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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 September 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 5
Cover Photo: Photograph of Harvey Miller at the computer using both a piano keyboard and a QWERTY computer keyboard.

Caption: Harvey Miller, a recent retiree, composes at the computer.

In This Issue . . .

Editor's Page

Retired but Still Inspired

They retired young. How are they using technology to chase their dreams?—Deborah Kendrick

Enlarging the View: ZoomText and MAGic Screen-Magnification Software, Part 2

The review of the latest screen magnifiers from the user's perspective continues with MAGic 8.02 and ZoomText 8.0—Amy Salmon and Doug Anzlovar

Conquering the Code: A Review of the BrailleMaster

How successful is this "talking pegboard" in teaching the basics of the braille code?—Ike Presley

Shaping the Future of Assistive Technology Training

Find out why Northcentral Technical College in Wausau, Wisconsin, is the place to go to become a credentialed assistive technology trainer—Amy Waldman

Web Sites That Take You Places: Accessing Travel Web Sites with Low Vision

Is traveling around the web site harder than traveling to your vacation? Check out four of the leading travel web sites—Sarah Lesko and Jim Denham

AccessWorld News

Calendar

Editor in Chief Jay D. Leventhal
Contributing Editors Paul Schroeder, Senior Editor
Crista Earl
Deborah Kendrick
Mark M. Uslan
Managing Editor Ellen Bilofsky
Associate Editor Rebecca Burrichter

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) 2003 American Foundation for the Blind.

AccessWorld is a trademark of the American Foundation for the Blind.

Photo on cover: Harvey Miller, recent retiree, composes at the computer.


Editor's Page

Technology has opened the doors to myriad job opportunities for people who are blind or visually impaired. Screen readers, screen magnifiers, personal organizers and optical character recognition systems provide the necessary tools to complete our work efficiently. It is not surprising that assistive technology companies devote most of their resources to producing better tools for the workplace.

But what about leisure time? And, thinking long-term, what about retirement? Technology makes it possible for people who are blind or visually impaired to pursue their dreams—start a part-time business, do volunteer work, pursue a hobby, learn new skills, or increase their knowledge about something that has always interested them. In this issue, Deborah Kendrick explores the future for many of us, and the present for some. She interviews three people who retired young and are using technology to research health conditions, change the way they do tasks that they have performed all their lives, and keep themselves very busy. They provide three quite creative answers to the question: How will you fill your days once the novelty of not working wears off?

Amy Salmon, managing partner, and Doug Anzlovar, partner, of ComputAbility Today, an assistive technology training company serving the Chicago area, present the second of two articles evaluating the three leading screen magnifiers: ZoomText from Ai Squared, LunarPlus from Dolphin Computer Access, and Freedom Scientific's MAGic. They evaluated LunarPlus in July; this month they evaluate MAGic and ZoomText. Each program's performance in Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, Excel, and Outlook Express was evaluated. Tests focused on color and contrast settings, tracking, and supplemental speech output. This month's article also includes features and ratings charts for all three products.

Ike Presley, National Program Associate, Literacy, at AFB, reviews the BrailleMaster, an instructional aid that can be used by people wishing to learn the basics of the braille code. The unit teaches and offers practice on braille dot patterns for letters, punctuation marks, contractions, and the most commonly used English words. The student types on a braille keyboard, and the BrailleMaster provides feedback through digitized speech. Find out how we liked the BrailleMaster as a tool for learning the ABC's of braille.

Amy Waldman, a Milwaukee-based writer, interviews the people creating the first bachelor's degree program in rehabilitation with an emphasis on assistive technology at Northcentral Technical College (NTC) in Wausau, Wisconsin. Certificate programs are planned in speech output technology, large print/OCR technology and braille technology. Core classes include Concepts of Assistive Technology; Introduction to Braille; Introduction to Visual Impairment and Other Reading Disabilities; Laws and Regulations; and Methods of Evaluation and Report Writing.

We launch a new web column in this issue which will focus on evaluations of the accessibility and usability of web sites. In the first article, Jim Denham of AFB's National Technology Program, and Sarah Lesko, a student at Northern Illinois University who has extensive experience with low vision issues, review the accessibility of four industry-leading travel web sites: <www.travelocity.com>, <www.expedia.com>, <www.priceline.com> and <www.hotwire.com>. They focus on factors such as clutter, contrast, navigation, textual description of graphics, use of graphics, and overall page layout. We welcome your input on which sites we should examine in upcoming columns.

We appreciate all your positive comments about AccessWorld becoming a free, web-based magazine in January 2004. Those of you who had subscribed to issues in 2004 should have received a letter about options for refunds. Don't miss the November 2003 issue—if your subscription does not include it, please call our customer service department and purchase that issue. We have big plans for AccessWorld on the web, and we want all of you to be there!

Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief

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Interview

Retired but Still Inspired

Technology has made such a difference in the realm of employment for so many people who are blind or visually impaired that its rewards after work are sometimes forgotten. By "after work," I mean not just the time after you leave the office and catch the bus for home, but the retirement stage that comes with hanging up the work persona altogether.

Retirement is a state of being that many look toward longingly as an open field of time when the pursuit of personal interests promises wild possibilities. For some blind retirees, those possibilities involve technology, as retirement frees them to discover new technological tools and tricks.

Conquering His Own Bias

Bud Keith's memories of early forays into the land of assistive technology are far from idyllic. As a senior equal opportunity specialist in the Office of Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, DC, he was involved in enforcing civil rights laws in defense of people with disabilities and senior citizens and in dealing with some sex and racial discrimination cases. His tools for years were a Perkins brailler, an audiotape recorder, a slate and stylus, and an electric typewriter, and they seemed adequate. But one day, he recalled, "Somebody came and said they were going to give me a computer and train me. I resisted. I was happy doing what I was doing." By the time the training was completed, however, his resistance was replaced by enthusiasm for his newfound productivity. That first computer, an Osborn CP/m-based system with a speech program called Avos and an Echo speech synthesizer, would, of course, eventually be replaced by newer technologies.

"What really switched me on," Bud said, "was the word processing. I've always been a writer. My work required a lot of writing, and when I was able to read my own work and save it and didn't have to be so anxious about typing perfectly, so much opened up. My writing improved and, for the first time since I'd been blind, I could retrieve information faster than my sighted peers."

Figure 1: Photograph of Bud Keith in front of computer equipment.

Caption: Bud Keith became an Internet expert only after he retired.

When Bud was diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer at age 56, he concluded that the retirement he had always dreamed about should be taken early. That decision was made in 1996, and because of what he calls a combination of luck and attitude, the likelihood of "something else killing me before the cancer does" constantly increases. In his seven years of retirement, he has used technology in myriad ways to increase his enjoyment of everything from fine dining to points of interest in several foreign countries and has honed his skills for the benefit of many volunteer commitments as well. His first extensive use of technology after his retirement was research on the World Wide Web to learn more about his own illness. Doctors are frequently too busy to keep up with all the latest treatments, in Bud's view, and he could be proactive in his own recovery by gathering information. "Web surfing is one of the most wonderful things about technology for blind people," Bud commented. "On the Web, I learned about my disease, became a knowledgeable patient, and thus became the manager of my own health care."

In addition to his research on cancer, Bud's growing Internet expertise quickly fed other passions. As the primary cook for his wife and himself, he searches the Internet for interesting recipes. An avid traveler, he has read extensively about such destinations as Turkey, New Zealand, Australia, Bermuda, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, France, Belgium, Norway, England, and Italy. Because of his extensive reading, Bud is often much more familiar with points of interest and general information about the country than are his traveling companions and is able to increase everyone's enjoyment of the trip. "I was a voracious reader when I could see," Bud said, "and was always frustrated as hell in bookstores. Now, with the World Wide Web, I can go there, like walking into a library, and say 'What shelf am I going to look at today?'"

Bud has also mastered building and maintaining databases and volunteers to maintain a 1,000-record database of fellow Peace Corps alumni who, like him, once volunteered in Panama. With a Talking Checkbook program, he has handled the fiduciary responsibilities for his local chapter of the American Council of the Blind and his local Ski for Light group. The man who once resisted using a computer that was placed on his desk at work now embraces the use of technology every day in his retirement.

