jump to article
AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2002 Issue  Volume 3  Number 6

In This Issue . . .

Editor's Page

The Braille Must Go Through: A Review of Two Lower-Cost Braille Printers

Comparisons of the Braille Blazer, manufactured by Freedom Scientific, and the Porta-Thiel, distributed by Sighted Electronics—Lynn Zelvin

Cast a Vote by Yourself: A Review of Accessible Voting Machines

Reviews of the iVotronic from Election Systems & Software, the AVC Edge from Sequoia Voting Systems, the eSlate from Hart InterCivic, and the Vote-Trakker from Avante International Technology—Darren Burton and Mark Uslan

She Rules the Braille Domain: An Interview with Judy Dixon

A Talk with the Web-Braille pioneer at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped—Deborah Kendrick

Start Your Engines: Successful Web Searching

—Lynn Zelvin



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

AccessWorld is published bi-monthly by AFB Press, American Foundation for the Blind, 11 Penn Plaza, Suite 300, New York, NY 10001. Products included in AccessWorld are not necessarily endorsed by AccessWorld or AFB staff.

All rights reserved. Copyright (c) 2002 American Foundation for the Blind.

AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind. AccessWorld is made possible by generous grants from John T. Bourger and Slena Vanderwerf and the Jessie Ball dePont Fund.

Photo on cover: Darren Burton using an accessible voting machine.

Editor's Page

As I reviewed this issue—including two articles focusing on braille—I thought about my own recent increased use of braille. I have read more braille documents and books and magazines in the last year than in any year in recent memory, and I have not brailled any of them for myself on a braille printer. I upload meeting materials, articles, memos, magazines, and books to my BrailleNote for reading or editing, and I e-mail meeting notes and edited articles to colleagues.

Personal organizers with increased memory, combined with sources of electronic braille files such as Web-Braille (discussed below) and Bookshare (www.bookshare.org>), have given people who are blind or visually impaired access to a vast amount of information in a very portable form. We can carry several braille books on our daily commutes, on business or pleasure trips, and to doctors' offices. College students can review discussion materials in class along with sighted classmates.

It is not quite time to abandon paper and read all braille material electronically. Children need to develop strong braille reading skills and learn about page format without being distracted by the details of operating a machine at the same time. However, the high price of producing braille decreases significantly if you eliminate the expense and time required to emboss, bind, and ship books and magazines. I encourage braille readers, teachers, and administrators to consider the option of electronic braille files whenever possible.

Lynn Zelvin, independent assistive technology trainer and web site designer, evaluates the Porta-Thiel sold by Sighted Electronics and Freedom Scientific's Braille Blazer, two "low-cost" braille printers. With price tags of $2,895 and $1,895, respectively, they certainly are not cheap, but they actually are two of the least expensive braille embossers on the market. Zelvin puts them through their paces and reports on documentation, ease of use, the ability to use multiple languages or set printing parameters, printing speed, and braille quality. If you are in the market for a braille printer for home, office, or school use, check out this review of two candidates for the job.

Darren Burton, National Program Associate in Technology, AFB Tech, and Mark Uslan review the usability of four accessible voting machines. In future elections, paper ballots will be replaced by ballots displayed on computer screens, and votes will be counted automatically. For voters who are blind or visually impaired, the touch screens must be replaced by speech output and/or large print, as well as usable controls. The authors evaluated each machine for speech quality, clarity of instructions to the voter, user control of font size and contrast, tactile identification and labeling of controls, and the ability to access information both visually and aurally. Find out which machine earns our vote for providing voting that is both secret and verifiable.

Deborah Kendrick interviews Judy Dixon, Consumer Relations Officer at the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS.) Dixon is an outspoken, tireless advocate for braille literacy, an expert in the use and benefits of assistive technology, and the developer of, and driving force behind, Web-Braille—a service that places translated braille files of books and magazines on the web for download by NLS patrons to be read on braille notetakers and computers. Over 2,300 people are registered Web-Braille users and have access to newly transcribed books and their favorite magazines—including PC World, National Geographic, Rolling Stone, Science News and Ladies' Home Journal—long before other NLS patrons receive paper braille in the mail.

Lynn Zelvin provides an overview of search engines. This article describes two different types of search engines and presents basic strategies for working with them. If the web has taken you on a frustrating trip to Catalonia and the Catskills on the way to answering your questions about cat care, this article will provide strategies for taking charge of an incredibly powerful resource.

Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief

Back to top

Product Evaluation

The Braille Must Go Through: A Review of Two Lower-Cost Braille Printers

Braille embossers are known for their bulk and high price tags. This article reviews the Porta-Thiel, sold by Sighted Electronics, and Freedom Scientific's Braille Blazer. Both are compact and portable. Both sell for under $3,000—certainly not cheap, but less than the price of any other braille printer. They print slowly, are loud, and have different limitations as a compromise for their small size. This review will help you decide what limitations you can live with when you decide to buy a portable embosser.

How We Tested

Standard 100-pound braille printer paper and "embossables" from American Thermoform Corporation (continuous-feed plastic with adhesive backing) were used to test the embossers. Four documents were printed on paper. One document was also printed on the plastic for comparison purposes. Each file was two pages long. Files were formatted at 30 characters per line and 25 lines per page, for a total of 1,500 characters (including spaces) for the two pages. The files were two full pages of only the letter A (1 braille dot) with no spaces, two pages of full cells (all six dots), two pages of an article about Brooklyn from the Seattle Times, and two pages from the beginning of the American Standard Bible, formatted to have a lot more blank space than the Brooklyn article. Headings were removed to obtain two full pages of text in the latter two cases. One page of the Brooklyn article was also printed on the plastic. Each file was printed twice to eliminate heavy-handedness on the stopwatch.

The Braille Blazer

The Braille Blazer is a 12-pound braille printer measuring 13.5 by 8 by 5 inches. With its lid closed, it forms a rectangular box with a carrying handle on the back. The lid is white, the sides are attractively ridged and dark gray, and the front and back are brushed aluminum. Three gray function keys are located on the right side of the lid, on the top surface of the printer. To the left side of the lid is a paper-advance rocker switch. These controls are labeled in braille. On the back are a parallel port, a serial port, an earphone jack, and a voltage selector.

The Blazer comes with a standard AC power cord and parallel cable. An optional attractive black padded case with shoulder strap is available for an extra $60.

The Blazer prints on tractor feed fan-fold paper or plastic only, but widths are completely adjustable up to 8½ inches wide, to include fan-fold index cards and labels. There is no indication of a minimum weight. The tractor feed mechanism forces you to waste a sheet of paper each time you reload it. It is possible to load paper backwards and not waste the sheet, but Freedom Scientific does not recommend doing so because there is a greater risk of the paper jamming. The Blazer can print 6- or 8-dot braille and graphics and can print sideways.

Special Features

  1. The Blazer's built-in speech synthesizer can also be used as a speech synthesizer for your computer. Theoretically, you can use it even while the printer is printing, by printing to the parallel port and accessing the synthesizer via the serial port. However, the printer is so loud that it is not realistic to try to do much computer work while printing. The Blazer has a loud and harsh printing sound.
  2. The Blazer has character sets for printing in Spanish, Japanese, French, French Canadian, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Danish, Slovak, and Russian, in addition to U.S. English.
  3. An optional product maintenance agreement is available for $250 annually after the one-year warranty expires.

Getting Help

The Braille Blazer comes with a manual in print and on audiocassette. The manual is also available for download from the manufacturer's web site. A braille manual can be printed from the Blazer's memory. The different formats of the manuals have different content, and each has both value and flaws. The online manual is clear and comprehensive. It has a useful table of contents, although, unfortunately, page numbers were not included. The braille manual is a completely different manual, including page numbers, but no table of contents or clear section breaks. That a device like a braille printer does not automatically come with a braille manual or even a quick-reference card seems like quite an omission.

Basic Operation

The lid of the Blazer lifts up completely and rests in place while open. Inserting the paper is simple, since the entire mechanism is exposed. It does not matter if the printer is on or off or what mode it is in when you insert the paper. You open the hinged paper guides, slide the paper under the rodlike printing platen, and line the paper up so the sprocket holes rest over the pins in the paper guide and the easily tactilely identifiable top-of-form detector opening is covered. While it can be easy to slant the paper in such mechanisms so that it will not feed straight, there is a lot of room to work and a flat resting place under the protruding sprocket holes. You then close the lid and press two buttons. The top of form is located, and the paper is advanced so that the top of the second sheet is ready for printing.

The paper sometimes jammed in the feeding process and during embossing. However, the 45-page manual was printed while the Blazer was left unattended without jamming.

