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PC Accessibility Options for the Blind?

Cliff posted more than 8 years ago | from the for-the-sightless dept.

Software 33

Kevlar Gorilla writes "I've had the privilege of working over the summer as a night time security guard and computer tech resident for the CNIB Lake Joseph Centre way up north in Muskoka, Ontario. There are many blind and visually impaired guests that find their way around computers efficiently using programs such as ZoomText, JAWS, and Window Eyes as well as memorizing plenty of keyboard shortcuts. Given a small budget, I've been charged with updating some software and perhaps some hardware too. What newfangled, affordable and recommended text-reading software should we invest in? What new hardware would be a welcome addition? Is there any decent Linux or Mac stuff? What are your experiences with helping the blind or visually impaired with computing and the internet?"

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33 comments

VoiceOver (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#12703713)

Mac OS X Tiger introduces VoiceOver [apple.com] , an accessibility interface that offers you magnification options, keyboard control and spoken English descriptions of what's happening on screen. If you have a visual impairment, VoiceOver enables you to work collaboratively with other Mac users or work on their computers without assistance.

VoiceOver reads aloud the contents of files including web pages, Mail messages and word processing files, provides a comprehensive audible description of your workspace and includes a rich set of keyboard commands that allow you to navigate the Mac OS X interface and interact with application and system controls. If you or someone you are assisting has visual or learning disabilities, you'll appreciate how VoiceOver enhances the rich set of Universal Access features in Mac OS X to provide access for everyone.

OS X and Linux are great alternatives. (2, Informative)

applegoddess (768530) | more than 8 years ago | (#12703833)

http://www.apple.com/macosx/features/universalacce ss/ [apple.com] http://linux-speakup.org/ [linux-speakup.org] Both speakup and voiceover are free. Helps a lot when you can't afford the likes of Jaws.

Re:OS X and Linux are great alternatives. (2, Informative)

bhaneman (529566) | more than 8 years ago | (#12705424)

As well as SpeakUp (http://www.linux-speakup.org/ [linux-speakup.org] ) and EmacsSpeak (http://emacspeak.sourceforge.net/ [sourceforge.net] ) which give voice access to the Linux console and console applications, newer Linux releases include api-based assistive technology support for applications that use gtk+, mozilla, or Java... via an interface called "AT-SPI" (http://developer.gnome.org/doc/API/2.0/at-spi/ind ex.html [gnome.org] ) which very much resembles (but predates) the accessibility APIs used in OSX.
Support for AT-SPI in Qt is slated for a future release of KDE/Qt.

New versions of the Gnome desktop include the built-in gnopernicus screenreader and magnifier, which supports speech, braille, and magnification (http://www.baum.ro/gnopernicus.html [www.baum.ro] ), and the gok suite of dynamic onscreen keyboards too (http://www.gok.ca./ [www.gok.ca] There's also another free (as in freedom) screenreader available from ftp.gnome.org, called "orca" - it's a less full-featured offering, but it has scripting capabilities that make it interesting to hackers, and it's written in python.

There are also some speech and magnification utilities included with KDE, thanks to the "KDE Accessibility Project", though they are currently more limited in scope. When support for the AT-SPI is available for KDE apps, all the assistive technologies written to this api should interoperate nicely. I believe that there may be a talking version of konqueror already. There are also projects that provide talking plugins for Mozilla.

Since the GUI-based Linux [and Solaris :-)] accessibility technologies are still in their early days, end users are still likely to have a somewhat bumpier ride than users of established screenreaders like JAWS for Windows - but at last blind and low-vision users have significant access to the graphical Linux desktop. In particular, the web browsing experience requires a patched Mozilla for best results - Sun has produced such a version and makes periodic tarballs available.

Provided the distros recognize the value in all this, we can expect improved testing and support in upcoming Linux distributions.

There is a mailing list available for early adopters of this technology: http://mail.gnome.org/mailman/listinfo/gnome-acces sibility-list [gnome.org]

Bill Haneman
Gnome Accessibility Project
FSG Accessibility Work Group
Sun Microsystems Inc.

