Blind and online: Progress, not perfection, for visually impaired tech users

Today's digital environment has a lot to offer blind computer users, but the Web remains a minefield of frustration.

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Apple changes the game

The rest of the digital world isn't as advanced, however. Since the 1980s the blind have used computers with the help of applications called screen readers, which speak aloud the text on the screen and announce screen events, such as the appearance of dialog boxes. (They may also output to Braille devices for the deaf-blind.) But screen readers have had to be acquired separately, and they can be expensive -- in the range of $800 and up.

Then Apple made its VoiceOver screen reader an integral part of iOS, its operating system for mobile devices.

"Apple built in the same VoiceOver screen reader across iOS devices," says Jim Denham, director of assistive technology at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass. "If I touch an icon, it says what I am touching. If I want to invoke it, I double-tap anywhere on the screen. You can just feel around until you find what you want. Every iPhone and iPad and a fair number of apps are accessible, so it has opened a new world for those who are blind."

Blind and online

As for invoking VoiceOver so it can be used, Yarnall says that's a two-step procedure best done by a sighted person, but she has learned how to do it, and can use her (sighted) husband's iPhone when hers is not available. "[Blind] people call me all the time and ask what phone to get, and I can't imagine getting anything but an iPhone," she says. Apps for the blind include color identifiers, OCR-based label readers and currency denomination identifiers, she explains.

VoiceOver is also supported on the Mac under the OS X operating system, using an Apple Multi-Touch trackpad as a stand-in for a touch screen, according to material supplied by Apple.

The iOS's main competitor, the Android operating system, also has a screen reader called TalkBack that is either built into specific phone models or available as a free update, according to Google product literature.

"The Android screen reader is still in its infancy," says Denham. "It's sufficient for using the phone, but not everything is accessible like with the iPhone."

Microsoft's new Narrator

Narrator is Windows' built-in text-to-speech utility. Microsoft spokespeople have blogged about Narrator's improvements (logon required), which work with the touchscreen version of Windows 8.

A user can drag a finger across the screen and Narrator will announce what is under the fingertip. Once found, buttons or icons can be activated by tapping the screen anywhere with a second finger. Microsoft's Windows Store will additionally rate apps for accessibility, the blog announced.

Some blind users remain unimpressed. "The only thing I can do [in Narrator] is turn it off as fast as I can," says Yarnall. "It's horrible."

"Narrator is not robust enough," agrees Darren Burton, project manager for technical evaluation with the American Foundation for the Blind out of Huntington, W.V. "It does not have the features that would help me efficiently read a Web page or fill out a Word document."

Consequently, "The tradition is for very high-priced screen readers in the Windows market, costing more than a laptop," says Denham. The leading PC screen reader, JAWS (Job Access With Speech) from Freedom Scientific in St. Petersburg, Fla., has versions costing $895 and $1,095. They include an OCR facility to read text displayed in Web graphics. Its main competitor is Windows-Eyes from GW Micro of Fort Wayne, Ind., costing $895.

Options are expanding, though. A freeware Windows screen reader called NVDA (Non-Visual Desktop Access) is gaining in popularity, Denham explains. Produced by a non-profit group in Australia, its default synthetic voice has a noticeable Australian accent. "NVDA does about half what JAWS does," says Denham. "The OCR [in JAWS] is nice, but is it worth $1,100?"

If Microsoft's Narrator could be given power equivalent to NVDA, Windows could be used out of the box by blind office workers, without additional expense or difficulty.

"It is not happening the way we want it," says Burton. "I am getting the latest versions of Windows 8 and they improved Narrator but it is nothing compared to what Apple has done."

But Compunique's Porter says that comparing Apple VoiceOver to Windows Narrator is dangerous as they have different goals: VoiceOver is aimed at stand-alone personal devices, while Narrator is intended for integrated office use.

"There are three areas they did improve with Narrator," he says, based on experience with a Windows 8 production version. It works seamlessly with voice recognition, "so you can dictate a command and it will tell you it's doing it and then ask OK, cancel or modify. Apparently, Microsoft's vision is to get away from the keyboard."

The second area of improvement is cross-pollination, Porter says, "so Narrator can synch with other devices and tell you what they are doing. Third, you have more control over the voice, and can set it to tell you everything that is happening on the screen, or nothing, or something in between."

With Apple VoiceOver, Porter explains, "you can talk of quality and flexibility, but not seamless integration. VoiceOver can't read you an Excel spreadsheet, but I can tell Narrator that I am looking for the formula in cell A16, and it will find it and read it."

Originally, Narrator read only the command line, and blind people could not use the computer with it. "With Windows 8 you have a much better chance," Porter says.

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