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Accessing Your Computer

Introduction

Computers are especially useful to people with a visual impairment. Even if you are totally blind you can independently use a computer to do all sorts of useful things such as:
  • Keep in touch with your friends and family around the world via Email or instant messaging
  • Talk to your friends and family around the world for free via Skype
  • Use the Internet to get accessible information about almost anything
  • Use the Internet to do online banking, arrange travel, and buy almost anything with delivery to your home
  • Download music, audio books, and audio magazines and transfer them to a portable player
  • Catch up on Radio and TV programs you have missed
  • Listen to Radio from around the world
  • Use a scanner to convert printed material to accessible text
  • Create and print professional letters and documents
  • Play various accessible computer games
  • And much much more...
So how can you use a computer if you cannot see the screen? If you have reasonable residual vision you can change the colours and fonts to achieve better contrast, including bright characters on a dark background. If you have less residual vision you can use screen magnifier software to enlarge selected parts of the screen and to make the cursor and mouse pointers easy to locate and see. If you are blind you can use screen reader software to read aloud selected parts of the screen using synthesised speech. If you are deaf-blind you can use screen reader software to output selected parts of the screen to a refreshable braille display.

Whatever your residual vision you do not have to use a mouse to operate your computer. You can do everything via the keyboard, and with appropriate software you can even operate your computer by talking to it! If you have a tablet computer, such as the Apple iPad, or a conventional computer with a multi-touch track pad you can use finger gestures such as tapping and swiping to operate the computer.

However, even with the most advanced and expensive assistive software you cannot do absolutely everything that a sighted person can do on a computer. Without sight you cannot edit photographs or videos beyond simple resizing. On Windows computers you cannot install the Windows operating system without sighted help. If you use a screen reader on some Windows computers you may need sighted help if someone mutes the sound on your computer. With an Apple Macintosh computer you can install the operating system without sighted help, and you can use the keyboard to turn the sound back on if it ever gets turned off. With an Apple iPad you can do almost everything without sighted help and you can easily recover speech if it ever gets lost.

If you do not already have a computer you can choose Windows or Apple Macintosh, both available as desktop or laptop / notebook configurations. You could also consider the Apple iPad which is an accessible pocket size tablet computer. Windows computers are usually cheaper, but unless you can manage with colour and font changes only you will need assistive software, such as a screen reader or screen magnifier. You can install basic assistive software for free, and this free software is increasingly capable. However if you want to access nearly all the programs on your Windows computer via speech or braille you will need a full function screen reader. If maximum productivity is important you may benefit from a full function screen reader or screen magnifier. Full function screen readers or screen magnifiers can cost several hundred pounds.

Every Apple Macintosh or iPad computer has accessibility built into its operating system, so comprehensive screen reader and screen magnifier function is available straight away. You can do everything independently on the Macintosh or iPad computer including installing the operating system. If you include the cost of a full function screen reader or screen magnifier the Apple Macintosh computer can be cheaper than a comparable Windows computer. Using appropriate software you can even run a Windows virtual machine on an Apple Macintosh but you will then need to install Windows assistive software on your Windows virtual machine. The Apple iPad computer costs much the same as a Windows Laptop computer but has the substantial advantage that screen reader and screen magnifier software is built into every Apple iPad computer. The recently introduced Apple iPad Mini is even cheaper. Note that You cannot install Windows on an Apple iPad computer.

If you cannot use a computer because you cannot see the keyboard you can purchase high visibility labels to label the keys of your current keyboard or you can purchase an alternative easy to see keyboard . Although harder at first it is well worth learning to touch type, and to that end you can buy a self voicing touch typing tuition program.

As an alternative to the keyboard you can use built-in dictation to input text to the latest Apple Macintosh and iPad computers. However you do need a broadband internet connection to do this as the speech recognition is actually done on a remote server computer.