Re:OS X and Linux are great alternatives. (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#12706614)

Mod parent up!

Speak-up [linux-speakup.org] sounds to me like a very good solution. If I suddenly went blind one day, I'd use that. :-)

WindowEyes.... (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#12703864)

I take it the UNIX equivalent is not xeyes then...

Re:WindowEyes.... (1)

falonaj (615782) | more than 8 years ago | (#12712624)

No, of course not. But xeyes is actually useful for partially sighted users who have difficulties locating the mouse cursor. Olaf

Please be gentle with me mods! (1, Funny)

biglig2 (89374) | more than 8 years ago | (#12704035)

I know this is totally off-topic, but isn't "night time security guard and computer tech" just the best job description for a sa you've heard in a long time?

Re:Please be gentle with me mods! (1)

mindaktiviti (630001) | more than 8 years ago | (#12709004)

That's the perfect job! Computer nerd during the day, crime fighter at night. I think this is every nerd's dream.

10.4 includes "VoiceOver" (2, Insightful)

Johnny Mnemonic (176043) | more than 8 years ago | (#12704041)


Apple's Mac OS X 10.4 "Tiger" includes, for free, the screen reader technology they call "VoiceOver" [apple.com] .

It is purported to remove the need to see the screen; I haven't used it myself, much, because I'm not blind. The Mac also includes some voice control, which every one on a Mac tries for a week and then quits using, mostly because using the mouse is faster and who likes to hear themselves talk all the time? I don't know how well the voice control stands up for day to day use.

I think it's worth emphasizing that both products are free and included with 10.4. I understand that screen reader technology is usually pretty expensive; since it's now bundled with OS X I wonder if that makes the Mac more cost-effective for your situation vs. PCs with an additional software package required.

You could get BlueTooth or USB headphones and microphones that would improve the performance of both products. And don't forget that you could use the mini [apple.com] with your current keyboards and monitors. There's also the Mac's "ease of use" and minimized need to teach users about internet security, and it seems like it might be a good solution for you.

And that ain't all... (1)

beetle496 (677137) | more than 8 years ago | (#12710014)

Yep, a new Mini Mac with integrated speech cost less than just the leading Windows screen reading software. The bundled magnification [apple.com] feature is also very decent.

If you believe the chatter here [macvisionaries.com] -- mostly blind folks burnt out on Windows for the same reasons as everyone at /. -- VoiceOver 1.0 is on par with Jaws and WindowEyes, at least with properly coded OS X apps (just Mail, Safari, TextEdit, and Terminal for now).

OSX VoiceOver is nice (1)

David Frankenstein (21337) | more than 8 years ago | (#12704075)

I recently did some testing in this area with a focus on Java app support and the suprise was the the new VoiceOver tech. in Tiger worked better than JAWS or ZoomText on Windows or Gnopericus on Solaris or Linux, and it comes included with Tiger for free.

However, of the packages I tested, JAWS seemed to be the most comprehensive, especially around braille device support, but you pay for it. They even charge for the eval version.

Dissapointed with Voice Over for Tiger (2, Informative)

lonely (32990) | more than 8 years ago | (#12704260)

Hi,

While VoiceOver is a nice addition it really isn't up to the level of JAWS on Windows. For example if you Tab around the "Universal Access" pages of "System Preferences" it doesn't properly announce the names of any elements. All you get is the fact is that you have select "1 of 2" radio buttons. I would be deeply suspicious of any assitive technology where the dialog that turns it on isn't properly accessible.

Also VoiceOver doesn't appear to work well with Java which is a shame. Just bring up a context menu and you will see what I mean. Only a few items are actually read out.

So while I think this has promise I would promote it for day to day use yet.

Re:Dissapointed with Voice Over for Tiger (2, Interesting)

applegoddess (768530) | more than 8 years ago | (#12709689)

if you spend the time learning your way around VoiceOver, like most blind/low vision people do with other screenreaders, you might encounter that VoiceOver isn't as comprehensive as Jaws, but reads enough to be of some use as a screenreader.

