May 2017 Issue  Volume 18  Number 5

Accessibility Updates in the Technology Arena

Speaking of Amazon: An Update on Amazon Accessibility and Using the NVDA Screen Reader with Kindle for PC

In Shelly Brisbin's excellent CSUN 2017 coverage roundup she mentions that the Windows Kindle E-Reader is now completely accessible using the NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Access) screen reader. Since you may not have used NVDA yet, we thought we would point you to a few excellent "getting started" guides, and another potentially useful screen reader resource. After that we'll return to Amazon, and fill you in on a few of the company's other recent accessibility improvements and initiatives, including a new Accessibility Phone Hotline.

Resources for People New to the NVDA Screen Reader

NVDA is a free full-featured screen reader that can be downloaded directly from the NV Access developer website. You can install NVDA on as many computers as you like, and also onto a USB thumb drive so you can use it on friends', school, and library computers as well.

If you have never used NVDA before, you will definitely want to check out AFB's video series, Learn NVDA. This set of tutorials is aimed at the new NVDA user, and has been designed to allow a person who is blind or visually impaired, and entirely new to NVDA, to independently install the program and learn how to use it. Learn NVDA will teach you how to do the following:

  • Install NVDA on your computer
  • Navigate Microsoft Windows with NVDA
  • Use NVDA Hotkeys
  • Install and use the Firefox internet browser

Each tutorial contains step-by-step instructions with audio of a presenter using NVDA and video of the computer screen. The videos are fully transcribed and captioned, and even experienced NVDA users will learn a new trick or two.

If you prefer to learn from books, an excellent resource comes from NV Access itself, which offers the eBook Basic Training for NVDA, for $30. MS Office users may also be interested in their second offering, Microsoft Word with NVDA, which we reviewed in last December's AccessWorld .

Changing Speech Options in NVDA

Narrator Voices

NVDA comes with the eSpeak speech synthesizer preinstalled. eSpeak is an extremely responsive speech engine, but some users find it too robotic and artificial sounding to listen to for any length of time. If you find this to be the case, there are two ways to switch to other, more human-sounding voices you may already be using with your other screen readers or mobile devices.

If you are using a Windows PC you are probably aware that it includes a built-in screen reader called Narrator. You can toggle it on and off anytime by holding down the Windows key and then pressing Enter. (Note: in the Creators Edition of Windows 10 this hotkey will change to Windows + CTRL + Enter) Narrator offers three high quality English voices: David, Zira, and Hazel. The voices come preinstalled with Windows, and they can also be selected and used with NVDA.

To use any of these Microsoft voices with NVDA follow these steps:

  1. Access the NVDA Menu by holding down the Insert key while pressing the N key.
  2. Press the Down Arrow key once to "Preferences."
  3. Press the Right Arrow once, followed by a single Down Arrow. You are now placed on NVDA's synthesizer menu.
  4. Press Enter, then use your Arrow keys to locate the "Microsoft Speech API version 5" option.
  5. Press Enter. Your NVDA voice will now be changed to Microsoft David, which is an extremely easy to understand voice.

If you wish to use the UK English Hazel or US English Zira Microsoft voice:

  1. Repeat the above steps through Step 3
  2. Press Down Arrow twice to "Voice Settings."
  3. Select from other voices (note that you can also change voice speed, volume, pitch, and other settings here).
Using Eloquence and Vocalizer Voices with NVDA

Many blind users still consider the Eloquence speech engine the gold standard among synthesized speech, mostly because it's relatively easy to understand at very high speeds. Others prefer the more natural voices they hear on iPhone commercials when Siri speaks up.

You can get both of these voices to run with NVDA, along with dozens of others, with the Code Factory Eloquence and Vocalizer Expressive Add-on for NVDA.

The voice pack costs $69, and one convenient place to find it is at AT Guys.

You will need to be running the NVDA screen reader in order to install this package. When you're done, follow the steps outlined above, and you will find two new synthesizer entries: Code Factory Eloquence and Code Factory Vocalizer. The first time you activate either of these, the software will ask for your purchase serial code. You can purchase the package now, but there is also a "Try" option that will allow you to test drive the voices for seven days.

The above package only works with NVDA. You can install the voices on up to three computers at a time. Code Factory also offers Vocalizer SAPI Voices for Any Screen Reader for $115. These voices will work with any screen reader, including NVDA and Windows Narrator. JAWS users already have these Vocalizer voices available to them.

Amazon Accessibility Improvements

Along with the ability to read Kindle books with a Windows PC and NVDA, Amazon has made a few other significant accessibility improvements to their devices and services. Let's cover them one at a time.

An Even More Accessible Kindle E-Reader

In the July 2016 issue of AccessWorld we offered a first look at the Amazon Kindle Audio Adapter, which plugs into the USB port of a Kindle Paperwhite dedicated E-Reader to enable voice access with the VoiceView screen reader. Amazon has now taken voice access a significant step further. Their newest 8th Generation Kindle E-Reader, referred to simply as Kindle, includes Bluetooth capabilities. You no longer need a special dongle to have your Kindle content read aloud to you. All you need is a Bluetooth speaker or pair of Bluetooth earbuds. You can even use your favorite pair of wired earbuds with a portable Bluetooth transmitter.

