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AFB  ®
Technology News for People Who Are Blind or Visually Impaired
From the American Foundation for the Blind
 August 2011 Issue  Volume 12  Number 8

In This Issue

Editor's Page

AccessWorld Readers Respond to STEM

Lee Huffman

Product Evaluations

A Comparison of Three Low Cost Hand Held Camera Model Video Magnifiers: Vision Booster Magnifier, Carson DR-200 ezRead, and Wireless Electronic Reading Aid

The three products reviewed in this article are hand-held camera model electronic magnifiers which are distinguished by a camera unit similar to a computer mouse. These devices connect to a standard television or computer monitor. The three products reviewed here sell for less than $150 and provide an easily transportable tool for viewing text and graphics.--Ike Presley

NonVisual Desktop Access and Thunder: A Comparison of Two Free Screen Readers

This article summarizes the results of a project conducted in the AFB TECH lab and compares the performance of NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) and Thunder, two free screen readers for Windows computers. For this project, we compared the performance of NVDA and Thunder on several of today's common computer tasks.--Darren Burton and John Lilly

Book Review

Twenty-Six Useful Apps for Blind iPhone Users, by Peter Cantisani

National Braille Press has once again produced a unique book containing timely information that exactly reflects a piece of popular culture. If you are an iPhone user or may be thinking of switching to an iPhone, this book will be a great resource for you.--Deborah Kendrick

Letters to the Editor

STEM Access is Important to AccessWorld Readers

AccessWorld News

AccessWorld News

Editor's Page

AccessWorld Readers Respond to STEM

Lee Huffman

Dear AccessWorld readers,

We at AccessWorld have been thrilled by the number of letters we have received in response to Tara Annis' article on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) access from the July issue. We have been wanting to bring our readers information about STEM access for a while now and felt July's Back to School issue was perfect timing. What we didn't necessarily anticipate was such a vocal response.

Tara and I have both received a number of letters supporting not only the article, but the information that has been gained from its content and links. Do to the overwhelming response; we have decided to continue providing information on STEM access. Look for more articles on the subject from Tara in upcoming issues.

Beginning this month, at the end of each article, there will be an opportunity for readers to comment on the article they have just read. Just select the comment on this article link, and send your comments right to my in box. Your comments, questions, and feedback will help us better understand your interests and in turn, better meet your needs. I hope you will try it out, and let us know what you are thinking!

Lee Huffman
AccessWorld Editor-in Chief

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Product Evaluations

A Comparison of Three Low-Cost, Hand-Held, Camera-Model Video Magnifiers: Vision Booster Magnifier, Carson DR-200 ezRead, and Wireless Electronic Reading Aid

Hand-held, camera-model electronic magnifiers are easily transportable tools for viewing text and graphics. These types of magnifiers connect to a standard television or a computer monitor. You place the camera—which is usually similar in design (though often slightly larger) to a computer mouse—on top of the material to be viewed and then move the camera over the text or graphic, which is then magnified on the connected screen. Because these units require external power, they are not totally portable. Prices for products in this category range from $40 to $1,000. The three products reviewed here each sell for less than $150.

These types of electronic magnifiers can be very useful for accomplishing short reading or viewing tasks, such as reading the listings in your local newspaper TV guide, looking at a map, or viewing photographs. Camera-model magnifiers are not ideal for extended reading tasks, however, as maintaining a 90-degree angle between the camera lens and the lines of text while moving the device back and forth across the reading surface is physically difficult to accomplish for longer periods of time. Despite these limitations, the relatively low cost and transportability of these types of magnifiers make them attractive. Because of the availability of televisions, you can bring these small devices with you to a wide variety of environments in order to accomplish short reading tasks or view graphical information.

Vision Booster Magnifier from Rx Optics

At $39, the Vision Booster Magnifier (VBM) is the least expensive of the three devices reviewed here. It's essentially a modified webcam that connects to the USB port of PC computers running the Windows XP or higher operating system. The box contains the camera, a software CD, and an instruction sheet. The minimum system requirements for this device are:

  • IBM compatible computer (not available for Mac)
  • Intel PIII CPU or higher
  • 128MB of RAM
  • CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive
  • 3D display card with 64MB of RAM that supports 32-bit color
  • At least one USB 2 or compatible USB 1.1 port available
  • Windows XP (with Service Pack 2 or higher) or Vista Home or Professional edition (not compatible with Windows 7)
  • 40GB or larger hard drive

The VBM comes with three pages of installation and use instructions. The print used for the instructions ranges from 6- to 12-point font, which is considerably smaller than the 18-point font recommended by the American Printing House for the Blind for people with low vision. Graphical images of computer screens are provided to assist with the installation of the software, but the details on these graphics are miniscule. An online manual is not available and the About section of the Help menu provides the version number of the software and nothing else.

Product Description

The VBM is lightweight and approximately the size and shape of a computer mouse. The wire coming out of the device has an in-line on/off switch and ends in a USB plug. A raised dome on top of the VBM can be rotated approximately 180 degrees to assist the user in adjusting the direction of the camera in order to line up text for reading. The device simply plugs into an open USB port on the computer. (To ensure that the camera is recognized by the computer, the VBM should always be plugged into the same USB port.)

