How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People




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www.pcsgames.net
Other than the games offered by this company, the owner, Phil Vlasak, maintains a list of all known accessible games. Click on the link which says "fantastic windows games and where to find them". From there, you can find and go to places which offer the kind of games you're interested in. You'll also find other specific lists on Phil's page such as games for Apple Mac computers.
VIP Conduit

www.vipconduit.com
This site is another of the more active and well-run Internet chat communities especially designed and suited for blind people. It is supported and run by paying members but a great deal of what goes on there is open to all comers. This includes classes which help beginning computer users understand the digital world they've just entered. The chat rooms are often moderated further increasing community safety.
Tom Lorimer's Whitestick Web site:

www.whitestick.co.uk
This gentleman in the UK has put together a fantastic resource for all blind Internet travellers. You'll find it to be a very interesting place to explore in its own right as well as a gateway to many other helpful destinations known for their accessibility or usefulness to blind people.
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4-- Protecting Your Computer
There was no going back now. I had entered the command to completely format my hard drive and thrown out nearly a hundred disks which I could simply no longer trust. I was forced to live with a virus called Golgi2 on my computer for the last half of the school year and had nobody but its author as well as myself to blame. One of the disks full of games I was given contained this beastly little extra in addition to its intended contents. My friend was completely unaware that his computer was infected. Neither of us were using any anti virus protection and would now pay a very stiff price for our impudence. I had read that the Golgi2 virus would wait for certain conditions to be right and then format my hard drive. I had nightmares about this happening in the middle of class but didn't have what I would need to rebuild my system from the ground up. After the year's end when at least there were no more assignments to get done for the Summer, a good friend came over once the disks I needed arrived. He would be able to help install a fresh copy of Dos and read the screen for me until we got the computer talking again. The ticking sound the hard drive made as all of my doomed data was destroyed along with the virus holding me hostage was the scariest sound I had ever heard. Did my friend really know enough to bring me out of this abyss? I had lost so much writing, numerous games which I have never been able to find since, and some registration codes to software I had purchased and would now have to re-acquire. Not a very fun start to my Summer vacation. That was back in 1991. Here's the truly scary part of all this. Things were a whole lot safer in those days.
When computers are truly personal, they become more than just the sum of their parts. They're almost like another kind of home. They're set for your preferences. The information and software on their hard drives is of particular interest to you. While the computer itself is likely physically safe, the information on it is what actually makes the machine as valuable to you as it is. Any personal data should be both guarded and backed up in case of catastrophic failure such as what I experienced all those years ago. These days, you can be one of the most careful people on the Internet and still get clobbered through no fault of your own.
People who write viruses and other malicious software are doing it out of a personal desire to cause chaos. It's not like a nine-to-five job. At best, it's a sadistic thrill. At worst, it's a criminal enterprise or an individual act of cybernetic terrorism. Just like an athlete works at being the best in a given sport, these people put immense effort and time into their chosen pursuit of making their own hellish mark. Unscrupulous people including criminal organizations and businesses desperate for advertising have dramatically increased the dangers waiting online for the unprepared. While no amount of security can completely shield you from them, you can take easy steps that will make you a very hard target to attack.
Like burglars in the real world, online intruders will look for the most value for the least risk and effort in most cases. The more ego-driven hackers will more likely go after corporations or try to thwart high-profile online security companies. Undefended personal computers are easy prey and will be the first to suffer attacks by the robotic army of viruses and spyware when these creations are released. A recent article I read stated that half the personal computers hooked up to broadband Internet connections were undefended. That's a lot of easy money for spyware makers to rake in by getting their advertisement-spewing software onto unsuspecting people's hard drives. Similarly, viruses can inflict more damage and embed themselves more easily on undefended systems. Many malicious programs spread by Email which seems to be from a trusted source but was never knowingly sent by the apparently guilty party.
