I remember getting my first computer back in the early 90s almost like it was yesterday. A friend of mine was receiving regular treatments from a massage therapist who happened to be blind. My friend mentioned that this gentleman used a computer with a screen reader. I was vaguely aware that this technology existed, but I never really considered using a computer myself until that first conversation I had with my friend. I began doing some research, and eventually purchased my first computer with a screen reader and one program included. I'm sure there were a few other programs on that computer, but WordPerfect is the only one I recall today. The vendor from whom I purchased the computer came to my home, helped me get the computer up and running, and gave me about a half-hour of training on how to use the thing. A few books from what is now Learning Ally as well as the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped along with some really late nights were what truly started me on my journey. I sought guidance from a few sighted friends who were more than willing to help, but didn't have any knowledge about assistive technology. There were times when I thought I had wasted a lot of money and time, but I eventually grew to truly enjoy using my computer.
I eventually became aware of a whole community of blind people who used assistive technology. They all had their preferred screen reader, and most people used only one. Screen readers cost a lot of money and hardware-based speech synthesizers increased the cost of owning assistive tech. Unless the user was willing to learn how to write configuration files that made their screen reader work with specific programs they wanted or needed to use, it was important to find out what computer software worked best with one's chosen screen reader. I eventually outgrew that first screen reader, and spent money to switch to others as I learned about them. I have no idea how much money I spent on technology in those early years, and that is probably for the best!
Fast forward 25 years or so, and the landscape is totally different. I have a primary desktop PC and a couple laptop computers all running Windows 10. I have one paid screen reader—JAWS for Windows from Vispero—and I use two free screen-reading solutions—NVDA, from NVAccess and Microsoft's built-in screen reader called Narrator.
I also have a MacBook Pro running the latest version of Apple's Mac operating system that comes with the free VoiceOver screen reader built in. I have access to my wife's iPad if I need to use it, and I own an iPhone 8 Plus. These devices also run VoiceOver. Finally, I own a BrailleNote Touch Plus, HumanWare's Android-based notetaker designed especially for the blind.
Gone are the days when I must limit myself to only one screen reader and one program to get a task accomplished. If a website isn't behaving well using JAWS and Google's Chrome browser, I might try the same site using the Firefox browser. If I don't like the way JAWS is presenting text to me on that website, maybe I'll switch to NVDA. If the desktop version of a website is too cluttered for my liking, I'll often try the mobile version using either Safari on my iPhone, or Chrome on my BrailleNote Touch.
The lines between desktop application and Internet site have blurred to the point that I honestly don't think about it much anymore. It is often possible to use either a computer or a mobile device to conduct banking and purchase goods.
So what makes all this added flexibility and increased choice possible, anyway? In many cases, the actual hardware in use is less expensive than it used to be, although admittedly products such as the BrailleNote Touch are still on the high end of the price spectrum. Along with the availability of more screen readers and magnification solutions than ever before, the cost of most of these solutions has come down greatly. Even companies like Vispero that still sell a screen reader that can cost over a thousand dollars if purchased outright are now offering software-as-a-service options that allow you to pay a yearly fee that provides the latest version of their software complete with updates for as long as you keep your subscription active.
While some may not consider free options such as NVDA or Narrator to be as powerful and flexible as JAWS, they will be perfectly adequate for other people who aren't using a computer on the job complete with specialized software that requires customized screen reader applications to make it work properly. There are those who will rightly point out that free isn't really free. You are in fact purchasing the screen reader when you buy a new computer as is the case with VoiceOver on the Mac. While this may be true, the shock to the pocketbook may not be as noticeable as it would be if you had to plunk down another thousand bucks or so for assistive technology after you had just purchased a new computer.
In addition to the advancements in screen reading technology along with the reduced cost of these products, app and website developers are becoming increasingly educated about the needs of the blind community. I once spoke with a game developer who told me that he played one of his games using VoiceOver on the iPhone for six weeks so he could really get a feel for how the game behaved when played by a blind person. Rather than throwing up their hands in frustration and venting on social media about how sighted developers don't care about the needs of blind people, many in the blind community are respectfully reaching out to developers, educating them about the needs of those who use assistive technology, and giving them well-deserved recognition on social media when they produce a product that is usable by blind and sighted people alike. Also, companies like Microsoft and Apple work to ensure that their screen readers work with the company's own including Safari and Microsoft Edge. Google and Amazon continue to make strides in the area of accessibility as well. Better design and standards make it more likely that multiple screen readers will work well in an increasing number of online and offline scenarios.
You may be someone who is currently comfortable using only one screen reader with one web browser and just a few recommended programs on your computer. You may be thinking that everything you have just read in this article sounds great, but you may be wondering how to actually apply any of it in your life. First, I would say that if you are happy with your current technology then don't feel intimidated by someone else who uses other solutions. That said, I would urge you to keep your screen reading technology up to date as far as is possible. Also, make sure that you are using an Internet browser that is fully supported by the websites you frequently visit. This will ensure that your experience is as fulfilling as it should be. For example, though Microsoft Internet Explorer has been a recommended browser for many years for those using screen access technology due to its accessibility, it is no longer receiving feature updates from Microsoft, and therefore many modern websites will not display properly when viewed using it.
If you think you would like to try new applications and possibly different assistive technology solutions but you don't know where to start, keep reading.
Back when I first started using a computer, I knew of very few resources to which I could turn in order to gain skills in using assistive technology. Today, there are many ebooks, tutorials, webinars, podcasts, and even paid individual training services available for anyone who wishes to expand their knowledge of computers and the like. One excellent resource that has been referenced many times in past issues of AccessWorld is Mystic Access, where you can obtain almost every kind of training mentioned in the previous sentences. Another resource you may recognize is the National Braille Press, which has published many books that provide guidance on using various types of technology. Books from National Braille Press can generally be purchased in both braille or in electronic formats.
There are also many online communities of people with vision loss who use a specific technology. Two of the most well known are AppleVis for users of iOS devices and the Eyes-Free Google Group for users of the Android platform. Both communities are places where new and long time users of these platforms can go to find assistance getting started with the technology or for help troubleshooting issues they may encounter.
While I vividly recall my first experiences as a novice computer user, it is almost impossible for me to imagine actually going back to those days. Today, the landscape is rich and the possibilities are endless for anyone who wishes to join their sighted counterparts in using today's technology. While there are still many hurdles to jump, I am confident that things will only continue to improve as we move forward.
So fear not, intrepid adventurer. Let's explore this exciting world together. In the meantime, happy computing!
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- Looking Back on 20 Years of Assistive Technology: Where We've Been and How Far and Fast We've Come by Bill Holton
- Getting the Most out of Sighted Computer Assistance: How to Help the Helpers by Bill Holton
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