The Law of Increasing Returns

Chris Bell was only 49 when he retired from a fast-paced career as an attorney specializing in disability and employment law. His impressive career path moved him from high school history teacher to civil rights lawyer to stockbroker and back to lawyer again, and every one of his professional endeavors required the handling of large amounts of printed materials. In 1992, after a five-year stint as an attorney with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Chris joined Jackson Lewis, a private law practice specializing in labor and employment, also in Washington, DC. Chris brought his expertise in disability law to the firm, but this time to the employer's side. During that time, his eyesight, which had been 20/50 in one eye and zero in the other since age 18, began to deteriorate.

Figure 2: Closeup photograph of Chris Bell.

Caption: Chris Bell has increased his proficiency with assistive technology since retiring.

Although his vision was limited, Chris said, he had been able, up to that point, to read with a magnifying glass or closed-circuit television (CCTV) and was able to travel safely and independently with a white cane. In 1997, he moved his family to Minneapolis, opening a new office for Jackson Lewis there and hiring a half dozen other lawyers who reported to him. "I was traveling up to 50,000 miles a year in those days," Chris recalled, "and giving 30 to 35 speeches around the country. As my vision deteriorated, travel became more of a problem." A series of mishaps and injuries made him realize that he needed to improve his mobility skills and to slow the pace.

Meanwhile, the pace of his workload was increasing, in step with the rest of the country, and Chris became more proficient with scanners and e-mail. Those tools certainly helped him, along with a screen reader and optical character recognition program. Shifting from assistive technology for people who are visually impaired (magnifying glasses and a CCTV) to products used by people who are blind (JAWS for Windows and a Kurzweil 1000 reading machine) boosted his productivity, but, in his view, it wasn't enough. "As a blind person," Chris said, "I could do the same work, but I could never do it as rapidly as my sighted peers. It wasn't a sprint; it was a marathon. I was living a fiction that I could do everything exactly as efficiently as I had before, and it was killing me." Now two years after retirement, Chris finds that both his interest and proficiency in assistive technology have increased. Today, when he is not working with his personal trainer or taking walks with his new dog guide, he is spending at least a couple of hours each day expanding his horizons with technology.

"I read the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times every day online," Chris said, and he does extensive reading on a variety of other subjects researched on the Internet. His old stockbroker mindset is still very much alive, too, so that he now uses JAWS for Windows and Internet Explorer to track and scrutinize investments. His speed and comfort level with the Kurzweil 1000 and screen reading software have grown to such an extent that, as he put it, "I've actually given some thought to doing some part-time work for the law office I got started in 1997."

Composing Himself

When Harvey Miller retired in 1999 after a long and successful career as a college teacher of music, he knew that he would continue his various musical pursuits, but he did not know what an important role his life as a composer would take because of technology. A gifted vocalist, conductor, pianist, and composer, Harvey has many outlets, in retirement, for his musical talent. He sings in his church and in various other environments. In short, he quipped, "When I'm asked, I sing!"

From playing the piano in a trio to conducting an adult chorus performing the Messiah, Harvey's life is filled with music. In addition to singing, piano performance, and conducting, composing music has long been an integral part of his life. Composition has traditionally been a labor-intensive pursuit for any blind musician. For Harvey, being fluent in braille music notation has always been a valuable asset, but it has not sped up the process of moving new music from his imagination to a printed score.

Figure 3: Photograph of Harvey Miller using a piano keyboard and a QWERTY computer keyboard.

Caption: Harvey Miller composes at the computer.

Initially, he sits at the piano with his Perkins brailler, working out a phrase, and then writes it down. "It's cumbersome," he explained, "because you can't cross out and change things. I use a lot of "for" signs [the full cell, dots 1-2-3-4-5-6, also used to cross out errors], but it can be confusing, too, since that symbol translates in music as an f-sharp." Citing as example an orchestral piece for chorus that he completed two years ago, he related the process from conception to hard copy. After composing all the parts and writing them out in braille music notation on the Perkins brailler, he then dictated each part to a sighted reader of music, who copied them on music paper. Next, Harvey took the print dictation of his composition to another musician, who played the parts back to him, so he could confirm that what he had written had remained intact through dictation. Finally, after corrections were made, a sighted person produced all the parts in printed music form.

Thanks to technology, that tedious process has been dramatically altered. Today, Harvey, like many blind musicians, composes music at his computer, typing on a standard QWERTY keyboard, changing and editing with the ease that many computer users are familiar with in the realm of word processing. Braille and print copies can then be generated by the computer as well. Sibelius Speaking, a version of Sibelius that has been adapted to work with JAWS screen-reading software, makes it possible for Harvey to move his ideas from the initial notation to professionally printed sheet music.

"When I first saw Sibelius demonstrated last summer," he said simply, "I cried." Today, he still marvels that he is finally able to complete a composition entirely without sighted assistance. At least half his time is now spent composing, and the other half is spent performing. Most recently, he was commissioned to write a piece for two harpsichords and one French horn. Since he plays the harpsichord and his daughter plays the French horn, he is equally enthusiastic about performing the piece when it is completed.

Relishing the Results

Many of us have lamented that because there is work to be done, we do not have the freedom to explore and expand horizons with the power of the assistive technology that is available to us. Perhaps retirement, as illustrated by the experience of these three men, can be viewed as an opportunity to develop these skills and relish the results.

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Product Evaluation

Enlarging the View: ZoomText and MAGic Screen-Magnification Software, Part 2

This is the second of two articles on the three leading screen magnifiers. In the July issue, we evaluated LunarPlus, version 5.1, from Dolphin Computer Access. In this article, we evaluate ZoomText, version 8.0, from Ai Squared and MAGic, version 8.02, from Freedom Scientific. Both products were evaluated using a list of the most commonly used features of and problems with integrated screen-magnification and speech programs (see the Product Features chart for a complete list). Both programs' performance for each feature in accessing Windows, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Internet Explorer, and Outlook Express was evaluated. Tests were conducted on a Pentium 3 850 computer with 512 MB of memory using the software synthesizer Eloquence from Eloquent Technologies in Windows 98 SE.

MAGic, Version 8.02

MAGic, version 8.02, is Freedom Scientific's most recent upgrade of its screen-magnification program with integrated speech support. MAGic Standard supports Windows XP Home, ME, 98, and 95. MAGic Professional supports Windows XP Home and Professional, NT, 2000, ME, 98, and 95. Each product is available as a stand-alone screen magnifier or an integrated screen magnifier with speech support.

Documentation and Help

MAGic comes with a large-print user's guide that is well organized and includes a quick Start Guide and pullout reference cards for ease of use. The user's guide includes information on installing, using, and troubleshooting the program. Separate large-print reference cards would be handy. Tutorials or training materials are not provided.

Online Help was easy to access through MAGic's Control Panel or the hotkey. Information is well organized and similar to the information in the user's guide. A drawback to the Online Help is that it can be accessed only if the MAGic Control Panel is the active window. A hotkey to access MAGic's Online Help from within other programs and a listing of hotkeys within the selected Help topic would be useful. We had to search through the MAGic Hotkeys topic in Online Help just to locate the hotkey for turning magnification on and off.

Both the User's Guide and Online Help provide information about using MAGic with other applications such as Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, and JAWS for Windows, offering both general information and hotkeys for using MAGic in each program. This is a real plus.

The What's This? tool provides context-sensitive help for MAGic dialogue boxes. Descriptions for selected controls are displayed on screen. We found that MAGic provided speech support about 50% of the time for the What's This? descriptions.

Ease of Installation

MAGic's installation was easy, with all prompts in large print and with speech using Freedom Scientific's JAWS for Windows screen reader. You can choose between automatic installation, which installs MAGic using standard defaults, or a guided installation, which allows you to select languages and location. Keyboard commands for performing tasks are provided for each screen.

Once the installation was completed, we were returned to the desktop and were left wondering how to load MAGic. A prompt or announcement of the hotkey for loading MAGic would make the task of getting started a lot less stressful.

Navigating the Control Panel

MAGic's Control Panel presents the most commonly used magnification and speech tasks, organized on color-coded toolbars in its easy-to-use Quick Access window. The blue buttons on the Magnification toolbar include a button for increasing magnification and selecting the magnification view window. The orange buttons on the Speech toolbar offer quick access to speech functions, such as rate and verbosity (the amount of speech support provided). Picture icons and color coding make the toolbars easy to see. The Quick Access Window also can be accessed using the keyboard. Pulldown menus are available for most toolbar buttons and offer instant access to settings and features.