The operation of the printer and its configuration menus is controlled by pressing one or more of its three buttons. The buttons are close together, but require a bit of pressure to push and a bit of coordinated pressure to push all three at the same time.

Only one function seems to require two-handed operation–the sequence that allows the configuration menus to be both embossed and spoken. The manual acknowledges the importance of this feature to allow deaf-blind users to access these menus. However, the embossed prompts are left close to the platen bar—dots 3 and 6 are tucked slightly under the curve of the bar, making this type of operation much more cumbersome then using the spoken menus. Aside from this inconvenience, a deaf-blind user would have full access to the operation of the printer. If you want to silence the speech to avoid unnecessary noise in a shared work environment, you can use the Volume Lower function.

Only one configuration is available—you cannot store more than one setup. However, if you do not need to read the printer's responses in braille, the configuration menus are easy to use; you can quickly move to the setting you want, choose only those menus you need to work with, back out part or all of the way, and even move back and forward through the various settings. The limitation of the three buttons is dealt with by allowing you to cycle through multiple choices. Where there are two choices—Rate Faster and Rate Slower, for example—they are separate menu items.


The Blazer has three paper-weight settings: heavy, light, and plastic. The only setting that required changing between runs was the weight setting, which was changed from heavy to plastic when printing on plastic.

Printing Rates

The specifications state that the Blazer prints braille text at 15 characters per second. The speed of two runs consistently came within a second of each other, and the average of the two is given next. The rates are rounded to the nearest integer. The actual rates achieved were as follows:

Box 1: Actual printing rates.

Caption: Box 1.

The text has three column heads: File, Time in seconds, and Characters per second. File As, Time in seconds 50, Characters per second 30, File Full cells, Time in seconds 132.5, Characters per second 11, File Brooklyn article, Time in seconds 132.5, Characters per second 11, File Bible excerpt, Time in seconds 125.0, Characters per second 12, File Brooklyn article on plastic (one page), Time in seconds 111.0, Characters per second 7.

These times fell short of the 15 characters per second claimed in the specifications, except for the page of As. It seems that printing on plastic is slower, but that the content plays little role in the printing speed—the pages of As with one dot per cell printed fast, but once full cells were being printed, the absence of spaces and the necessity to print more dots than in text files did not seem to make the process significantly longer.

Braille Quality

The braille quality appeared to be uniform and consistent. There were no missing or flatter cells. The braille on the plastic was of equal sharpness and consistency with the braille printed on paper.

The Porta-Thiel

The Porta-Thiel weighs 10 pounds and measures 15 inches wide by 10 inches deep by 4 inches high at its highest point. It is not square—the 4-inch-high ridge in the middle slopes down to a front edge about half the height, giving it a sleek appearance. A transparent plastic "reading tray" attaches to the back and adds a couple of inches to the necessary clearance area at the back of the embosser. This tray can be left off without affecting operations. The Porta-Thiel's case is metal, most of it a light cream color with dark gray sides and red control buttons. Paper is fed through the front, and all the controls and ports are on the sides.

Three buttons are used for all printer functions—one on the left side near the front and two on the right side near the front. Two knobs, one on each side, allow for independent control of the pressure for each side of the page when printing interpoint. Included are a parallel port, a nine-pin female serial port, and a keyboard port. The only part of this embosser that does not appear durable is a soft rubber pointer, used when setting up parameters, which protrudes from the back edge.

Included with the embosser are a parallel cable, standard AC power cord, braille and print manuals, some paper to get you started, and two 3.5-inch computer disks containing the manual in Microsoft Word and text formats, as well as a program to control the setup process from a DOS-based computer. This software did not function when run in a DOS box under Windows 98. No carrying case is included with this printer, nor is one sold as an optional accessory.

When discussing paper size and weight, the manual refers only to European measurements—from 80 to 180 grams and a range of paper sizes starting with A4. A4 is similar to 8½ x 11 paper, but it is a problem that U.S. specifications are not also included. Judging from the options in the setup menus, the minimum paper height is 8 inches, and some paper sizes are smaller than 20 characters. The maximum paper width is 12 inches. This printer can print on a single sheet, in continuous forms, and on plastic.

The Porta-Thiel is loud when printing, although it has a somewhat muffled, rather than a harsh, sound. It does not offer graphics or sideways printing. Both 6- and 8-dot printing are possible.

Special Features

  1. A standard computer keyboard can be connected directly to the Porta-Thiel, allowing it to be used as a braille writer of sorts. The keyboard port is one of the older larger round ports, necessitating an adapter for newer keyboards. If you type and press Enter, your text is printed using the U.S. ASCII braille code.
  2. The distance between lines can be altered by 0, 1, 2, or 3 dots distance between cells. Changing the distance could be used to emboss something decorative by setting the distance to 0 and printing strings of characters that form interesting patterns.
  3. Character sets are available to emboss German, Spanish, French, and British English, in addition to U.S. English.

Getting Help

The manual is poorly written and full of errors and omissions. There is no troubleshooting section. The braille version's table of contents contains no page numbers, and the text is unformatted, making it difficult to find a section number quickly.

Although many options can be changed, there is little or no explanation of the results of those changes. There is no mention of braille-translation software in the manual and thus no explanation of how the printer interacts with that software. It took many hours of trial and error to produce a correctly formatted file.

Basic Operation

There is no tractor-feed device to control the paper feed. To feed the paper, you move a plastic guide to the width of the right margin, slide the paper in as far as it will go, and push any of the control buttons, which advances the paper to the top-of-form position. When printing single sheets, there is no sheet feed mechanism. After a page has been printed, the Porta-Thiel announces, "paper out." You insert another page, press any button to advance it to the top of form, and printing resumes. When printing on continuous paper, the printer advances each new sheet itself and, if the paper runs out, a new page can be inserted as with a single sheet of paper with no loss of data.

The process proved to be inconsistent. Often when the paper was fed, it was crooked. Sometimes crookedness was easy to determine because the paper crunched up against the plastic guide or was partially protruding at a slant from the back "exit" area. Sometimes it wasn't clear until printing began and the paper began to crinkle against one side. After many hours of use, I began to develop a feel for how to feed the paper, and this problem became less common. During testing, the printer sometimes announced "paper out" when the paper was fully loaded and announced "cut paper" after it printed one page and would not resume printing until the first page was separated. When the printer seemed to be "confused" in this way, the "read" and "form-feed" functions did not advance the paper, leaving no option but to attempt to tear it off. After tearing it off, the form-feed function reset the top of form, and printing resumed.

At times, the print on the second page of a document would be indented four cells to the right. At other times, the printer would stop several lines below the bottom of the paper and advance the page. These printing problems occurred randomly, without changes to parameters.

The three buttons and on/off switch control the Porta-Thiel's operation. Pushing these buttons requires only minimal pressure, but some commands require holding down more than one button at a time. Users without two-handed manual dexterity may have difficulty operating this device.

A built-in speech synthesizer is available to speak a few prerecorded messages, such as "paper out" when there is no paper. A user's inability to hear these messages would not greatly limit the embosser's use. There are situations in which the control buttons produce meaningful beeps, the most critical being switching between single-sided and interpoint embossing. A deaf-blind person using this printer might have trouble with this setting.

Eight sets of parameters are possible. A setup menu is accessed directly from the printer in braille only. Each question is printed, and the paper is advanced for reading. When a response is given, the next question is printed. The rubber pointer mentioned earlier is used to point to the current option for answering a question. This process is effective, although tedious.


Many hours of trial and error were needed to print files properly. The final conclusion is that the highest impact setting works best for this weight of paper. For interpoint, the setting for the top side should be at the highest, and for the reverse side, it should be three settings below the highest. In addition, it was almost impossible to run the full-cell file because the paper kept jamming, and only one run of each was achieved.

Printing Rates

The specifications give the printing speed as 15 characters per second for interpoint and 10 characters per second when printing in single-sided mode. The times for two runs consistently came within a second of each other, and the average of the two is given next. The rates are rounded to the nearest integer. The actual rates achieved were as follows:

Box 2: Actual printing rates.

The text has three column heads: File, Time in seconds, and Characters per second. File As (single sided), Time in seconds 115.5, Characters per second 13, File As (interpoint), Time in seconds 77.5, Characters per second 19, File Full cells (single sided), Time in seconds 360.0, Characters per second 4, File Full cells (interpoint), Time in seconds 274.0, Characters per second 5, File Brooklyn article (single sided), Time in seconds 245.5, Characters per second 6, File Brooklyn article (interpoint), Time in seconds 165.5, Characters per second 9, File Bible excerpt (single sided), Time in seconds 202.5, Characters per second 7, File Bible excerpt (interpoint), Time in seconds 144.0, Characters per second 10, File Brooklyn article on plastic (one page), Time in seconds 120.0, Characters per second 6.