Photo of the Vision Booster Magnifier.

Caption: The Vision Booster Magnifier

Software Installation

After plugging the camera into an open USB port, Windows will display a message indicating that new hardware has been found. Inserting the CD will present an installation icon that you double click to begin the installation process. During the installation, a screen appears with the following warning:

The software you are installing has not passed the Windows Logo testing to verify its compatibility with Windows XP.… Continuing your installation of this software may impair or destabilize the operation of your system either immediately or in the future. Microsoft strongly recommends that you stop this installation now and contact the software vendor for software that has passed Windows Logo testing.

Without explaining why, the printed instructions suggest ignoring this message and selecting the "Continue Anyway" button. If you choose not to ignore the warning, you will be unable to complete the installation. After selecting the "Continue Anyway" button, a similar message appears warning about the hardware. Again, the printed instructions suggest ignoring this message and selecting "Continue Anyway." Once the installation is finished you are instructed to restart your computer. I experienced no hardware or software problems with my computer related to installing and using this software and the VBM.

Using the VBM

After restarting the computer, an icon appears on the bottom right side of the screen. You can right-click the mouse on this icon to display a menu. Selecting Zoom brings up a screen that allows you to control the magnification level of the camera. After checking the "Enable Zoom" box, a vertical slider can be adjusted with the mouse or the arrow keys to increase the magnification. No magnification power indicator (e.g., 2x, 3x) is given, but you are able to see the image enlarge. Printed information on the box indicates that the device magnifies up to 24x. Each time you wish to adjust the magnification, these steps must be repeated; there isn't a quick key or shortcut command, or any type of physical control on the camera itself that allows for adjustment.

The VBM offers both color and black-and-white viewing modes. The color mode is useful when viewing photographs and other graphic elements, but when viewing text, it creates a shadow around each letter that becomes more pronounced as the magnification increases. This shadowing also appears in the black-and-white mode, but is only noticeable at higher levels of magnification. In both modes, text becomes pixelated (takes on a stair-step or jagged look) as you begin to increase the magnification.

Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid

The Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid connects directly to a standard television with a composite video input jack (NTSC), and does not require software installation. The unit sells for approximately $99, and is slightly larger than a computer mouse. If you have smaller hands you may find the unit to be a bit large. The packaging includes the camera, a power cord, and a cable to connect the camera to a TV.

Photo of the Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid.

Caption: The Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid


Documentation for the ezRead consists of a single sheet. The size of the text is approximately 9-point—again, considerably smaller than the 18-point font recommended by the American Printing House for the Blind for people with low vision. The documentation provides basic instruction on:

  • Installing the batteries
  • Using the power adapter
  • Connecting the digital reader to a TV
  • Using the digital reader

The device is very simple to use; the power button is the only button on the unit. The instructions indicate that there is a low battery indicator light just above the power button. The following specifications are provided:

  • Magnification: 5.3x on a14-inch TV, 8x on a 21-inch TV, 12.2x on a 32-inch TV
  • Field of view: 56 by 42 mm
  • Illumination: Built-in LED
  • Resolution: 250K pixels
  • Interface: TV NTSC
  • Power: Three AAA batteries (not included), 110V power adapter
Using the ezRead

One of the first things the user will notice about this device is that the image is bright on the edges of the screen and a bit darker in the middle. This is due to the fact that the three LED lights located on each side of the camera lens are not strong enough to fully illuminate the total area under the camera. Most users will probably not find this uneven light distribution to be a deterrent to reading with the device, because the overall illumination is adequate. The camera provides a nice, sharp, distortion-free image even as the camera is moved over the reading material. The camera can be used with the AC power cord or operated on three AAA batteries.

The ezRead provides only one level of magnification, which is determined by the size of the TV the device is connected to. When the device is connected to the AC power adapter, two wires come of the device at the end closest to the user. At times these wires can interfere with the smooth movement of the device.

Electronic Reading Aid

The Electronic Reading Aid (ERA) is available in wireless and wired models. The device is slightly larger than a standard computer mouse. The box for the wireless model includes:

  • Wireless Electronic Reading Aid
  • Receiver (also functions as base) with power/video cable
  • Power adapter
  • Carry bag
  • User's Guide

The wireless version of the ERA costs approximately $140 (the wired version costs approximately $99). Neither model connects to a computer and therefore software installation is not required.

Photo of the Electronic Reading Aid.

Caption: The Electronic Reading Aid


The ERA comes with a seven-page User's Guide. The main text of the guide ranges from 10- to 12-point type, with titles in 14-point type. As with the documentation for the other models reviewed, the type is far too small to be read easily, and is considerably smaller than the 18-point font recommended by the American Printing House for the Blind for people with low vision. The guide includes a labeled diagram of the unit, but the numerals used in the diagram are approximately 6-point type, which makes it difficult for most users to benefit from this information. Instructions are provided for connecting the unit to a standard television via the yellow RCA video input jack, and for connecting to a standard AC power outlet. The device must be charged before use; the red light on the receiver/base will go out when the charging is complete and the unit is ready to use.

