Blind users still struggle with 'maddening' computing obstacles

See video of Narrator screen reader in action

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"There are some amazingly powerful features in Vista for those with disabilities, like a Start function that begins with a search field," Sinclair added. "You can type in the name of an application, or a command, or search for a keyword in a document or an e-mail. You can launch any application with a few keystrokes, easier than using menus." He also noted that the latest version of Microsoft Office still supports the old shortcuts.

Beyond Windows

Speaking of user applications, compatibility with a screen reader can be a crap shoot, and some commercial software packages include custom controls that screen readers can't recognize, said Dan Weirich, co-founder of GW Micro Inc., a screen-reader vendor in Fort Wayne, Ind.

"In the days of DOS, there was a fixed number of characters across the screen, so identifying the information in the different parts of the screen was relatively simple," he said. "Finding the boundaries of the information is harder now, since there is no native indicator as to what is inside each window when you scrape the screen." He said his software comes with scores of preconfigured settings for various software packages, but no tweaking is required to run with the most commonly used applications.

Finding ways for a screen reader to process new display technologies -- especially on the Web -- is a constant struggle, Weirich added. "Different standards come along that are difficult to handle, and then there is a breakthrough and we have a fix, and it works. That is ongoing." He also said that Microsoft worked with screen-reader vendors so that Vista versions were available the day Vista hit the shelves -- whereas there was a delay of six to nine months after the release of Windows XP.

Beyond packaged software lies the world of in-house applications, where things can really go haywire for the blind user.

"We often find that screen readers don't work with in-house applications -- it's too easy to break the interface," said Curtis Chong, president of the computer science division of the National Federation of the Blind and an official at the Iowa Department for the Blind in Des Moines. "It can be as simple as an application that puts up a lot of windows on the screen which are not windows from the viewpoint of the operating system. The screen reader will see one huge blob of information and read across the window boundaries," said Chong, who is blind.

He said this can cause problems for job applicants, for example. "You can have the best paper credentials in the world, and pass the HR screening test, and be the person they want -- and then the question comes up of, 'What e-mail program can you use? What word processor can you use?' Your answers can cause the job to evaporate," Chong said.

Porter was actually nostalgic for the 1990s. "It was all DOS and mainframe interfaces. If you knew how to handle DOS and word processing, you could probably get a job. We could train people to do a specific job, and it worked, and the employer got a loyal employee determined to keep that job and fight to keep up with changing technology. These days, they want a jack of many trades -- computer skills, plus phone skills, Internet surfing, marketing, people skills and the ability to travel."

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