For a person who is blind, a screen reader can be the key to unlocking the door to an almost infinite amount of information and possibilities. By providing access to the Windows operating system, it lets you perform job tasks, read for pleasure, search for almost anything on the web, and so on.
Screen reader developers focus on work-related applications and pack each new version with more and more features. They beta test their products with a small number of experts and take these people's suggestions on improvements and additions.
The truth is, for most people, a screen reader is a very difficult tool to use. These beasts speak their own language ("edit box," "multiselection list box," "graphic 847," "disknag"); require you to know what action to take when they announce something in that language; are shipped with manuals that require knowledge of Windows, programming, and web design; and have been known to stop speaking at the most inopportune times. Good training is hard to find and, for some, difficult to afford.
For a typical sighted person, Windows is intutive. A blank screen with a blinking cursor means start writing. Two buttons labeled "OK" and "Cancel" mean choose one of these. However, the learning curve for a typical screen reader user is very steep. You have to learn the language, learn what to do in response to a number of odd phrases pulled from deep within the Windows operating system, and troubleshoot endlessly. Screen readers have come a long way with regard to providing access to many applications, especially Internet Explorer and word processors. Perhaps in the future, developers should think more about usability and design more friendly products for beginners, instead of concentrating on those of us who have already learned what to do when we encounter a static box or some other bizarre object from deep within the shadowy world of Windows.
In this issue, I review, along with Jim Denham and Heather McComas of AFB's Technology and Employment Center (AFB TECH) in Huntington, West Virginia, version 6.01 of Dolphin's Hal screen reader. We evaluate Hal's documentation, as well as its performance in Microsoft Word, Excel, and on the web. Find out how this UK-based relative newcomer to the U.S. market compares with the competition.
Darren Burton and Mark Uslan, also from AFB TECH, provide an update on the issues surrounding accessible electronic voting machines. Some researchers have raised significant questions about security, questioning the reliability of electronic voting and demanding that the machines produce paper ballots as well as electronic ones. As the 2004 presidential election looms nearer, manufacturers are racing to add the ability to provide a paper trail to their machines. We give an update on the machines and describe a usability study involving people who are blind or visually impaired.
Dr. Carol Farrenkopf, Coordinator of Toronto District School Board Vision Services, evaluates three portable CCTVs: the Traveller, by the Tieman Group; the Olympia, by Telesensory; and the Pico, also by Telesensory. The Traveller and the Olympia are lightweight, compact CCTVs, while the Pico is a handheld device that can fit in a pocket or purse. Farrenkopf observed students and adults using the three units in a variety of locations--in school, at home, in the supermarket, at work. Read her excellent review to find out which unit will work best for your needs.
Darren Burton continues our coverage of cell phone accessibility by evaluating the Owasys 22C phone developed in Spain and the TALKS software from Brand & Gröber Communications installed on the Nokia 3650 and 3660 phones. The Owasys 22C is a screenless cell phone designed specifically for people who are blind or visually impaired, and thus provides speech access to its features. TALKS is a screen reader that allows a person who is blind or visually impaired to access nearly all the functions of the phone on which it is installed. Read about two options in a small but growing group of phones worth considering.
I review the Book Port from American Printing House for the Blind and the BookCourier from Springer Design, two small, handheld e-book readers with speech output. These products are both descendants of the Road Runner from Ostrich Software, a text file reader that is no longer available. The two products are similar in appearance, use the same speech synthesizer, and perform many of the same functions and both require a USB connection to your computer to import files. This article points out the differences that will help you decide which product to purchase.
Deborah Kendrick describes a series of five projects designed to put new and emerging reading formats into the hands of library patrons who are blind or visually impaired, headed by Lori Bell, director of the Mid-Illinois Talking Book Center, a subregional library within the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped network of cooperating libraries. All the projects focus on formats and devices used for reading Digital Talking Books. Projects have included offering patrons books from the online collection at Audible.com to evaluating seven Digital Talking Book players to this summer's project designed to put Digital Talking Books in several formats into patrons' hands and find out what they prefer. If you want to read in the formats of the future, contact Lori Bell and her staff.
Jay Leventhal, Editor in Chief
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