October 2014 Issue  Volume 15  Number 10

Access Issues

Computers for the Blind: Opening Worlds—One Computer at a Time

If you have found your way to this issue of AccessWorld, chances are good that you own and know how to operate an accessible computer or mobile computing device, such as a smartphone or a tablet. Pause for a moment, if you would, and try to imagine how different your life would be if you didn't know how to use a computer, or if you did not have ready access to one. No e-mail. No web surfing. No Bookshare books…and probably no job or even the hope of finding one.

Every year, it seems, computers grow increasingly essential to people with visual impairments who wish to retain and enhance their abilities and indpendence. However, there are a large number of individuals who are blind who still cannot afford to buy one. Perhaps you know of someone who is in that situation. If so, read on and learn how to get a refurbished Windows 7 computer preconfigured with a screen reader, screen enlargement software, and a suite of other essential software applications for just $110 for a desktop with monitor, or $160 for a notebook PC.

These affordable, accessible computers are provided at cost by Texas-based Computers for the Blind, a volunteer organization celebrating its 25th year of helping the blind. To date they have provided well over 6,000 accessible computers to sight-impaired individuals across the United States, living up to their motto: "Opening Worlds—One Computer at a Time."

This was all made possible by a single individual, Bob Langford. Blinded in an accident at 16, Langford went on to be the first blind person to graduate from public high school in New Mexico, and the first to receive a bachelor's degree from the University of New Mexico, with a triple major in psychology, social work, and education. Langford went on to earn first a master's degree and then a PhD in rehabilitation counseling, and spent much of his working career in executive and leadership roles with rehabilitation centers, state agencies, and the Texas Commission for the Blind, from which he is currently retired.

Langford was approaching 60 when he got his first computer. "It truly amazed me how much more productive I became," he recalls. "For the first time, I could communicate privately. I was in control of what and when I wanted to read. I could independently manage my own finances."

Langford wanted to share his newfound independence with other members of the blind community, and when he heard about a local business that was upgrading its computers and tossing the old ones he set to work. "I put a wall of shelves in my garage and began collecting unwanted computers and computer components," says Langford, who today serves as President Emeritus and board member of the organization he founded, formerly called the Texas Center for the Physically Impaired, but more recently renamed Computers for the Blind (CFTB.)

Langford enlisted the help of technically savvy friends and other volunteers who could refurbish the donated computers, scavenging parts from some PCs to increase the speed and capabilities of others. The computers were preloaded with timed demo versions of a screen reader and magnification software because there were no freeor open source options at the time. Langford placed ads in various blindness publications, and soon a trickle of new computer owners turned into a steady stream.

The organization has grown considerably over the past quarter century. Today, Computers for the Blind occupies nearly 3,000 square feet in a Richardson, Texas office park for their workshop, administration office, and parts warehouse. The work is accomplished by four part-time staff members and a roster of 20 or more volunteers. Many of them are retirees, others hail from the Computer Users Group of North Texas. The local Leo Club, the youth branch of the Lions Club, has also expressed interest in volunteering.

Most of the donated computers come from the Dallas-Fort Worth area, although recently, David Jeppson, CFTB Executive Director, has expanded the organization's reach to Houston, where he recently obtained 60 computers from a bank that was upgrading its entire fleet of PCs. CFTB also received a large donation from another bank in Houston through a partnership with the National Cristina Foundation. "We've also received generous hardware donations from oil companies and mortgage companies, but the majority of our donated computers still come from small businesses we reach out to at Chamber of Commerce meetings andother business group events where we can make our presentation," he says.

Computers from CFTB may not be leading edge devices, but they are by no means antiques. Depending on donations, the minimum specs for their Windows 7 Professional desktops and laptops include:

  • dual core-2 GHz or better processor
  • 2GB of RAM
  • 80 GB Hard Drive
  • CD-R/RW and DVD-ROM drive
  • Sound card
  • Speakers
  • Broadband network card
  • Keyboard and mouse
  • For individuals with low vision: 17-21-inch LCD monitor
  • For those who will use a screen reader exclusively: 15-17-inch LCD monitor

All CFTB computers come with the free NVDA screen reader preinstalled, along with a time demo copy of JAWS from Freedom Scientific. Thanks to a recent agreement each computer also includes a licensed copy of FS's MAGic screen magnification without speech. CFTB consumers can obtain MAGic with Speech, MAGic keyboard and 2 SMA upgrades for $199 from FS, which is a discount of approximately 50 percent.

Additionally, a full, licensed copy of JAWS Home Version can be purchased from Freedom Scientific by the computer recipient for $716. Note: these discounts are only available to individuals, not agencies.

CFTB also preinstalls

  • Open Office
  • The Jartd word processor
  • Just Write Checks
  • Typeability typing tutorial — demo version
  • A collection of electronic books from Gutenberg
  • Various help files with PC setup instructions, tutorials, and FAQ articles

Purchasers may also request that an audio CD containing setup and help materials be sent in advance of their computer. CFTB representatives can help over the phone with initial PC and network setup. They can also refer users to other resources, such as local Lighthouses for the Blind, the Blind Cafe, and the Microsoft Accessibility Answer Desk.

According to Jeppson, "It generally takes about two weeks between the time we receive an order and when the computer ships." Proceeds are used to pay for a Windows license, and for needed components, such as faster memory and hard drives. "A large number of our donations arrive without hard drives," he observes. "Although CFTB wipes all donated hard drives clean, for security reasons, many companies have to remove and destroy them before a computer can be donated."

CFTB computers can be purchased by any US resident with a visual disability. Homeland Security regulations make it all but impossible to ship computers across international borders.

There are no financial restrictions, but only one purchase per person is allowed. "If you do already have a desktop, however, and you could benefit from a notebook computer's portability, you can make that your one purchase," notes Jeppson.

Earlier in 2014, a grant from the Delta Gamma Foundation enabled CFTB to supply computers for just $20 to SSI recipients, but funds have run out. "We're hoping to have the grant renewed for 2015," says Jeppson, adding, "We're also looking forward to broadening our mission in the near future to provide the blind with low-cost smartphones and tablets running iOS, Android, and Windows."

Contact Information

Computers for the Blind
214-340-6328
info@computersfortheblind.net
3101 High Plateau
Garland, TX 75044

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