knobs are also used for position and width of line markers.

Two additional push buttons are located on the rear control panel. One controls foreground and background color selections. The 11 background-foreground color selections can be reversed by pushing the mode button on the x-y table. The other button on the rear control panel is for toggling between the ClearView camera and an additional external camera, which can be attached to the unit for distance viewing. A foot-pedal is also available as an alternative to the mode button for toggling between the camera, the computer, and the split-screen.

How Good Is It?

The x-y table's wrist rests are well designed for comfort and easy access to frequently used controls. Push button autofocus and zoom control on the x-y table worked extremely well. Pushing an autofocus button is certainly much easier than having to adjust a rotary knob. The position locator is a great idea, but when we tried it, results were disappointing. The red dot locator light was not visible enough.

When using the wrist rests and testing x-y table movement, we encountered an unusual problem. When the x-y table was fully extended, the entire unit had a tendency to tip forward. Optelec notified us that they are redesigning the unit to solve the balance problem and at the same time offer a monitor platform above the camera to provide the option of in-line viewing. In its present design, though, the side-by-side monitor placement eliminates the need for a bulky structure to support the monitor. The ClearView 700 has a very attractive streamlined look, is lightweight yet sturdy, and offers plenty of working space for writing. Although many people may be used to an in-line configuration and may prefer it because it limits head movement, it remains to be seen if the redesign of the unit to solve the balance problem and to offer in-line viewing will change the product's usefulness.

We also had problems operating the lever that controls x-y table movement. It is not possible to press the lever down unless the x-y table is positioned so that it extends over the edge of the table on which it sits. In addition, locking the table in a stationary position takes more force than it should and often caused the entire unit to move.

The controls on the rear panel are probably not set and reset as often as the front controls on the x-y table. Nevertheless, we found it awkward to reach across the x-y table to get at the rear controls. When testing the controls, we encountered an optical problem in the split-screen mode. When we opened a window for a camera view, the image was slightly flattened. This was the case when we viewed a text document in black and white and a color photograph.

Resolution and contrast in black and white were good with two exceptions. When we viewed a text document at lower magnification levels, there was slightly less contrast at the bottom of the document. At higher magnification levels, the black letters had a slight amount of smudginess around them. More significantly, we found that the ClearView was not able to give us a well-contrasted image of a color photograph, even at full brightness. The image was too dark at lower magnification levels and had reflective sparkle at higher magnification. Yet contrast was not a problem when we viewed a multi-colored page in the phone book and a medicine bottle with a colored label and faded black-and-white text.

Summing Up

With its innovative x-y table design that includes wrist rests, x-y table-mounted controls, and push button autofocus technology, Optelec's ClearView 700 is a pleasure to use. There are a few design bugs that need to be worked out, such as weight distribution of the unit and ease of use of the mechanism to control x-y table movement. Also, the locator button to help find the current place in a document is a fine idea, but Optelec needs to improve it to make it more effective. The optical characteristics of the ClearView 700 model we evaluated get a mixed review. The most serious bug is the relatively poor contrast achieved when using the color camera to view a photograph. Priced at $3,295, the ClearView 700 is in the upper range of video magnifiers that offer split-screen computer capability.

Manufacturer's Comments

"As stated by the reviewers, the ClearView 700 as tested was brand new to the market, and the actual unit tested was a preproduction model. As such, the manufacturer was and is aware of some bugs and has taken the necessary actions to address the major concerns. One of the most significant improvements has been to increase the brightness of the image. Also, a monitor stand designed to the ergonomic curves of the base units is now supplied as part of the unit. This enables the user to have the monitor 'in-line' (which adds stability to the unit) or to have the monitor and unit side by side. The table lock has been redesigned and now has an effortless three-position locking mechanism. Although the manufacturer understands that some people may find the rear controls somewhat awkward, these controls are normally set once or twice during operation.

"Also, a foot pedal is provided at no additional charge, enabling the user to toggle between screens without having to reach to the rear controls."

Product Information

Product: ClearView 700.