Using the Wireless ERA

The wireless ERA has the following features:

  • Magnification (on 20-inch monitor): 20x (up to 70x digitally)
  • Freeze and D-freeze current image
  • Zoom in/out digitally
  • Viewing modes: full color, high-contrast positive, high-contrast negative
  • Control buttons: magnify, mode, freeze and d-freeze, de-magnify, power on/off, power indicator
  • Camera unit is powered by a rechargeable lithium battery
  • Rechargeable battery lasts 5-6 hours
  • Base unit is powered by AC/DC adapter
  • AC/DC adapter included: AC 100V-240V; DC 5V
  • Wireless tech: 2.4GHz
  • Unique guiding wheel mechanism
  • Four wheels that keep it steady when moving from left to right
  • Unit net weight: 274g

The wireless ERA provides a clear, bright image of the reading material. The buttons that increase and decrease the magnification are easy to operate with either the left or right hand. The magnification range is 1X, 1.1X, 1.25X, 1.5X, 1.7X, 2X, 2.5X, and 3.5X. The exact degree of magnification varies according to the size of the connected television or monitor. Even at the highest degree of magnification, the pixelation of text is less noticeable with this unit than with either of the other two devices reviewed here. The wireless ERA rolls easily over the material to be viewed. The device's freeze feature allows you to take a picture of the material within the camera's viewfinder. This image remains on the screen until you deselect the freeze option, which allows you to remove the material if necessary while still viewing the image.

The feature of the wireless ERA that will make it attractive to many users is its wireless capability. There is no physical wire between the camera and the base/receiver unit. A user can connect the base/receiver unit to a large screen television in their home, sit in their favorite easy chair, and read text or view pictures without being encumbered by any wires. For example: I can envision watching TV and wanting to know if my favorite show is coming on tonight or not. I pick up my remote control for my TV and switch it to the AV input where I have the wireless ERA connected. I turn on the ERA's camera and begin searching the local TV listings in the newspaper while viewing the text on the screen. Others just might enjoy reading their mail or looking at some photos on their large screen TV while using the device from the comfort of their sofa or favorite chair.

It must be noted that as the distance from the camera to the receiver is increased, there is a noticeable flicker in the image when the camera is moved quickly. You can adjust the speed of movement to minimize this distortion.

Bottom Line

The Vision Booster Magnifier can be a useful tool for individuals with low vision who need an inexpensive tool for viewing graphics, objects, or small quantities of text while working on their computer. For example, an office worker who deals with hand-edited spreadsheets and text documents received from a co-worker might find the VBM a useful tool for viewing the edits and then quickly switching to the electronic document to make the changes.

The Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid is a good option for people with low vision who need an inexpensive, easily transportable tool for viewing graphics, objects, or small quantities of text. The price of the unit is attractive, but the inability to adjust the magnification range limits its usefulness.

The wireless Electronic Reading Aid is a good choice for those who would like to avoid dealing with the cords and cables needed to use most electronic magnifiers. Its wider range of magnification powers, freeze mode, and different viewing modes make it potentially more useful than the other models in accomplishing a wider array of tasks.

Product Information

Product: Vision Booster Magnifier
Price: $40
Manufacturer: Available from various online sources and
42 Executive Blvd.
Farmingdale, NY 11735
(800) 522-6294

Product: Carson DR-200 ezRead Electronic Reading Aid
Price: $99
Carson Optical, Inc.
35 Gilpin Avenue
Hauppauge, NY 11788
(800) 967-8427

Product: Electronic Reading Aid
Price: $99 wired; $140 wireless
Mattingly Low Vision, Inc.
2361 Bear Rock Glen
Escondido, CA 92026
(888) 642-0842

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Product Evaluations

NonVisual Desktop Access and Thunder: A Comparison of Two Free Screen Readers

This article summarizes the results of a project conducted in the AFB TECH lab at the request of the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) in the United Kingdom. RNIB asked us to compare the performance of NonVisual Desktop Access (NVDA) and Thunder, two free screen readers for Windows computers. (Although we AFB TECH lab rats think very highly of Serotek's SA To Go and System Access screen readers, they were not a part of this study.) For this project, we compared the performance of NVDA and Thunder on several of today's common computer tasks. Read on for our findings and conclusions.

Product Descriptions

NVDA is a free, open-source screen reader that provides feedback via synthetic speech. It's compatible with Windows XP, Vista, and Windows 7, and is also compatible with refreshable braille displays. Since NVDA is an open source application, interested parties can contribute to the screen reader's improvement and development. For this project, we used NVDA version 2011.1. You can download NVDA and learn more about it at the NVDA website.

Similarly, the Thunder screen reader is free, provides feedback via synthetic speech, and is compatible with Windows 7, Vista, and XP. The documentation makes no mention of the screen reader's compatibility with refreshable braille displays, and it's not an open-source screen reader. For this project, we used Thunder version 2.021. You can download Thunder and learn more about it at the Thunder website.

