Screen-Reading Alternatives: An Overview of Lower-cost Options
If you are using a screen-access program to read this article, it is probably safe to say that you are using JAWS (Job Access with Speech) from Freedom Scientific, Window-Eyes from GW Micro, or ZoomText from Ai Squared. These "big three" products provide access to both the Windows operating system and a wide array of programs and technology that operate on Windows computers.
In addition to these three products and others that typically dominate the market, some other compelling access technologies have emerged in the past several years. Each of them addresses a more specialized segment of the larger community of computer users who require access technology for either screen enlargement or speech output.
As part of a project that evaluated the usability of two of these products, we gathered data about other important additions to the well-established companies in the screen-access arena. The length of this overview prevents us from describing every technical characteristic of each additional product. However, here, we summarize the behavior of each in several important areas, as identified by the participants in our small user study. If one of the products interests you, we encourage you to obtain an evaluation copy or to try the product if it is provided without charge.
Guide, distributed in the United States by EVAS, is a comprehensive set of applications that replaces the customary programs that are commonly used with Windows, such as Internet Explorer and Microsoft Word. Its objective is to provide a consistent interface across more than 20 functions, rather than require you to learn the different interfaces of a separate web browser, e-mail program, personal calendar application, address book, and so on.
Visually, Guide provides a simple, high-contrast proprietary interface. Numbers for each choice or option are associated with the function and can be entered directly from the keyboard. For example, if you want to send an e-mail message, you press 1. If you want to write a letter, you press 2. To navigate, you use the alphanumeric keys or the arrow keys. A voice-input option is also available at an additional price.
Narrator is the built-in Microsoft screen reader. It is included on all Windows computers and can be activated free-of-charge by pressing the Windows key and letter U together. Narrator can help people with visual impairments use a computer, but Microsoft makes it clear when the program starts that it may not work well with some programs and that it speaks only in English. It also states that Narrator has limited functionality and that people with visual impairments need a screen reader with higher functionality for daily use.
All users of Windows computers can use the Accessibility Wizard to change display settings to make the screen easier to read. You can increase the font size, enhance the mouse pointer and cursor, and increase the size of the desktop and other icons and the size of the scroll bar and windows borders. The Magnifier tool can also be used. This section of the screen works as a magnifying glass and magnifies the area around the mouse pointer. The magnified portion can be moved to any part of the screen to suit your needs better. This built-in access tool most likely works best for people who are just beginning to lose their vision or who need only minor enhancements to the screen. As with Narrator, Microsoft acknowledges that these magnification enhancements provide only a minimal level of functionality and are intended for users with slight visual impairments.
System Access and System Access to Go, developed by Serotek Corporation, are different distributions of the System Access technology. Intended to provide both screen reading and screen magnification to Windows programs, these programs more closely resemble the traditional screen-access programs than do the other programs in this group. System Access places a heavy emphasis on facilitating the use of lifestyle features of the computer and related products. A subscription-based companion service, System Access Mobile, provides a simplified, consistent interface as an alternative to Windows programs for such functions as handling e-mail, browsing news, and accessing music content.
VoiceOver is the only available screen-access technology for the Macintosh computer. It can be activated on any Mac that runs the current version of the Mac operating system. VoiceOver is intended to provide access to the Mac user interface and the applications that are included with the Mac operating system. These applications include the Safari web browser, a full-featured editor, an e-mail client, and iTunes. Because VoiceOver is provided by the manufacturer as an integral part of the operating system, the user experience is highly responsive. The community of Mac users is uniquely dedicated to the Mac operating system and applications, and for those who want to interact with these programs, VoiceOver has been well received.
When using the Mac, you can also use Zoom, which allows you to use the scroll wheel on a mouse or key commands to magnify the contents of your screen. You can use the Zoom dialogue to set maximum and minimum values for instant zooming to a particular magnification. The dialogue lets you create custom key commands and offers options for cursor tracking when magnified.