Manufacturer: Optelec U.S.; 6 Liberty Way, Westford, MA 01886; phone: 800-828-1056; fax: 978-692-6073; web site: <www.optelec.com>. Price: $3,295 (monitor not included).

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Questions and Answers

Don't know where to get the answer to that nagging computer question? I might not know the answer, but I know how to find out. E-mail your questions to me at <crista@afb.net>, and I will try to find the answer for an upcoming issue of AccessWorld.

Question: How do I clean my braille display?

Answer: If you like to read with your left hand while eating sticky donuts with the right, you might find you need to use something more than a slightly dampened clean cloth. Blazie Engineering recommends using denatured alcohol to clean the display. Be sure the machine is off while you clean it. Be conservative with the amount of alcohol you use. It evaporates quickly, but a good dousing could do damage.

Denatured alcohol, by the way, is not the same as rubbing alcohol. The ordinary rubbing alcohol you find at your pharmacy or grocery store can damage your display. If your pharmacy doesn't carry denatured alcohol, ask to make a special order.

Question: I use Eudora Light, a free E-mail program. How can I send one message to several people?

Answer: One way is to put all the E-mail addresses in the "To" field, separated by commas. So, if you wanted to send a message to both senators from South Carolina at the same time, you would write: <senator@hollings.senate.gov>, <senator@thurmond.senate.gov>." If you want to send the message to 20 senators, just keep going.

If you send messages to senators on a regular basis, you probably have put their addresses in your address book. You can type their nicknames instead of their E-mail addresses, but remember to separate them with commas in that case, as well. If you have put the senators in your address book as "Hollings" and "Thurmond," Then to send them the message, type "Hollings, Thurmond" in the "To" field.

One last time-saver: You can go to the address book in Eudora and select all the recipients' names. To do this, press Control-l to bring up the Eudora address book. You will find a tree view loaded with the nicknames you have put there. Arrow up and down to find the first name to which you want to send this message. Once you have found it, press Shift-Down Arrow to select the name below it. Keep pressing Shift-Down until you have selected all the names you want. Press the Enter key. Eudora will open up a new message and put all these names in the "To" field, separated by commas. If you want to remove a name, delete it from the "To" field, just as you would if you had actually painstakingly typed it there.

Question: What are toolbars? Are they useful?

Answer: Toolbars appear as rows of little pictures representing features or commands. They usually show up just below the menu, near the top of the program's main window. The developer of the program or someone else has collected together the most commonly used features and put their icons there so people do not have to pull down all the menus to find the things they want. Often, a program has several toolbars, each for a separate category of task. For example, Save, Save As, and Open might all be on the Standard toolbar. Back, Forward, Favorites, and Go might be on the Web toolbar. Generally, programs do not have features on the toolbar that are not also on the menus.

The main purpose of the toolbar is to speed things up for mouse users. If you use speech exclusively, you will probably find that it is quicker to hit the hot key for a feature or pull down the menu and press the letter rather than search around the screen with your screen reader to click on the toolbar icon. There are a few exceptions to this that I will discuss in a minute.

Status information is sometimes displayed on the toolbar, too. For example, if you are arrowing around in a document and happen to land on text that is bold or italic, the Bold button on the toolbar might look like it is pushed in to let you know it is activated. If you use a screen reader, there is a good chance it is watching those buttons and telling you when bold or italic has been turned on or off, based on the appearance of those icons. If this is the case, that toolbar is important to you, even if you never click on its icons.

In most programs, the toolbars are just a row of graphics that are accessible only via the mouse. In a few programs, though, they can be reached by using the keyboard. Microsoft Word 97 and 2000, Microsoft Excel, and Microsoft Visual Basic 6 are examples. To use the toolbars in these and some other Microsoft applications, press and release the Alt key as if you wanted to get into the menu. The usual menu item will be highlighted. Your screen reader, if you are using one, will speak its usual message (for example, "File"). Instead of using arrows as you normally would in the menus, press Control-Tab. This key combination will cause you to jump to the first toolbar. If your screen reader supports this feature, it will voice the item you land on ("New Blank Document," for example). Move across the toolbar by pressing the Tab key. Jump to the next toolbar, if one exists, by pressing Control-Tab. When you have moved through all the toolbars, you will be brought back to the menu. While exploring the toolbars, if you find something you want to try, press Enter.