Except for the As file, none of the printing rates approached those in the specifications. Timing is clearly dependent on content.

Braille Quality

The braille cell embossed by the Porta-Thiel has a sharp well-defined feel. There is a problem with consistency—some cells are flatter than others in a pattern that showed up for almost all the text that was printed. The difference in cell height did not stand out as much when the page of full cells was printed. There were no missing dots. The difference in height seemed to vary from line to line in an alternating fashion, leading to the conclusion that it may be related to how the paper is fed. It was more pronounced on the pages of interpoint braille, but only on the "top" side. The reverse side of interpoint pages had sharp and consistent braille. The feel of the difference was like going gradually downhill, rather than having a specific number of flatter cells. However, on the alternating lines, the first 10 cells seemed to be distinctly higher than the last 10. Although all the braille was readable, once this pattern was noticed, it was a significant distraction. The same problem was accentuated when printing on plastic.

Manufacturer's Comments

Freedom Scientific

"Freedom Scientific appreciates your review of our Braille Blazer embosser in AccessWorld. The Blazer has been a staple for itinerant teachers and many other professionals who need a rugged, reliable embosser that provides high-quality, consistent braille on the go. We also appreciate the opportunity to respond to two issues you described in the article.

  1. The differences you found in the speed test occurred because of the manner in which the Blazer produces braille. The Blazer uses only two solenoids to produce from 1 to 8 dots per cell. In the test, you printed a page of nothing but the letter "A." Under that scenario, the Blazer can rapidly emboss a single dot and move on to the next cell. However, when the document is composed of braille whose cells can include up to 6 dots per cell (as in literary braille), the unit will need a greater amount of time for each cell to be embossed. In real-world situations, speeds of up to 12 to 13 characters per second should be expected. We are updating our documentation to reflect more accurately the speed of this high-quality embosser.
  2. Noise is inherent with embossers, and the work-station environment affects the level. The Braille Blazer is relatively quiet and perfectly acceptable in an open setting, such as a resource room or while embossing on a table in a carpeted office. Naturally, in a smaller, enclosed work area, the noise level will seem higher."

Product Features

Product Features

Product Features

Maximum paper width: Braille Blazer: 8.5 inches; Porta-Thiel: 12 inches, Paper length settings: Braille Blazer: 0–12 inches in 1/8-inch increments; Porta-Thiel: 8–12 inches in 1-inch increments, Prints on tractor feed paper: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: Yes, Prints on individual sheet paper: Braille Blazer: No; Porta-Thiel: Yes, Prints on plastic: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: Yes, Prints interpoint: Braille Blazer: No; Porta-Thiel: Yes, 6-dot/8-dot braille: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: Yes, Graphics printing mode: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: No, Sideways printing: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: No, Specialized printing formats: Braille Blazer: Special mode for cassette labels; Porta-Thiel: Jumbo braille, can change distance between lines, Braille prompts for setup: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: Yes, Voice prompts for setup: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: No, Can use as a synthesizer: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: No, Can configure serial-port parameters: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: No, Language character sets other than U.S. English: Braille Blazer: Spanish, Japanese, French, French Canadian, German, Brazilian Portuguese, Danish, Slovak, and Russian; Porta-Thiel: German, Spanish, British English, French, Stored configurations: Braille Blazer: 1; Porta-Thiel: 8, Pressure controls: Braille Blazer: Three options in menus; Porta-Thiel: Seven settings via external knobs, Direct printing from PC keyboard: Braille Blazer: No; Porta-Thiel: Yes, Waste a sheet of paper each time: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: No, Warranty: Braille Blazer: 1 year; Porta-Thiel: Not known, Extended maintenance: Braille Blazer: $250/year; Porta-Thiel: Not available, Actual printing speed measured (single sided): Braille Blazer: 11–12 cps; Porta-Thiel: 6–7 cps, Actual printing speed measured (interpoint): Braille Blazer: Not available; Porta-Thiel: 9–10 cps, Weight: Braille Blazer: 12 pounds; Porta-Thiel: 10 pounds, Carrying case: Braille Blazer: Yes; Porta-Thiel: No, Manual formats: Braille Blazer: Cassette, print, available download, embossable from printer; Porta-Thiel: Braille, print, computer disk, Features not usable by the deaf-blind: Braille Blazer: None; Porta-Thiel: Switching between interpoint and single sided, jumbo braille.

Product Ratings

Product Ratings

Braille Blazer and Porta-Thiel

Braille Quality: Braille Blazer: 4.5; Porta-Thiel: 3, Printing Speed: Braille Blazer: 3; Porta-Thiel: 2, Documentation: Braille Blazer: 4; Porta-Thiel: 2, Portability: Braille Blazer: 3; Porta-Thiel: 3.5, Setup/Configuration: Braille Blazer: 4; Porta-Thiel: 3, Paper feeding: Braille Blazer: 4; Porta-Thiel: 3.

Product Information

Product: Braille Blazer

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805; phone: 800-444-4443 or 727-803-8000; e-mail: <Sales@freedomscientific.com>; web site: <www.FreedomScientific.com>. Price: $1,895.

Product: Porta-Thiel

U.S. distributor: Sighted Electronics, 69 Woodland Avenue; Westwood, NJ 07675; phone: 800-666-4883 or 201-666-2221; e-mail: <sales@sighted.com>; web site: <www.sighted.com>. Price: $2,895.

Back to top

Product Evaluation

Cast a Vote by Yourself: A Review of Accessible Voting Machines

The chaos surrounding the 2000 presidential election clearly illustrated the need to modernize our nation's election systems, and several manufacturers have developed electronic voting machines to eliminate the inaccuracies involved with paper and "chad-style" ballots. These machines use electronic ballots displayed on computer screens, and the ballots are counted automatically. Since it is estimated that 500,000 of these machines, costing between $2,000 and $5,000, would need to be purchased across the United States, it could be a multi-billion-dollar process to bring our nation up to date.

To help ensure that people who are blind or visually impaired are not forgotten as this modernization occurs, we gathered four machines that are on the market and evaluated their usability and accessibility. The machines were the iVotronic from Election Systems & Software (Figure 1), the AVC Edge from Sequoia Voting Systems (Figure 2), the eSlate from Hart InterCivic (Figure 3), and the Vote-Trakker from Avante International Technology (Figure 4). Fifteen people, ranging in age from 14 to 64, acted as testers—nine who were blind and six who were visually impaired.

How Could a Machine Earn Our Vote?

A truly accessible voting machine would allow a blind or visually impaired person to vote secretly and verifiably, eliminating the need for an assistant. Sighted voters use modern voting machines by simply touching the area corresponding to the candidate of their choice on an electronic touch-screen display. To use these machines, a blind person reviews the ballot via speech output through headphones and uses buttons to scroll through the ballot and choose candidates. The most important accessibility features are these:

  • Speech quality and whether the speech is produced via human voice recordings or synthetic speech.
  • Clarity of both printed and spoken instructions.
  • Controls that are identifiable tactilely or have braille.
  • A means of avoiding under-voting or over-voting.
  • User control of font size and screen contrast.
  • The ability to use visual and audio voting simultaneously.
  • Overall ease of use.

These voting machines must be easy and quick to understand and use by all voters, from the most computer savvy to those whose experience with technology goes no further than the telephone.

We do not have specific prices for the machines. The prices are negotiated and can vary greatly from contract to contract, depending on the quantity purchased and other products purchased by municipalities, such as ballot-preparation, ballot-counting, and voter registration services.

How Do the Machines Stack Up?


The iVotronic touch-screen voting unit is incorporated into a private, sturdy, portable voting booth that could fold up and be rolled on its wheels. The voting unit can be removed and placed on the lap of a voter using a wheelchair or taken out to the street in areas that allow curbside voting. The touch-screen display measures 9.75 inches by 7.25 inches, and the unit has four buttons that blind voters use to navigate and mark the ballot. Three of these buttons are on the panel in front of the touch screen, including two yellow Up and Down triangular buttons. To the right of these two buttons is a green diamond-shaped Select button. In the middle of the panel in back of the touch screen is a black oval Vote button. A red light in this button flashes when it is time to cast the final ballot.

Figure 1. Photo of the iVotronic.

Caption: iVotronic.