The menu bar on the Control Panel offers access to all magnification, speech, and advanced settings and is well organized. A hotkey pulls up the MAGic Control Panel from any location.

Figure 1: Computer screen image showing the MAGic Control Panel.

Caption: The MAGic Control Panel is color-coded for easy identification of toolbar icons and includes pull-down menus to access features quickly.

Magnification Settings

MAGic offers magnification from 2 to 16 times. Magnification can be turned on or off and increased or decreased through buttons on the User Interface toolbar or menu bar. Hotkeys can be used to adjust magnification "on the fly," and speech output of changes is announced. At a 1-times magnification, or normal view, color settings and speech are retained. When magnification is turned off, color settings are lost, but MAGic retains speech support, which is handy for the Internet. Also, when magnification is turned off, the magnification button on the Control Panel toolbar becomes animated or spins, making it easier to locate the button visually when you want to turn magnification back on.

Setting the View

MAGic offers four magnification views—full, lens, overlay, and split. In all but the full view, view windows can be resized, and the thickness and color of the window border can be adjusted. The overlay view magnifies a static window in the lower right corner of the screen. The lens view magnifies a small window that moves with the mouse pointer. Split view magnifies the top, bottom, right, or left section of the screen, leaving the other sections unmagnified. Views can be selected from the Control Panel through buttons on the Quick Access window, the Magnifier menu on the menu bar, or toggled using a hotkey.

The ability to customize the size of the view window and the thickness and color of the window border are useful features. We had difficulty locating and switching between the split-view modes. Adding the different split-view options to the main list of choices would make this task easier.

Color/Contrast Settings

Color and contrast settings are limited in MAGic to toggling inverted colors on and off. This feature inverts all colors of the currently selected color scheme. Inverted colors can be selected for the Magnification window only, for the unmagnified window only, or for both windows. Custom or preset color schemes need to be selected from the Display option under Control Panel in the Windows Start menu.

MAGic's automatic text smoothing is set always to be on. To turn smoothing off, select the Display option from the Magnification menu on the Control Panel menu bar. When automatic smoothing was enabled, the text and graphics were clear and easy to read up to 12-times magnification, after which the images became increasingly pixilated. With automatic smoothing turned off, the text and graphics began pixilating at 3-times magnification. It was surprising that automatic smoothing worked better on the Internet. When we viewed the Eddie Bauer web site, <www.eddiebauer.com>, and Amazon's web site, <www.amazon.com>, automatic smoothing worked well on the text and graphics up to 16-times magnification. With this feature turned off, images pixilated at 3-times magnification.

Tracking

MAGic tracks by mouse pointer, cursor, menu, control, tool tip, and window. Tracking also can be defined by area and alignment.

In both Word and Excel, the cursor tracked easily by word and line or cell by cell, always keeping the focus in the center of the screen, which made it easy to locate the cursor. In Internet Explorer, tracking followed the cursor as we moved through a web site by line or link, again always placing the focus in the center of the screen. In Outlook Express, tracking through messages in the In Box and between the folder tree view and list box was smooth. For both reading e-mail messages and creating new messages, the cursor tracked between fields, keeping the field name in view in the center of the screen. We had similar success tracking dialogue boxes and menus. In all programs, when the focus was moved to the menu bar and returned to the window using keyboard commands, we were never returned to the same place and had to search for the cursor.

When we used the mouse to navigate and select items, tracking was jumpy and inconsistent. Tethering the mouse pointer to the active cursor would improve tracking, especially in dialogue boxes and Help windows.

Figure 2: Computer screen image showing an enlarged Internet Explorer page using MAGic's Lens View mode.

Caption: In MAGic's Lens View mode, the size and border of the magnified area can be customized.

Speech Output

MAGic is available with integrated speech support or can be teamed with Freedom Scientific's JAWS for Windows screen reader. If JAWS is used for speech support, MAGic automatically turns off all speech functions. The ability to pair the JAWS screen reader with MAGic, as needed, was a real plus.

MAGic's screen magnifier with speech support provides speech output for most functions accessed by the mouse or keyboard, including reading documents and web pages, labeled graphics, window titles, menu bars, and menu list items. A variety of languages is supported, and verbosity settings allow you to customize the speech rate, voice, and other functions.

In Word, speech support is provided as you type by character, word, or both, and documents can be read from start to finish with a hotkey. We found speech support for typing and reviewing documents to be marginal. Speech is delayed when you use navigation keys to read words or lines, and we frequently encountered instances in which speech would not read at all. Speech support for Excel is limited to speaking menus and dialogue boxes. The contents and location of cells are not spoken. In Internet Explorer, web sites can be read to the end using the MAGic hotkey or Read Word, Line, or Link using navigation commands or through the mouse. In Outlook Express, received e-mails can be read using the read-to-end hotkey, and new messages are spoken as you type. In the In Box and other folder list views, MAGic speaks the details of the message.

MAGic's application-specific commands enhance the speech support for Word, Excel, and Internet Explorer. In Internet Explorer, a hotkey reorganizes the web page in a single-column format, and links can be easily accessed through the List Links dialogue box.

Extra! Extra!

A new feature of MAGic 8.02 is the bilingual user interface that allows MAGic menus, help information, and dialogue boxes to be spoken in either English or Spanish. MAGic also offers mouse enhancements that allow you to customize the size, shape, and color of the mouse pointer.

ZoomText, version 8.0

Ai Squared offers ZoomText 8.0 in two product versions—Magnifier, a stand-alone screen magnifier, and Magnifier/Screen Reader, an integrated screen magnifier and screen reader. Both versions support Windows XP, 2000, ME, and 98, but no longer support Windows 95.

Documentation and Help

ZoomText comes with a user's manual and Quick Reference Guide in large print. Both are well organized and provide useful information on installing, using, and troubleshooting ZoomText. It would be helpful to have some of the key features and hotkeys listed on one or two cards for ease of use. Although no training materials or tutorials are provided, Ai Squared says that an integrated CD-ROM tutorial is in the works.

Online Help was easy to access from the main Control Panel and contains the same information as the user's guide. Text descriptions for each Online Help category are provided with graphics for visual recognition. Context-sensitive help is available through a Help button for every ZoomText dialogue box. The main drawback we found is that Online Help is accessible only when ZoomText has focus. A hotkey to access Online Help from within other programs would be a helpful extra.

New to ZoomText 8.0 is the Help tool. We found this tool to provide reliable, on-demand help for ZoomText. The Help tool is accessed through the Help menu in the Control Panel or with a hotkey and provides descriptions of any toolbar button and its associated hotkey on screen and with speech.

Ease of Installation

Installation prompts for ZoomText are provided in high-contrast large print and with speech. ZoomText now offers the option to install it automatically using preset options or to install it using custom options for selecting the location and synthesizer. In either installation mode, instructions were easy to follow on the screen or with speech support. Keyboard commands for selecting options and buttons are spoken, and the mouse pointer is automatically placed at the default button for each screen.

Conflicts in daisy chaining (the way that screen reader and magnifier software obtain full information about what is drawn on the screen) may occur when you install current versions of more than one screen reader or magnifier on a computer running a Windows XP home or Professional, NT, or 2000 operating system.

Navigating the Control Panel

ZoomText's main Control Panel has a new look. The toolbars are streamlined to one row, and only the most commonly used features are represented. Each toolbar button includes a picture icon and a large-print text label for easy identification. The Control Panel for the magnifier-only version offers one toolbar that presents commonly used tasks for magnification and display. The Magnifier/Screen Reader Control Panel offers the option to switch between the Magnifier and Screen Reader toolbars. The Screen Reader toolbar offers quick access to commonly used functions related to speech, such as the speech-rate and verbosity settings. Most toolbar buttons have an associated pulldown menu that offers quick access to frequently used settings. Clicking on the toolbar button activates the pulldown menus.

The new Control Panel also has a completely new menu bar. As longtime users of ZoomText, we found this new menu bar confusing at first. When we tried to select the type of view, it took us a while to locate choices under the Magnifier menu, Zoom Window option. Once we got into the different menus, we found that they were well organized and easy to understand. All functions that are available on the toolbars and some advanced features can be accessed through the menu bar, by mouse, or by using keyboard commands.

