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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 November 2003 Issue  Volume 4  Number 6

Trainer's Corner

Screen Reader Boot Camp

When assistive technology (AT) for people who are blind or have low vision was introduced, one of the biggest problems for many consumers was getting their hands on these newfangled products for an up-close examination. There weren't any mainstream franchises that put speech- or braille-output products on display. That's still a problem, of course, but circumstances have improved dramatically. Numerous conferences, large and small, are held year-round in the United States and elsewhere that provide hands-on experience and demonstrations with the now-broad spectrum of AT options. Still, people who are blind or have low vision have been at a disadvantage when compared with sighted people in acquiring new computer products. Once you've seen a demonstration and been persuaded that software X or hardware Y is right for you, how do you learn to use it? GW Micro took a major step forward in 2002 with the launch of its traveling training classes, offering basic and intermediate training in the use of Window-Eyes, the company's flagship product.

Of course, options have been available to consumers all along for learning to use the popular screen-reading program. The software package includes braille and large-print command summaries, and the entire manual can be searched with a few keystrokes on a computer. Other training options have included a variety of audiotaped tutorials that can be purchased from various companies, as well as one-on-one training by various agencies or individual vendors. What GW Micro has done that is unique, however, is to provide training by its own experienced staff members in the home communities of consumers. For many people, the kinesthetic approach to learning is the most effective—hear what you're supposed to do while your hands are on the keyboard doing it—so this new option is a welcome one.

Since the first class was held in November 2002 at the National Federation of the Blind's headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland, classes have been held in Colorado (Denver and Golden); Indiana (Fort Wayne and Goshen); Kentucky (Louisville); Massachusetts (Boston and Salisbury); New Mexico (Albuquerque); Ohio (Cincinatti and Columbus); Iowa (Des Moines); Michigan (Livonia); Pennsylvania (Pittsburgh and Philadelphia); South Carolina (Myrtle Beach); Tennessee (Nashville); and Washington, DC, as well as Los Angeles and Dallas and even in Birmingham, England. As the word of these classes spreads, the momentum will increase, and more training courses will be offered.

Taking the Plunge

To give AccessWorld readers a better idea of what it feels like to participate in a local Window-Eyes training course, I attended a two-day training session in Cincinnati. Although the classes are aimed at both beginning and experienced users, it warrants mentioning that I approached the process as a completely blank slate, having never used the product. The experiences of others I have spoken with who have taken the training class, both novice and experienced users, have consistently paralleled mine as an absolute neophyte.

Several GW Micro staff members have been involved in teaching these classes, including Dan Weirich, vice president of marketing; Clarence Whaley, engineering director of sales and marketing training; Sonja Homan, sales coordinator; and Bill Herzler, tech support specialist. The class I took was taught by Sonja Homan, whose teaching style was a commendable blend of professional and comfortable, adjusting the pace of material being covered according to feedback from the participants. Although there was a particular set of techniques to be covered in the allotted time, the flexibility to move in and out of other areas of concern to a particular person was impressive. The participants in our group had widely varying levels of experience with computers in general, let alone screen-reading software; yet, each person's concerns were addressed without anyone being left behind. Because the classes are kept small (from 3 to 10 participants), the environment was immediately one of camaraderie and a shared eagerness to learn.

The training is designed to cover basic skills on the first day and intermediate skills on the second. While the option of paying for only one of the two days is available, most participants choose the two-day format. Since the goal of the training is both to introduce and improve skills, classes are intuitively accommodating to people with a wide range of experience.

Because the classes are kept small, the style is interactive and the tone lively. Rather than lecturing about available features, the trainer involves the students constantly by giving an example and expecting all participants to perform the same task. Since each student uses his or her own computer, the learning experience is a kinesthetic as well as an auditory one: You hear how to do something, perform that task with your own hands on your own keyboard, and "see" (via synthesized speech and/or your braille display) the resulting action. Material is paced according to the consensus of the group as well. If, for example, everyone present seems to have a solid understanding of reading commands, the trainer moves through them swiftly. If the concept of changing settings in the Window-Eyes control panel seems completely unfamiliar, the trainer slows the pace accordingly.

The small class size also lends itself well to individualizing instruction. If one person has a temporarily recalcitrant computer (say, it freezes for no apparent reason or doesn't respond to a particular key command), the instructor can address that particular problem while giving other students a chance to experiment with some other task. Similarly, if one or two participants have a specific need unlike the others, the somewhat informal structure allows for addressing it. If, for instance, one person wants to know how to have checkmarks indicated by the letter c rather than x on the braille display, a moment is taken for the side trip to teach that particular technique. Or, if someone just isn't grasping the concept of navigation among web sites, the attempt is made to explain and illustrate the steps in another way. The trainer routinely confirms that all participants are grasping material and are "on the same page."

Finding a Secure Host

Classes have been hosted by private and/or state agencies for people with visual impairments, schools, dealers in AT, and others. To host a training class, each individual has to have his or her own computer with headphones, or the hosting agency needs to supply the items. Skills are taught in the environment of Office 97, 2000, or XP, so it is also necessary to have one of these products installed. In the training class I attended, every promised skill on the Basics Skills list was covered. Although some of the Intermediate Skills that were advertised were not addressed, it was readily apparent that they were not because of unusually complicated equipment failures on the first day and the additional emphasis on braille support that some participants requested. Specifically, the skills covered in the two-day training sessions, as indicated in the company's promotional materials, include these:

Basic Skills

  • Adjusting the Speech on the Fly
  • Computer Requirements and Setup
  • Windows Basics
  • Navigating and Reading Documents
  • Reading Text with Window-Eyes Commands
  • Microsoft Word Basics
  • Window-Eyes Application Help
  • The Window-Eyes Control Panel
  • Global versus Local Voice Settings
  • Accessing the Internet

Intermediate Skills

  • Controlling How Much Window-Eyes Talks
  • Reading the Screen with the Mouse
  • Changing Pronunciation with the Exceptions, Character, Graphics Labels, and Key Label Dictionaries
  • Hot Keys
  • Set Files
  • User Windows
  • Cursoring Keys
  • Hyperactive Windows
  • More Advanced Internet Skills, Including Filling Out Forms and Reading Tables

At the end of training, each participant is presented with a certificate of completion and a compact disk containing the entire course outline.

The Cincinnati training class, according to all the participants, was a positive and worthwhile experience. Perhaps more to the point, this previously inexperienced novice left with sufficient confidence to begin using Window-Eyes at work the next day. As veteran trainer Sonja Homan said, "Individuals get the opportunity to improve their skills, and we get the opportunity to train people better, so they'll spread the word about our product. The training is a win-win for all of us."

For More Information

Window-Eyes training costs $250 per day if you attend both days and $350 per day if you attend only one day. For more information on hosting or participating in a future training class, visit the GW Micro web site, <www.gwmicro.com/training>, or phone 260-489-3671.

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