Question: Why does JAWS for Windows keep saying "Andy 233?"

Answer: I bet it is actually saying "ANSI 233." ANSI is the name for one of the systems of codes for characters used on the computer. To make a long story short, some characters are treated as special by your screen reader. Accented vowels, upside down question marks and less common mathematical symbols might not be read as smoothly as letters, numbers, and commas. So, if your screen reader is blurting out "ANSI" or "ASCII" followed by a number, it is probably just telling you the literal, but unhelpful, truth.

Here is how to adjust this setting in JFW 3.5: Hold down the Insert key and press the number 6 key on the top row of the main keyboard. This key combination brings up the JAWS Configuration Wizard. Bring down the Settings menu by pressing Alt-S. Choose "Graphics and Symbols." In this dialog, tab to the radio button labeled "ANSI Character Verbosity." Here, "None" causes JFW to stop saying ANSI 233 altogether, and "Say All" causes it to announce the values of these characters wherever it finds them. There are three intermediate settings. Find the one you like by pressing arrow keys, then press Enter to close the dialog box. Save the settings by pressing Control-S. Alt-F4 closes the Configuration Wizard and takes you back to where you came from.

The steps just covered will change this setting for the situation that caused you the problem. For example, if you were in WordPerfect 8 when you decided you were tired of "ANSI 233," then you fixed the problem for only this and every session with WordPerfect. But, if you use Microsoft Word later, the problem might reappear. Follow the same steps in that program, as well.

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Product Evaluation

Putting Words to Windows: A Review of JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but for Windows screen readers, the challenge is to convey the meaning of computer graphics in far fewer words than that. In this Product Evaluation, we compare the ability of two leading screen readers to provide access to Windows and key applications. The programs were not compared directly with each other and were rated on a scale of 0 to 5 as follows:

0 No access; the equivalent of a sighted person with no mouse and the monitor turned off.

1 Little access; the program gives users an idea of what is going on but little opportunity to function well.

2 Less than adequate access, with much room for improvement.

3 Good access but a definite need for improvement.

4 Very good access, with minor improvements expected in the future.

5 Access as good as a sighted person has with a mouse and a monitor.

Each program was tested on a Pentium 500 with 128 MB of memory and a Pentium II with 64 MB of memory. We used two hardware synthesizers—Double Talk and DECtalk PC—and three software synthesizers—Eloquence from Eloquent Technologies, the Microsoft speech engine, and IBM's ViaVoice. Ratings were given for installation and documentation, basic performance in the word processing programs Microsoft Word 2000 and Corel WordPerfect 8.0, and for performance with the Web browser Microsoft Internet Explorer 5.0. Advanced features were tested with several programs, including FileMaker Pro 4.1 from Apple, Microsoft Visual Basic 6.0, and others.

JAWS for Windows 3.31

JAWS for Windows (JFW) provides a set of basic speech commands enhanced by sophisticated, program-specific scripts. These scripts fine-tune JFW for particular Windows applications. Henter-Joyce provides well-written scripts for many popular applications, and JFW's performance excels in these applications.

JFW simplifies the reading of the screen by presenting it as a series of lines of text, even when the text is scattered and not actually linear. This feature provides a reliable way to read the current line in a word processor and also the highlighted item in a dialog box.

JFW supports numerous refreshable braille displays and several languages. Eloquence software speech is included, so casual computer users with sound cards can avoid spending the additional several hundred dollars to buy a high-quality hardware synthesizer.

