How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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You may also want to look at John Wilson's "From The Keyboard" tutorials and guides. They are now offered freely on the Internet and contain a great deal of useful information. You can find them at:
If you ever want to know how to do something or you get in to technical trouble, one excellent place to turn to is the Adaptive Technology helpdesk. This telephone hotline is run by the Chicago Lighthouse for the Blind. Anybody can call them for help using any kind of access technology as long as it has something to do with blindness or visual impairment. It doesn't matter whether it's for personal interest or work-related. Also, it doesn't matter where you are. Ray Campbell is the expert in access technology who runs this hotline. You can email him at:

or call him at:

888-825-0080 (voice/Relay)

Windows presents its users with what is known as a graphical user interface. The screen is divided up into different areas. The first thing you come to when Windows loads is what is known as the desktop. Just like a person's actual desktop, you'll find and place things on that surface which you think you'll want to use on a regular basis. My actual desk has a telephone, headset, speakers, the computer keyboard and monitor, Internet equipment, an external hard drive, a drink-holder, and a soapstone bear. For the curious, that last item makes a fabulous paperweight. Underneath the desk is a waste basket and a shelf containing other items used less frequently. While we're at it, I also have a shelving unit where yet more items may be kept readily available if needed. Essentially, Windows lets you set up your digital environment in precisely this way. The analogy is even more the case for sighted people than it is for users of access technology. We do everything by keystrokes so we don't have that same geographical sense of just zipping around here and there with the mouse and such.
Items are all represented by symbols called icons on the Windows desktop. People who can see use a mouse to focus on and activate these icons by "clicking" on them. Just as I might reach over and pick up the telephone to my right, they can move to and click on the icon which opens their email software. Once opened, the email software is in focus. It fills most of the screen and the desktop fades into the background. Sighted users may have these icons arranged any way they desire. This is less important for blind users as the tradeoff is between the convenience of having items on the desktop and the length of time it takes that desktop to load completely when you boot your computer. The more icons you have on your desktop, the longer it's going to take the computer to get everything loaded and looking sharp. If you ever need to get to your desktop quickly, there's a handy shortcut. If you press and hold down the windows key and then hit the letter d, you'll be taken instantly to the desktop. Another key combination you should be aware of is holding down the shift key and then pressing the tenth function key. This is the equivalent of an application key which many keyboards possess. If you use that while on the desktop but when no icons are in focus, you will be able to add new shortcuts and do other things beyond the scope of this section. To get to an icon on the desktop, type its first letter. This will cycle you through any icons which start with the same letter.
Lets look at your digital shelving where items less frequently used are placed. If you press the special key called the "windows" key found on most modern keyboards, you'll find yourself at what is known as the start menu. You can also get there with the control-escape keyboard combination. Think of it like the trunk of a tree. There are some items right on the tree trunk. Hitting the enter key on them will access the item directly. For example, pressing the enter key on "windows update" will take you directly to where you can check for and install updates for your computer. Each time you come to an item whose name includes the word "submenu" or something similar, these menus branch out of the start menu. Within those submenu's, you might find items even farther out like twigs on branches. Using the up and down arrows will move you through options in a menu or submenu. The left and right arrows should allow you to go into or out of the submenu's which branch off the start menu. Continuing to go either up or down within a menu or submenu will cycle through the items it contains starting over at the top or bottom depending on your direction of travel. Once you're in a submenu, you can palso press the first letter of the name of the option you want to go to. If no other option exists having a name with the same first letter, that option will be automatically activated without the need to hit the "enter" key to choose it. Otherwise, you'll cycle between any options with the same first letter and must hit "enter" to select the one you want. For example, one of the first menus you'll come to in the start menu is an item called "settings". This is a submenu so using the right arrow key should move you into that. This submenu contains items which help you configure your computer and other hardware connected to it. Feel free to look around. It's pretty hard to do damage by mistake. Just don't change any options until you're comfortable that you understand their results. From anywhere within the "settings" submenu, hitting the letter C will get you directly into an area called "control panel" which we'll be examining later.
You should also take a look through the "programs" menu. This is where you can get at any software you have installed and where any associated things like documentation are grouped together. Each company or program has an entry in the "programs" menu. That might activate the program itself or lead to a submenu of related items. I'm using a free program called Winamp at the moment to listen to music while working on this guide. If I go into the “programs” menu, I'll eventually come to a “winamp” submenu. In it, I'll find three items. One option is to actually run Winamp. Another is “what's new” which gives me an overview of any changes made in the current and previous versions of Winamp. The last option lets me uninstall the software if I so choose. That ought to help you understand how menus and submenu's work. Take some time to look through the menus and submenu's on your system. Things might work a bit differently depending on which version of Windows you have. The basics will be the same though. Your access technology might use slightly different terms to describe things to you.
Lets try selecting one of the items in the settings menu. Go to the start menu using the windows key or the control-escape combination. Next, go up or down until you come to the "settings" menu. Move right into that menu. If you're using Jaws, hitting the right arrow will get you into the settings submenu. Now, go up or down through the options until you come to "Task bar and start menu". Press the enter key on that and you'll arrive at the Task bar and start menu properties dialogue box. We've arrived at a simple but excellent example of what dialogue boxes in Windows are like.