Windows Screen Readers

Every version of Windows from XP onwards has a basic built-in screen reader called Narrator (look in Accessories/Accessibility). This has limited function and in particular does not work with Outlook Express Email or with the Internet. However it is always available and can get you out of trouble if your primary screen reader should ever fail.

If you only use your computer for Email, Internet access, creating and printing simple documents, and working with simple spreadsheets then you can use one of the free Windows screen readers. These are becoming increasingly powerful and work with an increasing number of applications, so are a good starting point. The free screen readers only work with applications which support Microsoft Active Accessibility (MSAA) or which use a Document Object Model (DOM). These interfaces enable the application to directly communicate with your screen reader. All the basic Windows services and an increasing number of other applications support these interfaces and so work with the free screen readers.

The full function screen readers also intersect all output to your screen and use this to build an off screen model (OSM) of what is on the screen. This enables them to support nearly all Windows applications and also to support a simulated mouse which you can drive across the screen using the keyboard to access any part of the screen. You can also tailor the full function screen readers to be highly usable and productive for specific applications, which may be vital for your employment. These application specific tailoring facilities include a scripting language allowing you or others to write sophisticated "programs" to maximise your productivity when using your applications.

One disadvantage of full function screen readers is that their video intercept support must be permanently installed on the target computer, which must then be re-booted. This may be unacceptable on a computer you do not own, such as one in a public library. The free screen readers do not have this problem, so you can store them on a memory stick and use them on any computer.

Here is a list of the leading free screen readers. You can download them from the referenced Internet pages:

  • Free NVDA Open Source screen reader for personal use only.
    You can download the NVDA (Non Visual Desktop Application) screen reader which is free for personal non-business use only. The NVDA screen reader runs on Windows 2000 onwards . It runs on both 32 bit and 64 bit versions of Windows 7 and Windows 8. In addition to keyboard commands the latest version of NVDA (2012.3) can be controlled by gestures such as tapping and flicking with one or more fingers on a tablet computer. NVDA does not use an off screen model, and so does not work with all applications. It does work for most menus and dialogues, Windows Explorer, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Outlook Express, Notepad, and the Firefox Internet browser. It works with the BBC iPlayer web site to play TV and radio programs you might have missed. to It comes with a built-in voice which you may not like, but you can set it up to use one of the Microsoft voices already on your computer. The latest release of NVDA also supports output to a refreshable braille display. the author recommends NVDA over the other free screen readers.

  • System Access To Go.
    System Access To Go is a web resident screen reader which you can freely use on any Internet connected Windows computer. Each time you start your computer you enter an easily remembered sequence of keystrokes to download and start System Access To Go. This takes about half a minute on a broadband link and ensures that you are always running the latest version. After it has started press Numpad_Insert+F to open preferences and help. System Access To Go runs on Windows XP onwards. It works with most menus and dialogues, Windows Explorer, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Outlook, Outlook Express, Notepad, iTunes, and the Internet Explorer and Fire Fox Internet browsers. It uses a DECTalk voice which you will probably find satisfactory, but if not you can change that to use any of the other voices on your computer. System Access To Go does not support output to refreshable braille displays but it does include basic screen magnification.

  • Free Thunder screen reader for personal use only.
    You can download the Thunder screen reader and the WebbIE browser which are free for personal non-business non-organisational use only. The thunder screen reader runs on Windows 2000 onwards. It does not use an off screen model, and so does not work with all applications. It does work for most menus and dialogues, Windows Explorer, Microsoft Word, Outlook Express, Notepad, and you can use it with the WebbIE browser to surf the Internet.


Here is the list of the leading full function screen readers. At the time of writing WindowEyes costs £595, HAL costs £595, and JAWS standard costs £659 (all excluding VAT). These all have off screen models and so support nearly all Windows applications. They all also offer a virtual mouse which you can drive via the keyboard to access and interact with any part of the screen. They all support output to refreshable braille displays. They are all much more tailorable than the free screen readers and all have scripting facilities enabling you or others to write sophisticated "programs" to maximise your productivity with whatever applications you need to use, which may be important for your employment. They all offer downloads of time limited free trial versions.