Getting Started and Getting Help: Rating 3

JFW installed easily from Windows, except on some test machines with incompatible video cards. Video card problems were solved by installing drivers from the Windows CD-ROM. (It was necessary to use another screen reader or sighted assistance to perform this operation.) If a sound card is available, the installation uses Eloquence to provide speech. Each time JFW is updated, even if the merge utility that preserves user settings is run, the new version is installed to a new directory, giving multiple versions, which can cause confusion. JFW's copy-protection feature can also cause unexpected problems. For example, in one test case, we had to reinsert our authorization disk during the upgrade. In another instance, an overnight upgrade to our system erased the hidden file JFW uses as authorization, and the program became a demonstration copy until we "reauthorized" it. The manual is available in print and on disk. A cassette tutorial and a braille quick-reference guide are included. Extensive on-line help is provided for JFW commands and some application commands.

Word 2000 and WordPerfect 8.0: Rating 4

JFW read text and menus in both word processors tested. It identified and read the buttons in most dialog boxes but often did not read the messages in these and other programs. In WordPerfect, it sometimes made errors in identifying control buttons, such as misidentifying radio buttons, leaving us unaware that choosing that option would change another option.

JFW's performance in the Word spell checker was concise and effective; the misspelled word was announced, then spelled automatically, as was the first suggested word, or the message "No spelling suggestions" appeared. The WordPerfect spell checker worked well, but it was easy to exit the spell checker and not realize that keystrokes such as Tab were being placed in the document instead of affecting the spell checker. The JFW hot key Insert-C read the misspelled word in context. In WordPerfect, we encountered occasional off-screen model errors—such as JFW not reading words or letters that were actually on the screen—but these were always corrected by pressing JFW's "Refresh screen" key (Insert-Escape).

Internet Explorer 5.0: Rating 4

JFW automatically announced the number of links and frames on a page as it loaded, then read a large portion of the entire page. Web pages load quickly. Users can then navigate the page in logical order by pressing conventional arrow keys, as in a word processor—a feature especially useful for beginners. Newspaper-style columns are read one at a time instead of across two columns. Pressing the Tab key prompted JFW to find and read links.

JFW 3.31 has a special "Forms mode" exclusively for reading forms on the Web. Pressing Enter on part of the form, such as the place for entering text, begins the Forms mode. Field and form-element labels, except those of combo boxes, are generally read.

JFW has some advanced Web-reading features. There are hot keys to bring up a list of links on a Web page, to skip the navigation links and go to the start of the text, and to find the first edit box of a form. This last hot key, however, often failed to find input fields and should not be relied on to indicate the absence of forms on a page. The Find feature is a powerful tool for jumping directly to text of interest.

Tricks of the Trade

JFW has a number of advanced features that helped make some aspects of the database FileMaker Pro usable. JFW's frames, user-configurable rectangular regions of the screen, could be set up to read designated areas, such as the record number. For data entry screens in which the field and data area were on the same line, we created a script to move to the next field and read the line. Because FileMaker Pro and many other programs use nonstandard controls in some dialog boxes, JFW's feature allowing the reclassing of these controls was extremely useful. Although not a concept that beginners would be familiar with, advanced users can press a key combination to bring up a dialog box containing the name of the current control and a list of conventional controls. Selecting the most similar conventional control caused JFW to read the nonstandard control in an appropriate manner most of the time.

JFW has a number of powerful features that improve the usability of the computer overall. These include the ability to access the system tray (the group of icons displayed under the task bar for which Windows provides no keyboard access); automatically label graphics with tool tips when available; read mixed-case words as two or more words—a feature that is useful for programmers who use languages in which it is common practice to use two words joined into one command; switch the order of the reading of control types and control names (from "OK button" to "Button OK," for example); and read the status line, even in applications for which no JFW scripts exist.

How To Make It Better

Although JFW's script language, which resembles a programming language, can be used to customize new programs for which prewritten scripts are not provided, writing scripts is beyond the ability of the average user. Performance can also be improved by temporarily setting the Screen Echo function to "All,"so all changes on the screen will be spoken, which can help users learn unfamiliar programs. Eliminating the creation of multiple JFW directories during installation, copy protection, and video card conflicts would enhance JFW's usability.