Viruses, spam, spyware, information and identity theft are the dark side of the Internet. Nobody should be online without being made aware of the very real dangers out there. As long as you're aware of the dangers, you can protect yourself quite well against them. Don't let anybody convince you that it's not worth the risk going online. That's like saying that you should never talk to strangers. Follow that advice far past childhood and you'll live quite a lonely and pitiful existence. Life entails some risk. Deal with it properly by taking reasonable precautions and you'll do fine.
One of the best things you can do to protect your personal computer is quite simply to take personal charge of it. A lot of times, we let sighted people install things which are beneficial to them but may have disastrous unintended consequences for us. In one instance, a woman I was trying to help allowed her brothers to pretty much have full control over her computer installing whatever they wanted and changing any settings to suit them. This made it all but impossible for the woman who this computer was purchased for to do anything meaningful with it. She was in a situation where she didn't have the power to stop them. Until that situation changed, there was absolutely no point in my trying to help her at all.
The absolute worst case I've ever experienced where a sighted person inadvertently caused major grief for a blind computer owner happened a couple of years ago. I was privileged to have the opportunity to help a very smart young lad learn about what his computer could do for him. We were looking forward to Summer when there would be lots of time to show him the basics of the Internet and the rewards out there. Sadly, while a sighted friend visited, they decided to look for free games to try. There are plenty of excellent and safe places to acquire these. However, they didn't make use of them. They also, like many of us, didn't look at the license displayed during the installation of the game they selected. This game was supported by what is known as spyware. In its attempt to keep a steady stream of advertisements in front of this blind child who couldn't see them anyhow, the spyware rendered his computer unstable, open to further attack by viruses and almost completely useless online.
To get rid of the offending software, you had to type in a code which was displayed in such a way that only sighted people could read it. This was to prevent the spyware from being removed automatically. The poor kid had to live with this condition until the end of the Summer when somebody was able to help enter the code at a time when I could spend whatever additional time it took to get things secure and back to normal. That's what can happen if you don't take proper precautions. In another case, a sighted person decided to change from a classic menu style and appearance which helps simplify things for blind users to a more "normal" desktop and appearance. He sadly didn't return things to how they were before leaving. This made life very hard for the blind user until he could get another sighted person in who could see and explain what was going on and help restore order and tranquility. Think of it like having somebody come in and rearrange everything in your home to suit them. That's quite disturbing to anybody blind or sighted. It can seem like such a small thing to grant permission to sighted people to do things like the above examples. Unless and until you have a good idea how to undo the potential damage and/or hardship this can result in, my advice is to insist that nothing be changed. It's your computer and it's important that you, the blind owner, feel comfortable taking ownership and setting boundaries. Sighted people don't always know what's best despite often thinking they do.
There are three essential components to a good defence. These are a firewall or best possible equivalent, anti-virus software, and anti-spyware defence. Firewalls attempt to prevent attackers from accessing your system. Think of them like locks on windows and doors in your home. They're not going to stop someone who is willing to smash their way in. However, they will make intruders consider whether it's worth the effort it takes. Many firewalls will also hide your computer's online presence making it less likely that it will be found and singled out for attack in the first place. Unfortunately, many of the firewalls available are not designed with accessibility in mind. This can be particularly troublesome for novices. Lately, one of the best free personal firewalls became impossible to register. Therefore, in view of the current situation regarding firewalls, people are recommending that blind people use hardware firewalls or routers with built-in security. A router is a device which connects to your internet connection as well as to your computer. Any Internet trafic passes through the router which makes certain that the trafic is legitimately from and to your computer. Think of it like a middleman. If you're behind a router, people can't directly access your computer without permission. There may be times when you find that a router will interfere with some software you want to run. To handle that, you should learn how to access your router's settings to give you better control over its operations. How to access these settings will differ depending on the router being used so I can't offer any further advice here. For the average novice and intermediate computer user, I don't think you'll need to do this under normal circumstances.
