Accessing Quality Technology Assistance
Getting the Most out of Sighted Computer Assistance: How to Help the Helpers
In the June issue of AccessWorld we published a letter from a reader who sought the best ways to help sighted people assist you with computer issues when you use a screen reader like JAWS. Some of our best article ideas come from you, our readers, and this is definitely a topic we felt was worthy of an in-depth look. So keep those ideas coming, and read on as we attempt to offer some useful advice on this often-perplexing topic.
Exploring New Software
You may have received training in using your screen reader, and perhaps Microsoft Office and a few other popular applications, but in nearly any work or school environment there will be other software packages you'll need to learn and use. Unfortunately, the trainer or other individual who is an expert in this new software may know next to nothing about screen readers and how they work.
If you are scheduled to be trained on a new software package for work or school, there's a lot you can do in advance to prepare yourself. Don't wait until that training session to open the software for the first time. If you can, get an advance copy, a guest login, or download the demo if it's available.
If you are preparing for a group training session, contact the training specialist ahead of time. Inform him or her that you will be attending the session and that you will be using the software with magnification, speech, braille, or any combination, depending on your particular circumstances. Inquire if it would be possible for you to preview his or her notes and/or presentation slides. Even if the training is going to be one-on-one it's a good idea to alert the trainer in advance. If you've had a chance to check over the software (see below), compile a list of questions about both access and the application itself, and forward it to the trainer a day or two before your session. It's far more likely that the trainer can answer your concerns if given the opportunity to do a bit of research ahead of time rather than being asked on the spot.
With any new software, use your screen reader's navigation keys to "scope out" the terrain. "Begin with the Tab key, which often moves you from application control to control," suggests Steven Kelley, CVRT, CRC, Vision Rehab Therapist with The Iris Network in Portland, Maine. "Also review the screen from top to bottom using the Up and Down Arrow keys and your screen reader's mouse review keys. Try to construct a mental map of what's where, such as the fact that the last control you reached using the Tab key is actually located near the upper left of the display."
Explore the menu structure. Most applications include a Help tab. Check for a "keyboard commands" option, or perform a Help search for the term.
Alternatively, you can find comprehensive lists of keyboard commands for most popular applications online. Kelley suggests you begin your search at the RNIB keyboard shortcuts guide for help with Windows. Other handy keyboard resources list keyboard shortcuts for the Statistical Package for the Social Sciences (SPSS), and for a Salesforce Console. Perform a search for any other software by entering its name and the term "keyboard shortcuts" into your preferred search engine to find more.
Now that you have a list of keyboard commands, copy and paste the list into a word processing document, or create a braille keyboard guide. "Don't try to memorize the entire list right away," Kelley advises. "Identify which keyboard commands you will use the most as you explore the software and start with those. Add a few new commands every day, or as you need them." Keyboard commands are very much like new vocabulary words. Use them three or four times and they are yours forever.
Many software accessibility issues come from unlabeled graphics and inaccessible controls. Modern screen readers enable you to label these controls with text that makes sense to you. What does that particular control do? If you can't figure it out from context, why not just give it a try and invoke it with your mouse-click hotkey? Review the subsequent screen and you may just be able to determine the button's function. Happily, very few software packages include controls with the unlabeled function: "Blow up this computer and make it never work again."
Get Help Before you Get Help
Most screen reader users are aware that both Apple and Microsoft offer special phone lines dedicated to assisting users of their respective operating systems' accessibility features. Both tend to view their mission in extremely broad terms, however. Both companies have implemented easy ways for their accessibility support representatives to connect to remote computers so they can view the problems and offer solutions. If you are faced with an application screen that does not speak at all, or unlabeled controls you really need to familiarize yourself with, give them a call and ask for help deciphering and labeling.
You can reach the Microsoft Accessibility Answer Desk at: 800-936-5900.
You can reach the Apple Accessibility Hotline at 877-204-3930.
The Be My Eyes remote assistant and BeSpecular mobile app are also useful resources when trying to decipher a confusing screen element or hardware switches and buttons on a new physical device. Be sure to document what you learn as soon as possible. It's amazing how quickly a trio of controls can turn into a game of Three Card Monty, with you left wondering which control is under which button.
Kelley recommends picking a good time for your initial software exploration. "Expect that things are not going to work perfectly the first time," he notes. "Is the beginning of your day the time when you will become the least frustrated, or do you work better at the end of the day when you can more easily put frustrating things aside for the day?"
Lastly, if you're waiting for technical support for help with an application error, document all you can about that error ahead of time. If there is an error message, write down the message text. Can you duplicate the error with a specific series of steps? If so, document those steps so you can demonstrate the error. Use your keyboard's Print Screen key to capture your display and then paste the screenshots into the same document where you write down the steps causing the glitch.