Window-Eyes 3.1

Window-Eyes was designed to work out of the box with a wide variety of applications. A large number of commands and options are available to fine-tune its function. It is possible to open the Window-Eyes menu at any time and easily make changes by navigating through menus and dialog boxes. Some basic settings—such as speech rate, pitch, and volume—can be adjusted without entering the menus. Window-Eyes includes Microsoft's speech engine, so casual users can avoid spending the additional several hundred dollars to buy a high-quality hardware synthesizer. Window-Eyes does not allow accented vowels and other language-specific characters to go to the synthesizer, making many foreign languages unusable.

Getting Started and Getting Help: Rating 4

Window-Eyes installed smoothly from Windows. The installation speaks by installing a temporary version of Window-Eyes and using the Microsoft speech engine and the sound card. The Window-Eyes manual is available in print, on cassette, on disk, and on-line. A command reference and a cassette tutorial are included. More extensive on-line help would be useful.

Word 2000 and WordPerfect 8.0: Rating 4

Window-Eyes read text, menus, and dialog boxes well in both Word and WordPerfect. Its read-to-end feature—which reads from the cursor position to the end of the document—worked well. It handled both spell checkers, although selecting some desktop themes (a computer's desktop, wallpaper, sound scheme, and mouse pointer can all follow such themes as Underwater, Jungle, or Baseball) in Windows 98 caused the spell checker in WordPerfect to fail. Switching to another desktop theme solved the problem. The mouse pointer was automatically moved to the word in context in the spell checker, allowing us to make corrections quickly and easily.

Selecting text in WordPerfect was problematic. Window-Eyes sometimes announced that we were "unselecting" text that we were actually selecting, and vice versa.

Internet Explorer 5.0: Rating 4

Window-Eyes read 25 lines of text automatically when Web pages loaded and when Page-Down was pressed. Links were spoken as Internet Explorer's Tab key was used to move from link to link. When reading pages, Window-Eyes gives beginners user-friendly access through the use of its MSAA (Microsoft Active Accessibility) mode. This mode allows the use of arrow keys to move by line, word, sentence, and or other grouping. It also removes the column formatting from Web pages and reads the text in logical order, rather than reading across columns of a newspaper article or mixing navigation links with unrelated text. With MSAA mode turned on, the read-to-end command reads the entire Web page. MSAA mode is turned off by pressing Enter when a form is being completed. After MSAA mode was turned off, it was often necessary to hit Tab or Shift-Tab to locate combo boxes and radio buttons again before filling out forms. Some of the advanced features of Window-Eyes include hot keys to bring up a list of links, jump to the next control in a form, find specific text on a page, and skip a series of links.

Tricks of the Trade

Window-Eyes has features that helped make some aspects of the database FileMaker Pro usable. "User windows" could be set up to read designated areas of the screen, such as the record number. Because FileMaker used nonstandard controls in some dialog boxes, Window-Eyes' Reclass feature was extremely useful. Advanced users can press a key combination to bring up a dialog box containing the name of the current control and a list of conventional controls. Selecting the most similar conventional control caused Window-Eyes to read the nonstandard control in an appropriate manner most of the time. On data entry screens, Window-Eyes was not able to recognize the blinking caret, so we were not able to identify the current field. To work around this problem, we used Window-Eyes' mouse movement commands to find the field and activate it.

Many dialog box items in FileMaker Pro and other programs lack text labels. For this reason, the Window-Eyes "Label field name" feature is useful to name controls or give them more descriptive messages. For example, an edit box with no visible label could be named "filename" if desired. Likewise, information not necessarily included in a label, but displayed elsewhere on the screen for sighted users could be incorporated in the spoken label. For example, the Help message "A for Adult, J for Juvenile," would say what codes were valid in a field when the user entered the field.