This system uses a hierarchical navigation process that was confusing to some of our testers. Initially, the voter is placed in the top level, or contest level, of the hierarchy, then uses the yellow Up and Down arrows to move from contest to contest, and presses the Select button to enter a race. The voter is now in the bottom, or candidate level, of the hierarchy and again uses the Up and Down buttons to move from candidate to candidate. The voter then presses the Select button to choose the candidate of his or her choice. The problem is that if a voter moves past the last candidate in a race, the system takes him or her up a level in the hierarchy to the contest level, positioned on the next race. So, the voter would have to move back up to the race he or she was working on originally and again press the Select button to move back down into the candidate level. The iVotronic does have write-in capabilities, but our sample ballot did not offer this option. One feature that we found truly advantageous was the fact that this unit allows the voter to vote at his or her own pace. You can pause to think, or you can scroll quickly through the ballot.

Evaluating this unit against the criteria we think are the most important, we found that the speech output is produced via high-quality, easily understood human voice recordings. The instructions are clear and informative, but our testers suggested that a better job should be done of describing the hierarchy system. The four buttons that are used to navigate and mark the ballot are easy to locate and identify tactilely. They have unique shapes and contrasting colors, but the braille labels are placed a bit too close to some of the buttons, making them slightly difficult to read. The unit is engineered not to allow overvoting, and the voter is reminded, before casting a final ballot, if a ballot is not fully completed and is given the chance to review or change selections.

The touch-screen interface is easy to use, and the instructions are clear, but the user cannot control the font size. The print is in a 14-point font, which was too small for our visually impaired testers. This unit does not allow voters to change the contrast of the print, and our visually impaired testers would have preferred the ability to change to white print on a black background. In addition, the on-screen display goes away when speech output is used, and our visually impaired testers disliked this feature, preferring the ability to use both vision and speech output simultaneously.

AVC Edge

The AVC Edge is another touch-screen unit. The voting unit is consolidated into its own portable voting booth, but the booth is not as sturdy as the iVotronic booth and does not offer quite as much privacy in its design. Although the touch screen does not detach for curbside voting, the booth does have a wide stance for wheelchair access. The touch-screen display measures 9 inches by 12 inches, and can be adjusted to an angle that is more easily reached for seated voters. Voters who are blind use a handheld control box featuring four tactilely identifiable buttons labeled in braille. The top right button is a square blue Help button, the bottom right button is a red round Select button, and on the left are two triangular buttons pointing Up and Down. The top button is green and is labeled Next, and the bottom one is yellow and is labeled Back.

Figure 2. Photo of the AVC Edge.

Caption: AVC Edge.

The AVC Edge uses a hierarchical system similar to the iVotronic interface. We found it slightly easier to use because it does not automatically take you to the next contest when you scroll past the last candidate of a contest. The Help button is context sensitive. However, we found a quirk in the Help system that caused confusion for our testers. After hearing the Help message, the voter is taken all the way back to the beginning of the ballot. The manufacturer has promised to fix this problem. We liked the write-in feature, in which the voter uses the Next and Back buttons to scroll through the alphabet and select letters to spell out the name of the candidate of his or her choice. This unit also allows the voter to vote at his or her own pace, which pleased our testers.

This unit performs well when measured against the criteria we found to be important, but again there is room for improvement. The speech output is produced via human voice recordings, but the audio had a bit of static. The visual instructions are clear and informative, but they are on the side of the voting booth, rather than on the screen, and larger print instructions should be made available to visually impaired voters. The buttons are easy to distinguish visually and tactilely, with highly contrasting colors and shapes, and have braille labels. However, the braille is what the manufacturers called "jumbo braille"—slightly larger than standard braille—and some of our testers had trouble reading it. The testers also did not like the handheld control box, preferring controls that would be part of the voting unit itself. The unit does not allow overvoting, and it prompts voters when a choice has not been made in a race to avoid undervoting.

As with the iVotronic, the screen goes black when audio voting begins, and again our testers did not like this feature. However, the manufacturer is working to correct it. Although larger fonts and different contrasts can be programmed into the unit in advance, the user cannot control the font size or contrast.


The eSlate voting machine is not a touch-screen unit, so both sighted and blind voters use the same push-button interface. Although it is available with its own voting booth, our test unit did not come with a booth. The unit is portable to accommodate curbside voting. It includes a headphone jack to provide privacy to voters who are blind or visually impaired. In addition, the unit can be controlled by two tactile switches that voters can operate using their elbows or feet, if need be. It also has a port to connect a "sip and puff" device that a person with quadriplegia can use to control the voting unit with his or her mouth.

Figure 3. Photo of the eSlate.

Caption: eSlate.

The eSlate display screen measures 9.75 inches by 10 inches and features black text on a gray background in a 14-point font. On the top panel of the eSlate, below the screen, are six buttons. On the left, there is a red Cast Ballot button that is round with the top truncated. The rest of the buttons are white, and along the bottom are two triangular buttons pointing left and right, labeled Previous and Next, but they are not intended to be used by blind voters. Above those two buttons is an oval Help button. Next is an Enter button. The last control is a round Select wheel that the voter rotates to scroll through the ballot.

This machine uses a straight linear ballot. Rotating the Select wheel clockwise one notch brings you to the title of the first contest. Subsequent rotations scroll through the candidates for that race, and pressing the Enter button makes or cancels a selection. Scrolling past the last candidate in a particular race takes the voter to the title of the next race and then to the candidates for that race. Our testers found this linear interface easier to use than the hierarchy system of the previous two machines, but a ballot with a lot of contests could require a great deal of scrolling. Our testers also liked the context-sensitive Help. Pressing the Help button twice sends a message alerting the poll worker that the voter requests assistance. Like the AVC Edge and iVotronic units, this machine has the user-friendly feature of allowing the voter to control the pace of voting. Although the ballots we used did not feature write-in choices, the eSlate does have write-in capabilities.

This unit performs well when measured against the criteria we found to be important, but again there is room for slight improvement. The speech output is high-quality human voice recording, and the instructions are clear and informative, especially with the context-sensitive help. The buttons had contrasting shapes and colors with easy-to-read braille labels. The unit does not allow over-voting, and a review page lets the voter know if a choice was not made in a certain contest. Like all the other units we tested, this one does not allow the voter to control the font size or screen contrast. However, the manufacturer reports having had success placing optical page magnifiers on top of the screen, and the unit can be configured with an 18-point font at the request of the election official. That configuration must be done in advance. Although the voter cannot change the contrast of the display, all our visually impaired testers liked the fact that the screen does not go black when speech output is used and that they were able to use both visual and audio voting simultaneously.


The Vote-Trakker is a portable touch-screen unit with speech output generated via synthetic speech, rather than human voice recordings. The unit did not come with a voting booth, but it did have a glare guard that folds out over the screen to provide some privacy. The touch screen is 11 inches wide by 8.5 inches high. The interface used by voters who are blind or visually impaired is a modified QWERTY computer keyboard. The Escape, Minus, Enter, and Control keys on the four corners of the keyboard are the primary controls, and these keys are raised about twice as high as the other keys for easy identification. In addition, the arrow keys can be used for scrolling, and the letter keys are used to write in candidates.

Figure 4. Photo of the Vote-Trakker.

Caption: Vote-Trakker.

The speech output is produced by the IBM ViaVoice TTS Runtime speech synthesizer, and the voter is able to adjust the voice rate and pitch. When voting begins, the unit reads the title of the first contest, followed by the names of the candidates. There is a short pause after each candidate's name during which the voter may press the Enter button to choose that candidate. If a voter misses a candidate, he or she can use the arrow keys to scroll back, but if the voter waits too long after the name of the last choice is read, Abstain is entered for that contest, and the voter is taken to the next contest. After the final race is completed, the machine reads a review page with the choices that have been made. After each contest is read, the voter has three seconds to press Enter to go back and change the choice for that contest. The voter can also use the arrow keys on this page, but if you scroll past the last contest, you cannot go back, and the ballot must be cast as is. The manufacturer says that this could be a bug in the system and is checking on it.

Although some of our testers liked the flexibility of being able to adjust the synthetic voice, the non-computer users had reservations about the synthetic computer voice, as well as the computer keyboard. In fact, a blind voter who is not familiar with a QWERTY keyboard would not be able to use the write-in feature. Our testers liked the fact that this machine presents the ballot in a linear fashion, without any confusing hierarchies. However, they did not like the pace at which it leads the voter through the ballot and the fact that they could not scroll back up through the ballot to review previous contests and choices until the end. They also disliked the anxiety they felt when given just a few seconds to take an action. However, the manufacturer told us that the time limits can be extended at the request of the election officials.

Reviewing this machine against the criteria we considered important, we found that the speech output could be a problem. Although the testers with experience with synthetic speech had no problem with it, a recorded human voice would be more usable by a greater number of people. The on-screen and spoken instructions were clear and easy to understand, but the keyboard interface could cause fear for non-computer-savvy voters. The system is well designed not to allow over-voting, and the review page and other prompts during the voting process ensure that under-voting does not occur. Although the font size and contrast were not adjustable, voters who are visually impaired will like the touch-screen voting process because of the large print and highly contrasting colors. Although touch-screen voting was not active during audio voting, the screen did present the visual ballot for review by the visually impaired testers.