Apple continued the work that Freedom Scientific and all the other companies abandoned when they realized the Mac platform was just too tiny to develop anything for, and if VoiceOver is the result of the work, then I am very impressed. If anything, the current VoiceOver a huge leap from what the VoiceOver beta was.

And by the way, I'm navigating my way around the Universal Access prefpane, and what I hear is "Black on White, selected radio button one of two", and then when you select white on black, it says "White on Black, selected radio button two of two". I think that's pretty accessible, if you ask me.

What I love most about VoiceOver is the wide variety of voices, the unbelievable amount of customizability (as compared to Jaws, imho) and that the Xcode/Developer tools come with accessibility tools that make it easy for developers of applications to check if their software works well with the Accessibility features of OS X. And the best thing is, VoiceOver is an Apple product, built into the OS, and is just beautiful.


Every single little touch by the Accessibility team...from the VoiceOver enabled install process (Jaws and Windows doesn't have that kind of feature, obviously because Jaws doesn't come preinstalled with Windows), the VoiceOver enabled login menu and to the little tutorial when you install OS X is a much appreciated little gesture that makes life easier.
Mind you, I'm not blind or anything, but I do do volunteer work helping the blind use computers, and the little things make all the difference.

Old PSX ad (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#12704592)

...It's covered in bark, It's such a Lark,
Stick Stick Stick!...

Several suggestions (2, Informative)

dasunt (249686) | more than 8 years ago | (#12706257)

Assuming that you are willing to use some sort of terminal reader for the blind, I would first suggest linux, since it runs well without a GUI, and the documentation/help also tends to be in text or easily converted to text.

Second: GNU screen. You can set it up to have a list of terminals at the bottom of the screen. So, lets say I'm running bash and w3m under GNU screen, I can have the bottom line of the terminal to say " 12:25 Jun 02 pyng : 0$* w3m 1-$ bash". (pyng is the system name). What is displayed is configurable.

Third: A bunch of CHUI apps. 'w3m' for web browsing. 'slrn' for newsgroups. 'emacs' for editing, or for all of the above. ;) Emacs also has an emacs speak, which is supposed to be nice. There is even CHUI/TTY IM clients and IRC clients.

Fourth: Man doesn't live by bread alone. Telnet and MUDs. Try www.mudconnect.com to find a good list of them. The roguelike 'nethack' (and probably slash'em as well) has instructions on configuring it for the blind. However, roguelikes are incredibly frustrating.

Fifth: Some people claim festival is nice for reading text. I'm not sure. But there is always Project Gutenburg with its text files. Don't forget the many shoutcast servers out there as well. XMMS can be setup to be controlled by keyboard shortcuts, look at xmms-shell.

Disclaimer: I'm not blind. Perhaps the blind prefer voice software. Perhaps there are specialized solutions that work better. But in the end, the only way to know which solution is better is to let the end user try it out.

Kick the GUI, back to Textmode! (1)

Tux2000 (523259) | more than 8 years ago | (#12706963)

From what I've read about blind people using computers, a lot of problems come from fancy GUIs. So one way to get rid of a lot problems may be to drop the GUI and use a textmode interface instead. My favorite Linux distribution [slackware.com] can even be installed by blind people [slackware.com] . From there, using standard Linux textmode applications should be no problem.

I think other Linux distributions may also support blind people, especially those who don't start a GUI just to select and copy a few megabytes from the optical drive to the harddrive. *BSD may also be an option, and it is as free (as in beer) as Linux. The last time I touched FreeBSD, it installed like Slackware, in good old textmode.

Tux2000

Sorry, that is very bad advise! (1)

beetle496 (677137) | more than 8 years ago | (#12710129)

> From what I've read about blind people using computers

Please, talk to some computer users who happen to be blind!