Basis of Evaluation

We evaluated the speech output performance of NVDA and Thunder on several different Windows 7 and XP computers. We compared the performance of the two products in the following eight categories of computer use:

  • E-mail
  • Microsoft Word
  • Microsoft Excel
  • Online Banking
  • iTunes
  • Amazon and Bookshare
  • UK National Rail Enquiries (Travel)
  • General Web Browsing


We tested NVDA and Thunder with Microsoft's Outlook Express mail client, as well as with Web-based e-mail using AFB's Outlook Exchange system. We also tested NVDA with the full version of Outlook. Thunder does not support Outlook so we were unable to compare its performance with that program. (Thunder does support the Windows Mail client on Windows Vista PCs, but we do not have access to a Vista machine at the AFB TECH lab.)

Outlook Express, Version 6

Both screen readers worked to access menus, and to read, forward, reply to, and attach files to messages, but Thunder had problems with message composition. Thunder did not speak any of the form labels, such as To, CC, Subject, and Attach. Also, when tabbing into the body of the message, Thunder would say, "formatting bullets checkbox checked." Since Thunder does not speak any other field labels, this little quirk can be a helpful, if strange, indication that you are in the body of the message.

Outlook Exchange Web-Based E-mail

The log-in form was somewhat of a chore with Thunder. With Thunder, pressing the F6 key opens the form fields in a new window. There, we entered the user name in the user name form, then activated an "OK" button to get back to the mail page. After that, we had to find the log-in form again and repeat the same process to enter the password. When entering a password with Thunder, the form visually shows asterisks, but you can also set it to echo the characters as you type (something you should of course avoid when using speakers in a public place).

NVDA's table navigation functionality made it slightly easier to use than Thunder, since Outlook Exchange arranges messages in a table. That said, since each message is also tagged as a header, Thunder did not have a problem finding messages. Reading messages was easier with NVDA because a press of the N key jumps directly to the body of the message. To read messages with Thunder, it was necessary to browse down the page with the arrow keys or use the browser's search tool to find the body of the message.

We had to do a little bit of searching around the pages to find the correct buttons, but ultimately both screen readers worked for composing, replying to, forwarding, and attaching files to messages. (Though NVDA unfortunately read the "Attach" button as, simply, "Button.")

Microsoft Outlook 2003 and 2007

NVDA performed very well with Outlook 2007, but had a few problems with Outlook 2003. NVDA navigated to the attachments field in Outlook 2003, but did not read the listed attachments. We were unable to open the attachments directly from within the message, but we could save the attachments using the file menu. Attaching files to messages using the menus worked well with NVDA, but it only read "blank" when an attachment was selected from within a message.

While composing a message with Outlook 2003, NVDA did not read the auto-fill suggestions when entering an address into the "To:" or "cc:" fields. If auto-fill was not used, NVDA read the entered characters, but when we tabbed away and back again, NVDA read "blank" for those same entries.

In spite of these relatively minor problems most of the features and functions of both Outlook 2003 and 2007 were accessible with NVDA, including:

  • Scrolling through the list of messages in a mailbox and learning sender, subject, date, and attachment and read/unread status for each message.
  • Reading the content of each message either all at once or by line, word, character, etc.
  • Accessing Outlook's menu system.
  • Adjusting the font in a message.
  • Replying to and forwarding messages.
  • Accessing different mailboxes.
  • Learning the total number of messages in a mailbox.
  • Accessing and using Outlook's address book.

Microsoft Word 2003

NVDA and Thunder performed similarly when using Microsoft Word 2003, but NVDA did a better job of handling format attribute changes while reading a document.

Both screen readers did well opening, creating, saving, and printing documents. They worked well with Word's menu system and spell checker. Adjusting font and other formatting settings worked well, but Thunder had trouble with those format changes when reading a document. Thunder is designed to alert the user of format changes when scrolling through a document, and that can be very helpful when editing a document. It's not possible to mute this feature, however, and it can be very annoying and distracting when reading. In addition, when Thunder encountered a line that contained a format change, it would sometimes only read the new format, not the actual words on the line. We also found that Thunder sometimes reported all of the changed formatting (e.g., typeface, font style, size, etc.) and other times reported only a new font size.

NVDA's formatting reporting functionality, which is possible to silence, worked well.

As for navigating through documents, neither screen reader had a feature (like JAWS's quick keys) that allows you to quickly jump to various elements such as headings, tables and paragraphs in Word. There were available table navigation commands in both NVDA and Thunder, but neither was as robust as the JAWS or Window-Eyes table commands.

There were a few other anomalies to note with Word functionality. NVDA did not speak periods when moving by word through a sentence. It did read the periods in URLs and when moving by character. NVDA did not read dashes under any setting. Thunder did not accurately report letters deleted via the backspace key. Sometimes it reported the letter to the left of the one being deleted, and sometimes it simply said, "backspace." Thunder also did not report carriage returns when we arrowed to them.

Microsoft Excel 2003

NVDA was the clear winner in this category, performing similarly to the way JAWS does with Excel. NVDA worked well with all the features and functions we tested, including using Excel's menu system, opening, creating, saving, and printing spreadsheets, adjusting format settings, and creating and using formulas. It also worked well when the arrow keys were used to move around the grid to read cell contents and coordinates, and to edit cell contents.