Figure 3: Computer screen image showing ZoomText's Control Panel.

Caption: ZoomText's new Control Panel is streamlined and offers easy access to commonly used features.

Magnification Settings

ZoomText offers magnification up to 16 times. Magnification can be turned on or off and increased or decreased through the Magnification toolbar or Magnification menu in the Control Panel or hotkeys. The hotkey option allows you to change magnification "on the fly" with speech announcing the change, a handy feature offered by most screen magnifiers. At 1-times magnification, or normal view, color settings and speech support are retained. The most notable improvement in ZoomText's magnification is the clarity of the magnified area. We noticed a dramatic improvement in the sharpness of the images or text in a variety of color schemes and magnification levels.

Setting the View

ZoomText has reorganized its screen-view settings. Now referred to as Zoom Windows, you can select full view, overlay, lens, or four docked views (top, bottom, left, and right). In Overlay view, the lower-right quarter of the screen is magnified. In Lens view, a small one-eighth area of the screen is magnified as the mouse is moved around. In all but the Full view mode, the Zoom Window can be resized both vertically and horizontally. The docked view choices are an improvement over the previous horizontal and vertical split screens. The new organization of the screen-view options was confusing at first until we realized what it represented.

Zoom Windows can be selected from the Magnifier toolbar or Magnification Menu in the Control Panel or by toggling through the selections using the hotkey. We found the ability to switch Zoom Windows with a hotkey useful.

New To ZoomText is the Freeze Window, which allows for a particular area on the screen always to appear in the magnified window. The size and magnification level of the Freeze Window can be adjusted. We set a Freeze Window for the clock at a magnification level 1 times greater than the current magnified window and found this a useful tool.

Color/Contrast Settings

Major improvements have been made in ZoomText in this area. Selecting the Color Enhancements button on the Magnifier toolbar or through the Magnifier menu opens a dialogue box that presents a variety of options for setting colors. The Normal setting uses no color enhancements. The Schemes setting allows you to select from a list of seven preset schemes, such as black on white and invert brightness. The Custom setting allows for complete customization of the color settings, including the foreground and background colors, brightness, and contrast levels, and for defining the area to apply the new settings. Using the Custom Colors feature, we were able to control all aspects of the way the screen looked, from the color of the text to the background color, in unmagnified viewing areas. A hotkey turns Color Enhancements on and off—a useful feature when you are on the Internet.

The automatic text-smoothing feature can be set for all colors or black and white only. When we turned on automatic text smoothing for all colors, the edges of the text at magnification levels up to 16 times were sharp and easy to distinguish. With automatic text smoothing disabled, the text became pixilated at 3-times magnification.

Tracking

ZoomText offers tracking by mouse pointer, text cursor, menu, control, tool tip, and window. Tracking also can be defined by area and alignment.

In Word, ZoomText's tracking feature was seamless when we typed in a document. The cursor moved with minimal jumping from one line of text to the next. In Excel, the cursor tracked smoothly as we moved among cells, columns, and rows. In Internet Explorer, tracking was equally smooth when we used keyboard commands to move through a web page by link or line. In Outlook Express, ZoomText tracked well when we moved between messages in the In Box and when we read or wrote an e-mail message. Tracking became a problem when we created a new e-mail message because we were unable to view the Send To and Subject field names without moving the focus manually.

When we used the mouse for navigation, we found tracking to be inconsistent. Often, the mouse would get "hung up," and the screen would then jump to catch up with the mouse.

Speech Output

Only the ZoomText Magnifier/ Screen Reader version provides speech support. ZoomText provides speech output for most functions that are accessed by the mouse or keyboard, including reading documents and web pages, labeled graphics, window titles, menu bars, and menu-list items. Speech is supported by several synthesizers and is available in a number of languages. Verbosity can be set to different levels and can be customized by task or function.

Figure 4: Computer screen image showing an hourglass-shaped cursor over the text "Cursor enhancements".

Caption: Cursors and pointers can be enhanced and customized by type, size and color in ZoomText.

For reading an entire document, web page, or e-mail, ZoomText now offers two options—the AppReader and the DocReader. The AppReader allows for controlled or continuous reading within the program. The DocReader opens a separate window and displays the material to be read in a magnified format. With either reading tool, documents can be read by character, word, or paragraph or from start to finish. Both reading tools perform similar functions. We used the AppReader more frequently than the DocReader for its ease of use.

ZoomText also offers the Speak It tool. Words or links are spoken by simply clicking on them with this tool. For larger blocks of text, the mouse pointer can draw a box around the desired text, and the contents of the selected area are spoken. This tool was helpful in navigating web pages and reading links.

In Word and Excel, ZoomText provides speech output as you type by character, word or both. When we reviewed documents using keyboard commands, it occasionally misread words or lines. In Excel, speech support in reading the contents and location of cells is provided. In both Word and Excel Spell Checker, the misspelled word is not read, but suggestions and action buttons are read.

In Internet Explorer and Outlook Express, ZoomText's speech is notably better. Web pages or e-mail messages can be easily read using either the AppReader or DocReader tools, and the Speak It tool is handy for spot reading text or links. On web pages, labeled links and graphics are spoken when the mouse pointer is moved over them or when standard navigational commands are used.

Extra! Extra!

ZoomText offers mouse pointer, cursor, and text-enhancement features. All these features can be accessed through the Magnifier toolbar or menu bar in the Control Panel. Each feature can be customized by type, color, size, and transparency. These are all nice additions to ZoomText and make the task of locating the mouse and cursor and tracking text a lot easier and less stressful on the eyes.

The Bottom Line

Both ZoomText 8.0 and MAGic 8.02 are powerful screen magnifiers with integrated speech support. In over 20 hours of testing in Office 2000 and Internet Explorer, we experienced no instances of crashing. ZoomText has a lot of new features and has some real strengths in magnification and view settings, color and contrast options, mouse and cursor enhancements and tracking, automatic smoothing, and speech support. MAGic shows its strengths in magnification settings, automatic smoothing that is always on, tracking, speech-support options, the ability to team MAGic magnification with the JAWS screen reader, and support of popular applications.

The weaknesses of ZoomText include inconsistency in speech support and the confusing number of choices to perform similar tasks, such as the AppReader and DocReader. MAGic's weaknesses include its split view settings, limited color and contrast options, tracking from menus to windows, and erratic speech support. Both ZoomText and MAGic need to address documentation and installation issues, as well as to develop training materials.

Today, users have a choice in robust screen magnifiers with integrated speech support. Whether you choose LunarPlus, ZoomText, or MAGic, check them all out first to determine which best meets your needs. Remember, smart shoppers are those who do their homework.

Manufacturers' Comments

Ai Squared

"Ai Squared would like to thank AFB for performing reviews of AT products. These periodic reviews keep end users informed and manufacturers competitive with each other. There are a couple of items in the review we'd like to provide more information on.

"There are significant differences between AppReader and DocReader, which is why both features exist in the product. AppReader maintains the look (layout, colors, fonts) of documents and web pages while reading. In DocReader, you can select foreground/background colors and fonts, remove graphics, and reflow the material to fit the width of the screen."

Product Features

Product Features

Product Features

Lunar Plus 5.1 ZoomText 8.0 MAGic 8.02: Online help: Lunar Plus: Yes; ZoomText: Yes; MAGic: Yes, Installation options: Lunar Plus: Large print and speech output; ZoomText: High-contrast large print and speech output; MAGic: Large print and speech output, Magnification level: Lunar Plus: Up to 32 times; ZoomText: Up to 16 times; MAGic: Up to 16 times, View settings: Lunar Plus: 8 view settings; ZoomText: 7 view settings; MAGic: 4 primary view settings with four options for split-screen view, Color/contrast settings: Lunar Plus: Extensive color and contrast settings for total customization of the screen; ZoomText: Preset schemes and custom options for color and contrast settings; MAGic: An inverse color option, Horizontal and vertical panning: Lunar Plus: Yes; ZoomText: Yes; MAGic: Yes, Cursor/mouse enhancements: Lunar Plus: None; ZoomText: Mouse pointer, cursor, and text enhancements customizing for color, size, and shape; MAGic: Customization of the size and shape of the mouse pointer, Secondary magnified windows: Lunar Plus: "Hooked" windows; ZoomText: Freeze Window; MAGic: None, Speech output: Lunar Plus: Yes; ZoomText: Yes; MAGic: Yes.