And the Winner Is…

Before choosing one particular machine over another, we want to stress that all these systems are a tremendous improvement over the way in which people who are blind or visually impaired currently vote with assistance from friends or poll workers, but there is certainly room for improvement.

We like the eSlate the best because of its overall ease of use owing to its linear ballot style. The runner-up is the iVotronic, edging out the AVC Edge because of clearer speech output and a lesser tendency to cause confusion. Had the AVC Edge's help system not led to the confusion mentioned previously, it would have edged out the iVotronic. Trailing the pack is the Vote-Trakker. Although we found it to be an accessible and usable machine, it loses favor because of difficulties that less technology-savvy voters may encounter with its synthetic speech and computer keyboard interface.


Voting reform is a hot topic in the United States. Many states have passed voting-accessibility laws; federal voting reform legislation has passed both houses of Congress, and we are now awaiting its final form when it emerges from conference. The bill numbers for this federal legislation are S565 and HR3295 in the Senate and House, respectively, and you can learn more at the web site <http://Thomas.loc.gov>. A grass-roots effort to include disability access in this reform process is being conducted by the American Association of People with Disabilities. Learn more at the web site <www.aapd-dc.org>. You can also call your local election officials or your state's secretary of state office to inquire about accessible voting in your area.

Manufacturer's Comments

Avante International Technology

"Avante designed the VOTE-TRAKKER™ with the desire to remove all issues of voter intent from the election process. The first goal of building a voting machine that would be used independently is sometimes open to the interpretation and skill of the voter. We would like to respond to three features that were described by this article.

  1. The voice used is synthetic. This can never be received as well as a human voice. However, one must consider that the county has to be able to program last-minute changes.
  2. Many blind voters have felt the standard keyboard even if they have not used one. This means that they are not touching some custom input device for the first time. When writing in their vote, there is voice feedback for the alphanumeric keys.
  3. The linear process that the voter must take is the balance when creating a voting machine that will not allow the voter to miss contests or make accidental mistakes. Voters always have three chances to review their choices, the same as sighted voters."

Up-and-coming Candidate

A prototype of a new voting machine is being developed by the TRACE Research & Development Center at the College of Engineering, University of Wisconsin– Madison. The center, known for its research and design efforts in the area of accessibility and universal design, seeks to develop access techniques that can be built into standard information and telecommunication technologies to make them more accessible to and usable by people with physical, sensory, or cognitive disabilities. To increase the use of universal design techniques, the center also makes its ideas and designs available to others who are developing products.

The TRACE prototype voting machine is being engineered for cross-disability access and is being designed with a goal of "discoverability." That is, a voter should be able to use the machine without any instruction from a poll worker. Two elements that are designed to accomplish this goal are a Help button and a key identification feature. The Help button provides context-sensitive help, and holding it down while pressing another key produces a message describing that key's function. Another feature of this unit that caught our attention is the zoom capability. Two buttons are used to zoom in and out—giving the user control of the size of the print on the screen—a feature missing in the units that we evaluated. We also like the fact that visual and audio voting can be done simultaneously. For more information about this prototype, send e-mail to info@trace.wisc. edu or phone 608-263-1156.

Funding for this product evaluation was provided by the Teubert Foundation, Huntington, West Virginia.

Product Features

Accessible voting machines

Human versus synthetic speech: AVC Edge: Human; eSlate: Human; IVotronic: Human; Vote-Trakker: Synthetic, Size of display (in inches): AVC Edge: 9 x 12; eSlate: 9.75 x 10; IVotronic: 9.75 x 7.25; Vote-Trakker: 11 x 8.5, Protection against under-voting/over-voting: AVC Edge: Yes; eSlate: Yes; IVotronic: Yes; Vote-Trakker: Yes, Adjustable font size and contrast: AVC Edge: No; eSlate: No; IVotronic: No; Vote-Trakker: No, Simultaneous video and audio voting: AVC Edge: No; eSlate: Yes; IVotronic: No; Vote-Trakker: No.

Product Ratings

Accessible voting machines: AVC Edge: eSlate: iVotronic: Vote-Trakker:

Portability: AVC Edge: 3; eSlate: 3; IVotronic: 3; Vote-Trakker: 3, Clarity of instructions: AVC Edge: 2; eSlate: 2; IVotronic: 2; Vote-Trakker: 2, Tactilely identifiable controls: AVC Edge: 2; eSlate: 2; IVotronic: 2; Vote-Trakker: 2, Overall ease of use: AVC Edge: 3.5; eSlate: 3.5; IVotronic: 3.5; Vote-Trakker: 3.5.

Product Information

Product: iVotronic

Manufacturer: Election Systems & Software, 11208 John Galt Boulevard, Omaha, NE 68137; phone: 402-593-0101, toll free: 800-247-8683; web site: <www.essvote.com>.

Product: AVC Edge

Manufacturer: Sequoia Voting Systems, 7677 Oakport Street, Suite 800, Oakland, CA 94621; phone: 510-875-1200; web site: <www.sequoiavote.com>.

Product: eSlate

Manufacturer: Hart InterCivic, P.O. Box 80649, Austin, TX 78708-0649; phone: 800-223-HART (4278); web site: <www.hartic.com>.

Product: Vote-Trakker

Manufacturer: Avante International Technology, 70 Washington Road, Princeton Junction, NJ 08550-1012; phone: 609-799-8896; web site: <www.avantetech.com>.

Back to top


She Rules the Braille Domain: An Interview with Judy Dixon

Judy Dixon in her office

Caption: Judy Dixon in her office

Some 2,300 people have already subscribed to an Internet service that is barely three years old. When you consider that the service in question is one that is available only to braille readers in the United States who are patrons of the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped (NLS) and have computers and devices capable of reading Grade 2 braille files, that number is significant, indeed. The service is Web-Braille and—although Judy Dixon humbly protests that it is the collaborative work of many colleagues—many of the elated consumers who have benefited from Web-Braille tend to think of the site as synonymous with her. Web-Braille offers all of the books and magazines embossed for the Library of Congress NLS program as downloadable Grade 2 braille files. Dixon's own love of braille and understanding of how other braille readers can best use the site have played a vital role in shaping this popular Internet realm.

For over 20 years, Dixon has promoted the use of braille and been a frequent pioneer in pushing the limits of technology and exploring its benefits for people who are blind. The brand of energy, enthusiasm, and creativity that helped bring Web-Braille to the fingertips (and sometimes ears) of blind consumers has apparently been a part of Dixon's essence since babyhood. It may even run in the family.

"When I was 9 days old," Dixon said with laughter and affection, "my mother found out I was blind. When I was 10 days old, she was on a plane to Boston where the rest of her family lived. And when I was 11 days old, she was touring the Perkins School for the Blind!"

The family lived in Cocoa, Florida, so Dixon's earliest education was at the Florida School for the Blind. "At age 3 or 4, I could see newspaper headlines," she recalled, "so they put me in 'sight-saving' class. Then they decided my sight wasn't worth saving and started teaching me braille."

Her elementary education took an unconventional turn when Dixon's aunt learned of a new classroom for blind children in a Boston-area public school. From the second through the seventh grades, Dixon lived with her Massachusetts aunt and uncle during the school year and loved being part of a big family and going to school every day where she had loads of friends. Braille was the top priority in that early classroom and academic expectations were high, so when she returned home full time to fly solo as the only blind student in a Florida public school, she was prepared.

School of Dots

Her parents located a group of volunteer braille transcribers who, as Dixon put it, "sort of swarmed around me, putting all my books into braille for the next five years." Dixon described her adolescent self as "a bad kid who got good grades," meaning, mostly, that she had a great social life in a beach community in high school. College is where she described herself as absolutely thriving. By that time, her understanding with the transcribers was that they would provide books for math, science, and foreign language courses in braille; for psychology, English, and other humanities texts, she used books on tape. When applying to universities to pursue a Ph.D. in psychology, she received 2 acceptances out of her 30 applications. The others, she recalled, said, "You're qualified—but you're blind."

Although Dixon was successful academically in her graduate work in psychology, she recognized during her internships that she had not yet found her niche. "Most people were planning to go into private practice," she said. "My temperament wasn't right for that. I couldn't listen to somebody for 50 minutes! I thought I'd work in a hospital or teach."

Although she got experience working one on one with patients, Dixon thought that she was never good at it. Then, in the late 1970s, two unrelated events helped determine her career path: She attended her first Ski for Light International event and did some work (conducting interviews with blind people for a research project) for the American Foundation for the Blind. In both settings, she said, "I was so comfortable being with blind people." In 1980, she learned of the newly created position at the NLS and applied for the job.