Thunder worked well with many of the features and functions we tested, but it was inconsistent when navigating and reading spreadsheets. In our initial test, we opened a blank spreadsheet and checked to see if the arrows would move around the grid. They did, but Thunder reported only the column coordinates, not the row coordinates. Once we entered data into a couple cells, the arrows no longer worked to navigate the spreadsheet. By trial and error we found that Tab and Shift + Tab moved left and right, and Enter and Shift + Enter moved up and down. At that point, the Up arrow read the cell contents but instead of moving to the cell directly beneath the current cell, the Enter key moved to the far left column in the next row, making spreadsheet navigation cumbersome and frustrating.

When we tried again, Thunder did a much better job. Arrow keys worked to move around the grid, and Thunder reported proper cell coordinates. As with Word, Thunder read cell contents properly except when it encountered format changes and reported the format attribute change instead of the cell contents.

We then used a second computer to test Thunder with Excel and we experienced the same inconsistent behavior. Thunder's website does claim support for Excel, as does an article published in the National Federation of the Blind's Braille Forum magazine, but we found no resources for correcting this inconsistent behavior.

Online Banking

For this assessment, we used the Huntington National Bank website. This site works very well with other screen readers such as JAWS, Window-Eyes, and System Access. Thunder and NVDA completed every task we attempted, but NVDA was considerably faster and easier to use. NVDA and Thunder both had trouble reading the labels for the log-in fields, but when we checked the source code for the website, we found that the labels were coded incorrectly. We were able to pay bills and transfer funds with both screen readers, but NVDA was a lot more efficient in doing so. Thunder uses an application called WebbIE to browse the Internet (more on WebbIE below), and it did not always report the correct labels.

The Huntington website uses a lot of tables to check balances, pay bills, transfer funds, and review the check ledger. Thunder's lack of table navigation really slowed everything down to a crawl. Finding tables with Thunder required a lot of scrolling or searching. When in a table, Thunder read entire rows at once and sometimes mixed up rows.

NVDA was the clear winner with online banking, navigating the tables and forms for bill paying and transferring funds much more smoothly than Thunder. That said, NVDA's table navigation is not as strong as other screen readers like JAWS or Window-Eyes. While we were able to move up and down and left and right easily, NVDA did not report the row or column headers as we did so. NVDA also does not support jumping to the top or end of a table. When we used the T hotkey to jump to the next table, NVDA incorrectly said there weren't any tables on the page. We went to the source code and found that the tables were generated using JAVA, which may be the source of this problem. When we scrolled or searched to find the tables, NVDA navigated properly.

iTunes 10.2.1

Both screen readers were able to complete everything we needed to do in iTunes, such as navigating the interface, searching for and playing music and other media, using menus, creating play lists, and searching for and buying music in the iTunes store.

Thunder presented a few quirks when scrolling through the list of sources. Thunder consistently reported the previous source rather than the selected source. When we selected "movies," Thunder reported it as "music," for instance.

As with other screen readers, both NVDA and Thunder occasionally lost focus. This problem was easily fixed by pressing Tab + F6 to regain focus.

Amazon and Bookshare

We chose to evaluate these two sites because of their popularity for those of us interested in reading books and magazines. The assessment included signing in, searching for books, and downloading selections to a computer or memory card. On the whole, both screen readers completed the tasks on both websites without problems, though NVDA again performed better and more efficiently than Thunder.

Thunder took longer to fill out forms and navigate the webpages. Thunder had particular difficulty with search results on Bookshare, which are presented as linked titles. These links are also headings, so we used CTRL + H to scroll through a set of results. Unfortunately, Thunder put the text of the heading on one line, and the link associated with the heading on the next line, doubling the number of keystrokes it took to browse through the results.

UK National Rail Website

We assessed the National Rail website since it's widely used by RNIB's constituents.

Throughout our testing, NVDA consistently outperformed Thunder on webpages and there was no exception on the National Rail site. There were a few issues using NVDA, but we were able to complete all the necessary tasks to search for and purchase a ticket. Inefficiency with forms and difficulty with table navigation were significant problems on this site for Thunder, but the biggest problem was that we were unable to complete the ticket purchasing process.

Like most travel websites, the National Rail site can be very difficult for a screen reader to navigate, and searching for and purchasing a ticket is a very involved and cumbersome process. The site also uses an auto-fill function that visually presents a list of train stations as you type your origination or destination station in the form used to set up your travel. This list of station options could not be accessed by NVDA or Thunder, nor was it accessible using JAWS or Window-Eyes. This is not a major problem if you know the name of your desired station, but it would be a significant barrier if you were investigating or browsing options for travel. A combo box would work better for screen readers.

When filling in the forms, NVDA easily tabbed from form field to form field, but with Thunder we had to activate an "OK" button after each form field and then navigate back to the next form field. Using the calendar to choose a date for your trip worked with both screen readers, but once again the table was easier to navigate with NVDA.

