How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People




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The software must be purchased but there is a demo version which lets you burn a certain number of CDs before becoming useless. Try this to make certain what works for me will work for you. I especially like how it tells you when you've tried to put too much on a CD or DVD. You must then choose items to remove until you are no longer warned that you're over the capacity of your CD or DVD. All of the menus and information are spoken out loud including the progress percentage as you're actually burning a CD or DVD. Particularly for beginners, having such software makes a great deal of sense and is in my humble opinion well worth the cost.
What should you back up? Generally, you shouldn't have to back up any software that you have a CD or DVD for. Your purchased copies of the operating system, office suite of software, screen-reader, etc, is effectively already backed up for you. Concentrate on information you'd truly hate to lose. Any important documents you've written, registration codes to purchased software, important Emails especially those containing passwords and such, and any purchased files such as music or books. This is the kind of thing which causes so much anguish when it's lost. As online shopping becomes more prevalent particularly when it comes to entertainment, this practice becomes even more important. Once you've made backup copies, make certain they're in a safe and secure place. While it'll certainly be annoying to rebuild your digital kingdom from scratch if the need actually arises, you will at least have all the building blocks handy.
Rounding off our discussion of basic computer care, let's consider the physical machine itself. While they're on, computers will tend to attract dust. If possible, you should think about how dusty an area is when deciding where to put your computer. Make certain that the air intake vents as well as the area where warm air is expelled from the computer are clear of any obstacles. All of the cables protruding from your computer are another area where some consideration and knowledge can go a long way. I once found myself summoned to the aid of a very panicked student who thought her computer was infected with a dreadful virus which prevented her mouse from working at all. She was thinking of calling in a professional to dig her out of the mess she thought herself in and lamenting how much that might cost. I asked whether she had checked the mouse cable to make certain that it was correctly plugged in. "Oh!" she said. That, of course, was the real cause of her frustrations.
Cables may come partially out of their ports or sockets at times and it's a good idea to have a sense of what cable leads to what device. I've heard from quite a few blind people who have called in costly technical help only to find that their troubles were the result of cables which had silently come free of their ports just enough to break the flow of information between a device and their computers. These days, it's hard to go wrong with cables. Things which are plugged into usb ports don't care which port they're plugged into. Use less convenient ports for devices which will not have to be removed in normal circumstances. Keep the ports you may have on the front of your computer for use by items you only need to connect occasionally or which you may need to remove for whatever reason. My front pair of usb ports are what I use to connect my external hard drive and smaller flash drive. I would also use them for a joystick or gamepad should I wish to use those kinds of things.

Make certain that cables aren't in any danger of being pulled past their maximum length. There shouldn't be any tension in connected cables. Also, it is a good idea to keep tangle to a minimum.
There's nothing more frustrating than to have a perfectly working computer be rendered absolutely useless due to a wrecked keyboard, severed speaker cable or some other very inexpensive peripheral. If it is at all possible for you, keep a spare keyboard and a set of headphones on hand. Should disaster strike and your speakers short out or your keyboard be drenched in some delicious but destructive thirst-quenching liquid, it's good to have backup options available. Both spare keyboards and speakers can be had very inexpensively as can headphones. It's a perfectly reasonable investment to make given all the multitude of things your computer can do for you.
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6-- Taking It All In: Online Media:
The Internet is absolutely full of interesting and useful things to watch and listen to. Most of this audio and video content is free for anybody to take advantage of. You can download files containing things like movie trailers, music, various radio shows, etc. If you're worried about hard drive space, much of this content is streamed to you. Basically, this means that it arrives just as it's needed and isn't actually stored permanently on your hard drive. When you're finished listening to something which is being streamed such as your favourite Internet radio station, any remaining information pertaining to what you were hearing is wiped out as you close the player used to listen. You can therefore do things like listen to music or news broadcasts while you're working without fear that your hard drive will suddenly be full to capacity. This section will take you through the various forms of online media and what you need to know in order to make use of them.
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6.1-- Listening To Music, Internet Radio and Video
To listen to any music files or broadcast streams including radio stations, you'll need the proper software. Many players can handle more than one format. However, each of the popular formats in widespread use has its own dedicated player. I've always found that it's best to use the player designed especially for a given format. Some players are more accessible or easier to use than others. They all will work with many different formats and will try and convince you to use them in place of other players. All of them have menus with various options including one which lets you change the settings of the player such as which kinds of files it will play. Don't panic if you don't get it right while installing a player. Nothing is carved in stone.
Let's start out with something easy. Perhaps one of the most widely recognized formats ever created is known as mp3. This format has stood the test of time very well and is most notably used for encoding songs. Normally, recording a song in full cd quality would require something like forty megabytes for a song of average length. That same song might only require five megs if you convert it or record it directly into mp3 format. The best player for mp3 files which I have ever come across is Winamp. You can get it by going to:

www.winamp.com

Select the link which says "player". The basic player is all you need to get started. The Winamp Pro player must be paid for and offers enhancements which you may want to learn more about. Once you've downloaded the free player known as Winamp Basic, it's time to install it. Be certain to go through all of the various options to make certain you're aware of what's being installed. Also, look at the help in whatever access technology you've chosen specific to Winamp and its installation. Jaws For Windows offers extensive instructions on optimizing Winamp for use with Jaws. Much of this makes good sense regardless of which technology you use to access your computer. Install only the classic skin for Winamp. This skin alters the appearance of Winamp is far less problematic for screen-reading software to handle than the modern more graphically intensive skins. You can also uncheck the visualization checkbox. That's even more eye candy which will do blind people absolutely no good at all. I personally decided to uncheck the system tray icon agent, the winamp dashboard, and a couple of other options in the library section. If you download the full or bundled versions, there are other things which come with Winamp. These include sample mp3 files, an offer for fifty free mp3s from an online music service and a security monitor. There may be other things included by the time you read this guide. Since I haven't tried out these extras, I leave it to your judgement to choose which if any of these you install.
Winamp is one of the most friendly players for blind people due to its ability to be controlled completely with the keyboard. It'll probably take you a while to become comfortable with all the keys. However, you don't have to use them right away. If you hit the alt key, you get to the menu of Winamp. Unlike other applications, Winamp has its Pull down menu like a tree with submenu's branching out from the main trunk. After hitting the alt key, go down once to get to the "winamp" menu. Hitting the right arrow or the enter key gets you into the main trunk of the menu. Moving down gets you to the next option or submenu branching from the trunk. The "play" menu lets you select what you want to play. The "playback" menu is farther down the main trunk and you can access all of the options such as play, pause, move to the previous or next track, etc. To help you get started quickly, here's a brief summary. The l key gets you into a dialogue where you can choose a file to play. A capital l gets you to a dialog where you can select a folder. All files within that folder will then be played. The z, x, c, v, and b keys respectively let you go to the previous file, play the current file, pause a file, stop a file, and advance to the next file. The s key turns on or off shuffle mode which plays files in folders or play lists in random order. The r key toggles repeat mode on and off. Another handy key to know is holding down the control key and hitting p. This gets you to preferences where you can customize a great deal about how Winamp behaves.
Once you have Winamp installed, you're all set to grab some mp3 files or tune in to thousands of stations. There are some free mp3s right on the Winamp site. Go to the "audio" link. Next, go to the heading saying "free mp3 downloads". Below that, you'll find numerous songs which you can practice downloading and playing. The musical taste might leave a little to be desired but you can't beet the price.
A good first stop to find some Internet radio stations is at:

www.sky.fm

They run a number of very good radio stations which you can listen to for free. There are occasional commercials but they're far less lengthy or intrusive than what you'd hear on FM stations. There aren't any headings to make navigation easier. However, you can quickly go down the page until you start finding information about stations. Find a link which says "buttons/blue_96K" if you have cable or DSL Internet. If you have a dial up connection, you should look for the yellow 24k links. Those will give you stations which transmit at slower speeds and are optimized for dial up connections. The 32K links will work with Windowsmedia player and should be fine for dial up listeners as well. There! Hopefully, that was enough to bring some nice tunes your way. You might also want to venture onto:

www.shoutcast.com

They have thousands of stations of pretty much any kind including spoken audio stations for news. One of the best which I have ever come across is KCRW Worldnews. They feature material from the BBC as well as from NPR making for a very interesting listening experience for people into world events. You can search for specific stations or search by genre. After you've narrowed down your genre and any other criteria, look for the "tunein" link. That should get you going nicely on that site.
For quick and easy access to commercial radio stations broadcasting on the Internet, blind listeners may want to look at Bill Sparks's Radio Lookup. This is a searchable list of English radio stations from fifteen countries. To check it out, go to:

www.billsparks.org

For people who enjoy spoken audio books, I have a nifty recommendation for you. Check out:

www.audiobookradio.net

This station continuously broadcasts audio books for the enjoyment of all. There is a schedule which will help avid readers tune in at the right times to enjoy entire books they're particularly interested in.