Also note any message text and error number. Do a Google or Bing search for the error. You may be surprised to learn there's a simple fix or workaround that does it require help after all.
Optimize Your Screen
One issue many trainers have, and so do other people who may be helping you, is that they are not viewing the same screen that you are. Remember, screen readers often buffer information and present it in a way that makes it easier for you to access and navigate. "When you say you are near such and such a word, that may just be your text or virtual cursor," says Kelley. "The mouse pointer, which is where the sighted person may be looking, may be on the opposite side of the screen, or even off screen." Luckily, most screen readers offer a way to highlight your work space. For NVDA, you'll need to download and install the Focus Highlight add-on, available from the NVDA Community Addons page. JAWS version 18 Build 2945 for May 2017 and later now offers Visual Tracking, which is turned on by default. macOS VoiceOver users can press CTRL + Option + Command + F10 to toggle a "Caption Panel" on and off.
Lastly, before you begin a training or support session, ensure that the window you're working on is maximized and is the only application window that is open. Otherwise you may be asking someone to help you with a postage-stamp sized window overlapped by several other data windows.
Going One on One
According to Kelley, when it's time for that one-on-one training session, "It's crucial that you find a way to put yourself in the driver's seat of your training session. Introduce your screen reader and how you use it to interact with a computer." Consider offering a brief screen reader demo. Show the trainer how the screen reader works, how you use it to write and edit text, navigate a webpage, fill out forms, and perform other routine tasks.
Select an installed voice and speech rate you feel will be comfortable for your trainer to understand. You may enjoy using Espeak at chipmunk speed, but just as you will become quickly confused and frustrated with a trainer who steps in and starts performing mouse clicks, your trainer will feel equally confused and overwhelmed if the voice you are working with sounds like gibberish to him or her.
Many instructors attempt to teach by demonstration. He or she may grab your mouse and begin clicking hither and yon. Insist that you be allowed to issue the commands, noting. "I learn best when I can work hands-on."
If you haven't already found a list of keyboard hot keys, ask the trainer to help you compile a list. Explore all of the top-level menus and controls with the trainer. "Ask the trainer to help you to develop a mental map of the application interface," Kelley suggests. It's useful to know the control you need to use can be reached with repeated presses of the Tab key. It's even more useful to know you can quickly access that same control by pressing Alt + J, or the CTRL + End key followed by a single Shift + Tab.
"If the control is difficult to locate, ask the trainer to help you move to spots just before and after that control," Kelley advises. "At least now you will know it's somewhere between them."
Make use of your screen reader's quick navigation keys to move from heading to heading, or from list to list, but don't be afraid to ask the trainer for a unique word or character string that appears near to where you wish to navigate. Then use your screen reader's Find command to move your mouse cursor to that position. If there are unlabeled buttons and other controls, ask the trainer to help you label them. Also remember that often a button that is unlabeled may include its function inside the tag, or at least enough of it to offer up a much-needed clue. For example, an "Export to CSV" image control may be unlabeled, but the tag may include the string "CSV," which is the extension name of a generic spread sheet file. Knowing this, you may be able to use your screen reader's Find command to locate the string and the button it marks.
If you're working over the phone with a trainer or tech support rep, they may inadvertently say something like, "OK start out by pressing the green button." Explain to the support technician that you are sight-impaired and using a screen reader. Offer a brief description of how a screen reader works, and when they reply, "Our application doesn't support a screen reader," assure them that in nearly all cases, the screen reader merely passes the normal program information along--it does not affect the way the application works.
Remember, frustration can go both ways. You may be frustrated that the tech-support person does not understand a screen reader. That support person may be equally frustrated that you don't understand why you cannot work things the way he or she has been trained to assist. "If all else fails, ask to speak to someone else, perhaps a supervisor," advises Kelley.
With all your new computer knowhow, eventually there will come a time when you are asked to help a family member or other sighted person with their computer problems or issues. There are two things to remember here:
- Their page will not be laid out the same way as yours. What you are accustomed to finding at the end of the bottom of a webpage may actually be on the top right in a different color on theirs. So use control names as much as possible to describe what they need to do, and remember, they may not know that CTRL S saves a document; they are used to doing this with a mouse click.
- Your screen reader announces the names of the various icons, such as Save, Cut, and Paste. The sighted user will see only graphical icons, and if they are very inexperienced they may not know what each image means. Usually, if you hover the mouse pointer over an icon, a tool tip will appear describing the icon's function. If not, show them how to turn on Narrator or VoiceOver briefly to hear what the icon does.
Although we have focused mostly on computer use, many of these tips, especially the last section above, also hold true for mobile help as well. Show a sighted person how to temporarily turn on VoiceOver or TalkBack, and they may be able to decipher that emoji that's so tiny on the screen, it's difficult to tell if their friend is asking them to "grin and dog it" or "grin and bear it."
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