General Web Browsing

Obviously NVDA handles the Internet in a more effective and efficient manner than Thunder. The NVDA Web browsing experience is very similar to that of JAWS and Window-Eyes. NVDA supports 26 hotkeys to quickly move to webpage elements. NVDA also has an elements list that provides access to all the links, headings, and ARIA landmarks on a page. NVDA's "focus mode" is used when interacting with forms, and it works much like JAWS's "forms mode" to effectively enter form data. Although most testing was done with Internet Explorer, NVDA also works with the Firefox browser with no discernable deficit to functionality.

Thunder uses an application tool called WebbIE, which works in conjunction with Internet Explorer to surf the Web. Although WebbIE does provide access to the Internet, it isn't nearly as feature-rich or efficient as NVDA's browsing functionality. WebbIE hotkeys are limited to forms, headings, and links. Although we were able to use Thunder to fill in form data, it was a much less efficient process.

NVDA is clearly stronger with table navigation, but neither screen reader was perfect in this area. NVDA lacks a command to move to the beginning or end of a table, which is a problem with large tables. In another glitch, sometimes NVDA responded incorrectly to the release of navigation keys.

As an example of how these two screen readers work with Web 2.0 elements, we tested the CVS website, which uses Adobe Flash. The site includes a banner ad that rotates through five different promotions, each containing marketing language and a link to further information. The banner was designed using Adobe's guidelines for making Flash accessible, and it worked well with JAWS.

NVDA was once again the clear winner. Although NVDA identifies Flash presentations generically by saying, "embedded object," entering on the object brings focus to the Flash presentation. NVDA then worked exactly like JAWS to read the content, move between the various promotions, and activate the links to further information. Thunder also reported Flash as an embedded object, but when we navigated into the actual presentation, it behaved inconsistently, sometimes moving to a new promotion, and never accessing any marketing information. In addition, we could not figure out a way to get out of the Flash presentation and back to the main webpage.

The Bottom Line

For those of us with vision loss, the fact that these two free screen readers (along with Serotek's SA To Go) exist is great news. We are appreciative of all who contributed to the development of both NVDA and Thunder.

Although we certainly appreciate what the people behind Thunder have done, in our assessment, NVDA proved to be the more robust screen reader. Although it had a few minor problems, NVDA is not that far behind JAWS and Window-Eyes in functionality, especially when it comes to Web browsing. One of our sighted lab rats, a computer science student at Marshall University, commented that he was very impressed by NVDA and its open source framework, and mentioned that he found the screen reader more efficient than using a mouse for many tasks. If you or someone you know is interested in beginning to investigate using a screen reader, we highly recommend NVDA .

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Book Review

Book Review: Twenty-Six Useful Apps for Blind iPhone Users, by Peter Cantisani

National Braille Press has once again produced a unique book containing timely information reagarding a piece of popular culture. The iPhone, of course, represents "popular culture" whether you're blind or sighted, and that is in itself a happy bit of synchronicity. Apple's iPhone, iPod, and iPad devices have become wildly popular in the general population and equally so among people who are blind or visually impaired. The iPhone has made an indelible mark on the face of assistive technology because of its out-of-the-box accessibility.

Getting Started with the iPhone, by Anna Dresner and Dean Martineau (reviewed in the June 2011 issue of AccessWorld ), provides blind iPhone users with a wonderful introduction to the iPhone and all its on-board apps. As great as that functionality is, if you have an iPhone— or even know someone who does— then you've figured out that much of the iPhone's allure lies in the seemingly endless flow of additional apps one can install on the device.

National Braille Press has approached the topic of third-party apps with its new book, Twenty-Six Useful Apps for Blind iPhone Users, by Peter Cantisani. The book is exactly what it announces itself to be, an offering of 26 apps—no more, no less. Why 26 and not, say, 27 or 36 is never stated, although Cantisani does state from the outset that there are hundreds of thousands of these little gems to choose from, with more being developed and released every day. Cantisani has streamlined the selection process for the rest of us by highlighting a mini-smorgasbord of fun and useful apps from a variety of categories. Aside from the criteria that the apps must perform some useful function and be reasonably accessible, there is no single or common denominator tying these apps together. In other words, 26 is as good a jumping-off place as any, and the 26 provided here are a lovely and eclectic mix.

In an attention-capturing introductory chapter titled "Life with Apps," we see Peter Cantisani using his iPhone's apps as an integral part of his routine. The phone provides a wake-up alarm and weather report, enables him to check if his bus is running on time, read a book, take notes at a meeting, and much more. The reader is quickly hooked on the concept of iPhone apps as a treasure trove of utilitarian possibility. The book assumes that the reader is already familiar with the fundamental functions of the iPhone and its gestures. An introduction to the App Store is provided, instructing the reader in finding, downloading, and updating, and then we're off to the business at hand, the 26 apps themselves.

The Format

Each app is covered in its own chapter. For each app, the name of the developer is given along with the price, amount of memory required, and category (utility, music, news, etc.). About half are free and only a very few are priced at more than $5. Most require very little of your iPhone's memory (usually under 20MB), with the Navigon MobileNavigator GPS app being the most notable exception, requiring 1.69GB for the North American version.