A Perfect Fit

Although her job description as consumer relations officer does not specify working with technology per se, it was perhaps inevitable that technology would become a significant element at both work and home. To keep pace with literacy and blindness in the 1980s meant keeping pace with new computers that were enabling blind people to read and write with electronic braille. A natural inclination led Dixon to do more than keep current: she is generally well ahead of the curve.

Although she wasn't involved with technology at the time, it could be that her first job was a bit prophetic. When, at age 15, she complained to her father that she wanted a summer job like everyone else, he mentioned it to a friend in the newspaper business who did some recruiting on her behalf. The next thing she knew, there were three executives from IBM in her living room, interviewing her for a typing job in personnel.

Dixon began using her first tape-based VersaBraille in 1981 and was one of the first blind people to go online when she became a CompuServe subscriber in April 1982. An avid online shopper in the mid-1980s, she said that she bought everything, from computer disks to panty hose, online and has carried that habit to shopping on the World Wide Web. From a CP/M-based system to MS DOS to the world of Windows, she has tested the boundaries of most popular technology for its usefulness for blind people. She has taught librarians how to search the Internet and presented a paper in Sweden on developments in electronic braille.

The woman who remembers "taking a math course whenever I needed an easy A in college" said that today, it is difficult to separate which technology skills she has perfected for her professional life and which for personal: It's all just part of what she loves to do. Not only is she a whiz at online shopping, searching, or organizing information, but she has perfected techniques for computing pursuits that people who are blind do not generally attempt. She enjoys experimenting with graphics, for example, and has successfully used clip art in editing the Ski for Light newsletter, as well as adding images to web sites.

Dixon's own web site addresses a personal passion, which also serves as testimony to her commitment to braille. Dixon has collected braille writers and braille slates and styluses for years. Her collection of 32 braille writers was donated to and is now on display at the American Printing House for the Blind in Louisville, Kentucky. Her 265 slates are in her home—except for at least one that she carries with her at all times. Currently, that one is a four-line 23-cell slate from Portugal, accompanied by a stylus from Japan. And, yes, despite her love of technology, she said that she uses the slate daily. On her web site, <www.brailleslates.org>, images of many of the slates are displayed. Her hope in establishing the site is to inspire the development of a new model, but so far, that has not happened.

Dixon blends old and new technology in whatever ways are effective. An Optacon user since 1974, she reads with remarkable facility and sees the device as a continuing vital element in a blind person's toolbox for literacy. Although the Optacon is no longer produced, she and her husband, Doug Wakefield, the Access Board's designated federal official for Section 508, have collected nine units to ensure that they always have a backup if one Optacon fails. (The Access Board is the federal agency that establishes guidelines for compliance with disability-related laws; Section 508 is the portion of the Telecommunications Act requiring that technology in government settings be made accessible to people with disabilities.)

For many years, Dixon used braille exclusively as a means of accessing a computer. A few years ago, however, she added Window-Eyes and Keynote Gold Multimedia speech to her existing workstations of Dell computers and Baum DM80 refreshable braille displays both at work and at home. She travels extensively, both professionally and for pleasure, and uses a ThinkPad T21 with a Baum 40-cell Vario for braille and Window-Eyes Professional with Eloquence for speech. Although she does not have a braille notetaker, a fact that will certainly surprise some readers, she said at the time of this interview that she was ready to buy one. Here is an even more astonishing fact: She just recently read her first entire web braille book

The Birth of Web-Braille

Although her job as a consumer relations officer has involved many layers of working with consumers, librarians, and coworkers on every detail related to delivering reading material to NLS patrons, Web-Braille is a particular point of pride, a tangible project that Dixon tends and feeds daily. Since 1992, NLS has collected disks from all five braille-production houses containing the files of every book translated into braille. Before Web-Braille, these disks were accumulating in an enormous box. When Dixon had the simple but brilliant brainstorm of putting those files on the web, she approached the problem of learning how to write HTML code for executing the task the same way she does most things: She read a book to figure out how to do it.

Initially, there were 50 titles and about 175 readers testing the idea. The project was officially launched on September 10, 1999, already has about 2,300 subscribers and 10,000 volumes, and each of the 25 magazines produced by NLS is posted to the site the same day that braille production of the paper copy is completed. Dixon worked out the mechanics of the site, posts new books to it weekly, and updates the Frequently Asked Questions and About Web-Braille sections from time to time.

The excitement over Web-Braille, of course, comes from dedicated braille readers who are reveling in the fact that they can finally carry reading material without the bulk and limitations of large hard-copy braille books. With a braille notetaker or disks for a laptop with braille display, one can easily have a dozen books and a dozen magazines at the ready at all times. Heady stuff for book aficionados who are accustomed to agonizing over which one (or maybe two) books to pack for work or pleasure reading on vacation. Rather than the familiar feeling of exclusion or boredom in the dentist's office, Web-Braille subscribers can now flip open their note takers and browse such current periodicals as National Geographic, Seventeen, or PC World—all downloaded as Grade 2 braille files from the Web-Braille site.

Any U.S. subscriber to NLS services is eligible to access Web-Braille. There is no charge, but subscribers need to request a password and user name from their regional librarians. Because the files are translated Grade 2 files used for embossing the paper braille books, magazines, and musical scores, a "braille-aware" device is required to read them. In other words, a notetaker with braille translation capabilities, a refreshable braille display with translation software, or a braille embosser is needed to make use of the files. Although some users emboss pages or read Web-Braille files on a PC's braille display, most download files to a braille notetaker. That situation may change, however, when Dixon's next great idea becomes a reality.

Thinking that it would be more convenient to read Web-Braille files with a laptop or desktop PC if there was a program to facilitate reading, Dixon developed criteria for WB-View, and NLS has hired a programmer to create it. With WB-View on a PC, users will be able to bookmark sections of text, toggle between books, move up or down by braille-page increments, autoscroll text, and perform other tasks that are customized to make reading on a braille display more efficient and fun.

And speaking of efficiency and fun, Dixon has mastered both into routines that spell success. As hooked as she is on technology, she maintains a large Rolodex in her office, seeing paper braille as the most efficient and reliable way to keep phone numbers and addresses. And what about the fun? She has attended every Ski for Light event since 1977 and has held every office in the organization. She never goes far, however, without her laptop and braille display. As for reading tastes, she says she reads everything—from cookbooks to magazines to "junky" romance novels. And what was that first Web-Braille book that she finally read from start to finish? Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, of course, both braille volumes!

Back to top

Untangling the Web

Start Your Engines: Successful Web Searching

The Internet is a great source of information for those of us who cannot easily read hard-copy print information. Search engines are perhaps the most powerful tools we have for finding the information we need or want. The good news is that most search engines are accessible using assistive technology. You need to know how to fill out forms and will benefit from learning any special features your access software has for working with your web browser, but you will rarely run into mysterious graphics or inaccessible controls. The important thing is to come up with a strategy that suits your personal needs as to which engines to use and how to use them. The more you use search engines, the easier it gets.

This article explains the different types of search engines and presents basic strategies for working with them. In the January issue, I will highlight some of the more popular search engines and provide a small resource list of some valuable web sites to visit to learn more on your own.

Types of Search Engines

There are two main types of search engines—directories that depend on human-compiled listings, and crawlers, computer-driven tools that gather information from the web using different algorithms or formulas. Yahoo! is perhaps the most popular directory- based engine in use today, while Google is fast becoming the most popular crawler. Most search engines, however, actually make use of both types of information.

Directory-based engines, such as AOL search, use a crawler-based engine as a backup, in case your search words do not match anything in the directory. Some engines simply combine two partners—one directory and one crawler—and add their own ranking system or other features. For example, MSN search uses a directory-based engine called LookSmart and backs it up with results from a crawler-based engine, Inktomi (the same crawler used by AOL search for backup). If you are on the home page of a search engine containing dozens of links to different categories like automotive, business, science, and religion, you are probably dealing with directory listings. The only way to know for sure is to read articles about them and follow the news.

SearchEngineWatch.com is an invaluable, accessible site for finding this sort of information in nice, concise lists. It also has an e-mail list that distributes news about changes in the world of search engines.

Two considerations are involved in whether you are getting the best possible results. One is whether the search engine finds most of the relevant sites with a minimum of irrelevant ones, and the other is how it ranks these sites. Several search engines may use the same basic crawler or directory but use different formulas for deciding the order in which results are given. For example, AltaVista is good at finding things, but a little weak on the ranking side, meaning you may have to look through a lot of listings to find what you want.