Product Ratings

Product Ratings

Ratings Chart

Lunar Plus 5.1 ZoomText 8.0 MAGic 8.02: Documentation and help: Lunar Plus: 3; ZoomText: 4; MAGic: 4, Ease of installation: Lunar Plus: 3.5; ZoomText: 4.5; MAGic: 4.5, Navigating the control panel: Lunar Plus: 3; ZoomText: 4; MAGic: 4, Magnification features: Lunar Plus: 4.5; ZoomText: 4.5; MAGic: 4, Setting the view: Lunar Plus: 4; ZoomText: 4; MAGic: 3.5, Color/contrast settings: Lunar Plus: 4.5; ZoomText: 4.5; MAGic: 3, Tracking: Lunar Plus: 4; ZoomText: 4; MAGic: 4, Speech output: Lunar Plus: 4.5; ZoomText: 4; MAGic: 3.5.

Product Information

Product: MAGic 8.02

Manufacturer: Freedom Scientific, 11800 31st Court North, St. Petersburg, FL 33716-1805; phone: 800-444-4443; web site: <www.freedomscientific.com>. Price: MAGic Professional (with speech), $595; MAGic Professional (magnifier only), $395; MAGic Standard (with speech), $545; MAGic Standard (magnifier only), $295.

Product: ZoomText 8.0

Manufacturer: Ai Squared, P.O. Box 669, Manchester Center, VT 05255; phone: 802-362-3612; web site: <www.aisquared.com>. Price: ZoomText 8.0 Magnifier, $395; ZoomText 8.0 Magnifier/ Screen Reader, $595.

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Product Evaluation

Conquering the Code: A Review of the BrailleMaster

This article reviews the BrailleMaster, an instructional aid that can be used by adults and children who want to learn the basics of the braille code. It teaches and offers practice with braille dot patterns for uncontracted and contracted braille and the most commonly used English words.

Physical Description

The unit is a hard plastic box measuring 3 1⁄8 inches by 5 1⁄4 inches by 1 3⁄4 inches. It has seven 5⁄8-inch round buttons or keys that are raised. Six buttons represent a braille cell; the seventh serves as a function key or space bar. The three AA batteries, included and installed, are expected to run the device for several years of normal operation. The unit automatically shuts off after 30 seconds of inactivity to extend the life of the batteries. A headphone jack is located on the end of the unit beside the speaker, but headphones are not provided. A ridged wheel, located on the right side of the unit, serves as both the On/Off switch and the volume control.

Getting Started and Getting Help

The BrailleMaster includes 19 lessons and offers three modes of operation for each lesson—a Learn mode, a Practice mode, and a Quiz mode. Operating instructions are included in print and on audiotape. Dots 1, 2, and 3 of the braille cell are located on the left column of the keypad, with dot 1 at the top. Dots 4, 5, and 6 are on the right column, with dot 4 at the top. The seventh button is below the other six and in between the two columns. When a key combination is pressed, the character it represents is spoken by a digitized male voice.

The user manual suggests that the BrailleMaster should be placed on a table and one's fingers placed on keys 1 through 6, with the left index finger on dot 3 and the right index finger on dot 6. The thumb is to be left free to operate the Space Bar/Function button. The manual notes that the arrangement of fingers is different from the arrangement of fingers on a braillewriter. This arrangement was chosen to "represent the embossed dots of a braille character, instead of the keys of a braillewriter, so it will be more useful to the braille reader," according to the manual. No research is cited to support this decision.

Figure 1: Photograph of the BrailleMaster device, an audiotape, and a printed BrailleMaster manual.

Caption: The BrailleMaster.

This arrangement may be confusing for anyone who has used a braillewriter and will probably be confusing to people who are using the BrailleMaster and learning to use a braillewriter at the same time. At first it seems desirable to arrange the keys in the same pattern as a braille cell because this is the arrangement of the dots that a braille reader will need to know when he or she reads braille tactilely. However, the six keys are too large to fit under the fingertips of most people as a regular braille cell does and therefore cannot be read tactilely as one would read braille. Nor is the arrangement of the buttons congruent with the arrangement of the keys on any of the currently available braille writing devices. Instead, the user has to place one finger over each button and then press them to enter the desired dots. Since the BrailleMaster's purpose is to help people acquire the cognitive skill of knowing which dots represent which braille characters, it would seem that it should be designed to reinforce the skills needed for reading and writing braille, rather than to create confusion with yet another set of movements.

Anatomy of a Braille Lesson

The 19 lessons are broken down into manageable units. The braille characters or words that are covered in each lesson are grouped by similar characteristics, such as the alphabet, numbers, punctuation, and single-cell whole-word contractions. To change lessons, you hold down the space bar/function button and press the dot 2 button to move to the next lesson or the dot 3 button to move to the previous lesson. New lessons automatically start in the Learn mode. To reach a higher lesson, you must advance through the lesson numbers in order. The lesson menu is circular; choosing "Next Lesson" at Lesson 19 will take you to Lesson 1. You must listen to the name of each lesson and the first target in the lesson before you can issue the next or previous lesson command.

Learn Mode

In the Learn mode, the unit prompts you by speaking the target character or word to be entered and gives the numbers of the dots that compose that character. You then press the appropriate buttons for that character. If you have pressed the correct buttons, the BrailleMaster speaks the correct character and then immediately says the next target character and its dot numbers. If you enter the incorrect buttons, the unit speaks what was entered and immediately repeats the target character and the dots associated with it. At first, this practice was confusing. However, when I entered targets with multiple characters, the repeating of the first target character during the feedback phase sometimes became confused with the speaking of the next target character. This problem could be resolved by having a one- or two-second delay between the feedback about the accuracy of the characters entered and the speaking of the next target character.

When you work in the Learn mode, the target characters are cycled through and repeated in the same order. As you begin to learn the order and the dots for a character, it is tempting to press the correct buttons as soon as the target is spoken. The BrailleMaster does not respond to key input until all the target characters and corresponding dot configurations have been spoken. If you hold down the buttons until the speaking ends and then release them, the device will accept the input. The same system is used in the Quiz mode and when you move to different lessons.

Users who quickly pick up on the target requested may become frustrated with the unresponsiveness of the unit in this situation. Two suggestions may help in this regard. First, when the list of target characters has been repeated twice, you may find it more interesting to have these characters presented randomly, rather than in sequence. Second, use speech interrupt, if possible, so you can enter the character before the entire target is spoken. It's always fun to be faster than a machine. Using speech interrupt is even more desirable in the Quiz mode and when you move from one lesson to another.

Feeling Contractions

In Lesson 7, the BrailleMaster introduces contractions. However, it does not tell you the letters represented by the contractions, and the contractions are not spelled out. It is important that a new braille user know the letters represented by each contraction, so he or she can learn how to spell words. The effectiveness of the BrailleMaster would be improved by having the contraction spelled out during the feedback phase.

Contractions that have multiple meanings, depending on their location in the word (beginning, middle, or end), may cause confusion for some people. Although the manual does an adequate job of explaining these details, the prompts and feedback spoken by the BrailleMaster do not always alleviate this confusion. A braille teacher will want to make sure that a student is familiar with the rules governing the meaning of contractions on the basis of their location in a word. The BrailleMaster does not always speak the correct usage of these contractions when the buttons are pressed. However, when it gives feedback, it does speak the correct letters for the contraction. A solution to this problem is not readily apparent. Since the BrailleMaster uses a limited number of lessons and words, it may be possible to have the device speak the correct contraction on the basis of the intent of the lesson and the word being used. In an effort to prevent this type of confusion, the user's manual could include a warning to instructors and offer suggestions for preparing their students. This is a significant issue because these problems do not arise until the later lessons, when many students may feel confident and may proceed with the lessons without consulting their instructors.

The Learn mode is a patient and polite teacher. It does not make any annoying sounds when you enter the correct or incorrect characters. Adults and instructors will prefer the lack of sounds, but some children may prefer "cute" sounds as feedback. Also, some children may find the sound used for negative feedback more interesting than that used for positive feedback and may choose to make errors just to hear that sound. Future revisions could vary the presentation methods for users of different ages.