For each app, a basic introduction outlining its purpose and general accessibility is given, followed by an overview for executing the app's functions. The author tells us where on the screen essential buttons are located, and points out when those buttons are not labeled properly for VoiceOver. While instructions provided here do not constitute a step-by-step user's guide, there is typically enough information for getting started, and sometimes more. For one particular app, Aurifi (the only game represented in the book), Cantisani specifically instructs the blind user to turn VoiceOver off for a more satisfying experience.

The Apps

As stated earlier, the 26 apps selected for this book are an eclectic mix. Cantisani is a musician, so it's no surprise that he's included apps for a four-track recorder, various music-collecting and radio apps, and even an app designed to turn your iPhone into a metronome! Along with the music apps, Cantisani covers apps for downloading books (both human voice recordings and those enjoyed via text-to-speech), an app for collecting podcasts, and apps that make it easy to stay current with news and events. There are cooking apps for obtaining recipes, learning cooking techniques, and finding useful conversions (e.g., how many teaspoons equal a pint), and one that even generates your shopping list for preparing a particular dish.

Transportation and independent mobility are hot topics for most blind people, and there are great apps included in these areas, too. The NextBus app, for instance, is an amazing find, enabling the user to check bus schedules and track whether a particular bus is running on time. The Sendero GPS LookAround app, designed by Sendero Group, does exactly what its name promises: "look around" your current location to determine points of interest and/or nearby streets, and to get your current address. The other GPS app covered in the book, the Navigon MobileNavigator, is a mainstream, more full-featured GPS program. At $59.99, it's also by far the most expensive app in the collection.

There are four apps in the collection specifically designed with blind audiences in mind: those for identifying money, labeling and identifying documents and other items, obtaining information about current surroundings, and downloading books recorded specifically for people with print disabilities.

Concluding Comments

If you're looking for brilliant prose, this isn't the book for you. Errors in grammar, punctuation, and word usage that might well remain under the radar for a typical reader are more prevalent here than in many National Braille Press originals. That said, if you're looking for clear directions for downloading apps that will do everything from building personalized radio stations to taking blood pressure, this book is a must-have.

Twenty-Six Useful Apps for Blind iPhone Users is available in hardcopy Jiffy-Braille, on CD in ebraille, and in downloadable DAISY and Microsoft Word formats.

Price: $9.

To order, visit National Braille Press or call (800) 548-7323.

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Letters to the Editor

STEM Access is Important to AccessWorld Readers

Dear AccessWorld Editor,

I've just completed reading the July issue, and I have to tell you the piece on STEM education and careers was among the best stories I've ever seen in AccessWorld. The author deserves high praise for her plain English, concise, and thorough writing style. Her story was a real treasure trove of highly relevant resources.

I'm pleased to see the iPhone get recognition as a valid note-taking device. I use mine constantly for long, complex notes in meetings using an app called Plain Text that links to my Dropbox account. For short stuff, I simply fire up ClearRecord, a wonderful app for quick things like phone numbers or addresses. Why? Because ClearRecord can reduce ambient room noise or outdoor noise, and the completed file is easily e-mailed for later retrieval. In short, my iPhone has entirely replaced my hapless, dusty PAC Mate of yesteryear, which sits nestled against an old eight-track player I really need to get rid of. OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration; I no longer have the eight-track player.


Dear AccessWorld Editor,

First, thanks for all the issues covered in AccessWorld. The magazine serves a most important function in our community. I like reading about mobile computers even though in my case I would rather not carry a phone, let alone have it be a hard-to-operate expensive little device. That is, the articles in AccessWorld are almost always interesting.

Seeking to answer your call for article ideas I've been thinking.

Do you suppose an exciting issue could be generated if we asked readers to talk about those aspects of computer and software use they find challenging?

  1. For example, I use JAWS, though what I'm going to say could apply to any screen reader. Well there is much to worry over. JAWS is very expensive. Upgrading is a never-ending expense. I'm two upgrades behind, so we're looking at $600 just to upgrade [to the current version], which seems absurd, since I'm not yet using Windows 7. And what of the quirks and problems with JAWS? I would give anything for my screen reader to fulfill one thing above all: it must never go silent.
  2. In the technology business our experts master things. For example: the user interface for the iPhone. National Braille Press puts out a book. But maybe there is something we might wish to share about whether we want to tap and gesture. Could be that's a good new thing that helps us work with mainstream products, but it could be it's a really dumb way to do things—and once again we're stuck with it if we want to use certain products.
  3. It seems to me that a great many of us would love to convert tapes and records to digital formats, either putting materials on CDs or converting material to the MP3 format. There are podcasts out in our world that talk us through this software and that. I'm always surprised at how complex the task is. The problem with the available programs is the podcaster usually has to tell us to be sure to get a particular version, an old version, the one the podcaster has. Tricky. Why, I wonder, is something that has broad appeal so hard? Not to mention download services. Oh sure, it can be done with Windows Media, iTunes, Rhapsody, etc., though I can't say it's done easily. The program doesn't speak everything, even while in fact it might operate. And friends tell me about making separate files of an album in Studio Recorder, then combining them, etc. Sounds a little tedious to me. But the part where that blank CD gets prepared, that part where dialog boxes must be checked and unchecked each time, well it's harder than it should be. It's always seemed to me that there could be a program that asked: What do you want to do? There's a list of choices. You choose the one you want. Done. I read about mixers and record players and so on, but much of the time the software that comes with the devices, is software JAWS doesn't "see," so to speak.
  4. How to learn cool things. We learn to do things—that is, we learn a series of keystrokes that accomplish sophisticated procedures. How do we learn all that we know? A rote method of performing tasks makes it hard to teach each other, because much of the time we don't actually know what's going on (how your stuff is configured versus mine, etc.). Well, one thing has developed. More and more we find there are Internet seminars, podcasts, and websites run by blind folks who know what we want to learn. Maybe we could gather resources together to help direct us to great how-to information.
  5. I suspect the whole subject of bar-code reading will get more and more interesting. Right now we know of devices with memory card databases. We know there will be Internet-based, immediate retrieval bar-code systems coming along, though I'm not sure I know how products we wish to research get to, and interact with, our Internet enabled computers. Still the ability to know what we have or what we're shopping for will be very helpful, and maybe cheaper some day.