Finally, you'll also want to look at the major national broadcasters such as the BBC, CBC and NPR. To access the BBC content, one very simple solution is packaged with the free Thunder screen reader you can get from:

www.screen reader.net

If you install that, you will also get a number of other programs which you can find in the "accessible" Pull down menu which branches off from your "programs" menu. The programs you want to look at are called "bbc listen again" and "bbc live radio". Tuning in just doesn't get any easier than this. When you're more comfortable on the Internet, you can visit the sites and become more informed about what's on tap. Go to:

British broadcasting service radio

www.bbc.co.uk/radio
the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio:

www.cbc.ca/radio

The American National Public Radio

www.npr.org
Another very useful place to visit is Voiceprint. This is a national reading service run in Canada staffed by volunteer readers. It is broadcast on television and is also available over the Internet. The site also has a great deal of local information about happenings in places all over Canada. The audio stream you can tune into features the same content as you hear broadcasted over the television. Look at the schedule on the site to determine when items of potential interest to you are going to be presented. Don't forget about the archives of past shows maintained on the Voiceprint site. There are doubtless similar services run in other countries. To take advantage of this fantastic resource, go to:

www.voiceprintcanada.com

Those interested in happenings beyond our planet should check out:

www.nasa.gov

Look for a link called "Nasa TV". You can tune in to a video broadcast which includes sounds and commentary of events in space. If NASA has a mission underway or something is happening on the International Space Station, chances are you can follow along as things unfold.
Your experience with Winamp as well as the sites above should prepare you for dealing with the other various media players and sites which make use of them. It's not rocket science. Just be certain that you're aware of any extras which sometimes come with these players. They aren't dangerous but may not be designed with accessibility in mind. The BBC makes extensive use of Reelplayer but has a very different and accessible means of accessing its various streams and material. The CBC in Canada uses Windowsmedia Player. Any of the major radio stations or national broadcast services go to great lengths to make accessing their content as easy as possible. In most cases, users of other operating systems should be able to find means of playing the content. I, however, am not well-equipped to offer any more direct advice as I can for Windows users.
I've derived hundreds of hours and learned a great deal listening to Internet radio. The choice available is absolutely staggering. Many blind people are trying their hand and Internet broadcasting themselves. Some have even made money doing this. If you have creative talent, the Internet is a great place to share it. If you don't have all the skills, time, hardware or money, you may find other enthusiasts could use your help with their projects or they with yours. Great things have resulted from such collaborations online. A particularly good place to start for people looking to get into Internet broadcasting is ACB Radio. Go to:

www.acbradio.org

The people involved in that effort are very supportive. I wish any of my readers who choose to share their interests through this medium the very best of luck.
Taking advantage of video streamed over the Internet is just like audio. You may have to download and install the correct player to receive the video. Depending on the format, you may be able to download a video file which can give you control over which player to use. For instance, mpg and mp4 files can be played in Winamp. This lets you jump around, pause and control the volume. Sometimes, sites which offer video content use their own proprietary player which is often integrated into your web browser. A good example of this is the Flash plugin. Depending on your access technology, this can limit your ability to control playback. Other than in very obscure cases, you should always be able to play video content. Starting play is typically simply a matter of clicking on the appropriate link or button on a site. You may find controls right on the site that let you influence play. Efforts are proceeding to make video content generally more friendly to access technology.
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6.2-- Pod casts
Pod casts are named because of an mp3 player made by apple called the Ipod. They are audio or video presentations made using formats compatible with such portable players. Mostly, the audio ones are mp3 files and video Pod casts are mp4 or mpg files. You can play these like any other audio file on your computer once you download them. There are two ways of doing that. You can go directly to the site on which they reside and download them just like ordinary files. However, if you understandably don't want to have to keep visiting a bunch of sites to check if a new file has been posted, there's an easier way. Just find an accessible pod catcher program. It can be used to more easily obtain your favourite Pod casts. Some browsers also have methods of keeping updated with this kind of content.
In a nutshell, Pod casts combine audio and video content with a technology called RSS. This stands for really simple syndication and lives up to its name. To subscribe to a pod cast, you need its URL or uniform resource locator. Some pod cast programs have directories which let you search for and subscribe to Pod casts within them rather than going to various web sites and looking through them for the appropriate information.
For the purposes of this guide, we'll use Accessible Pod catcher which is part of the WebbIE package of software for Windows. It is free software. To obtain it, go to:

http://www.webbie.org.uk

and download the complete WebbIE package. You don't have to install everything if you don't want to. In fact, you could just install the accessible pod catcher if that's all you'll need.
The first thing we'll need is a sample pod cast. Fortunately, there are thousands of them around. Lets get you subscribed to the Blind Cool Tech pod cast as it will very likely be of some interest to you. The first step is to get to where the actual URL to the pod cast is. Go to:

www.blindcooltech.com

with your browser. There are an awful lot of links on this page but you want one very close to the top. You could do a search for the "subscribe" link or the word "subscribe". Choose whatever method is easiest with your browser. Next you want to activate that link usually by clicking on it or hitting the carriage return key. Once you've done that, you have to find out the address you've reached. If you're using Internet Explorer, you can tab until you get to the address field. You can then select and copy the address into the clipboard. Next, run the accessible pod catcher program. Hit the alt key to get to the bar of Pull down menus and go right once. That brings you to the Pod casts menu. Go down to reach the "add pod cast" option and press Enter. You'll then be asked for the pod cast's name. It doesn't matter if you get it exactly right as long as you know what it is. Press Enter after typing in the name. You'll then be asked for the web site or URL. You can then paste the address into that edit field and press Enter. You have now added a pod cast. In case you have difficulty finding that link, it is:

http://feeds.feedburner.com/blindcooltech

Many pod cast subscription links end in a .xml. There doesn't seem to be any hard and fast rule about that.
The next thing to do is tab over to the "get pod cast" button and hit Enter. That will cause Accessible Pod catcher to download the information about each file currently available. Each file is a presentation posted on a given day. You can tab over to the second of two list views. The first contains the Pod casts available. This is where you select Blind Cool Tech from the available Pod casts. The second list contains the shows. You might want to hear a live recording of a tour of somebody's place, thunder storms, fireworks, a software or hardware review, or whatever else turns your crank. The diversity of what blind people feel is worth recording for everyone interested to hear is mind-boggling. After you picked your show, tab over to the play button and hit enter on that. You can also pause and stop. For greater control, you should hit the alt key and go down to the "save" option where you can save a pod cast to a folder on your hard drive. I recommend creating a folder specifically for Pod casts. The file may take a few minutes to be fully downloaded. Once the file has been saved, you can use Winamp or whatever player you prefer to hear it. Video files may have to be renamed as they often have an "m4v" extension which doesn't signify anything. I suspect that the file type is an mp4 most of the time and will usually change the extension to mp4 and use Winamp to play the file. Winamp is, however, a very versatile player and it wouldn't surprise me to learn that I was wrong about the exact file type.
Other than the above, Pod casts are pretty straight-forward. Check out the pod cast directory in the program menu where Accessible Pod catcher resides. It's a totally separate program. If you want or need to use the web to find new Pod casts independent of a facility built into your pod catcher program, you may like:

www.podcastalley.com

I hope you enjoy this very accessible and fascinating form of Internet media.
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7-- Online Communities and Communication
As blind people, we can be especially prone to isolation. In a world designed for cars, getting around can be more of a problem than it is for our sighted contemporaries. Many of us have a surfeit of time on our hands while our sighted contemporaries have all the freedom of action one could want but precious little time to make use of this.
Fortunately, geographical barriers are a thing of the past in the online world. The only factors are time, commitment and level of interest. Chances are that there will be a discussion list, forum, chat, blog or something relating directly to things of interest to you. You may also decide to create your own online presence. There are numerous places where you can start up an Email list, create a blog, host a chat, and more. This normally won't even cost you any money. You are, in effect, paying for your platform of choice with the time and effort it takes to provide content of interest to others. This is especially the case when you use services which are supported by advertising. For example, many blog sites and hosts of email lists receive revenue for allowing companies to have links posted on their sites or at the bottom of email messages sent to list subscribers.
Before we begin our examination of these truly interactive parts of Digital World, past experience and common sense obligate me to offer some general safety advice. The most crucial thing to keep in mind at all times is that whatever you write online is instantly and irrevocably in the public eye. Even if you are able to delete an entry from a blog five minutes after writing it, people may already have read what you regret having written. I made many editorial mistakes which will be available for anybody to laugh at for all time during my editorship of Audyssey Magazine. You'll learn about some of these in the following sections as I delve more deeply into the various types of communication methods and communities you can make use of. Think very carefully about how much you are comfortable with being in the public sphere before you put yourself there. Over the years, I've made several choices which have resulted in my having achieved a certain low level of fame. I tend to be an open and honest person so this doesn't trouble me a great deal. I enjoy getting to know and helping people so I've made it quite easy for them to contact me. Once you've made the decision to put yourself in that position, it's very hard to undo. The word about you will be out there. More likely than not, any writing or other work you've put online will survive there long after you've moved on. Be especially careful about revealing personal information. My experience over the past decade during which I've been active online has been extremely positive. I've certainly encountered my share of spam, viruses and such. However, I've only had one incident where somebody tried to impersonate me in order to cause some chaos. More serious forms of identity theft certainly take place online. It can absolutely happen to you. You have been warned.
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7.1-- The Many Implications of Email
For me, university was where I finally hit my social stride. When I went home for the four-month Summer break between terms during my second and third years, I became acutely aware of just how much social life seemed to lag. I began to feel like I needed a new project of some sort which was personally satisfying unlike my quest for relatively meaningless marks. Computer games have fascinated me all my life. So too has writing. Around that time, I had recently discovered a very well-done email magazine about interactive fiction otherwise known as text adventures. These sorts of games appealed to both my love of words and of play. One of the things I was strongly taken with about the magazine was how its editor always strived to go beyond merely reviewing and announcing new works of interactive fiction. Eileen Mullin wanted people to analyze and think about the games they created and enjoyed in a broader context. She succeeded admirably in this. I was deeply inspired to see if I could reach out to the blind community and get them thinking similarly about accessible computer games.
Creating the very first issue of Audyssey magazine kept me pleasantly busy for around a month and a half. I wasn't really certain what to expect when I sent it out onto the Internet. I first put it up on Compuserve in the forum they had for disabilities. I had my first responses within a matter of days and these were very encouraging. I decided to send it to an Email list I belonged to called Skyclub. This list was run by the Canadian National Institute for the Blind and had become a very popular list among blind Canadians even in those early days. I sent my rather large first issue onto this list in eager anticipation of further praise and perhaps some material for the next issue. I had never experienced a flame war before and that was precisely what I had unwittingly started. A number of people had absolutely no interest in accessible games and resented such a very large message on that subject. They pointed out that some people had to pay by the kilobyte for their connections and my magazine was huge as compared to normal messages. Several people considered leaving the list if such postings were to be tolerated in the future. I quickly offered my sincere apologies to any who I had inconvenienced. However, the sparks were already flying as a large number of my first fans came to my defence. It took three or four days before it all calmed down again.
Fortunately, the magazine was circulated to the point that by its third issue, a reader had stepped forward to take charge of Internet distribution. That took a lot of weight off my shoulders as I had absolutely no idea how to go about this efficiently and responsibly at the time. Once Audyssey Magazine had its own Email list, everything changed. Readers could now sign up to receive issues as they were ready. I began to receive far more feedback than I could have imagined when I worked on the first issue. As time went by, things just got bigger and bigger. I eventually had a staff of volunteers to help keep the magazine going and maintain its quality.
A community discussion list was started almost exactly two years after the first issue was published. People could then communicate with fellow dedicated readers in between issues. Suddenly, I was more of a community leader than I was an editor. My eight years in this capacity taught me a great deal about responsibility, leadership, friendship and about what a powerful force for good the Internet could be. At one point, we were being read in at least fourteen countries around the world. The readership included lawyers, musicians, parents, teachers, kids and teens. A Russian librarian and a retired US senator were among the people who found fun through the thing I had done merely to stave off boredom. The community became a source people could turn to even for help or answers completely unrelated to games. If you were in a bind or needed to know something, chances were that somebody on the Audyssey discussion list could and would offer help in timely fashion.
Naturally, I'm very proud of what I and those who believed in the community that grew out of Audyssey Magazine have accomplished. I'm even more profoundly thankful for the new horizons this experience opened to me. I can't think of a better example of the enormous power the Internet opens up to all of us. This is what can happen when it becomes possible and relatively easy for blind people to contribute to a cause larger than themselves. The Internet eliminates all geographical barriers. Perhaps, you have a keen interest in something. Why not share it with the online world? It costs nothing but time and effort and the rewards can be life-changing. They've certainly been so for me.
There are many different Email lists and Email magazines which you can receive and participate in on an absolutely equal footing with everyone else regardless of your disability. Nobody will be able to tell if you can't type very fast. You can check the spelling of your messages and take your time editing before sending them. Email is one of the most simple ways of participation online. On Tom Lorimer's site at:

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How Accessible Computers Can Enhance Personal Life For Blind People

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