  • WindowEyes from GWMicro.
    Window-Eyes is a very stable, powerful and responsive screen reader. It works on all desktop and server versions of Windows from Windows 2000 onwards. It offers excellent technical support and an extensive library of scripts for many applications, many of which are contributed by Window-Eyes users. GWMicro have a working relationship with ay squared, the vendor of the ZoomText screen magnifier, so that the two work well together. You can download a free trial version of Window-Eyes which will run for 40 minutes each time you start Windows.

  • JAWS from Freedom Scientific.
    JAWS is a versatile and best selling screen reader. The standard version works with home versions of XP, Vista, and Windows 7; while the professional version also works with all desktop and server versions of XP, Vista, and Windows 7. Freedom Scientific also market the MAGic screen magnifier, so that JAWS and MAGic work well together. You can download a free trial version of JAWS which runs for 40 minutes every time you start Windows.

  • HAL from Dolphin Computer Access.
    HAL is a powerful screen reader from a British company. It works on all versions of Windows from XP onwards. Dolphin Computer Access also offer SuperNova which includes both HAL and their screen magnifier Lunar. You can download a 30 day free trial version of HAL.


Windows Screen Magnifiers

A screen magnifier can be very helpful if you still have useful residual vision. Here is a list of some of the ways a screen magnifier can help:

  • Enhance screen contrast by changing the colours including changing to bright characters on a dark background

  • Enlarge the screen image from 1X to more than 40X with optional smoothing of the edges of displayed images

  • Choice of magnification modes such as the entire screen magnified or the screen split into an unmagnified portion to show context and a magnified portion to show detail

  • Automatically scroll the magnified portion of the screen to follow the mouse pointer or the data entry cursor

  • Options to only do the above automatic scrolling when the pointer or cursor reaches an edge of the magnified part of the screen

  • Automatic folding of text to fit the width of the magnified portion of the screen with optional automatic scrolling for continuous reading

  • Make the mouse pointer and the data entry cursor easier to find by shape, style, colour and size

  • Optionally lock the mouse so that it moves either horizontally or vertically depending on which is closest to its actual direction

  • Command to find specified text on the screen and scroll the magnified image to display that text

The above list is not exhaustive and not all screen magnifiers support all the functions.

Every Windows version since Windows 98 includes a basic screen magnifier called Magnifier (look in Accessories/Accessibility). This optionally inverts the displayed colours to bright text on a dark background and magnifies the area round the cursor or mouse pointer in a window at the top of the screen. Windows 7 has added more magnification modes including full screen magnification which you can zoom in or out with automatic scrolling to ensure the mouse pointer is visible in the magnified area, and a virtual magnifier glass which magnifies a small portion of the screen around the cursor or mouse pointer.

Here is a list of some commercial screen magnifier programs:
  • ZoomText from ay squared.
    There are three versions of ZoomText. ZoomText Express costs $50 and offers magnification up to 2X, colour inversion, and easy to see mouse pointer and data entry cursor. ZoomText costs$395 and is a full function screen magnifier. ZoomText Reader costs $595 and is the ZoomText full function screen magnifier with additional screen reader function. you can download a free 60 day trial version of each of these products.

  • MAGic from Freedom Scientific.
    MAGic standard costs $345 and is a full function screen magnifier which runs on desktop versions of Windows. MAGic With Speech costs $545 and is MAGic with additional screen reader function. You can download free trial versions of each of these products which run for 40 minutes each time you start Windows.

  • Lunar from Dolphin Computer Access.
    Lunar costs £275 and is a full function screen magnifier from a British company. LunarPlus costs £395 and is Lunar with additional screen reader function. You can download a 30 day free trial version of each of these products.