These are just a few things that come to mind. Maybe some of these ideas are things you would like to get into as well.

Keep up the fine work. We really need you guys.


Dear AccessWorld Editor,

A while back, I read an AccessWorld review of the Verizon Haven cell phone. As I recall, the review did not spend a lot of time on the completeness of the phone's text-to-speech feature, and it did not let me know that it was the new phone to replace the Samsung Knack (the phone I had at the time, and which had some voice and text-to-speech features), or how much better it was than the Knack.

I have one other requirement: I cannot use a phone with a camera because of my job.

So I did nothing for a while. I recently got the Haven and it has total text-to-speech and is so much better than the older phone, it is hard to believe.

For someone with partial vision, it is great. I can now hear my text messages and listen as I put text into the phone, as well as hear everything else.

Even the published information from Verizon did not give me enough information to push me to change phones earlier.

I suggest you re-do that article and give a full description of the text-to-speech. It is not perfect, but it is way better than anything else I have found.


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AccessWorld News

AccessWorld News

New Reading Tools from Bookshare, Blio, and Adobe

Bookshare, the online library of over 100,000 digital books and periodicals for people with print disabilities, recently released Read2Go, a $19.99 app for the iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad. Read2Go lets you instantly download books and immediately read them on your device. It features its own text-to-speech function for reading materials from Bookshare, or you can use VoiceOver. Learn more about the app at the Read2Go website.

The Blio app is a free e-reading application associated with the online Blio bookstore. You can purchase synthetic voices from Blio for $9.99, and you can also use VoiceOver to use the app and read Blio books. Blio also offers free Windows software that works with JAWS (the company is working on compatibility with Window-Eyes and other screen readers soon). Learn more at the Blio website.

Digital Editions from Adobe is free computer software for reading books in the ePub format. Adobe worked with several blindness organizations, including AFB, to bring accessibility to Digital Editions 1.8. Digital Editions is compatible with JAWS on the Windows platform and with VoiceOver on Mac. Read Adobe's announcement and the Digital Editions blog for more information.

On the Anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, Obama Administration Recommits to Enforcing and Protecting the Civil Rights of All

From the office of the White House Press Secretary

On July 26, 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law. That landmark civil rights legislation reaffirmed the idea that all our citizens, regardless of disability, are entitled to the same privileges, pursuits, and opportunities as everyone else. As the Obama Administration marks that anniversary, there still remain many steps we must take together to ensure that the spirit and letter of that law are upheld.

"The promise of the ADA was that all Americans should have equal access and equal opportunity, including Americans with disabilities," said President Obama. "The ADA was about independence and the freedom to make of our lives what we will. We celebrate that today, and we recommit ourselves to ending discrimination in all its forms."

Since its enactment, the ADA has opened many doors and sought to level the playing field for employment of Americans with disabilities. Still, however, the unemployment rate for persons with disabilities remains high. Last year, President Obama signed an Executive Order to make the federal government a model employer for individuals with disabilities.

On July 26, 2011, following on other steps already taken, the Obama Administration announced new efforts that will continue to support increased employment opportunities for persons with disabilities and will also help make the government more open and accessible to all citizens. Specifically, the administration is working to release a draft comprehensive strategic plan to improve compliance with Section 508 of the Rehabilitation Act.

Section 508 requires that federal agencies' electronic and information technology be accessible to people with disabilities, both inside and outside the government. Twelve years after this law was enacted, many technological barriers still exist, limiting the ability of persons with disabilities when they try to interact with the federal government, whether as an employee or as a citizen seeking information or services.

Making electronic and information technology, such as websites, 508 compliant will ensure that applicants have equal access to apply for job opportunities. 508 compliance also will promote increased retention, as federal employees will be able to successfully utilize the technology—whether it be computers, telephones, fax machines, websites and many other technological tools—necessary to perform their duties. Moreover, it will make the government more open and accessible as people with disabilities will be able to better access all the information the federal government has placed online.

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