My recommendation is to find one primarily crawler-based search engine and one directory that work well for you but to experiment with others when you do not get what you need. As you find ones that seem to help with specific types of searches, use them as your own backup tool kit. You may want to test new engines to determine if you should change your choices.

How to Use a Search Engine

The most basic way to work with all search engines, and the best way to start with a crawler-based search engine, is to use the input form on the home page. See the section "How to Use a Directory" for some different strategies that may work better for that type of tool. You type a word or phrase into an edit box and press a submit button (labeled Search or Go). Screen- reader users can use the appropriate command to skip directly to the first "control" on a page to bypass repetitive links and advertising at the top.

On your first visit to a search-engine site, you may find it helpful to explore the area surrounding the main edit box for useful controls or links, such as options to search only within audio or to choose a foreign language. To find out more, follow the Help link.

After you submit your search, you will be presented with a results page, usually starting with all the same repetitive links found on the home page. Locate a statement like "Results 1–10 of about 20,500" or "Returned: 15,900 matches." The next time you use the same engine, you can use the Find comment to search for a word such as "returned" or "result" to go directly to the place you want to be. Most search engines display only 10 results at a time, but some offer the option to display as many as 100 at a time, which can be a real advantage. Results are usually presented as the title of the page in question, a brief description or excerpt from the page, and the URL (address) of the page. After the first 10 results, you will find links to additional results pages. Unless you are looking for something specific like an organization's home page, it is a good idea not to limit yourself to the first 10 matches.

Many engines generate revenue by charging a fee for ranking a site at the top of the results list if it matches a search in some way. So, the first result of a search on "Benjamin Franklin" may be the opportunity to look up his address and phone number, and a search on "recycling days in Brooklyn" may pop up the option to find books on "recycling days in Brooklyn" at Amazon. The choices do not necessarily make sense, but they do provide income for the sites, allowing the engines to be available free of charge.

Improving Your Searching

Your choice of search terms does make a difference. Here are some simple strategies you can use to improve your results:

First, be specific. To find a place to repair your braille writer, do not just enter "braille writer"; enter "braille writer repair." To learn who discovered electricity, do not just enter "electricity"; enter "who discovered electricity." Remember that people create web sites, and you are trying to match their thinking, not the thinking of a computer. Note that you do not need to use upper-case letters in search engines, and in most cases it does not help to use them.

Second, there are some tools you can confidently use in any search engine that usually work and do not do any damage if they do not. They are the plus sign, minus sign or dash, and quotation mark. A plus sign immediately followed by a word means "give me pages only that contain this word." Some search engines, such as Google, automatically assume that a page must contain all the words you have entered, but some also list pages that contain any of the words, making for a long and unspecific list. For example, if you enter "Disney World vacation packages" in one engine, you may get only pages that have all four words, while another may give you every page on the web containing one of the words.

A dash or minus sign immediately before a word means "omit pages containing this word." If you are looking for information about jaguars, the animal, you may notice that most of the results you get refer to sports teams or cars. Use these hits to get an idea of what terms may be useful to exclude and then try again, entering something like "+jaguars-hockey-football-baseball-Jacksonville," resulting in a list heavier on the animal information and significantly shorter. Quotation marks around more than one term treat the words as a phrase. Entering "jaguar habitats" gives you a fairly short list of results with nothing about sports teams.

You can also combine these tools into one search. For example, if you were looking for a recipe for chopped liver, "chopped liver" would provide references to all the times someone asks "What am I, chopped liver?" Many lists of recipes do not include the word "recipe" right after the name of the dish. However, the word is usually on the page somewhere. Entering: + "chopped liver" + recipe should take care of the problem.

Third, consider the issue of "politically correct" language. If you call yourself "visually challenged," but you are searching for sites about participating in Alpine skiing, you may do better with "blind" or "visually impaired" or putting both choices into the "any of the words" section field on an advanced search page. Conversely, if you are having trouble locating an adaptive product for a blind child, you may need to try "visually challenged" and "special needs." For any search that includes ethnicity or politics, use the terms that are most likely to find what you want.

Fourth, use other controls and advanced pages. Do not be scared off by the term "advanced"; it is usually just a way to give you other options. As I noted previously, some search engines automatically give you only those pages that include all the words that you entered. If you really want to search on any of the words, you may need to go to the advanced page. In one search engine, HotBot, this choice can be made from a combo box immediately following the search button on the main page. Some of these choices can be made using what is called Boolean searching (the use of "and," "or," "and not," "near," and a variety of other choices, including multiple layers of parentheses), but these terms are not consistently used in all search engines. In most cases, there is a simpler way to accomplish the same thing.

How to Use a Directory

Although all the directories I have ever visited had input forms, this is not always the best way to make use of them. Directories are comprised of information compiled by people who assign pages to relevant categories.

To find information about the animal jaguar at Yahoo!, follow the "animals" link on the home page. You will be on a page that includes a list of subcategories, such as "events," "organizations," and irrelevant animal categories like "marine life." At the top of this page is an edit box and search button, followed by the options "all of Yahoo!" and "just this category." If you enter "jaguars" into the edit box and choose the option "only in this category," you will find a page that contains a link to a subcategory "jaguars" and links to pages from the animals category that specifically have information about jaguars. Similarly, you may have chosen a subcategory on the previous "animals" page and restricted your search to jaguars on the resulting page. In this case, you do not want to get so specific because it is a specialized topic. The results will start becoming hit or miss.

Not all directories allow you to limit your search to a category. Without that ability, you are best off continuing to narrow down your subcategories until you get to lists of pages that seem relevant. In AOL search, I prowled to jaguars by choosing (by trial and error), "kids & teens," "school time," "science," "animals," "mammals," and finally "jaguar." Tedious as this process may seem, it is still more profitable than the results you would get from a crawler-based search engine.

Since directories are limited to what people put in them, they are not as complete or timely as the crawler-based collections. You may want to start with a directory if you are looking for information that is general enough to have been found but quantifiable enough to list, such as "airlines" (you will get a list of all the airlines in the world).

Back to top

Access World News

PulseData HumanWare GPS Tutorial

Pulse Data HumanWare recently released a tutorial for its BrailleNote with GPS (Global Positioning System) accessory. The tutorial is designed to mimic the feeling of using the BrailleNote GPS outdoors and offers a virtual "first walk" that explains the basic functions and how to use the product. The tutorial provides an introduction to GPS, notes on how to install the software, methods for using the point-of-interest feature, and demonstrates how to create an automatic and manual route. The 55-minute tutorial is available for free download from the following URL: <ftp://ftp.humanware.com/humanware/tutorials/> and is available on cassette from the manufacturer. The GPS accessory is designed for use with BrailleNote or VoiceNote and is available for a cost of $649. The software includes a GPS receiver, software, and a database of 700,000 points of interest, such as hotels, restaurants, and museums. For more information, contact: Pulse Data HumanWare; phone: 800-722-3393; web site: <www.humanware.com>.

RFB&D Launches Digital Textbook Program

On September 3, 2002, Recording for the Blind and Dyslexic (RFB&D) added an inaugural collection of more than 6,000 digitally recorded educational titles to its collection of 91,000 accessible textbooks. To listen to RFB&D's AudioPlus digitally recorded textbooks, students need a portable CD player equipped to play RFB&D's books or a standard multimedia computer equipped with a CD-ROM drive and specialized software. Playback hardware and software are available through RFB&D for nonprofit sale. These Digital Talking Books give students instant access to any page, chapter, or subheading in a book with the touch of a button; there is no need to fast-forward through and count embedded beep tones, as is done with books recorded on analog cassette tape. Digitally recorded textbooks are stored on CDs, which hold more than 40 hours of recorded material. Therefore, the contents of a standard textbook, which requires eight to 12 cassettes, will now fit onto a single CD. These books are available to RFB&D's 102,000 members in kindergarten through graduate school, and to any other student with a certified disability that makes reading difficult or impossible. For more information, contact: Member Services, Recording for the Blind & Dyslexic; phone: 800-221-4792 or 609-452-0606; web site: <www.rfbd.org>.

Assistive Technology Training

Beyond Sight, an assistive technology creator and distributor, offers individual and group instruction in assistive technology. A computer with speakers and a microphone is required for online instruction. The cost is $50 per hour. For more information, contact: Beyond Sight; phone: 303-795-6455; e-mail: <bob@beyondsight.com>; web site: <www.beyondsight.com/training.htm>.

Freedom Scientific Announcements

In August 2002, Lee Hamilton became the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Freedom Scientific, a manufacturer of technology products for people who are blind or visually impaired. Dr. Hamilton has been president of the company's Blind/Low Vision Group since March 2002. Dr. Hamilton holds a Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Most recently, Dr. Hamilton was president and CEO of AirNet Communications. Richard H. Chandler, Freedom Scientific's previous CEO, will remain as non-executive chairman of its board of directors until the end of 2002.