> a lot of problems come from fancy GUIs

That was true back in the days of MS Windows 3.0, maybe. (And, sadly, seems to be obstacle for *nix.) MS Windows is a boon to screen reader users for same basic reasons as the majority:
(1) Consistent interface from app to app, so learning a word processor teaches you 75% of what you need to know for a spread sheet.
(2) The ability to explore and discover an apps capabilities by navigating through the menus.

Windows is wonderfully useable without using a mouse. This makes it relatively easy for the screen reading software to know where the user's focus is.

Ethics (2, Funny)

101percent (589072) | more than 8 years ago | (#12707060)

The GNU zealots proclaim that propreitary software is unethical. However I wonder if they would say propreitary software that clearly does good things like help blind people use computers is unethical. I wonder about other medical equiptment that is propreitary. How unethical it must be to save lives and help people.

Re:Ethics (1)

tonyquan (758115) | more than 8 years ago | (#12707488)

Ah, but closed source software can hide faults which potentially are serious enough to outweigh the good aspects. Taking your example, what if the proprietary/closed source software that ran a medical device had a flaw that could kill a patient?

what do you think? (1)

RMH101 (636144) | more than 8 years ago | (#12712539)

they'd get sued, go bust and salt would be sown on the smoking ground that used to house their offices.
you would not believe the levels of testing for medical equipment and software. it's literally incredible. it's typically not done in open source as the effort invested in coding it is recouped through selling the software. the GPL approach to making money with it (free software, sell the support) just doesn't really fly with medical stuff as you NEED the vendors support anyway: you'd be in a very sticky situation with the FDA and other regulatory bodies if you are doing stuff without this...

Re:Ethics (2, Informative)

nmos (25822) | more than 8 years ago | (#12714523)

The GNU zealots proclaim that propreitary software is unethical. However I wonder if they would say propreitary software that clearly does good things like help blind people use computers is unethical.

I support some blind users, many using various Freedom Scientific products. These products definately provide a level of freedom and productivity that make a huge difference in their quality of life. That said, if you've ever felt even a little trapped or restricted by MS, then depending on these products is 100X worse. Jaws for example costs nearly $1000 which means that most of these people have to depend on state assistance to even begin to afford this stuff. Many of these products have very restrictive licenses and PITA product locking schemes that personally I find degrading. Lost your activation floppy? Better call and beg FS for a replacement and you'd better be nice to them because if they won't send you a replacement you're back in the jail of not being able to work or communicate with the outside world. Want to upgrade from your old Win98/ME box to a WinXP one? Your old Jaws isn't licensed for that so you have to beg the state to drop another $1000 for a new Jaws license. Want to use Open Office or Mozilla instead of MSware? Too bad, they're not supported and FS doesn't care. Have a sighted friend who'd like to help you from time to time? Too bad, the demo license doesn't allow for that usage so your friend has to come up with another $1000 just to get familiar enough with it to help you. It's not unethical to help people and make a living doing it but using someones disability to exert control and drain public coffers doesn't earn a lot of good will from the likes of me.

Sorry for the rant but this has been bugging me for a while and in addition I'm still smarting a bit from a recent encounter with an arrogant FS support person.

GUI for visually impaired (2, Interesting)

Tux2000 (523259) | more than 8 years ago | (#12707212)

A simple setup I tried with a co-worker of my wife, who can see only about 30% of what is considered normal:

A standard PC with a TV output connected to the largest available TV set (about 82cm 16:9). Windows 2000 was set to a very low resolution (720x480), extra large fonts, high contrast, and a large mouse cursor. Together with the build-in Magnifier (Start -> Accessories -> Accessibility -> Magnifier), the system was usable.

A larger TV set (100 cm 4:3) or a beamer capable of projecting a 200 cm image would have been better, but he said he could work with that setup. Some things that would have disturbed me, like the slightly unsharp picture and the low overall quality of the display did not disturb him at all, simply because he can not see those details. He uses the big part of the screen to find the program, then he used the upper part with the magnifer to read the text on screen. He that that there are better magnifier programs available, but they cost a lot of money.

As a nice side-effect, you can use the TV speakers instead of cheap and noisy PC speakers.