Practice Makes Perfect

The Practice mode is simple: Press any combination of keys, and the BrailleMaster will speak its character. In Lesson 7 and later lessons, you must press the space bar button after you enter the target character or characters. Doing so allows the BrailleMaster to know when you have completed the input. Entering characters in the Practice mode is similar to what a user may do when writing braille. This is an activity that emphasizes the possible confusion between using the BrailleMaster and writing braille.

Quiz Mode

In the Quiz mode, the BrailleMaster prompts you for a letter or word. If the input is correct, the prompt is repeated for positive feedback, and the next target is spoken. If the input is incorrect, your input is spoken, the prompt is given again, and the correct characters for that letter or word are spoken. As with the Learn mode, these prompts are given immediately after you input the character or characters. Some users may find it difficult to follow, but repeated practice with support from your braille instructor should overcome this confusion.

The Quiz mode randomly selects characters or words from the lesson and prompts you for input. The unit does not track your errors in any way. Missed items are not repeated or assigned a higher frequency in the order of presentation. It may be frustrating to work on a lesson and have mastered most of the target characters or words but be quizzed on all the words without any extra emphasis on those you missed earlier. It would be better if the BrailleMaster could request missed items more often in the random order of items presented in the Quiz mode.

On the basis of feedback from braille instructors, the Quiz mode, in the latest revision, was changed to use characters and words only from the current lesson. This is a good idea, but it may be beneficial to have periodic review lessons to help users retain and practice what they have learned in previous lessons. A final quiz on all the material covered in the lessons would also be a good idea.

Each time the unit is turned on, it reverts to Lesson 1, Learn Mode. A user who is working on a higher lesson will wish to move directly to that lesson or quickly move from lesson to lesson to reach the desired lesson. It can be frustrating and time-consuming to issue the Next Lesson command and then have to wait for the BrailleMaster to say each lesson number and speak the first target. Since the unit does not track individual users and their progress, it is unable to return you to the last lesson you were using.

FAQs

The manufacturer offers a "Discussion Area" on its web site, where users can post questions, comments, or suggestions. The site also has links to other sites related to braille. Several questions that I had planned to ask by telephone were answered on the site. Other users had questions about the layout of the keys and suggested that you should be able to change the layout to represent a braillewriter or the arrangement of the dots for writing with a slate and stylus. The designer is considering this modification for a future revision.

Updates are available. During the one-year warranty period, you can receive one free update at no charge. After that time, updates cost $25. At the time of this writing, only one update is available. This update added the word question (dot 5, q) to the dictionary. The other change, already mentioned, was the content covered by the Quiz mode.

Connecting the Dots

The BrailleMaster can be a useful device for individuals who want to learn the basics of the braille code. Under the guidance of a braille instructor, the device is even more useful. As is true with learning other codes, a good deal of memorizing is necessary to master the braille code. When attempting to memorize information, many people will need repeated exposure to and practice with that information. This process can be boring. Finding a way to vary the exposure and practice can make the task more interesting. The BrailleMaster offers instructors and students a useful tool that can provide some of the needed variation in exposure to and practice with learning the braille code.

Manufacturer's Comments

Dove Systems

"We appreciate the excellent comments on the BrailleMaster and strive to improve the product. The key position choice was a difficult one. We ultimately decided to make the BrailleMaster a "talking pegboard," keeping the braille cell dot positions instead of the braille writer key positions. Those interested in the BrailleMaster are encouraged to visit the website at <www.brailletutor.com> and participate in the discussion there."

Product: BrailleMaster

Distributor: Independent Living Aids; 200 Robbins Lane, Jericho, NY 11753; phone: 800-537-2118 or 516-937-1848; e-mail: <cando@independentliving.com>; web site: <www.independentliving.com>. Price: $295.

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Trainer's Corner

Shaping the Future of Assistive Technology Training

The proverb about a journey of 1,000 miles beginning with a single step neatly sums up the story of the first bachelor's degree program in rehabilitation with an emphasis on assistive technology (AT). That program has not arrived yet, but its journey is well under way at Northcentral Technical College's (NTC) Caroline S. Mark Center for Students with Disabilities in Wausau, Wisconsin.

That is where Joe Mielczarek, a vocational counselor who has run the center since 1983, and Jim Unger, a certified rehabilitation teacher and AT specialist, are at the tail end of writing the curriculum for the school's one-year AT speech output certificate program. This program is the first of three such programs; the other two will be in large print/optical character recognition (OCR) technology and braille technology. All three are expected to be offered online within the next year and a half.

The program is the result of an unconventional and highly successful collaboration between the center, which functions as a conventional rehabilitation facility for people who are visually impaired or blind, deaf or hard of hearing, or learning disabled, and NTC, one of 16 colleges in Wisconsin's two-year technical college system.

As Mielczarek pointed out, the symbiotic relationship has been highly beneficial for both entities: "The great thing about having a rehab facility inside a technical college is the number of resources that are right here. If a piece of computer equipment isn't working, I take it to the computer repair program; if I need a nurse, there's one right here; if a wheelchair breaks, I can take it to the welding lab. These are all things I wouldn't be able to do if I was in a traditional rehab center." Mielczarek and his team of technologists—Clayton Blom, Alan Edwards, Randy Ingman, Dave Schuh, Jim Unger, and Jayne Zillich—work with 200 to 300 people each year through the center. The center charges on a fee-for-service basis and bills several different entities, including NTC; Wisconsin's Department of Vocational Rehabilitation; and, in the case of older people who may not be covered otherwise, a foundation through the Badger Center for the Blind in Milwaukee.

Figure 1: Photograph of Jim Unger seated at a desk.

Caption: Jim Unger, rehabilitation teacher and AT specialist, one of the AT program's developers. (Credit: Talia Frolkis)

In addition to working with students from the community and from NTC, each technologist has his or her own specialty. A typical day for Ingman includes surfing the web for the latest news and equipment from the AT field. "I monitor the web and hit all the adaptive sites because there's new stuff coming out every day," he said. As an example, he cited what he has learned about accessible cell phones. The Nokia 9290, which is available now, is also a personal digital assistant that can surf the net and do e-mail, but without a special connection called wireless application protocol (WAP), it is useless.

The connection does not exist in central Wisconsin at the moment, but is expected to be available late this summer. In the meantime, there's plenty of other work to do. Ingman works with students who are taking mainstream classes, teaching them how to work with WYNN (an OCR product for people with learning impairments), the Kurzweil 3000 reading machine, and voice input/voice output; how to download books from Bookshare; or how to use a particular program. "Whether it's a mainstream or a rehab student, they're all students and all need to take advantage of assistive technology in some way," he said. Among Ingman's current clients are an operating-room technician who is losing her sight, a patient with a traumatic brain injury, and NTC students who are taking courses in a variety of subjects.

The Need for Expertise

The relationship with NTC was one catalyst for the budding AT certification program. The explosion of new technologies for blind and visually impaired people (many of which have also become indispensable to sighted people with reading disabilities) placed new demands on rehabilitation professionals. Increasing types and numbers of closed-circuit televisions (CCTVs), OCR devices, and refreshable braille displays meant a corresponding need for credentialed professionals who understood and were able to match the products with users.

Credentialing was the serious issue, Unger said. Standards have long been established for rehabilitation counselors and specialists, but anyone can hang out a shingle and call himself or herself an AT specialist. So, four years ago, Mielczarek, Unger, Ingman, Schuh, and Edwards began brainstorming ways to change that reality. They then moved into the research phase of setting up standards and benchmarks for AT specialists. Schuh and Mielczarek put together a grant proposal. Approval to develop the program through NTC followed.

Explore the Core

The 10 credits' worth of core classes for the AT certificate program are the same whether students want to earn the certificates in speech output, large print/OCR, or braille technology. Core courses include Concepts of AT, Introduction to Braille, Introduction to Visual Impairment and Other Reading Disabilities, Laws and Regulations, and Methods of Evaluation and Report Writing. Certificate-specific courses for the speech-output certificate program include JAWS for Windows, Window-Eyes, Hal from Dolphin Computer Access and OutSPOKEN for the Macintosh, and Dragon NaturallySpeaking with Speech Output.

Students must earn a "C" or better in each course and must retake any sequential courses before they can continue to a higher level. Graduates are expected to be able to determine necessary adaptations, install and set up equipment and software, train users, and troubleshoot problems.