The Apple Macintosh

Every Apple Macintosh includes a built-in screen reader (VoiceOver) and a built-in screen magnifier (Zoom). These are an integral part of the MAC OS operating system and so work out of the box with no extra software to install. You can even use them to install MAC OS without sighted assistance. You cannot do this on a Windows computer. You can use VoiceOver or Zoom on an Apple Macintosh running MAC OS 10.5 or later (the latest version is 10.8 Mountain Lion) to do almost everything you can do using a full function screen reader or screen magnifier on a Windows computer.

VoiceOver is the screen reader included in every Apple Macintosh running MAC OS 10.5 or later. It displays selected parts of the screen using either synthesised speech with a range of high quality voices or output to a refreshable braille display. Press Command+F5 at any time to start Voice Over. The first time you do this you will hear a tutorial. Look at Voice Over in MAC OS 10 for an overview of VoiceOver.

Zoom is the screen magnifier included in every Apple Macintosh running MAC OS 10.5 or later. Press Command+Option+8 to start Zoom, then press Command+Option+= to enlarge the screen and Command+Option+- to reduce the screen. Zoom provides the following functions:
  • Change the screen colours to black on white or white on black with optional grey scale

  • Enlarges the screen display from 2X to 20X

  • Optionally smooths the edges of enlarged images

  • Automatically scrolls the magnified part of the screen with the data entry cursor or the mouse pointer with options to keep the pointer in the middle of the screen or to delay scrolling until the pointer reaches an edge of the screen

  • Options to use the mouse scroll wheel to control scrolling of the magnified part of the screen

  • Options for a larger and hence more visible mouse pointer
Finally you can use VMWare fusion software to run Windows and hence Windows applications on an Apple Macintosh. Windows runs on a 'virtual' machine on the Apple Macintosh and behaves just like an ordinary Windows computer. When in your virtual machine you bypass most of the MAC OS and so Voice Over and Zoom no longer work. Instead you have to install a Windows screen reader or screen magnifier on your Windows virtual machine. A great advantage of running Windows in a virtual machine is that you can share files and folders between Windows and Macintosh and can even use cut and paste to move data between Windows and Macintosh.

The latest version of MAC OS (10.8 Mountain Lion) includes a built-in dictation facility which you can use whenever you would otherwise have used a keyboard. Your computer sends the sound file containing your speech to an Apple server which in turn converts your speech into text. You thus need an internet connection to use this dictation facility.

You can use the Apple Magic Trackpad with your Apple Macintosh computer as an alternative to a mouse.YOu can use gestures such as tapping and swiping with one, two or three fingers on the track pad to operate your computer. Apple Macintosh Laptop computers have a built-in equivalent of this track pad.

It is very easy to buy and install new applications onto your Apple Macintosh. the Mac App Store contains thousands of applications which you can download and install with a single command. Many of these applications cost only a few pounds or are even free. the Apple software update facility lets you check the currency of both your Mac OS and of any applications you have downloaded from the Mac App Store, and then lets you easily install any necessary updates.

The Apple iPad

the Apple iPad is a pocket sized tablet computer with the same built-in Zoom screen magnifier and VoiceOver screen reader as the Apple Macintosh. It comes in two sizes the iPad which has a 12 inch diagonal screen and the iPad mini which has a 7.9 inch diagonal screen. Both are less than 0.4 inches thick and both have an internal rechargeable battery which provides around 10 hours of continuous internet access via the built-in wifi to a broadband modem or via the mobile phone network. You control it using intuitive gestures with one or more fingers on its large touch sensitive built-in screen. For data entry you can use the on screen keyboard or in the latest models via dictation. Alternatively you can use an external bluetooth (short range wireless) keyboard.

Do not be put off by the on-screen keyboard. It is easy to use though perhaps a little tedious. You slide your finger across the keyboard and VoiceOver speaks each letter as your finger touches it. When you have found the desired letter you lift your finger from the screen and the letter is thereby selected. Alternatively you can use the Fleksy app to touch type using the on screen keyboard. Using Fleksy you tap the screen approximately where you think the desired letters are and fleksy offers you a list of words you might have meant. Surprisingly the desired word is nearly always the first word in the list. If the desired word is not in the list at all then you can enter it in the normal way.