When using the Mac, you can scale the cursor so that it is easier to see and follow when you move the mouse. The Mac includes adjustments for controlling the characteristics of your display. These adjustments are system wide, not application specific, so they provide a consistent view in all Mac applications. You can also increase or decrease contrast.
View Options can be used to adjust the text size of icon names and their thumbnail previews from 10- to 16-point font. You can change the background, normally white, to any color to increase contrast, and you can adjust the grid spacing between icons as well.
The Dock offers a way to access commonly used applications, files, and folders, although Mac OS X lets you set the default size of Dock icons so they are easier to see. You can also use Dock Magnification automatically to enlarge the icon that is currently under the mouse pointer.
The Safari web browser that is included with Mac OS X features additional Universal Access preferences for web browsing. For example, a checkbox can be set to prevent a web page from being displayed using fonts smaller than the minimum size you set, from 9 to 24 point. Using the style sheet pop-up preference, you can apply a custom cascading style sheet, called a "CSS," that changes the way a web site is displayed without requiring the web site author to make any changes. This is a way to customize the appearance of web pages to suit your needs.
How They Sound
For experienced users of screen readers, matters of speech quality and speed can be personal. For the new user, the job of learning to appreciate the "foreign"-sounding speech emanating from the computer can be frustrating. It is important for the novice to realize that, with experience, the importance of the voice quality may take a backseat to the desire or need for speed. Some voices lend themselves well to fast reading rates, while others simply do not.
Guide uses Neo Speech, the most advanced, processor-intensive speech technology available for screen readers. The participants in our tests found that Neo Speech was clearly synthetic in nature, but generally agreed that it was easy to listen to. Many advanced users find that Neo Speech is not as easy to understand at faster reading speeds.
Narrator uses the Microsoft voices that are included with Windows. Generally, these voices are the least natural sounding of the synthetic speech technologies in common use. Speeding up the Microsoft voices provides a somewhat reduced level of understandability. Note that because of the limited functionality of Narrator, speed is not usually an issue.
System Access and System Access to Go provide DECtalk voices as their default speech technology. These well-known voices will be familiar to those who have some experience with traditional Windows screen readers. The Neo Speech package can be purchased for an additional set of more natural-sounding voices. A common reason sighted by those who embrace DECtalk voices is the ability to increase speed dramatically and retain intelligibility.
VoiceOver provides a set of voices that are not in use on any other screen-access product. Alex, the default voice, sounds realistic, according to several VoiceOver users we contacted. At the same time, speeds can be increased, as with the Windows voices, and Alex is still understandable. Other voice choices are also available. An additional common observation is that the Mac voices are well suited for extended reading of text, such as e-books.
Using Important Applications
Unlike the big three screen-access programs, it should not be assumed that users of these four products will rely on Windows Office applications to perform tasks on a computer. We highlight five tasks and offer observations on how each of these access products supports them. We include web browsing, handling e-mail, creating documents, maintaining an address book, and maintaining a personal schedule. These tasks were identified as important or very important by the participants in our user study and by others we contacted.
Along with e-mail, our participants and the other consumers we interviewed identified using the Internet as the most important function that individuals want to perform on the computer. These products provide some dramatically different approaches to the task of navigating the web.
Guide uses its own web-browsing application. When it reads a web page, links and items are given numbers. You can choose to listen to the entire page from the beginning to the end or enter a number for a specific link. The page can also be navigated with the arrow keys. Information is entered in edit fields directly as they are encountered while browsing. In our study, the participants often found that they did not want to listen to an entire page, opting to navigate and interact with the page more directly by using the navigation keys.
Narrator is not intended as a tool to support web navigation. Only links and buttons are read when browsing a web page. Narrator is, therefore, not an effective tool to support web browsing.
System Access and System Access to Go provide the widest range of options for web browsing. Both Internet Explorer and the Firefox browser are well supported. Note that there are some important differences that affect accessibility in the behaviors with both browsers. System Access provides a rich set of navigation keys. What is important is that a system of labeling web pages that may not be accessible with other screen readers is implemented. Text is entered directly in edit fields, eliminating the requirement to move in and out of an MSAA buffer or Forms mode. The System Access Mobile Desktop provides a comprehensive set of links in an easy-to-understand arrangement to reach important features, such as e-mail, a social networking tool that supports Facebook and other popular social networking sites, and the ability to connect with other System Access Mobile subscribers for interactive computer-to-computer sessions with voice chat.