Tux2000

Re:GUI for visually impaired (2, Informative)

falonaj (615782) | more than 8 years ago | (#12712603)

Under Linux, there are also a number of tools for visually impaired users, some completed, and some in development:

  • KDE 3.4 includes several large-size, high-contrast themes. Apart from several pre-build colour schemes, the colours can also be adapted to to individual needs. KDE also ships a complete scalable monochrome icon set, that can be automatically coloured in the chosen foreground and background colour.
  • KDE offers a simple magnifier (KMagnifier) which does not yet handle all the features needed for visually imparied users, but my brother is currently writing a new version using the latest X.org features (to be included with KDE 4).
  • Blind users can use the screen readers Gnopernicus and Orca. Gnopernicus also offers some magnifaction modes currently not yet implemented in KMagnifier (and vice versa). Support for these assistive technologies will be added to KDE 4.
  • A great number of console applications can be accessed by a console screen reader like SuSE Blinux, BRASS, or Emacspeak.

Until KDE 4 is released, no ideal Linux solution for partially sighted users exists. For some partially sighted users, the best choice is KDE because of the more flexible colour and theme settings. Other partially sighted users prefer using a console screen reader, or the screen reader and magnifier Gnopernicus, although it does not offer all the magnification modes known from Windows screen magnifiers.

The good news is that in the future, users will be able to use most Linux applications independent of the toolkit, because GNOME and KDE are closely cooperating on defining and standardising a common system for these assistive technologies.

Olaf Schmidt, KDE Accessibility Project

CAPTCHAs? (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 8 years ago | (#12710806)

Are there any solutions for helping blind users interact with sites that require frequent visual CAPTCHAs? Are boycotts by the blind community effective? Or should blind users who must interact with uncooperative businesses hire an attorney and threaten lawsuits under section 508 or something? (Please excuse me if I've got my legal references mixed up.)

Re:CAPTCHAs? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#12719392)

Savvy sites offer audio tests too.

Accessibility on Linux (2, Interesting)

falonaj (615782) | more than 8 years ago | (#12712513)

Accessibility has been the main focus for recent release of KDE.

A few links to relevant pages:

The general tendency is close cooperation between the various projects. No songle project currently offers a complete accessibile solution on Linux, but by combining the different solutions, a lot is possble, and closer cooperation will make even mor ethings possible in the future.

A lot of this cooperation was kicked of at the Unix Accessibility Forum [kde.org] last sumnmer, which the KDE project organised as part of the KDE World Summit.

We are currently busy organising a follow-up event [linaccess.org] during LinuxTag 2005.

Olaf Schmidt, co-maintainer of the KDE Accessibility Project

JAWS (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 8 years ago | (#12716192)

My girlfriend's father is a web developer and has recently gone blind, and he uses JAWS for Windows and seems to do OK.

Linear computing (1)

Hal XP (807364) | more than 8 years ago | (#12776933)

I think most software intended for blind users suffers from the fundamental flaw of being designed as a mere adjunct to graphical software already being used by sighted people. A sighted person has the ability to quickly scan a desktop or menu for an obscure program or icon. Without a "command" mode available, a blind person must have all those menus and icons read back aloud before she can select the desired action. Thus a command-line interface is actually friendlier to a blind user than an interface where the only way to fire up a text editor is via Start -> Programs -> Editors -> Vi. A truly user-friendly program for the blind should should be linear rather than spatial.

With my poor eyesight, I've been, in a manner of speaking, on the look-out for software that would enable me to type without a computer monitor, an nVidia-free computing experience.

To my surprise, I found it much easier to surf the Internet using a no-frills terminal reader like yasr [sourceforge.net] with an HTML-aware line editor called edbrowse [eklhad.net] than using any "screen scraper" bolted atop a fancy desktop environment like Gnome or OSX. The author of edbrowse, a blind user and programmer, describes edbrowse as a "re-implementation" of the classic Unix line editor ed but "with browse capabilities built in."

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