This year, going back to school is liable to look very different as we all adjust to a new normal due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For someone with recent vision loss, returning to school may also require learning new adapted skills for school, work, and leisure.
Getting back to the computer or learning computer skills for the first time can be a challenge, combining the learning curve of new technology with that of any new accessibility skills. Many older adults may not be aware that, with screen magnification, text-to-speech, and braille displays, computers, tablets, and smart phones are often very accessible to users of all abilities. When I was a vision rehab therapist it was not uncommon to hear an older adult report, "I stopped using the computer because I couldn't see the screen anymore."
Last month, AccessWorld introduced Dolphin's GuideConnect, a computer program specifically designed for computer users with visual impairments. GuideConnect runs on a Windows 10 computer or from a set top box connected to a TV. It provides a computer interface with both magnification and speech that is easier to use than many traditional Windows-based programs. GuideConnect can be run right from Windows startup or from the Windows desktop and uses a consistent navigational menu throughout. Users can interact with applications on GuideConnect using a few basic keyboard commands?with or without the mouse?or using the Dolphin remote. For more information on GuideConnect basics see the article linked above.
Although GuideConnect offers a simplified user interface, it includes most of the applications you will want to use: email, word processor, Web browser, etc. It also includes some terrific accessibility software that would have to be otherwise downloaded separately to use with a standard Windows 10 computer. For example, GuideConnect comes with a DAISY book reader, National Library Service (NLS) Talking Books, NFB Newsline for reading newspapers, built-in OCR to work with either a camera or scanner, and more. The real advantage to an interface like GuideConnect is that it may enable you to get started more quickly with a computer, or get back to using the computer with accessibility features like magnification and text-to-speech.
The productivity applications?Email, Web Browser, and Letters and Documents, offer simplified versions of these types of programs. The greatest advantage of the simplified features is the reduced learning curve needed for a user to begin writing a document, sending and receiving emails, or surfing the web. The trade off is that they may not be a good fit for workplaces or some educational settings that rely heavily on more standard office applications.
Word Processing with Letters and Documents
GuideConnect's word processing application, Letters and Documents, is available from the Main menu. In Letters and Documents, you will find many of the basic features needed to create, edit, and save documents. The big difference is that the menu is so much easier to use than what might be found in MS Word, Apple Pages, or Google Docs. GuideConnect's submenu contains only four options: Recent Documents, My Documents, New Document, and New Letter. Click on New Document to get started. You'll find the cursor blinking at the top of the screen beneath the title area. Text can be entered using the keyboard or dictation. Dictation is available from a button in the upper right corner of the screen, the keyboard shortcut F6, or the microphone button on the remote. There is also an on-screen keyboard that can be navigated with the arrow keys on the remote. Dictation is accurate and punctuation can also be added by voice. There is about a 3- or 4-second delay between speaking and the text appearing, and a short pause in speaking ended the dictation. All of these methods for entering text will work in every application.
For context sensitive help, pressing the button labeled "I" in the top right corner of the screen, or pressing F1, opens a help file and the first line is automatically read. Like any other text in GuideConnect, text can be read line-by-line using the Down and Up Arrows, or F5 for continuous reading. An automatic spell check is on by default and if a word is misspelled, you will hear a "klunk" sound.
For more options, the Action menu opens with the F2 keyboard shortcut or the A button on the Dolphin remote and contains Spell Check for the entire document, as well as Save, Look Up Word, Print, and Print Labels. Look Up Word is a handy dictionary; just type in a word and press Enter to get the definition. The Print Labels option makes printing out a mailing label from several standard sizes quick and easy.
Documents are saved in a GuideConnect folder by default, although this can be changed so that documents are saved in a Windows folder. Files are saved in Rich Text Format (RTF), so they are compatible with most other word processing applications.
Reading with Books and News
In addition to the productivity applications, GuideConnect contains some of the most powerful features to get students of any age connected or reconnected to reading newspapers, books, and online media like podcasts and Internet radio. To get started with books and newspapers, select Books and News from the Main menu. Three options are available in the sub-menu: Continue Reading (the most recently opened book or newspaper), Books, and Newspapers & Magazines.
From the Books sub-menu, there are an additional three options: My Books, Find a New Book, and Read From Device. My Books is your library of saved books. Find A New Book connects you to five online libraries that appear as options in the sub-menu: Bookshare, CELA Library, epubBooks, Project Gutenberg, and NLS BARD. You will need to enter your login information for CELA, Bookshare, and NLS BARD. If you don't have a subscription to CELA, NLS, or Bookshare, epubBooks and Project Gutenberg do not require login or proof of disability to subscribe. Books can be immediately downloaded from both and there is a wide selection available.
Downloading a book is slightly different for each library, but all are straightforward using the GuideConnect menus. Even BARD, which has a search interface and download sequence that can be a bit challenging for a new user, was much easier in GuideConnect!
Regardless of whether the book is text-based or audio, the commands are similar for getting around. The Action menu, F2 on the keyboard or the A button on the remote, opens the navigational elements in the book. The Right or Down Arrow on either the keyboard or Dolphin remote moves forward incrementally in an audio book, or by line in a text book, Left or Up Arrow moves back incrementally in an audio book and by line in a text book, and pressing Enter on the keyboard or OK on the remote plays or pauses the book. There are few of the other features that might be found on other book reader apps or devices, like a timer or bookmarks, but the overall ease of use for finding books and getting started reading them seems worth the trade-off.