The curriculum development team decided early on that computer literacy was a prerequisite for entering the program and that associate's degrees would be granted only to students with advanced computer expertise. "You have to know Windows," Unger said. "Students can either pass a Windows proficiency test or must have a passing grade of "C" or better in NTC's Windows Operating class."

Students who complete the certificate program and want to go on for associate's degrees will take courses in computer hardware and software applications and receive degrees as computer support specialists. That, Mielczarek said, was a conscious decision by the team and was supported by faculty outside the center.

Terry Waldvogel, a computer information specialist instructor at NTC, pointed out that many of the people who will be trained by the program's graduates will be using the technology in their workplaces and cited a common scenario: "The equipment you're going to be interfacing with is going to be on a network. With the network interface cards, the routers, and switches that flow through the cards, you're going to run into some problems along the way with adaptive software, so to know how to troubleshoot is going to be a big part of making adaptive software and hardware work."

That requirement suits Rhonda Baranowski just fine. One of two students who is enrolled in the program, she is finishing an associate's degree in computer programming and has completed NTC's computer networking associate's degree program. Depending on the result of a grant Mielczarek is currently writing, she will have to wait a semester or a year to finish the certification program. Unger explained why: "I'm a rehab teacher by day, and I teach AT classes at night, and because of NTC restrictions, I can only teach two classes now."

The speed with which Unger will be able to finish teaching the last two courses depends on a recently written grant. If the funding comes in, he will be freed to teach the AT courses while someone else fills in with his rehabilitation work, and Baranowski and her fellow student, Josh Popelka, will receive their certification in December. If not, they will have to wait until next May.

Baranowski, a Wausau native, plans to look for a job in her field when she is finished. She will not have to look far if Mielczarek has his way. Because of partnerships previously established by NTC, the program has come to the attention of officials in the Ukraine. These officials have asked—and Mielczarek has agreed—to establish a similar facility there, and he wants Baranowski to be part of the setup team.

One strength of many of the technicians who are blind or visually impaired is that they have been on the receiving end of the services they provide, and Baranowski is no exception. Through the school's regular tutoring center, she was paired with Matt Hildebrandt, a sighted classmate who serves as a reader for some of her more visually oriented computer classes. A fourth-semester programming student, his job at the tutoring center is paid through NTC's tutoring center, which functions independently from the Caroline S. Mark Center. Baranowski went to the tutoring center, rather than to the Caroline S. Mark Center, to find a tutor for a course she took last semester. She was paired with Hildebrandt, and the two are working together again this semester.

"He helps with the visual part," Baranowski said, "navigating on screen and some of the navigating around through the menus to get to where I need to get to." "I helped Rhonda in HTML class; she was easy to get along with, and we were a good match," Hildebrandt said, as they started to work on their current assignment for a C-Sharp programming course. The instructor put a lot of notes and comments into the on-screen assignment, and working together from their class notes (Baranowski's in braille), Hildebrandt guided Baranowski exactly to where she needed to be on the screen. They were not using AT, but the small study room in which they were working contained an audiotape player, a CCTV, a scanner, and a Juliet Pro braille embosser, in addition to the computer.

Making the Difference

NTC's tutoring center can provide sighted readers for students who are blind or visually impaired, but Kristin Miller, who is visually impaired and dyslexic, needed more. She is now on the verge of graduating from NTC's child care program and is interviewing for jobs in her field. The Caroline S. Mark Center is what made the difference.

Miller, whose sight is good enough that she can use a CCTV and ZoomText Xtra 7.0, Level 1, is, by her own admission, "stubborn." She had been coming to the center on and off from her home in Ashland (about three hours north of Wausau) since she was a child, but at home, with a cadre of sighted friends, she was able to succeed at school. College was different. "I would take a normal screen, put my eye on the screen, and use ZoomText with no voice technology," she recalled. "I started using JAWS midway through my first semester and started talking to the computer this year. I went from failing and being on academic probation to nearly a 4.0 average—all from JAWS in the voice output area. I don't know what I'd be doing without it."

Figure 2: Photograph of Kristin Miller in a technology lab.

Caption: Kristin Miller, who is visually impaired and dyslexic, was able to succeed in college once she learned to use voice output technology. (Credit: Talia Frolkis)

For Miller, the "digital stuff" has been the best. With Dragon NaturallySpeaking 6.0, JAWS for Windows, and Jawbone (a utility that allows these two programs to work together), she can read and retain information. In addition, she uses ZoomText Xtra and is able to follow the words on the computer screen.

It is Miller and people like her who showed Mielczarek and his team the need to develop the AT program."We assist so many people who are blind and visually impaired in schools and employment and saw the poor resources they had available to help with AT that all of us said something had to be done," he said.

There is no doubt that for every Kristin Miller who succeeds, there are many more who don't. For that reason, Mielczarek and his team have received support from organizations that serve people who are blind or visually impaired, as well as product developers and vendors. This responsibility is not something that the center takes lightly. It has created a 30-person advisory board to help develop the program, consisting of representatives from the American Foundation for the Blind, American Printing House for the Blind, Freedom Scientific, and Pulse Data HumanWare.

"They [the board members] tell us what types of products we should be teaching," Unger said, citing synthetic speech products as an example. A decision to teach the top four programs had been finalized when Syntha-Voice Computers went out of business. At that point, Unger consulted board members to determine which product should replace Slimware Window Bridge, which had been in the curriculum and would no longer be available.

Once the AT program is in place, an articulation agreement will be officially signed between NTC, which is part of Wisconsin's technical college system, and the University of Wisconsin–Stout, which is part of the state's four-year college system. Under that agreement, students who want to go on for their bachelor's degrees will enter Stout as juniors. They will graduate with bachelor's degrees in rehabilitation with an emphasis on AT and, in doing so, will fulfill the goal of Mielczarek and his team. "We want to graduate the best AT trainers for blind and reading-impaired people to access for assistance in any education or employment setting," Mielczarek said.

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Untangling the Web

Web Sites That Take You Places: Accessing Travel Web Sites with Low Vision

In today's budget-conscious economy, there is an increased focus on saving both money and time when traveling. One way many individuals accomplish this is through the use of travel web sites. These sites offer a convenient way to obtain airfare and airline tickets, hotel accommodations, rental cars, and vacation packages. A whole business trip or vacation can be planned and coordinated through the same web site. If you can be a little flexible, these sites can often offer significant savings over traditional travel booking methods.

Unfortunately, many of these web sites are not easily accessible to persons with low vision. Problems can be caused by lack of contrasting colors, poor formatting and layouts, cluttered screens, and trouble with navigation. Not only does this lack of accessibility make planning travel difficult for people with low vision, but being unable to plan a trip independently can induce a lot of frustration.

This article will look at the accessibility of four of the leading travel web sites used today by people at home and in the workplace: <www.travelocity.com>, <www.hotwire.com>, <www.expedia.com>, and <www.priceline.com>. We will focus on factors such as clutter, contrast, navigation, text description of graphics, use of graphics, and overall page layout. These factors are important to individuals regardless of whether or not they are using screen magnification software. Although some screen magnification applications have features that may correct some of the problems mentioned here, it is important to realize that there are problems on these sites.

Travelocity.com

Throughout the Travelocity site, the background is mainly white with colors such as black, blue, and red used for the type. The headings for the main sections of this web site are done in black, which makes for great contrast. However, section headings such as "Travel Tools" use two different colors for the type, which is unnecessary and confusing for the low vision reader. The main links at the top of the page do not have good contrast, unless a link is highlighted. If a link is not highlighted there is gray type on white background. If a link is highlighted, the background is blue and the type is white, which makes for good contrast. Navigating through this web site does not cause many problems, other than the fact that some of the main links are buried at the bottom of the page rather than on the top with the rest of the main links. When you tab through the site, you navigate directly to the main focus of the page without being taken through less important information first.

Graphics and text descriptions of images cause problems on this site. Both large and small graphics, mostly advertisements, are used throughout the site. Many of them flash and are distracting. The home page in particular has a large advertisement that distracts a viewer from the main focus of the page; you cannot help but focus on it. Some images do not have text descriptions (or alt-tags), making the images unusable for a low vision user who wants to know what an image depicts. Finally, the layout of the web site is not well organized. There is no consistency or formality. Each time you go to a new page you must adjust to a new layout and format.