Ted Henter was elected to the Freedom Scientific board of directors in July 2002. Mr. Henter is the founder and previous owner of Henter-Joyce, a manufacturer of technology products for people who are blind or visually impaired that was acquired by Freedom Scientific in April 2000. In 1987, Mr. Henter invented the screen-reading software JAWS. Mr. Henter has received numerous national honors, including the Smithsonian Institute Award for developing JAWS. For more information, contact: Freedom Scientific, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716; phone: 800-444-4443 or 727-803-8000; fax: 727-803-8001; web site: <www.FreedomScientific.com>.

Bobby Acquired by Watchfire Management

Watchfire, a provider of web site management software and services for organizations to automate the testing and analysis of web content, recently acquired Bobby from CAST, a nonprofit research and development organization promoting computer use by people with disabilities. Bobby is a comprehensive web site accessibility software tool. Watchfire plans to integrate the accessibility functionality of Bobby into its web site management platform, Watchfire WebXM, and will add accessibility reports to its web site quality testing tool, Watchfire WebQA. Michael Cooper, the Bobby project manager and technical designer, recently joined Watchfire as a product manager. For more information, contact: Watchfire; phone: 800-282-5951 or 011-44-1753-705-010; web site: <http://bobby.watchfire.com/bobby/html/en/index.jsp>.

Free Internet Explorer Add-On Reads Flash

Frank Audiodata's WebFormator version 1.30 is a free add-on for Internet Explorer (IE) that is designed to reformat a web page into a text-only format. Version 1.30 is designed to display text versions of web pages designed with MacroMedia's Flash on IE versions 5.0+ in a Windows 98+ environment. WebFormator 1.30 is compatible with Flash Player 6.0+. Using Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA), the web pages reformatted by WebFormator are intended to be compatible with most screen reader and screen magnifier programs. For more information, contact: Frank Audiodata; phone: 011-49-7254-5050; e-mail: <info@audiodata.de>; web site: <www.webformator.com/englisch/index.php>.

Assistive Technology Instructor Program

For the second year, Lighthouse International is offering its Lighthouse Assistive Technology Instructor Preparation Program for both visually impaired and sighted people of all educational levels who are seeking careers in assistive technology. The course offers instruction on how to develop teaching strategies for people with visual impairments; how to provide instruction in the use of adaptive technology; how to develop consistent training plans with objectives, goals, and outcomes; and how to report on, and bill for, services. The course costs $6,300, which includes application fees. For more information, contact: Glenda Such, director, Computer Training Programs, Lighthouse International; phone: 212-821-9337; e-mail: <gsuch@lighthouse.org>; web site: <www.lighthouse.org>.

Accessible Web Site Launched by Computer Camp Participants

Nineteen teenagers with visual impairments designed, built, and launched a fully accessible web site that they created as part of the 17th Annual Canadian National Institute for the Blind's (CNIB) Gretzky Summer Computer Opportunities in Recreation and Education (SCORE) Camp held in 2002. The mainly Canadian students, aged 16-18, created the site in IBM-donated computer labs with the help of several IBM Canada employees with visual impairments who served as volunteer mentors and role models. The web site created by SCORE 2002 participants can be found online at <www.cnib.ca/score2002/>. CNIB and IBM Canada teamed up to offer the two-week camp to teens with visual impairments. The camp was conceived in the mid-1980s to offer visually impaired student participants technology, independence, and leadership skills, and takes place each July in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. For more information, contact: SCORE, Canadian National Institute for the Blind; phone: 416-486-2500; fax 416-480-7677; web site: <www.cnib.ca/score/>.

Online Document Storage and Scanning Service

Serotek launched its online document scanning and storage service, FreedomScan, on the FreedomBox Network, an Internet portal that provides content and services specifically designed for people who are blind or visually impaired. Using technology licensed by ScanSoft, the FreedomScan service is designed to allow people who are blind and print disabled to scan, store, and e-mail documents over the Internet using only voice commands. Serotek sells a complete scanning service and "scanner-enabling package," including a CanoScan N670U scanner, for a cost of $199. Registered FreedomScan users who have also registered with the FreedomBox Network can access the document scanning service from a computer equipped with a Twain-compliant scanner that has the FreedomBox client installed. The cost of registration with the FreedomBox Network is $120. For more information, contact: Serotek; phone: 877-661-3785; web site: <www.FreedomBox.info>.

Tool for Rich Media Access

The WGBH National Center for Accessible Media has developed a new beta version, 2.01, of the Media Access Generator (MAGpie) for creating captions and audio descriptions for rich media. MAGpie is designed to work with Java 1.3 and 1.4 and has incomplete screen reader support. The software is available for free download from the WGBH National Center for Accessible Media's web site, <http://ncam.wgbh.org/webaccess/magpie/magpie2_registration.html>. For more information, contact: WGBH National Center for Accessible Media; phone: 617-300-3400; fax: 617-300-1035; e-mail: <ncam@wgbh.org>.

Back to top


November 16–22, 2002

SC2002: The International Conference for High Performance Computing and Communications.

Baltimore, MD


SC2002; e-mail: <sc2002-info@sc-conference.org>; web site: <www.sc-conference.org>.

November 21–22, 2002

Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB) Vision Exhibition and Techshare Conference 2002.

Birmingham, England, United Kingdom


RNIB Technology in Learning and Employment; phone: 011-440-121-665-230; e-mail: <techshare@rnib.org.uk>; web site: <www.rnib.org.uk/visiontechshare/welcome.htm>.

January 15–18, 2003

Assistive Technology Industry Association (ATIA) 2003 Conference and Exhibition.

Orlando, FL


ATIA; phone: 847-869-1282 or 877-687-2842; e-mail: <info@atia.org>; web site: <www.atia.org/conf_2003.html>.

March 17–22, 2003

California State University at Northridge (CSUN) Center on Disabilities' 18th Annual International Conference.

Los Angeles, CA


Center on Disabilities, CSUN; phone: 818-677-2578; e-mail: <ctrdis@csun.edu>; web site: <www.csun.edu/cod/>.

March 24–26, 2003

TechEd International Conference and Exposition.

Ontario, CA


TechEd Events; phone: 916-418-5151; web site: <www.techedevents.org>.

April 3–5, 2003

Still Where it's AT: Assistive Technology for Children and Youth Conference.

Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada


Events of Distinction, 519 Nordstrum Road, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada S7K 7X9; phone: 306-651-3118; fax: 306-651-3119; e-mail: <eofd@sk.sympatico.ca>.

April 5–10, 2003

CHI 2003: Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Fort Lauderdale, FL


CHI 2003 Office, Smith Bucklin and Associates; phone: 312-321-4096; e-mail: <chi2003-office@acm.org>; web site: <www.chi2003.org>.

June 28–July 4, 2003

American Council of the Blind (ACB) Annual Convention.

Pittsburgh, PA


American Council of the Blind; phone: 202-467-5081 or 800-424-8666; fax: 202-467-5085; web site: <www.acb.org>.

June 28–July 4, 2003

National Federation of the Blind (NFB) Annual Convention.

Louisville, KY


National Federation of the Blind; phone: 410-659-9314; e-mail: <nfb@nfb.org>; web site: <www.nfb.org>.

October 14–19, 2003

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

Bloomington, MN.


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

Back to top

AccessWorld, Copyright (c) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind. All rights reserved.

Download the free AccessWorld appDownload the free AccessWorld app
Braille-ready fileBraille-Ready File
Back Issues
Search AccessWorld
AccessWorld Alerts Signup
For Advertisers
Contact AccessWorld

Related Links

Using Assistive Technology
AccessWorld Appliance Accessibility Guide
Product Database for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
AFB Consulting
Orbit Reader 20 by Orbit Research. A low-cost Breakthrough for Refreshable Braille

Sprint Vision: Services for Consumers Who Are Blind Or Have Low Vision

Learn NVDA

HIMS New All In One Video Magnifier

Low Vision Simulators Plus VSRT (Pepper) Test LUV Reading Workbook

Foundations of Education, Third Edition

Exercise and Fitness Strategies for Older Adults

College Bound: A Guide for Students with Visual Impairments, 2nd Edition

The Why, When and How for Reading eBooks

College Bound: Practical Steps for Students Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired

AccessNote Accessible Notetaker App FREE on Android and iOS


NEW! iOS in the Classroom: A Guide for Teaching Students with Visual Impairments

Hope. Help. Connections for People with Vision Loss. VisionConnect FREE iOS app!
 End of advertising