2.1-- Rummaging in Dialogue Boxes

Dialogue boxes allow you to hold conversations with the software you find them in. They will pop up to inform you of information such as when an ongoing operation is taking place or when an error has happened. Many dialogue boxes allow you to set options which tell the software how to behave. The Task bar and start menu properties dialogue box lets you tell Windows how you want these two key elements to work. There are a number of controls commonly found in forms and dialogue boxes. These include checkboxes, tabs, radio buttons, combo boxes, and edit fields. The dialogue box I've chosen for us to examine contains two separate tabs. These tabs separate groups of related controls. In this case, one tab is called the "Task bar" tab and the other is called the "start menu" tab. You'll start out in the Task bar group of controls. To switch to the next group of controls, push the control-tab key combination. This will put you in the "start menu" tab. Hitting control-tab again will put you back to the Task bar tab. Within a tab, press the tab and shifted tab keys to cycle through the available items. While you're in the "start menu" tab, hit the tab key and you'll come to a pair of radio buttons. Radio buttons are called that because they behave like the buttons on an old-fashioned radio. Only one button can be active at a time. If one is chosen, the others are inactive. These let you decide whether you want the ordinary Windows start menu or whether you want a more classic one which looks and behaves like those found in earlier versions of Windows.
I personally find that the classic view makes using keyboard navigation easier. It used to be more necessary to change to classic styles with earlier versions of Jaws for Windows which is the screen-reading software I prefer. However, as of version 7.10, it is no longer necessary. I would assume that choosing the classic style of start menu may help simplify things for blind people using different access technology. There is also a "customize" button in the same control group. This is not a radio button. You have to press the space bar or the enter key in order to activate the button. It will let you add, remove and change things about your start menu. Until you're a bit more experienced, I recommend you don't make any changes other than to choose the classic style of start menu. To make this change permanent, continue to tab through the items in the control group. You'll encounter buttons labelled "ok", "cancel", and "apply". These three buttons will be present in most dialogue boxes. If you want to make changes permanent, you should always look for and activate the "apply" button. You should do this before you hit the "ok" button which will close the dialogue box. If you decide to cancel the changes you've indicated in the dialogue box, use the cancel button. It will cancel any changes made since you entered the dialogue box and will exit the dialogue box.
Checkboxes can be checked or unchecked. Pressing the spacebar while on a checkbox will either add a checkmark or remove one already present. You'll find these very often in dialogue boxes as they are a quick way of telling the software whether you want or don't want a given option. Combo boxes allow you to choose from a list of options either by moving to the desired option as with a list of options or by typing one or more letters of the option into the box. You'll often find combo boxes which let you set numeric levels such as when setting your computer's time and date. List boxes contain lists of options and can be moved through using the arrow keys. Holding down the control key and tapping the space bar allows the selection of one or more options to be made at once. For instance, you could select a number of files in a list box that you want copied. Don't let go of the control key until you're done selecting items. Edit fields allow you to type in whatever is required. This might be a registration code or a short description of a file. You will also encounter these elements on many web sites.
Some dialogue boxes will contain fields which can only be read and may not be modified at all. For instance, you might get a dialogue box with a read-only field which informs you that you have chosen a number out of the acceptable range or that you've made an error while selecting options and need to fix it.
These elements all make for a fairly intuitive way of communicating with the software on your computer. There's never any need to rush while in a dialogue box. Take your time and explore your options. Until you hit the "apply" button and then hit "ok", no changes you make are permanent. You'll be dealing with many of these dialogue boxes so take the time to get comfortable with the basic control elements I've gone over here.