VoiceOver supports the Safari web browser, which is included as part of the Mac operating system. The strategy of interacting with individual objects, which is the cornerstone of VoiceOver, holds for Safari as well. Because VoiceOver is relatively new, techniques to support nonvisual web browsing are still maturing. Some navigation, by object, link, and the like, is available. A limitation that is often mentioned is the difficulty in searching the contents of an entire web page. It is important to note that unlike Windows web browsing, the Mac may divide a web page into several sections and that it may be necessary to navigate among them to understand a page in total. Text can be entered in edit fields when interacting with them. It is also possible to navigate by headings on web pages.
Guide provides an e-mail client that follows the conventions of the program interface. Messages are numbered for direct access and can also be navigated with the arrow keys. Users found the interface easy to follow and appreciated the consistency of the interface.
Narrator provides limited access to a standard Windows e-mail client, such as Outlook Express. Message headers and Outlook controls are read, as is the content of messages. Narrator is slow and sluggish, so only rare use is suggested.
System Access and System Access to Go provide two methods to manage e-mail. Standard Windows e-mail clients, including Outlook and Outlook Express, are supported. System Access supports full access when using the conventional Windows navigation techniques for these Windows programs. An additional option is to use the System Access Mobile Desktop to manage e-mail. The interface is designed to be simple and consistent. The Mobile Desktop provides an e-mail account as part of the service, and this account is the default for new users.
VoiceOver supports the Mac e-mail package. Full access is provided. Consistent with other applications, interacting with the e-mail interface gives access to all aspects of message management and account settings.
Guide includes a word processor that follows the conventions of the interface. As with other Guide applications, navigation can be easily accomplished by entering an option number or by using the arrow keys. The spell checker follows the same conventions as the rest of the Guide interface.
Narrator provides limited and slow access to Windows WordPad, while more advanced word processers, such as Microsoft Word, are not well supported.
System Access and System Access to Go support both Microsoft Word and WordPad. The spell checker for Word is used in the same manner as with other screen-access products that support Word. Users of the Mobile Desktop program also have access to a spell checker in any application, including WordPad. As an alternative, third-party spell-checking utilities are available. It is important to note that the traditional screen-access programs provide extensive support to understand and create detailed formats. System Access may not provide the same depth as the traditional programs. If you require specific support, it is important to evaluate the particulars before you decide to use System Access.
Mac Edit is fully supported by VoiceOver. Spell checking, along with full editing support, takes place using the standard set of user commands for VoiceOver. The Mac Editor, included with the Mac operating system, is arguably the most powerful of the word processers included with an operating system. Full spelling check and advanced formatting are offered. Note that navigating a document differs from Windows navigation. The location of the insertion point is influenced by the direction of navigation. Windows users who have adopted the Mac report that this difference can be annoying until the Mac strategy is mastered.
Guide provides a built-in address book that follows the conventions of the Guide suite, facilitating operation by entering a number or navigating with the arrow keys. If phone numbers are configured on a computer with a connected modem, they can be dialed directly from Guide.
Narrator provides limited access to the Windows address book. As with other Narrator support, the behavior is slow, and not all parts of the address book interface are announced, but basic information can be accessed.
System Access and System Access to Go support the Windows contact manager. For users of the Mobile Desktop, the Notes function can also be used to keep track of contact information as a text file.
VoiceOver supports the Mac Contact Keeper. Interacting with the address book takes place as with other Mac applications.
Guide offers an appointment manager as part of the product package. As with other Guide applications, the interface follows Guide navigation conventions. Alarms can be set for events, with event information announced along with the alarms.
Narrator provides no direct access for Outlook Calendar, the Microsoft calendaring application.
