March 2005 Issue  Volume 6  Number 2

Trainer's Corner

The Touch That Means So Much: Training Materials for Computer Users Who Are Deaf-Blind

A growing number of computer users who are visually impaired are discovering the greater productivity that results from using more than one type of assistive technology to do their work. A decade ago, the usual response when a person with a visual impairment was asked how he or she used the computer was "with a braille display," "with magnification," or "with synthesized speech output." Today, the question is often answered with a two-pronged solution. If, for example, you have sufficient residual vision to see the arrangement of text or tables on a computer screen but not enough to read text comfortably, using screen magnification and a screen reader simultaneously can provide a significant boost in efficiency. The leading screen magnifiers now come with the option of a screen reader built in. Even if you are a rapid and fluent braille reader, you may find that a quick overview of a document being read aloud at 400 words a minute courtesy of your screen reader can save time and temporarily free your hands to collate pages or perform other tasks.

But what if you do not have the advantage of experiencing that double input? How, in other words, does a computer user who is deaf-blind fare when it comes to working efficiently in the Windows environment?

Although there a number of excellent tutorials on Windows and various applications from a variety of sources, most are available in audio formats. Even those that are available in electronic formats (which could be read on a refreshable braille display) tend to focus instructions on information that must be heard.

The Iowa Department for the Blind sought and received funding from the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) to create training materials to assist computer users who are both deaf and blind. The department had already established a track record for similar work. Its Project ASSIST (Accessible Step-by-Step Instructions for Speech Technology) with Windows was initially launched in 1997 with the goal of developing and distributing training materials to help computer users who are visually impaired move into the Windows environment on a par with their sighted peers. Tutorials were written that focused specifically on the use of JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes, in conjunction with a variety of popular applications, such as Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and several e-mail programs. The new project presented tutorial developers Brian Walker and Susan Stageberg with the additional challenge of ensuring that all information and exercises that are presented could be accomplished exclusively with the use of a braille display.

Without outSPOKEN

Kathleen Spear, a California woman who is deaf and blind, once trained other people who are blind in the use of computers when the operating system of choice was DOS, and WordPerfect 5.1 was the most popular program. Until May 2004, she was able to use Windows 98 with outSPOKEN for Windows, which, she said, provided the most braille support of all the available programs. When outSPOKEN was no longer upgraded, however, and her hard drive was destroyed by a virus, it was time to find a new solution. Spear has had her share of frustration--teaching herself to use Eudora, Outlook Express, and other programs with minimal braille support. Both JAWS and Window-Eyes, she said, focused learning on voice, and that method was simply not an option for her. Now, she is hoping to immerse herself at last in Windows with an XP Tutorial from Project ASSIST. She has equipped herself with JAWS for Windows and a Satellite 570 braille display and is ready to start. "Although I've met and respect a few trainers who are blind and knowledgeable of braille," Spear explained, "they all rely on voice messages, even when training. . . . The speech messages often differ from the braille; usually, . . . there is less [information] available on the braille display."

Catherine Thomas, a New York-based braille transcriber who has a strong preference for braille access over speech, is even newer to wrestling with braille displays driven by screen readers. Since 1992, she has continued to work with DOS and WordPerfect for DOS, but needs, for some aspects of her work, to become comfortable with Windows. "So far," Thomas commented, "my experience with Windows, Window-Eyes, and the braille display has been disappointing. The Window-Eyes documentation is oriented strictly toward speech users. There is only one chapter that relates to configuring braille displays, and no chapters explain what a person should do to use Window-Eyes with braille only."

Rendered Speechless

Brian Walker and Susan Stageberg recognized that even though the braille support in screen readers for Windows has come a long way, developing training materials that are centered entirely on use with braille would be challenging. They are both blind and longtime users of both speech and braille for accessing computers, and this project has required them to rely entirely on braille when developing strategies and testing them. "We worked entirely without speech for about six months before we actually wrote the first tutorial," Walker said. "And now we turn off speech for hours while testing to be absolutely sure that everything can be done without speech." Other people who are blind, including their supervisor, Curtis Chong, the director of field operations for the Iowa Department for the Blind, test the strategies presented in the tutorials to be absolutely certain of their accuracy before they are released.

"We wanted to develop training materials for an underserved population for whom magnification or speech are simply not options," Chong explained. "I don't think we realized how much feedback we get audibly." In other words, people who are blind who work without speech--who have been accustomed to using screen readers with both speech and braille--find themselves in a position analogous to that of sighted people who think they can use speech output easily until they turn their screens off. Each is somewhat unconsciously relying on additional input from a second source; people who are deaf-blind simply do not have that luxury.

Initially, to determine product areas for concentration, the team members sent out a survey and consulted with an expert in the field of assistive technology who is deaf and blind. Although they would ideally have liked to have developed tutorials for every screen reader and braille display on the market, available resources dictated that they make some choices. Each tutorial is specifically designed for work with a particular screen reader and a designated display, so that every keystroke and concept that are presented will match the experience of the student. In the end, the two displays they settled on were the ALVA Satellite 570 and the Braille Lite 40. The two screen readers used will be JAWS for Windows and Window-Eyes.