2.2-- Exercising Authority with Pull down Menus

Within most Windows applications, you will be making extensive use of Pull down menus. These give you access to options within the software. Each Pull down menu has options related to its title. There are typically file, edit, view, and tools menus. Some programs such as word processors may have more Pull down menus. When you access a Pull down menu, using the up or down arrow will cycle up and down the options. Imagine you have a set of blinds covering your windows but that some fool as gone and sliced the blinds into vertical sections. A Pull down menu is like one of those vertical sections. It can be pulled down and will overlay part of the window or screen. Only one such menu can be active at a time. You can't simultaneously select something in the file and edit menus for instance. The file menu will disappear when you move over into the next menu. The slat of those sliced up blinds which was the file menu will retract into its fully rolled up state and you'd have to move back into the file menu to pull it down again. This would let the edit menu retract. Here's how to use these menus:
First of all, you have to tell the application that you want to go to the Pull down menus. This can be done by hitting the alt key and letting it go. Assuming we're dealing with a standard application, you'll find yourself in the leftmost Pull down menu. This is usually called the "file" menu. To go into that menu, hit the down arrow key. Work your way down through the options. Once you're familiar with their order, you might find going up instead allows you to reach an option more quickly. Let's say the file menu isn't what you're after. Hit the right arrow and you'll go to the next menu. This may be the edit or view menu. Once you've found the option you want, the return or enter key will select it. It's pretty much that easy. Some options will lead you into submenu's with more options. In this case, hitting enter or the right arrow will get you into a submenu. Hitting the left arrow will close the submenu and you'll be back on the Pull down menu the submenu branched off from. The escape key will get you out of the Pull down menus and back to your application.
In many programs, you may find some entries in Pull down menus which open up dialogue boxes where further options can be chosen. For instance, you'll often find an "options" entry in the "tools" menu of word processors or web browsers. It can pay large dividends in terms of less frustration if you take some time to explore all the Pull down menus of an application before you start to use it seriously. I've helped many people, both sighted and blind, by informing them of options which they could themselves have found had they taken the time to truly look around the applications they strove to use.

2.3-- The Task bar and System Tray

In simple terms, multi-tasking is doing more than one thing at once. Unless it's extremely old, your computer will have the capacity to let you do this extensively. Keeping track of what software you have running is made far easier with the aid of the Task bar and system tray. As I work on this section of the guide, I've instructed my computer to do a lot of other things. A nifty piece of free software called Winamp is continuously selecting and playing random pieces from my growing collection of instrumental music. I also have my email client of choice, Outlook Express, open and periodically checking for any new email messages. Additionally, I'm currently downloading a book from the digital library of the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. As always, my AVG Internet Security software is running in the background keeping watch for any intrusions or other threats. Most of the time, my attention is primarily focused on Jarte which is my current word processor of choice. Should I need it, I have a wonderful dictionary/thesaurus program running in the background awaiting my plea for enlightenment. For the curious, this software is called The Ultimate Talking Dictionary and can be purchased at:
In a very real sense, it's like having a personal staff at your command. The Task bar is where programs which need to be where your primary attention is directed reside. They're your front-line workers who you'll be interacting with the most. These programs are where you do your main activity. For example, Jarte is located on my Task bar if I've switched temporarily to my Internet browser in order to start downloading the next of the many mp3 files which comprise the book I'm going to read soon. After I've started the file downloading, I can use the Task bar to quickly move back to Jarte and continue writing this guide. Winamp is also on my Task bar. It can also reside in the system tray but I've always preferred it to be in my Task bar as I like to have it be the centre of focus when I decide to do anything more than skip a piece of music or pause it to answer a phone call. When you're on the Task bar, hitting the left and right arrow keys moves you between applications. Hitting the enter key will move you into the application you're on so that it has focus and will be active. To get to the Task bar quickly, hit the windows key and then hit the tab key to move from the start button onto the Task bar. Think of it like a speedy rail service between work sites you may need to access frequently.
Somewhat similar to the Task bar is the system tray. It is where you can obtain access to applications running in the background. Think of these like your watch or your staff behind the scenes. They're things which are constantly standing by and performing an action which you may need at any time. These programs run quietly in the background unless you need to interact with them due to circumstances. My system tray has four items in it at the moment. The first item is an icon for my AVG Internet security software. It's constantly on the lookout for possible threats as I run applications and make use of the web. The next item is the volume control. Should I need to make adjustments there, I have a fairly rapid means of accessing the various volume controls and options. The Ultimate Talking Dictionary, my dictionary and thesaurus program, is also represented in the system tray ready for that painful instant's notice when I just can't think of the right word. The last item is for assisting in the safe removal of any external hardware I might have attached. Currently, I have an external hard drive connected to my computer for storage of files I don't need to have right on the computer's hard drive. Above these items is an area called the notification area. This is where you'll sometimes find messages telling you that updates are ready to be installed or that you have new email.
To get to the system tray, you can use the windows key-b combination. However, your screen reader might have special facilities to improve the ease of access to this area. For Jaws users, holding down the insert key and pressing the f11 key will take you to this. You will be able to right-click or left-click items without the need to use a mouse. Right-clicking on items will typically bring up a context menu in which you'll find options pertaining to the application of interest. For instance, right-clicking on the volume icon will bring up a context menu which can take you to your computer's audio properties among other things. If you're using a screen reader without any special facilities for dealing with the system tray, use the applications key to access those context menus. Hitting the enter key or left-clicking with the mouse will usually fully open an application residing in the system tray. For instance, when I do this to the AVG Internet security control panel icon in the system tray, the full control panel opens into a normal application which will have focus. I can then fully access all of its features rather than the more limited options available to me from the context menu from the system tray.