The iPad uses the same operating system (IOS)as the iPhone and iPod Touch and can thus run all their applications together with some extra iPad specific applications. It is very easy to download these applications (apps) from the iTunes App Store often at very low cost or even free. Each time you connect your IOS device to iTunes you will be notified of any updates to Apps you have installed from the iTunes App Store. There are several hundred thousand of these applications which provide all sorts of useful and entertaining functions.

You can set up a new iPad without sighted help and without any other computer and immediately use it to access the Internet via the mobile phone network (assuming your iPad model has a SIM card) or via an existing wifi network. However if you need to set up a wifi broadband network in your home from scratch you will need to borrow a Macintosh or Windows computer for a short time. YOu need this to set up your wifi wireless modem which needs an initial wire connection to a computer which is not possible to an iPad. This modem set up will only take a few minutes and you then no longer need access to a Macintosh or Windows computer.

The iPad mini costs £269 to £529 depending on storage capacity and connectivity while the full size iPad costs £329 to £659 depending on model.

Keyboards

Do not be deterred from using a computer because you cannot see the keyboard. the Royal National Institute of Blind people offer high visibility self adhesive labels which you can stick to the keys of your current keyboard. They also offer a wide range of alternative easy to see USB keyboards which you can plug into any Windows or Macintosh computer. The large print self-adhesive key top labels cost £11 per set and are available as black on white, black on yellow, and white on black for both standard and laptop keyboards. The easy to see keyboards include standard size keyboards with large print high contrast key top letters, a keyboard in which the different types of key such as letters and numbers are distinguished by different coloured key tops, and several keyboards with extra large keys. They cost between £23 and £125. The more expensive models have laser etched key top letters for durability. Note that touch typing might be more difficult if your keyboard has extra large keys as your fingers will have to stretch further. Also if you plan to use a screen reader or screen magnifier remember that these are most easily controlled using the numeric keypad, so avoid keyboards which lack the numeric keypad.

Long term it is well worth learning to touch type and you will then never have to look at the keyboard . Initially touch typing is slower then using two fingers, but you will soon get faster. The Royal National Institute of Blind People will sell you the Azabat beginners touch typing tutor for £30. This program runs on any Windows computer and as it is self voicing does not need a screen reader. This program contains a selection of lessons to teach you the layout of the keyboard and which finger to use for each key. The lessons are followed by exercises that reinforce the location of keys by gradually building up the complexity of words to be typed. Simply put the CD into your computer and the typing tutor will start automatically.

There are several applications in the Apple App store which claim to develop touch typing skills. However we have no experience of any of these and cannot say whether they work adequately with VoiceOver or screen magnification, but if you start Voice Over and then turn on keyboard help (Control+Option+k) you can hear the name of every key as you press it. In the following touch typing summary your thumb is your first finger and your little finger is your fifth finger. Start by putting the second finger of your left hand on the F key (indicated by a tactile tab) and the second finger of your right hand on the J key (also indicated by a tactile tab). The F and J keys are thus called the home keys. You use the second finger of your left hand to type f, the third finger of your left hand to type D, the fourth finger of your left hand to type S, and the fifth finger of your left hand to type A. You use either thumb to press the space bar. Similarly you use the second through fifth fingers of your right hand to type J through semicolon. You use the second finger of your left hand to type G and the second finger of your right hand to type H. Use left hand fingers five through two to type Q through R, and finger two to type T. Use right hand fingers two through five to type U through P and right hand finger two to type Y. Use left hand fingers four through two to type Z through C and left hand finger two to type V. Use right hand fingers two through five to type N through period. and right hand finger two to type B.
Page last modified: November 2012


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