Like the Books option, Newspapers & Magazines uses the same reader, so navigation is straightforward, although the downloads are all text-based. The sub-menu for Newspapers & Magazines includes My Newspapers and Magazines and Search for a Newspaper or Magazine. The first option contains editions previously downloaded. Each edition, like each book, will open to where you left off. You will need a login for either NFB Newsline or Bookshare, because these are the two sources currently available for periodicals. The newspaper downloaded from NFB Newsline was easy to read. Navigation using the Action menu took some experimentation because the headings for sections and articles changed as reading was advanced using the forward Arrows. For example, the only thing showing in the Action menu when the paper first opened was the edition. Scrolling forward, the heading for Obits and several individual obits were added to the Action menu. It wasn't until scrolling through the obits that the Action menu showed other sections like Business, Arts, etc. Nonetheless, this low vision reader actually found the GuideConnect reading interface much better than that of the NFB Newsline app. Unlike the iOS Newsline app, in GuideConnect the font changed to the default set in GuideConnect, and the text wrapped within the reader as the magnification increased or decreased.
Internet Radio and Podcasts
Internet radio and the wide world of podcasts both offer incredible opportunities for education and entertainment. The Radio and Podcast options are available from the Entertainment option on the Main menu. Entertainment also contains a third menu item, Music and CD Player, which will play music from a CD if the computer has a CD player, or audio files from a flash drive.
The Radio option contains a terrific selection of Internet radio stations categorized by state. Just select a state and pick a radio station from the many listed. Although many of the stations listed the music genre?classical, talk radio, gospel, etc.?in their description, it wasn't possible to select categories of music. It was also disappointing not to find a category for the many Radio Reading Services that broadcast on the Internet. In the Favorites menu option, however, there is an option to Add Custom Station if you know the URL for the broadcast stream of one of these stations.
Podcasts are another incredible source of information because there are podcasts on virtually any subject. The Podcasts menu contains four options: Continue Playing (which will play your most recently listened to podcast from where it was left off), Favorites, Play a New Podcast, and My Downloaded Podcast Episodes. Selecting Play a New Podcast opens a selection of 19 podcasts that offers a cross section of some popular podcasts like This American Life, Main Menu, etc. If you're new to computers, the tutorials provided by Mystic Access may be an immediate favorite because of their comprehensiveness. There are 120 short, well-labeled episodes, so it's easy to run down the list and find a specific help topic.
Anyone interested in podcasts is going to want to add to the existing list of available podcasts. This can be done by selecting Favorites from the Podcast menu, then opening the Action menu to select Add a Custom Podcast. You'll need the URL for the podcast feed, which is not always easy to find. Add a name for the custom podcast and then enter the feed's URL and the podcast will be available in the list of Favorites. An alternative to adding a custom podcast is to play episodes that have been saved to a thumb drive from another source, using the option, Music and CD Player > Play From a CD or Device. This selection will look for any audio files available on an attached device or CD. No matter how the podcast is played?from the Favorites, the list provided, or from an external device? they're easy to play. The player uses the same commands used for the audio books, so it's easy to listen using Enter or OK and forwarding or rewinding with the Arrow keys.
Optical Character Recognition (OCR) with Scanner and Camera
Another application that will prove to be a real gem for a user trying to access printed material from a book, magazine, or assigned reading from an adult ed course, is the Scanner and Camera menu. There are four options available from this menu item: Scanner, Camera, My Scanned Documents, and My Pictures. Both the Scanner and Camera options can capture an image of text from a printed page and convert it into electronic text on the screen, which can be read by GuideConnect. For example, when Camera is selected, the computer camera or one connected by USB is enabled. Place a document in front of the camera and press Enter or OK to take the picture. From the Action menu, select Scan for Text from the submenu, and the text appears shortly on the screen formatted in the familiar book reader. The camera might also be used as a video magnifier for some tasks. Put whatever needs to be magnified in front of the camera and zoom in or out on the image using the F12 or F11 keys, or the zoom toggle on the Dolphin Remote. Both the images and text can be saved for later reference.
Tools and More Training
These are by no means all of the applications available on GuideConnect, just some of the highlights to demonstrate how easy it can be to get started using the computer. Other features include the Address Book and Calendar, and Dictionary and Calculator found in the Tools option on the Main menu.
Also, in Tools is the Training menu, which contains a Getting Started Wizard, Shortcut Keys, and Typing Tutor. The Getting Started Wizard has several quick-start videos. These are brief and can get you up and running with the basics.
The Bottom Line
The terms "easy-to-use," "simple," and "basic," sometimes have negative connotations in the world of tech, as if whatever they are being used to describe may not have all the latest features. For people who are getting used to assistive technology, however, extra features may just be clutter that gets in the way of getting the job done, or may contribute to a steeper learning curve. Dolphin's GuideConnect does a really good job of making the computer a more useful device for the new user, or for someone who doesn't need all the bells and whistles. For anyone wondering if there is an easier way to learn to use a computer or to get back to it with assistive technology, GuideConnect is well worth a look.
A free 30-day trial can be downloaded from the Dolphin website. There are several ways to purchase GuideConnect. Retail is $895, and this includes both the Dolphin remote and a 1-year service agreement (3-years if purchased through the VA). A subscription is available for $49/month, and this includes all support and upgrades. Owners of previous versions of Guide can upgrade for $250. The GuideConnect TV box is available through retailers for $1,295, and comes with a USB keyboard and mouse and a Dolphin remote.
This article is made possible in part by generous funding from the James H. and Alice Teubert Charitable Trust, Huntington, West Virginia.
- GuideConnect by Dolphin, Part 1: Getting Started by Steve Kelley
- A Review of iOS Access for All: iOS 13 Edition, by Shelly Brisbin by Jamie Pauls
More by this author:
- The BlindShell Classic Accessible Feature Cell Phone, a Smart Alternative
- Accessibility Features in Windows Web Browsers for Low Vision Users