2.4-- Built-in Help

For Windows users, the f1 key is normally the key used to enter a program's online help. It is one of the most important things for people wanting to teach themselves to know about. Over the years, I've made extensive use of online help and have generally found it to be very concise and more than adequate to the occasion of need. The online help gives you enough of a brief explanation of a topic for you to make progress or understand a concept. It isn't a replacement for a full user manual. It's for folks who just want to quickly learn how to do something or about a particular aspect of the software. For instance, you might want to learn how to organize your messages in Outlook Express. My first step is hitting the f1 key while in Outlook Express. This opens the software's built-in help. I'm left on a tree view whose first topic is an introduction to the software. I don't need that so I start downward using the down arrow key. I come to a branch called "reading messages". I hit the right arrow to open that branch and then head down to the various twigs which are topics. In short order, I come to "organizing messages". Hitting the enter key selects that topic. Since I use Jaws for Windows, I next must hit the f6 key to get from the tree view to the topic I've chosen. There, I find a page which gives me a brief introduction followed by direct links which take me to any topics of interest. I need only hit the enter key on the link about deleting messages to learn all about doing that. Another link teaches me about using message rules to move messages into separate folders. Yet another link gives an overview of how to block unwanted messages. When I'm done with that topic, hitting the f6 key again will get you back into the tree view. You can usually get out of help by hitting the alt key, holding it down and hitting the f4 key. This is known as a key combination and there are many of these you can use to get things done more quickly. Other access technology may require you to use slightly different methods for accessing help. Make certain that you learn how to access this either during your initial training if you have that or from whoever you've obtained your access technology from. It's one of those truly vital things you should know.
You should also find out whether your access technology of choice comes with more built-in help as this may often be more relevant to your situation as a blind computer user. Jaws for Windows, my screen reader of choice, provides an abundance of this sort of what is called "context sensitive help". If I need to know how to use something like a combo box or other Windows element, I can hold down the insert key and hit the f1 key. I will then get a brief helpful explanation if one is available for my current circumstances. This has usually been all I've needed in order to proceed with what I was doing.
Particularly in situations where personal training is either too expensive or unavailable, These built-in help resources will be crucial to you getting the most out of your computer. I hope this brief explanation will encourage you to make use of them. Until you're able to get onto the Internet, this help in addition to whatever technical support staff you're entitled to call may be all you have to turn to during quandaries. Once you're on the Internet and have an Email address, your options for getting help will open up tremendously. The next major section deals as extensively as is possible with that process. Before we get to that point, three more important stops await our attention in our speedy tour of Windows basics.

2.5-- Navigating Files and Folders

Now, we turn our attention to files and folders. Windows operating systems store files in their own folders to keep everything organized. An icon on your desktop called"My computer" will let you examine and manipulate the contents of your hard drives. You can also reach this area by using the windows e key combination. That is hitting the windows key and holding it down while pressing the letter e. This will bring you to a very important area known as "my computer" or "windows explorer". This is where you can manage your files and any drives including hard drives and removable storage such as flash drives. What you'll find is a tree view beside a list view. You will always start at the "my computer" branch of the tree view. From that branch, you can go both up and down. Above "my computer", you'll find a branch called "my documents" and another above that one called "desktop". These branches are called folders. When you move to a branch, the contents of the list view change to reflect the contents of the branch you now occupy. Some items in the list view might themselves be folders. Pressing the enter key on such a folder will make that folder be where you are on the tree view. The list view will fill with the folder's contents.
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How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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