March 2001 Issue  Volume 2  Number 2

Product Evaluation

The Tools of the Trade: Advanced Screen Reader Features

"Hi, I'm Bob. I've been using a Windows screen reader for three years and haven't read the manual."

Another member of Screen Readers Anonymous testifies: "My name is Alice. My friend taught me basics, such as how to read the current line by pressing the down arrow followed by the up arrow. I find out what program I'm in at any given moment by exiting it. If I hear an error message and don't catch it all, I call someone over to the computer to read the screen to me."

Do you know Bob or Alice? Read on and find out what they, and others like them, are missing.

To Know Them Is to Love Them

If you bought your Windows screen reader four or more years ago and haven't followed changes in technology, you'll be glad to know that things have improved a great deal. Back then, if you could find out what was on the screen, you had a good screen reader. Now, the finest specimens provide you with relevant information automatically and give you great control over what is read and when. Still, no screen reader has all of the options necessary to make it an efficient tool for every user using every application. Some even lack basic configurability.

The following are a few features that every screen reader ought to have: automatic labeling of graphics, reclassing problem controls, listing links in the order in which items are spoken, and accessing the system tray generically. If yours has them, you'll enjoy using them. If it doesn't, suggest those that look interesting to you to the manufacturer!

An Ideal Find

Not long ago we thought we were doing well if the screen reader had a find feature at all. Even now, we think we're doing well if we know a user who knows how to use it. But, ideally a screen reader should have a feature that searches for a word, graphic, control, or other item and that doesn't cause the item searched for to disappear. Different screen readers handle the find feature differently. For example, if you have pulled down a menu and want to search for a word, the JAWS or Window-Eyes find feature causes a dialog box to appear, which snaps the menu shut. OutSPOKEN, however, displays nothing on the screen during the find operation, which may be annoying for sighted users, but is fabulous for blind people trying to find things. (The command to find an item using Window-Eyes is Control-Shift-F, using JAWS for Windows is Control-Insert-F, using Window Bridge is Shift-Control-F, and using outSPOKEN is keypad 1.)

Automatic Labeling of Graphics

Let's say you just bought yourself an MP3 Player—a small, portable device to play all those files you downloaded from the web. You install the software on your home computer and prepare to start transferring files. But, all you hear when you read the screen is "graphic, graphic 11800, graphic."

Your screen reader probably has a tool that can help—the feature to automatically label mystery graphics. You hit the hotkey for the feature (Insert-G in Window-Eyes; Shift-Control-L, followed by Alt-A in Window Bridge, and Control-Insert-G in JAWS for Windows), wait, and then save the results so that they are there the next time you run the program. Results will vary from program to program, but this feature can save you the trouble of guessing what each graphic is by clicking on it with your screen reader's mouse keys and listening to what happens.

Reclassing Problem Controls

Imagine that you bought a baseball game recently, and most of it works pretty well with speech. But, when you tab to the list of players for the team you chose, it won't tell you the players' names. If your screen reader has a feature to reclass Windows controls, you can probably fix the problem.

Tab to the problem control and press the appropriate keystroke—Insert-7 in JAWS for Windows, Shift-Control-O in Window Bridge, and Insert-R. In Window-Eyes. By tabbing around, you will find the name of the current control and a listbox containing the other controls to which it can be changed. You make a reasonable choice—changing a ThunderListBox to a list box, for example—tab to the "OK" button, and press Enter. If the results are an improvement, save the configuration.

Listing Links on a Web Page

Let's say you want to go to to listen to your alma mater playing basketball. Faced with a navigation bar dozens of links long, followed by an alphabetical list of universities, you have two choices. You could hit the Tab key until you land on the link for your school. (If you attended Weber State it might be halftime before you got there.) Or you can use your screen reader's command to bring up a list of the links on the page. In JAWS for Windows, you hit Insert-F7 to bring up the list of links; the Window-Eyes command is Insert-Tab. Window Bridge users, use Alt-Control-PageUp.