Window-Eyes has a number of other powerful features. For example, when users attempt to get out of trouble by pressing Control-Alt-Delete in Windows 95 or 98, Window-Eyes reads the resulting and subsequent dialog boxes. Likewise, when an application has caused an "illegal operation," Window-Eyes reads the dialog and allows users to shut down the computer gracefully. Other powerful features include the ability to access the system tray (the group of icons displayed under the task bar for which Windows provides no keyboard access); automatically label graphics with tool tips if they are available; review the entire screen, regardless of the active application; find text or graphics anywhere on the screen and place the mouse pointer on the desired item; rename characters so that an asterisk can be called "selected item" if that is preferable in one application; switch the order of the reading of control types and control names (for example, change "OK button" to "Button OK"); and read the status line in most applications, even those for which no Window-Eyes set files exist.

How To Make It Better

Window-Eyes has an extensive list of hot keys and other features that can be set up as needed in various applications. "User windows," for reading specific areas of the screen, are relatively easy to define and use. Key-combination access to lists of links on Web pages, the system tray, and other problem areas allow knowledgeable users to make Windows more efficient. The addition of foreign language support, braille support, and improved on-line help would enhance Window-Eyes' versatility and usability.

The Bottom Line

JFW offers uncomplicated, highly focused access to Word, WordPerfect, and Internet Explorer. The speed and responsiveness are impressive. Configuring a less mainstream application is time consuming and beyond the capability of most users, but the tools JFW provides, in the right hands, are effective and comprehensive. Henter-Joyce's approach has made JFW the most widely used Windows screen reader.

Window-Eyes is a versatile, powerful tool for accessing Windows. It provides very good access to Internet Explorer, WordPerfect, and Word. Window-Eyes provides a variety of ways of improving its performance that do not require knowledge of computer programming. In addition, Window-Eyes reads system messages during crashes or when the Control-Alt-Delete reset key combination is used. This feature is especially useful to advanced users or those with no sighted assistance available.

Manufacturers' Comments

Henter-Joyce: "JFW 3.31 was a free upgrade in October 1999. It was shipped to all registered JFW 3.3 users. In January 2000, Henter-Joyce released JFW 3.5. Please visit the Henter-Joyce home page at <www.hj.com> for more information regarding our current software or to download a free demo of the latest release of JAWS for Windows in English."

GW Micro: "Of course we are always working on improving Window-Eyes. The next release will be no exception. Many items have been addressed, including braille display support and even better performance for the Web. A version for Windows 2000 is close to being finalized, and support for foreign languages is being added. We have also been watching the release of Windows Millennium, and we will be ready when it hits the public."

Product Information

Product: JAWS for Windows 3.31.

Manufacturer: Henter-Joyce, Inc.; 11800 31st Court North; St. Petersburg, FL 33716; phone: 800-336-5658; 727-803-8000; fax: 727-803-8001; e-mail: info@hj.com; web site: <www.hj.com>. Price: $795.

Product: Window-Eyes 3.1.

Manufacturer: GW Micro, Inc.; 725 Airport North Office Park; Fort Wayne, IN 46825; phone: 219-489-3671; fax: 219-489-2608; e-mail: <support@gwmicro.com>; web site: <www.gwmicro.com>. Price: $595.

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CSUN Center on Disabilities Founder Announces Retirement

Dr. Harry Murphy, founder and director of the Center on Disabilities, California State University, Northridge (CSUN), has announced plans to retire on March 31, 2000. During his 23-year tenure at CSUN, Dr. Murphy served as assistant director of the National Center on Deafness, coordinator of Disabled Student Services, and director of the Center on Disabilities. Dr. Murphy will continue to work as a consultant to the Center on Disabilities through December 31, 2000. A national search is underway to find a new director for the center. For more information, contact: Center on Disabilities, California State University, Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 91330-8340; phone: 818-677-2578; fax: 818-677-4929; E-mail: <itm@csun.edu>; Web site: <www.csun.edu/cod/>.