Users of Windows XP or Vista should try using the firewall provided especially if they are directly connected to the Internet without going through a router. When programs try to access the Internet, a dialogue will appear alerting you to this. You'll be able to decide whether to block or allow the program under scrutiny to access the Internet. You should also check a box which says to remember your choice so that the firewall won't ask you every time the program accesses the Internet. As time passes, you won't be interrupted as often by the firewall. The firewall built into Windows XP only looks at incoming information and is therefore less secure than the more inaccessible free firewalls out there. For users of Windows Vista, the prospects look much better as the built-in firewall will examine both incoming and outgoing traffic. It is also reported to be fully accessible.
In a contest between spear and shield, there are going to be times when the shield fails. When something gets past your firewall or router, it's up to your anti virus and antispyware defences to kick in. They're like having armed guards on patrol in your home. Fortunately, there are numerous free accessible options out there for Windows users. In an effort to attract small businesses and larger corporations, many providers of excellent defence software make free versions available for personal use. I don't like to recommend anything I haven't used successfully myself. I'll therefore point you towards the most blind-friendly free anti virus and antispyware programs I've personally come across. Just keep in mind that there are other choices out there if what works well for me doesn't suit you for some reason.
If you're looking for alternatives to my anti virus and antispyware choices, your best bet is to use a search engine like Google. Your first goal will be to locate free anti virus and antispyware programs. You should next look for reviews of these programs to get an idea of what people did and didn't like about each of the alternatives you're considering. It's becoming more possible to find reviews of such products done by fellow blind users. Always look for this and take advantage of that experience where such information is available. I have no experience with other operating systems such as Linux. However, I've heard that software for it is generally quite accessible.
For many years now, I have used AVG's anti virus software. Anybody who decides to follow my lead and use AVG products should be aware of the current situation. Recently, AVG has updated to version 8 of its software products. Unfortunately, they drastically changed their main interface from a splendidly accessible one in version 7.5 to a doubtless more visually pleasant but far less intuitive one in version 8. Despite this, now that the major issue with AVG and Jaws for Windows has been resolved, I would still recommend that people give AVG8 a good look. It's no longer the utter king of the castle in terms of accessibility that it was previously but it's still quite good and usable. Learning how to change test settings and other options will reward you with more control over options like which files are tested, whether to add information to the bottom of your emails stating that they have been scanned for viruses, change when tests and updates happen, and much more. During tests, you'll notice your computer becoming sluggish as much of its resources are called upon to scan files thoroughly but quickly. This can at times be inconvenient should you need to work during such a time. While a test is proceeding, there will be an icon in your system tray. Activating this will open a screen showing the status of the test in progress plus giving you options to pause, continue, or completely stop the test. This way, you can pause a test while you're working on something and then let it proceed while you're away from the computer. It is very important to have complete control over automatic processes like this. Unless it's absolutely necessary to disable your security software for a particular set of circumstances, I recommend you always use your computer with its anti virus software active and running in the background. AVGfree gives you quite a lot of control over its resident shield. Also, you wouldn't want to grab some email and not have it scanned as it came in. AVG also offers a free antispyware package. It is certainly a good thing to have ready and up to date. However, it isn't as automatic as AVGfree and it'll be up to you to take complete responsibility for upkeep and operation. That's why I hesitate to recommend it for novice users.
While it's alright to have copies of more than one anti virus package on hand, you should never run more than one at a time. They're both going to eat up resources and may come into conflict with each other. Pick whichever software you trust best and have that be your active anti virus defence. If it makes you feel safer, have a second package handy for when something can't be handled by your main one. I personally don't have another package installed. AVGfree has earned a high level of trust by keeping both me and other people who I've recommended it to safe from threats which have caused havoc on systems defended by even other commercially sold defence software. However, I know of a few online anti virus sites which offer free scan and cleanup. Once you're comfortable with using the Internet, these tools should be fully accessible to you. You can find AVGFree in both Windows and Linux versions at:

www.avg.com

I always recommend that people look at the available help and explore the options in security programs. You can then do a lot more to tailor the operation of those programs to suit you rather than having things the other way around at times. However, assuming normal circumstances, you can simply install AVGFree and leave it running confident that you're being well protected from viruses.. Updates will automatically be retrieved for you from the Internet. All of your Email will be checked as you send and receive it. Your computer will be scanned once a day for viruses. Any that are found are moved to the virus vault. One alternative which has had favourable comments in terms of accessibility as well as security is Avast. Avast is a competitive product to AVG and also offers a free version of its software for personal home use. You can get it from:

www.avast.com
Defending yourself against spyware is similar to protecting yourself against viruses. Find a package that you feel the most comfortable with in terms of trustworthiness first and accessibility a very close second. From personal experience, I recommend Spybot Search and Destroy as your primary defence. Like my recommendation for anti virus defence above, it is also free for personal use. Just as AVG has gone to considerable trouble to make its software accessible to blind users, so have the authors of Spybot. When you install the software, there is a special setting for blind users which makes the program far easier to use effectively. You choose this when it asks what type of installation you want to have. Use the combo box to choose full installation for blind users.
Like other programs, you'll find a series of Pull down menus which let you access different areas of Spybot. One of your first stops should be in the navigation Pull down menu where you'll come to the settings submenu. Go into that menu and down to the settings option. Hitting enter on that will bring up a tree view. Each branch of the tree contains a different area of settings which govern how Spybot behaves. The only absolutely crucial thing here is that you set the software to automatically find and download updates whenever it is run. I find the process of updating the software manually to be bothersome and likely beyond the skill of novice users. Therefore, I'm very thankful that an automatic way to do this is provided. You can also adjust such things as the level of priority given to scanning for spyware over other programs running on your computer, when it initiates a scan, and many other things. Have a good look around that whole tree and set Spybot up just how you want it. Your settings should be saved automatically for you. There is no "save settings" button.
As an example of how a tree view works, let's take the "start program" branch. You'll find it while going up and down on the trunk of the tree. This contains the major categories of settings such as general settings, automation, look and feel, etc. Going out onto a branch such as "program start" will let you look at the twigs on that branch which are such things as whether it should check for updates, run a scan, fix problems, etc automatically once it is run. You can find Spybot Search and Destroy at:

http://spybot.info
Another very popular anti-spyware program is Lavasoft's Adaware. You can obtain a free version of this for home use as well. Go to:

www.lavasoft.com

to obtain a copy.
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5-- Maintaining Your Computer and Data
Over time, unless we're obsessive about organization, things will get moved to different places as they're used in daily life. While computers like things organized, they will also misplace information on their hard drives in the interest of speed and efficiency. Just as we might leave a piece of mail haphazardly on the counter as we lunge for a ringing phone, computers will do this with data as we put them through their paces. While files are originally created in an organized fashion, things change as space is recycled. Old software is removed and new software is installed in space originally earmarked for what was taken away. New files may be created or copied to the hard drive which are of different sizes than their predecessors. Like the desk of an overworked executive, the disorderly accumulation eventually impedes performance. This process is known as fragmentation and there's just no avoiding it over time.
Any operating system in use today should have a tool for dealing with this problem. In Windows XP, it can be found in the accessories menu under the system tools submenu. It is called disk defragmenter. It will work best if as few other programs running on the computer are accessing the drive to be defragmented as possible. I typically disable my screen reader, Jaws For Windows, and instead use the less powerful basic screen-reader built right into Windows called Narrator. It seems not to need to access the hard drive nearly as much and still works well enough to make use of basic Windows dialogs like those found in the disk defragmenter. Defragmentation can take quite a long time as the process has to reorganize all of the files on your hard drive. These days, hard drives are quite large so you should be prepared not to be able to use your computer while the process is going on. If you learn how to schedule tasks, you can tell your computer to defragment the hard drive at a specific time of day automatically. I know it's a pain to have to do this but procrastinating on this investment in time will ultimately cost you more time. Your computer must search longer to find things and you'll also lose the use of some space on your drive as files become more disorderly.
There are also tools for cleaning up your hard drive, restoring your system to an early state, and many other useful items. I have no doubt that other operating systems have their own equivalents. The Disk Cleanup tool will help keep Windows users free of needless extra files. You should run this tool which you'll find in the system tools submenu in accessories about once a week or so. It deletes temporary files, empties the recycle bin, and does a few more things to un clutter your drive. The System Restore tool can be a real life-saver. Be certain that this tool is enabled on your computer. If you install something which adversely effects things or badly botch things in some other devastating way, being able to effectively turn back time is a very useful thing. You should set up the system restore tool to use around ten percent of your hard drive to maintain safe points that you can return your computer to. For the safety it offers, this loss of space is a very small price to pay.
Another lesser known but very useful tool used to be called scandisk. Now, you have to dig for it more. If you open Windows Explorer or My Computer and go to the hard drive, for instance local drive c:, you can then hit the alt key and go up with the up-cursor key. This should land you on Properties. Hit the "enter" key and you'll be in a dialog with a number of tabs, some useful information such as the amounts of used and free space on your drive, and a number of options. The main thing to focus on here is the "tools" tab. Once it is selected, you can navigate to the disk cleanup, defragmenter, and an error checking tool. This last one is what runs if you ever have to reset due to a lockup or can't shut down properly because of a system crash. I typically use this error checking tool about once every two months to check for errors on the hard drive. It can automatically fix these and this can recover wasted space plus help safeguard your data against being corrupted. I fervently hope that whatever the equivalent tool is in other accessible operating systems isn't so hidden away. Maintaining the health of your hard drive is an absolute must.
Don't fill your main hard drive right up. To defragment efficiently, Windows XP needs something like ten to fifteen percent of your hard drive to be free. Also, some of your hard drive space is used for temporary files and for virtual memory. As Windows runs, there are times when more memory is briefly needed than you have physically in your computer. The hard drive is then used as a way to increase the amount of random access memory or RAM available. Having your hard drive absolutely full could prevent your whole system from running. Therefore, if you ever look into managing the size of virtual memory yourself, be very careful to leave enough for things to work. In general, you should leave it to Windows to take care of that aspect of things for you.
If you delete things in Windows, they are put into the recycle bin. This should be emptied every once in a while to free up disk space and permanently delete what's in there. However, if you ever delete something you later wish you hadn't, look in the recycle bin and restore items you want back. It's quite hard to do something truly harmful by pure accident. This is certainly the case with Windows. It loves asking users if they're truly certain they want to do things. It can be annoying at times as one grows more competent but it can, on occasion, provide that vital second's pause for thought. I have no experience with other current operating systems in terms of how much hand-holding they subject their users to.
No matter how well you maintain your hard drive, you're not invincible. You may be hit with a virus that your defence software can't handle. You may experience a hardware failure which renders your computer useless until the problem is fixed. Hard drives themselves are known to sometimes fail with next to no warning at all. While catastrophic events like the above are rarely experienced, it only takes one such disaster to completely wreck your whole day. Anybody who uses computers extensively will eventually experience the mind-boggling humiliating anguish of wishing he or she had backed up important files more frequently at some point. Veterans of modern computing are quick to complain about little things which annoy them. However, it is relatively rare that a true irreversible irredeemable disaster strikes. It isn't so surprising then that we all, myself included, fall into that trap of thinking nothing is going to happen to their system. Teenagers no longer have a monopoly on the whole immortality complex. I can't count the number of elderly people who I've asked about their computer's security only to be told that they just let their kids take care of it or haven't bothered to do even that much. It's only after they've lost that registration code to a piece of beloved software or found that the memoirs they've been working on have become corrupted and can't be accessed or some other painful disaster has happened that they become aware that just as in real life, they're digitally vulnerable.
Backing up your files is simply a matter of making copies of them on other media than your hard drive. Windows XP doesn't come with very useful software for this. Blind people have made use of software such as Nero or Roxio CD Creator. Other operating systems may have better built-in support for backing up files easily. The only such software designed from the ground up to be accessible and easy for blind people to use which I've heard of is Accessible CD/DVD Creator from Premier Assistive Technology. You can find it at:

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How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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