Beginning at the Beginning

The first tutorials, of course, needed to introduce Windows XP. Next came the introduction to Microsoft Word. Currently in progress are the Internet Fundamentals tutorials, which will teach people to use Internet Explorer and Outlook Express. Simply introducing Windows XP is complex, however, when it must be introduced in conjunction with a screen reader that may not be set up to display screen information in braille.

Recognizing which window is currently active on the screen is one example. For example, Insert-T is a JAWS keystroke that announces audibly the name of the active window, but that information is not displayed in braille in Structured Mode, the JAWS default setting for braille. When you switch to Speech Box Mode, the information does indeed appear on the display, but, since other necessary information does not, you need to switch back to Structured Mode or to Line Mode. "This is not necessarily difficult to do," Walker explained, "but it can become tedious." The challenges, in other words, have often turned out to be not so much to find the work-arounds to gain access to needed information without speech, but to present that potentially confusing information clearly in a tutorial that is intended for beginners.

"In the Windows XP tutorials with JAWS," Walker explained, "we put a lot of thought into the ordering of the information. The material about the JAWS Braille Modes was complex enough that we thought we wanted to introduce quite a few basic Windows concepts before we explained the modes. Then we did all that we could to ensure that we explained the JAWS Braille Modes as clearly as possible and that we explained the circumstances under which each mode was the most effective. The problem, as we perceived it, is that our tutorial is for beginners, but the JAWS Braille Modes are not beginner-level concepts."

Nothing Taken for Granted

For this article, the electronic version of the tutorial for Windows XP with JAWS and the ALVA Satellite 570 was evaluated. (Tutorials are also available in recorded format, professionally recorded by the Iowa Library for the Blind, and can be obtained in braille hard copy.) From a 3.5-inch floppy disk, the zipped files of 10 lessons and 4 appendixes easily unzip to the hard drive of a computer. All lessons and appendixes are provided as Microsoft Word files, as well as translated braille files that are ready for embossing or reading on the braille display.

The care that has been taken to be clear, thorough, and logical in the presentation of information and instruction is immediately apparent. The style is never patronizing and never instructs you to perform a given set of actions without giving a thorough explanation, as some trainers and training materials are wont to do. Instead, a clear overview of what you may see on the screen or hear from the synthesizer is provided, along with the method to obtain equivalent information from the braille display.

Other tutorials for computer users who are blind may tell you to "go to the desktop" or "go to the task bar" or "pull down the File menu." This tutorial does not assume that you know how to perform such actions. When you read "pwd" on your braille display, the tutorial explains that it means "Password." When you read "smnu," JAWS tells you that there is a submenu. It is gratifying to see such thoughtful detail in lessons that are intended to encourage beginners.

Each lesson tells you at the beginning what topics will be covered. At the end of each section is a review of what has been learned in that section. Another summary appears at the end of each lesson, along with executable exercises with which you can practice new material.

Whereas many tutorials will tell you to "press the left mouse button," the Iowa tutorials take a much more patient and unassuming approach. First, the concepts of mouse pointing and clicking are discussed. Then the location and function of the keystrokes that can be substituted for such mouse actions are provided. Nothing, in short, is taken for granted.

This first tutorial provides a thorough exploration and explanation of Windows XP and the accompanying keystrokes and functions with JAWS and a braille display that make navigating that environment possible. (If, for example, you are in Structured Mode and press Insert-F12, the current time is announced, but nothing changes on the display. If you switch to Speech Box mode, the time is both announced and appears on the display when the same key combination is pressed.) You will learn how to move among programs, menus, and dialogue boxes; how to create and delete shortcuts from the Start menu or desktop; when and why to use each of the three braille modes that are available to you; and how to make the best use of your braille display's status cells (which provide information about page format; underlining, bold, and other text attributes; and so forth).


The Iowa tutorials are arguably unsurpassed in their clear, comfortable, and thorough lessons that carefully build skill upon skill and concept upon concept as you progress through the material. There are, however, two significant drawbacks to these tutorials.

The first drawback is that tutorials have been written or are in progress for only two screen readers and two braille displays. Although the reason for this situation is easy to understand (simply not enough funds to purchase every product on the market), some students may be frustrated working with a tutorial that addresses the controls on one braille display while they are learning on a different model.

The second unfortunate factor is that each tutorial is written to address a given version of JAWS or Window-Eyes. The version of JAWS that is addressed in the tutorial that I evaluated, for instance, is 4.51, while computer users who purchase the program for the first time or upgrade from an early version will be working with 5.1. Still, the authors are able to recommend which tutorial will most closely resemble the braille display or screen reader version being used by the customer, and differences among versions are often small enough that little is lost. If one enters the learning experience of these tutorials fully cognizant of these circumstances, however, these products offer a richly rewarding training experience.

For More Information

Tutorials from Project ASSIST with Windows are available on audiocassette, on floppy disks, as e-mailed files, or as hard-copy braille. The braille version costs $35; all other versions are $25. In addition to the tutorials described here for non-speech users, other tutorials, intended mainly for use by people who use screen readers for speech output alone, that have been written since 1997 are still available. Keystroke guides for many programs are also available at $5 each and are available in electronic format. For a complete list or to order, contact: Project ASSIST with Windows, Iowa Department for the Blind, 524 Fourth Street, Des Moines, IA 50309-2364; phone: 515-281-1317; e-mail: <> or <>; web site: <>.

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