Hotwire.com

On the Hotwire web site, clutter is also a problem. On a web page you will find information on special deals, advertisements, customer care questions and answers, and flashing graphics that are distracting, as well as the Hot-Fare Finder. The Hot-Fare Finder on each web page allows you to make reservations for travel plans, such as hotel reservations or car rentals. This feature is found in the same area of each page, making it easy to locate, but the surrounding information all looks the same, separated only by a yellow highlighted box. This can make navigation and scanning difficult and time-consuming. Because there is consistency as users navigate from page to page, however, navigation will become quicker with time and experience on the web site.

Contrast on Hotwire is good. White is mainly used as background and red, black, or blue are used for the type. The links at the top of the page have good contrast when they have the focus, with white foreground on red background. Graphics are used throughout Hotwire, and some blink and flash, which can be distracting. There are both small and medium-sized graphics. The main graphics have text descriptions explaining what the picture is depicting, but many of the advertisements do not. Once again, this makes it difficult for someone with low vision, who may not be able to make out the details of the graphic, to know what the image represents. Aside from these problems, this web site is put together consistently and informatively. With some time spent getting used to the formality, the web site can be accessible to users with low vision.

Expedia.com

The Expedia web site is also cluttered. There is too much information on each page. It may take a user with low vision extra time to navigate successfully through this web site. Despite the clutter, however, the site is laid out in an organized fashion. The important information is located in the center of the page, while the less important information and advertisements are on the perimeter of the page. This is consistent as you navigate through each page of the site. The contrast on Expedia.com is decent. The important information in the center has good, bold contrast. The perimeter of each web page can cause difficulty because many shades of blue are used. Often, the background is light blue and the type is dark blue, making visibility blurry. The main focus of the page, Build Your Own Trip, located in the center of the home page, is outlined in orange with the background a pale yellow. Although the outlining is helpful, the box would be more visible if the background were a bolder color.

Navigation through this web site can be accomplished by tabbing. Tabbing takes you first through the main links on the home page, then to the extra information on the perimeter. The cursor reaches Build Your Own Trip last, even though this section is the main focus of the page. Navigating through the page takes a while and it is difficult to follow the tab marker as it moves.

Some of the graphics on this site blink and flash, but the use of graphics is limited, so this is not a big problem. Some of the images have text descriptions, but others, including the images in the Build Your Own Trip box, do not.

Priceline.com

Of these four web sites, Priceline has the least amount of clutter. The main focus of the home page, Name Your Own Price Deals, is easily visible, with no surrounding clutter that would distract a user with low vision. The main links at the top of the page are well spaced and easily visible. Contrast is the biggest problem. Some areas have good contrast, using a white background and blue type. However, the lack of contrast on the main headings and perimeter of the site can make readability difficult. The perimeter uses different shades of blue, sometimes medium blue backgrounds with dark blue type, which tend to blur together. Some main headings use pale blue as background with white type, which also tends to blur.

As with the Expedia web site, navigation of Priceline can be accomplished by tabbing. Tabbing takes you through the main links at the top of the page, followed by the links on the perimeter of the page. You reach the main focus of the page, Name Your Own Price, last. Navigation would be easier if Name Your Own Price were earlier in the tab order of the main page.

The layout of the web site is well organized. The spacing between sections is good, allowing users to differentiate each area of the page from areas next to it. Graphics on this web site are limited, small, and not distracting, and some pages have no graphics. Text descriptions are used for the main images, but some advertisement graphics do not have text descriptions. Overall, this web site is well organized and fairly easy to navigate, with contrast being the most significant problem.

The Bottom Line

There are many factors that go into making a web site accessible to low vision users. As people become more dependent on the Internet to accomplish everyday tasks, these factors become more important and vital. If you are a web surfer with low vision searching for the most accessible travel web site, Priceline and Expedia have the least amount of clutter, the most information located centrally, and the best contrast. They are reasonably easy to navigate, and the information is most easily at your fingertips.

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AccessWorld News

Familiar Voice for BrailleNote

Pulse Data HumanWare recently announced the appointment of Jonathan Mosen as its product marketing manager for BrailleNote and VoiceNote, the company's personal digital assistants. Mosen takes over for Larry Lewis, who now reports to president Jim Halliday as the new general manager of Pulse Data HumanWare's Blindness Division. Blind since birth, Mosen has a long affiliation with ACB (American Council of the Blind) Radio, and he formed the Out of Sight company in 1999 to manage the Internet radio station. Mosen had been chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Royal New Zealand Foundation of the Blind. Contact: Pulse Data HumanWare; phone: 800-722-3393 or 925-680-7100; e-mail: <usa@pulsedata.com>; web site: <www.pulsedata.com>.

ALVA Ends Mac Support

ALVA announced it will soon cease development of the Macintosh versions of outSPOKEN and inLARGE, ALVA's screen reader and screen magnifier for Macintosh computers. Explaining the change, Eric Weldink, ALVA's president and CEO, commented, "Our resources are best directed towards producing stand-alone products...tailored to the needs of our customers.... " Weldink pointed out that ALVA has redoubled efforts on its MPO (Mobile Phone Organizer), which is an integrated cell phone and personal organizer for people who are visually impaired. OutSPOKEN 9.2 and inLARGE 2.1 for Macintosh will be available through January 2003, and warranties and service agreements will be honored. For more information, contact: ALVA Access Group; phone: 888-318-2582 or 510-451-2582; e-mail: <info@aagi.com>; web site: <www.alvabraille.com>.

Cingular Access

Cingular Wireless, a telecommunications service provider, offers Voice Connect free to qualified customers. The voice portal is designed to allow people with disabilities who cannot independently use a telephone access to voice and information services by using voice commands. In addition to voice dialing, Voice Connect allows customers to retrieve, by cell phone, business and recreational information such as stock quotes, weather, sports, and horoscopes. Contact: Cingular Wireless; phone: 800-331-0500; web site: <www.cingular.com>.

Words and Music

What's New in Word XP? by Sharon Monthei is a short reference guide intended to ease the transition from Microsoft Word 2000 to Microsoft Word XP by answering basic questions about functions ranging from Microsoft Office Clipboard to Mail Merge. The reference also includes step-by-step instructions for configuring Word XP to work with speech and braille. National Braille Press (NBP) also offers a reference guide for sound-editing software, including Sound Forge 6.0, GoldWave 5.0, and Cool Edit 2000. The guide includes keyboard commands and how to get screen reader configuration files and additional help. Each guide is available in one braille volume or PortaBook format and costs $5. Contact: NBP; phone: 808-548-7323 or 617-266-6160; e-mail: <orders@nbp.org>; web site: <www.nbp.org>.

Who'll Be at TechShare

The Techshare organizers recently announced the key speakers for the 2003 conference, which will take place November 20–21, 2003 in the United Kingdom. Madelyn Bryant McIntire is director of the Accessible Technology Group at Microsoft; Brian Charlson is vice president, American Council of the Blind, and director of the Computer Training Services program at the Carroll Center for the Blind; and Rob Lees is a technology executive for Vodafone Global Products and Services, a mobile telecommunications company and partner of the Royal National Institute of the Blind (RNIB), organizer of the conference. Contact: Techshare, RNIB; phone: 0870-013-9555; e-mail: <techshare@rnib.org.uk>; web site: <www.rnib.org.uk/techshare>.

Got news?

Send your assistive technology-related news to AccessWorld. Contact: Rebecca Burrichter, associate editor, AFB Press; fax: 212-502-7774; e-mail: rebeccab@afb.net.

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Calendar

September 18 – 20, 2003

World Congress & Exposition on Disabilities

Orlando, FL

Contact:

World Congress & Exposition on Disabilities; phone: 201-226-1446; email: <wcdinfo@wcdexpo.com>; website: <www.wcdexpo.com>.

September 29 – October 1, 2003

Doors to Inclusion: Universal Access Conference

Baton Rouge, LA

Contact:

Louisiana Assistive Technology Access Network; phone: 800-270-6185 or 225-925-9500; web site: <www.latan.org>.

October 16 – 18, 2003

21st Annual Closing the Gap Conference

Bloomington, MN

Contact:

Closing the Gap; phone: 507-248-3294; web site: <www.closingthegap.com>.

November 20 – 21, 2003

Techschare 2003

Birmingham, England

Contact:

Royal National Institute for the Blind; phone: 44-0870-013-9555; web site: <www.rnib.org.uk/techshare>.

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