Nominations Invited

The American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) invites nominations for the 14th Alexander Scourby Narrator of the Year Awards. The awards will be presented this summer to outstanding Talking Books narrators of fiction and nonfiction. To vote, choose one narrator per category and send nominations to the address below before March 24, 2000. For more information, contact: Gabrielle Smith-Coventry, AFB Scourby Awards, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001; E-mail: <gsmith@afb.net>; phone: 800-AFB-LINE (232-5463).

Good News for Gamers

ESP Softworks invites participation in the Name That Game contest for a chess game that will feature weapons and traps. The contest can be found at Web site: <>. The company is developing several games and entertainment software titles for people who are blind or visually impaired. The titles in development include: The Genesis Project, Thieves: Dark Shroud, Armageddon, and Star Quest.

For more information, contact: ESP Softworks; Web site: <www.espsoftworks.com>; E-mail: <info@espsoftworks.com>.

Tactile Talking Mouse

Screen Rover is a motorized mouse that provides tactile and verbal feedback to users, according to The Betacom Corporation. It was developed in partnership with Alliance Technologies, University of Waterloo Centre for Sight Enhancement, and Ontario Rehabilitation Technology Consortium. The Rover is designed to seek out new windows or dialog boxes as they appear on a computer screen and, while describing the location on the screen, to move the mouse and the user's hand to the new elements. It is compatible with Windows 95, 98, and 98 Second Edition.

For more information, contact: The Betacom Corporation, 2999 King Street W, Inglewood, Ontario, LON 1K0; phone: 800-353-1107; Web site: <www.betacom.com>; E-mail: <info@betacom.com>.

Video Description May Make Prime Time

If you enjoy movies or live theater and cannot see well enough to discern the details of costume, gesture, or facial expression, chances are you have already become acquainted with the joy of video description. Video description delivers the additional narrative, describing visual elements of a program, via a television's or VCR's SAP (secondary audio program) capability. With live description (also called audio description), FM or infrared technology is used to carry a describer's comments to the headsets worn by individuals in the audience. Audio description has been growing in popularity in theaters around the country for about 15 years, and video description for a decade. Although video description, pioneered by WGBH-TV in Boston, has been available only on the public television network PBS and some cable stations to date, a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last week has the potential to change that situation dramatically.

New FCC guidelines mandate that virtually all television broadcasts carry closed captioning for persons who are deaf by 2006. The audio equivalent, however—video description for persons who are visually impaired—has received far less attention. Finally, the FCC's chairman, William Kennard, has put some thoughts on the table to begin the process toward a formal commitment. The proposal in the FCC notice is that the four major networks—ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX—be required to have a minimum of 50 hours per quarter, or about four hours per week, of video description. The suggested guideline stipulates that priority be given to prime time and children's programming. The FCC will be accepting comments in favor or opposition to the proposal through February 23,2000. For one month after that time, there will be an opportunity for rebuttal. The broadcast industry is resistant, so all comments from the public are valuable. To read the Proposed Rule or other supported information, visit the FCC Web site at <www.fcc.gov>.

Better Tools for a More Accessible Web

On February 3, 2000, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) announced the release of the "Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines 1.0" (ATAG 1.0) <www.w3.org/TR/2000/REC-ATAG10-20000203/>. The guidelines explain how developers of Web-authoring software can encourage and assist in the production of content on the Web that is accessible to people with disabilities.

Authoring tools include a variety of products—such as text and multimedia editors, formatting and conversion software, and site management tools—used to create Web pages and Web sites. The guidelines will improve accessibility by recommending that authoring tools incorporate such approaches as automatically checking the accessibility of content as it is created; by prompting the author for necessary changes; and by providing information on how to create accessible content. The guidelines also address the accessibility of the software itself so that people with disabilities can use it for publishing on the Web.

"Most content on the Web is created using authoring tools. If authoring tools seamlessly guide authors in creating accessible content, the wealth of information on the Web will become more accessible," said Jutta Treviranus, chair of the Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines Working Group and director of the Adaptive Technology Resource Centre at the University of Toronto. Treviranus added, "Just as important, the Web as a means of expression should not be reserved for people without disabilities. These guidelines promote authoring tools that create content that is accessible, and authoring tools that are usable by people with disabilities, thereby cultivating a World Wide Web that we can all participate in." Microsoft's Greg Lowney, director of accessibility, added, "Widespread adoption of the guidelines by companies that produce authoring tools—and in turn, widespread use of those tools—will make accessible Web sites the default rather than the exception."