Changing the Order in Which Items Are Spoken

You know that hitting the Tab key in Internet Explorer moves you from link to link. So why do you have to listen to your screen reader say "link" before reading each item that you tab to? Well, you don't if your screen reader has a function that lets you change the order in which items are spoken.

Reading System Messages After an "Illegal Operation"

Your computer has stopped responding to commands. Maybe it even played the familiar sound that tells you a crash has occurred. But, what is the problem? Can you do something to fix it? Maybe—if your screen reader is able to read the dialog that comes up after a crash.

Sometimes it's necessary to cause an application to shut down without going through the preferred channels (like pressing Alt-F4, for example). In Windows 95 and 98 you can do this by pressing Control-Alt-Delete. This string of commands brings up a window with options to shut down selected applications or the whole system and can be a lifesaver (at least a document saver). But, if your screen reader doesn't speak this window and its controls, it's nearly impossible to make use of it.

A Generic Way to Read the Status Line

Whether you are working in a word processor, an e-mail program, or Windows Explorer, you can find helpful information on that application's status line. You will find it instantly if your screen reader has a hotkey to read the status line. In Window-Eyes press Control-Insert-S; in JAWS for Windows press Insert-PageDown. If you use Window Bridge, press Caps-Delete. OutSPOKEN users should use Control-Shift-Keypad-Slash.

Reading Sentences and Paragraphs

Your boss asked you to edit draft nine of his memo on the department's priorities for the next fiscal year. His tortured syntax just won't stay in your head if you listen to the whole document, but your fingers will fall off if you move through the 207-page composition with the down-arrow.

Traditionally, most screen readers have not had the ability to read the current sentence or paragraph, and those that did could not read these units flawlessly. More useful than the ability to read the current sentence or paragraph, though, is the ability to move forward through a document by these units. However, screen readers find it quite challenging to be certain where sentences break and what belongs with the paragraph. Some screen readers can read these units only in certain situations and only in certain word processors. A partial solution to these problems is to use the word processor's command to move to the next sentence or paragraph and then persuade the screen reader to read the correct text.

Quick Access to the System Tray

You sat down at your computer last night to read your e-mail. First, you started playing your favorite CD, but you can barely hear the music. Why? It was loud enough the night before.

Your screen reader may be able to help. Access to your PC's System Tray—located below the Windows toolbar and not accessible normally from the keyboard—allows you, among other things, to adjust the volume of music played by your CD drive. In JAWS for Windows, press Insert-F11. In Window-Eyes, press Insert-S. Window Bridge users should press Shift-Control-S. When the list of items in the System Tray appears, arrow down to find "Volume." Hit Enter. This will bring up a "context menu" that allows you to do several things, including adjust the volume.

Copying Reformatted Versions of Web Pages

You have found your favorite radio station's schedule on the web. However, it is posted as a complicated table. Reading from left to right you have the weekday schedule, the Saturday schedule and the Sunday schedule. Reading from top to bottom, you have a list of the programs scheduled at different hours of the day. It's just too difficult to figure out what show is on at 11:00 AM on Saturday.

If your screen reader allows you to copy the reformatted version of the page, you are in luck. You would hit Control-A or Control-Shift-End to select the entire page. Then hit Control-C to copy the text. Alt-Tab to your word processor and paste the text there with Control-V.

An Imperfect World

In a perfect world, or even a pretty good one, it would be possible to install a piece of software and a screen reader, then get right to work. (Actually, a perfect world wouldn't involve installing anything and software would work without a screen reader.) In reality, a lot of "tweaking" is necessary. Beyond tweaking, the user must have a great deal of knowledge and skill.

We have found in our computer travels that even intermediate and experienced users don't know some of the wonderful efficiency features lurking in their most important piece of computer equipment. Although it may be fair to say that "we shouldn't have to know this," it is also true that those among us who do have the best shot at good jobs, interesting hobbies, fulfilling careers—maybe even happy marriages and healthy children! So start exploring all the advanced features discussed in this Product Evaluation, and who know what will happen next!

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