Here's how to make a Bluetooth VoiceView connection.

(Note: microphones, microphone-enabled headsets, and low energy devices are not supported.)

To use VoiceView over Bluetooth:

  1. Turn on your Bluetooth device and set it to pairing mode.
  2. Press and hold the power button on your Kindle for 7 seconds, and then press 2 fingers spaced apart on the screen for 1 second.
  3. Wait up to 2 minutes to hear audio VoiceView instructions to "Hold two fingers on the screen to use this audio device with VoiceView screen reader on Kindle." (Note: VoiceView will be disabled after 10 seconds if devices aren't detected or if you chose not to connect to a located device.)
  4. After pairing to a Bluetooth audio device, VoiceView will save the connection.

There are a few ways to turn off or suspend VoiceView on your Kindle:

  1. Turn off your Bluetooth audio device.
  2. On your Kindle (8th Generation) select the Quick Actions menu at the top of the screen, and then double tap to open the menu. Select VoiceView Settings, and then select and double-tap Off.
  3. To suspend VoiceView, press the power button on your Kindle. VoiceView will resume when you wake the Kindle. To wake, press the Kindle power button once, and then double-tap on the screen.

The Kindle E-Reader VoiceView software now includes much-welcomed granularity controls. Swipe a finger vertically in a single motion to switch between word and character reading. Then Swipe left or right to move in that direction. In character mode you can also pause after a character and it will be pronounced phonetically.

The Fire TV with VoiceView

Last September, I took a first look at the Fire TV with VoiceView. At the time, I noted that none of the third-party apps had yet to be made accessible, including two of the majors: Netflix and Hulu. I am happy to report that both of these services are now accessible using Amazon TV, and that the Amazon accessibility team is working with several other content providers to make their offerings equally speech friendly.

The VoiceView screen reader is now out of preview and it includes two powerful new enhancements. First, when scrolling through a list of titles, most mobile screen readers will announce the title name but ignore changes elsewhere on the screen where information such as movie description, rating, run time, and other information is displayed. VoiceView now captures this information, and when you move your way through a list of titles, a brief pause will cause this information to be spoken. You can also review this information one clip at a time using the Fast Forward and Rewind transport control keys.

VoiceView for Fire TV now also includes a complete screen review mode. Access this mode by pressing and holding down the Menu key for two seconds. Once activated, you can use the Arrow keys to review the screen without making changes. Currently, most of the screen review is confined to the direction keys and the "Select" button, which works as expected, even in review mode. A long press of the "Previous" or "Next" button will jump the screen review to the top left and bottom right respectively. Short presses of "Previous" and "Next" move backward or forward in the selected reading granularity, which can be toggled between character, word, control, and window by pressing Up and Down. The entire remote keypad is now available for VoiceView features, and I look forward to future updates, especially the long awaited addition of audio description.

A Shopping Surprise

With all that's going on at Amazon, sometimes it's hard to remember that the company is first and foremost a retailer of everything from applesauce to toy zeppelins. The company has historically gone to great lengths to make the shopping experience accessible to their customers with visual impairments. Their main site makes excellent use of all the standard Windows controls that make screen reader navigation possible, but the page can admittedly be a bit busy with special sales and personalized recommendations, which is one of the reasons Amazon created an alternate "screen reader friendly" site. The company's various accessibility initiatives are detailed and described on the Amazon Accessibility site.

Amazon Accessibility Hotline

Amazon, like Apple and Microsoft before them, has taken accessibility one step further with the launch of a dedicated hotline for customers with disabilities. The desktop site features a click-to-call link to the access hotline on its Help pages. You are asked for your phone number, and an agent familiar with screen readers returns your call. The iOS and Android apps do not yet include this link, but you can reach the hotline directly by calling 1-888-283-1678, 3 am-10 pm PST, 7 days a week.

Hotline agents have been trained in screen reader basics and can help support (or escalate, if needed) technical issues. Agents can also help customers find products, add items to a customer's shopping cart, and provide support for the check-out process. They cannot perform the actual checkout, however.

The accessibility hotline is primarily focused on supporting retail-related issues, including orders, returns, and delivery. They may also be able to help with device-related questions, or refer you to reps in other departments who work with accessibility.

My own very first call to the hotline proved completely successful. A six-pack of lightweight cotton pants I had bought before showed available for repurchase, but the combo box to choose size seemed stuck on extra-large, and I needed medium. Thinking maybe the combo box wasn't working correctly, I called the hotline and was told the other sizes were no longer available.

"Hold on a minute," the rep continued, and in less than a minute he'd found the same pants from the same manufacturer, only packaged in packs of three pair instead of six. He placed two sets in my cart, and offered to stay on the line while I checked out.

How many times have you put something in your Amazon cart and then removed it because you couldn't see the product image and didn't know if those cereal bowls were bright or light green, or whether the blouse had a high or low neckline? These are just a few of the reasons I can imagine why you might want to put the Amazon Accessibility Hotline in your contacts list.

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