ATAG 1.0 consists of 28 requirements, called "checkpoints." The checkpoints are organized according to seven overriding design principles, or "guidelines." Each checkpoint has been assigned a priority corresponding to its importance for accessibility.

W3C is also moving forward on the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines 1.0 (UAAG 1.0) <http://www.w3.org/TR/UAAG>. UAAG was under review during February as a "Candidate Recommendation," the stage during which technical feedback is sought on the guidelines and potential implementation problems are tested. These guidelines explain to developers how to design user agents that are accessible to people with disabilities. User agents include browsers, multimedia players, and assistive technologies that give full access to Web content. The next step is the circulation of UAAG to W3 member organizations as a "Proposed Recommendation" for a decision on whether to adopt the guidelines as an official W3C recommendation. The Authoring Tool Accessibility Guidelines and the User Agent Accessibility Guidelines, together with the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines issued last spring, are products of the W3C's Web Accessibility Initiative (WAI).

For more information on the accessibility guidelines or the Web Accessibility Initiative see <www.w3.org/wai> or call 617-253-2613.

Software for Completing Forms

FutureForms, a division of Pummill Business Forms, introduced Verbal-eyes, new assistive technology software that enables visually impaired persons to fill out forms on-line. Verbal-eyes is designed to scan the user's computer to determine if a screen reader is present and active. If a screen reader is active, the software will decipher the form on the screen for the user. Otherwise, it will remain quiet and allow the user to complete the form. For more information, contact Terri Pummill, Pummill Business Forms, 903 Chicago Drive, Grand Rapids, MI 49509; phone: 616-475-1204;Web site: <www.futureforms.com> or <www.pummill.com>.


Jim Thatcher of IBM's Accessibility Center, formerly IBM Special Needs Systems, is retiring in March. He was the force behind IBM's DOS Screen Reader, OS/2 Screen Reader, and Home Page Reader.

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March 20–25, 2000

California State University at Northridge's Center on Disabilities' 15th annual international conference, "Technology and Persons with Disabilities."

Hilton Los Angeles Airport and Los Angeles Airport Marriott Hotels, California.


Center on Disabilities, California State University, Northridge, 18111 Nordhoff Street, Northridge, CA 91330-8340; phone: 818-677-2578; fax: 818-677-4929; E-mail: <LTM@csun.edu>; Web site: <www.csun.edu/cod/>.

March 29–31, 2000

Focus on Access Technology Conference.

Hilton Minneapolis and Towers, Minneapolis, MN. The conference is sponsored by Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision, Mississippi State University.


Katherine Evans, Mississippi State University, Rehabilitation Research and Training Center on Blindness and Low Vision, P.O. box 6189, Mississippi State, MS 39762; phone: 662-325-2001; fax: 662-325-8989; Web site: <www.blind.msstate.edu/focus/>.

April 1–6, 2000

CHI 2000 Conference

The Hague, The Netherlands. The conference is an international forum for the exchange of ideas and information about human-computer interaction.


CHI 2000 Office, 703 Giddings Avenue, Suite U-3, Annapolis, MD 21401; phone: 410-263-5382; fax: 410-267-0332; E-mail: <chi2000-office@acm.org>; Web site: <www.acm.org/sigs/sigchi/chi2000/>.

April 2–4, 2000

Missouri Assistive Technology Conference and Exhibition

Holiday Inn Select, Columbia, Missouri


Rosalie Backer-Thompson, Missouri Assistive Technology, 4731 S. Cacaos, Suite 114, Independence, MO 64055-6975; phone: 816-373-5193; fax: 816-373-9314; E-mail: <matpmo@qni.com>

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