System Access and System Access to Go support Outlook Calendar. All functions of the Calendar program are accessible. In addition, software for managing third-party contact and personal information may be accessible. It is important to note that for many users of access technology, the Outlook Calendar is cumbersome. Alternatives are often embraced by those who have the option of using an alternative schedule manager.
VoiceOver provides support to the Mac Calendar. As with other components of the Mac operating system, navigation is facilitated by the standard VoiceOver conventions.
Which Is Best for You?
No single screen-access technique or program can be the choice for every user. If this were possible, there would be no room for the range of products that are now available. We can make some broad observations that we hope will give you some direction in the use of an access strategy.
Guide is a compelling application for several important reasons. The consistency in operation across almost two dozen different computer tasks means that once the basics of the interface are understood, there is little that cannot be immediately accomplished. At the same time, it is necessary to have basic keyboarding skills, including an understanding of navigation and the ability to remember and recall the numbers that are associated with the on-screen options. Guide provides an easier-to-see interface that some may find much less confusing than the typical Windows screen. All of this is at a price, however. Guide is the most expensive of the applications discussed here.
Narrator is a limited but important utility. When no access product is available or when you are setting up or activating some access products, launching Narrator and using it means that a totally inaccessible computer can be started or used. Computer professionals often make use of Narrator when they interact with many computers, not all of which can have a screen reader or magnifier installed.
System Access and System Access to Go are powerful and flexible. They provide full access to Windows and many popular Windows programs, such as Word, Internet Explorer, and iTunes. In addition, the Mobile Desktop provides easy and well-organized access to the lifestyle-oriented aspects of the computer, which many people find of greatest interest. Because Windows access is provided, the requirements for learning to use the full range of Windows programs make learning the system much more involved than learning Guide. Identifying tutorial or educational resources before you use System Access is essential.
Consistent interaction, the free price, and an easy-to-understand voice make VoiceOver on the Mac a real option. Professionals and others who must use a Mac are no longer shut out of important work or educational opportunities. As with Windows, addressing tutorial and training matters ahead of time is critical to success.
Individuals who have not used a computer and want to do so with either nonvisual or low vision techniques may want to give Guide and System Access a first look. Guide is expensive, but learning it is intended to be easy. A sighted computer user who is willing to work with you may be all you need to be up and going quickly.
System Access and the free System Access to Go are strong, competitive applications with some compelling features. Access to media, lifestyle, and other non-business-oriented computer functions make them stand out from the big three. The learning curve is much greater, and that reality is a barrier for many people who are blind or have low vision.
If you are using a Windows computer with the assistance of screen magnification and/or speech and have experience with Windows, System Access may be an attractive solution. For those who want to use the mouse, selecting a mouse and configuring it are important parts of making the most of System Access.
For Mac users who already know the operating system and Mac conventions, turning on the voice and screen-magnification utilities described earlier is clearly the solution of choice. Tutorial tools and information are important elements in making the most of these relatively new technologies.
Manufacturer: Apple Computer, 1 Infinite Loop, Cupertino, CA 95014; web site: www.apple.com.
Price: Included at no cost in Mac OS X.
Manufacturer: Microsoft, 1020 102nd Ave NE, Bellevue, WA 98004; web site: www.microsoft.com/enable/training/windowsxp/usingnarrator.aspx.
Price: Included at no cost in Windows.
System Access to Go.
Manufacturer: Serotek Corporation, 1128 Harmon Place, Suite 310, Minneapolis, MN 554031; web site: www.satogo.com.
Price: Downloaded as needed at no cost.
U.S. Distributor: EVAS, 39 Canal Street, P.O. Box 371, Westerly, RI, 028911; web site: www.evas.com.
Price: $795 plus shipping.
This article was produced with support from a grant from the AT&T Foundation.
If you would like to comment on this article, e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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An Evaluation of VoiceOver, the Macintosh Screen Reader by Jim Denham
A Study of Factors Affecting Learning to Use a Computer by People Who Are Blind or Have Low Vision by Brad Hodges and Lee Huffman
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